Gatsby Essay Prompt

The AP English Literature essay portion of the AP exam is challenging for many students. Not only is it testing you on your ability to analyze higher level pieces of literature, but in order to provide an adequate analysis of a piece of literature, you have to have some key themes and novel highlights memorized, so you’re able to provide evidence for analysis.

The third question on the free response question section of the exam will particularly test you on this. The third FRQ question provides you with a prompt, and a list of recommended books that apply to the prompt given. You are tasked with selecting a book, coming up with a thesis and a point to answer the prompt and provide evidence from the novel you choose. The AP English Literature exam does not expect you to have specific lines and page numbers memorized from every book you covered throughout your class. However, a great way to be prepared for the FRQ section is to know key themes and important scenes of the novels you covered. Another great way to be prepared is through FRQ practice. So, for this AP English Literature Ultimate Guide, we will be covering how to use The Great Gatsby for the 2016, 2007 and 2005 free response questions.

The Great Gatsby AP English Lit essay Themes

The Great Gatsby is a story narrated by Nick Carraway, who had once been Jay Gatsby’s neighbor. The story takes place during the roaring 20’s and begins with Nick’s desire to become a bonds salesman and moves from the Midwest to West Egg, Long Island. The novel tells the story of Jay Gatsby and his affair with Daisy Buchanan as well as the rest of the events that unfold that summer.

A central theme to The Great Gatsby is honesty. The main characters, mostly Gatsby and Daisy, are among the most dishonest; however, their dishonesty is not as black and white as it is in some other novels. Carraway suspects Gatsby of lying about his past and is also aware of his bootlegging and illegal business dealings. Daisy is also dishonest about many things in her life, not just her affair with Gatsby. The irony of honesty in the story is that Daisy is indignant at Gatsby’s lies, despite her dishonesty, and Daisy’s husband Tom is intolerant of her affair with Gatsby, despite lying about his affair.

Gender roles appear as a major theme in The Great Gatsby as well, although they are stereotypically conservative. The way gender roles are presented in the Great Gatsby is that men work in order to have money for the maintenance of their women and that men are superior/dominant over the females in their lives. However, despite the conservative gender roles of the book, women have just as complex characters as the men. Rather than being portrayed as either virgin or vamp, they have more three-dimensional personalities and flaws.

Another central theme in The Great Gatsby is the theme of class structure and society. Class is presented in the novel through the separation of East Egg and West Egg; East egg represents the families who are typically old money, while West Egg represents the families of new money. Gatsby is exceedingly aware of this separation, and is shown throughout the novel desperately trying to achieve an air of old money.

How to use The Great Gatsby for the 2016 AP English Literature Free Response Question

For the third free response questions you are given a general prompt, but you have to select what book you feel you should use to answer the FRQ. The exam provides you with a list of which to choose from, but it is your ultimate decision. For the purpose of this Ultimate Guide, we will demonstrate how to use The Great Gatsby for the AP English Literature essay.

The 2016 AP English Literature FRQ gives you this prompt:

“Many works of literature contain a character who intentionally deceives others. The character’s dishonesty may be intended either to help or to hurt. Such a character, for example, may choose to mislead others for personal safety, to spare someone’s feelings, or to carry out a crime. Choose a novel or play in which a character deceives others. Then, in a well-written essay, analyze the motives for that character’s deception and discuss how the deception contributes to the meaning of the work as a whole. You may choose a work from the list below or another work of comparable literary merit. Do not merely summarize the plot.”

Deception and lies are a recurring theme in The Great Gatsby; deception is prevalent in the novel as a whole, in individual characters deceiving others, and in characters deceiving themselves.

Throughout the book, the narrator Nick Carraway is fascinated by the incredible stories that arise about Jay Gatsby’s life prior to meeting him. In the book, Carraway suspects that Gatsby is lying about what has happened in his life, either because Gatsby has something to hide or maybe because he is embarrassed about the truth. For supporting evidence to answer this FRQ, any example of a story that Gatsby told Carraway about his life could be used. The lies that Gatsby professes about his parents, or the time he spent in Europe, or the honors bestowed upon him from his time in the army.

The character of Daisy Buchanan is also a deceiving character in the novel; she frequently makes untrue statements about her child, as well as her marriage and the affair she has with Gatsby. Her deception begins with her husband as she starts lying to him about her affair with Gatsby. Her back-and-forth attitude about whether or not she loves her husband Tom, and Gatsby, also shows her own self-deception. She may want to keep her social balance by staying married to her husband, but she may also by lying to herself about whether she truly loved either of them.

How to use The Great Gatsby for the 2007 AP English Literature Free Response Question

The 2007 AP English Literature FRQ gives you this prompt:

“In many works of literature, past events can affect, positively or negatively, the present actions, attitudes, or values of a character. Choose a novel or play in which a character must contend with some aspect of the past, either personal or societal. Then write an essay in which you show how the character’s relationship to the past contributes to the meaning of the work as a whole. You may choose a work from the list below or another appropriate novel or play of similar literary merit. Do not merely summarize the plot.”

The past is an exceedingly prevalent theme in The Great Gatsby. Gatsby himself is haunted by the past, and it is clear that he pushes himself and those around him to replicate the past he wishes he was able to have. There is even a scene where Carraway tells Gatsby he can’t replicate the past, to which Gatsby tells him that of course he can. Gatsby is deep into his belief that with all of his money, he will be able to recreate the past.

Gatsby also seems to be trying to recapture the past with Daisy; his obsession with her is encapsulated with his dedication to trying to create the perfect past with Daisy. He believes that his month long affair with Daisy can rewrite the extensive past she has with her husband Tom. He even purchased the mansion on the “west egg” so that he could be across the bay from Daisy in the hopes that she would one day attend one of his lavish parties in order for him to win Daisy back.

How to use The Great Gatsby for the 2005 AP English Literature Free Response Question

The 2005 AP English Literature FRQ provides you with this prompt:

“One of the strongest human drives seems to be a desire for power. Write an essay in which you discuss how a character in a novel or a drama struggles to free himself or herself from the power of others or seeks to gain power over others. Be sure to demonstrate in your essay how the author uses this power struggle to enhance the meaning of the work. You may choose one of the works listed or another work of comparable quality that is appropriate to the question.”

The desire for power in The Great Gatsby is centralized around two things: money and class. For a possible thesis, you can incorporate how Gatsby is seeking power through trying to use his money to attempt to buy “old money” status, which is in part due to the fact that in his society people view their money as their power.

Another possible thesis is to discuss the various power struggles that occur between characters in the novel. For example, Tom continuously seeks to prove his dominance (and therefore, power) over the other women in the novel. There are a number of specific examples throughout the book, however it is not necessary for you to have them all memorized. He also uses winning the heart of Daisy to show Gatsby that he has all the power.

Daisy is another character who is locked in a power struggle, and the majority of the time it’s with her husband Tom. She marries Tom because of his wealth and status, in order for her to maintain power and status. She also uses Gatsby as a pawn to attempt to gain power over her husband, as well as to make herself feel more powerful.


If you are considering using The Great Gatsby for the AP English Literature essay on the FRQ portion of your exam, it’s crucial that you have a grasp on the major themes of the novel. When you are confronted with the third FRQ and tasked with selecting a book, you shouldn’t just choose a book because it’s the one you know most about. Make sure that the book you are selecting is one that you know enough about to provide adequate literary evidence for the essay, as well as the most applicable to the prompt given. However, for the three examples used in this Ultimate Guide, The Great Gatsby is an excellent choice for all three.

It’s perfectly normal to be stressed and concerned about the AP English Literature essay on the FRQ portion of your upcoming exam, but this Ultimate Guide to the 2016, 2007, and 2005 AP English Literature FRQ should help calm your nerves! Are you looking for a more general overview of the AP English Literature FRQs or you want writing advice for the FRQ section? Then check out our Ultimate Guide to 2016 AP English Literature FRQs and our Ultimate Guide to 2015 AP English Literature FRQs. Our AP English Literature section also has practice free response questions with both sample responses and rubrics to help you practice for the AP English Literature exam. The more you practice, the more you will feel prepared for whatever prompts the exam throws your way. Good luck!

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Great Gatsby Essay Questions

As you write your essay, make sure to:

1.     Format your essay according to Modern Language Association guidelines. The essay must be typed in either Cambria or Times New Roman, size 12, double-spaced, and at least THREE pages in length.

2.     Include DETAILS! DETAILS! DETAILS! Don’t be vague.

Essay Deadline: Tuesday, April 4, 2017.

1. Explain how the novel does or does not demonstrate the death of the American Dream. Is the main theme of Gatsby indeed “the withering American Dream”? What does the novel offer about American identity? (Reference the characteristics of the American Dream within the body of your paper.)

2. Explain how the novel demonstrates the characteristics of modernism.

3. Discuss whether or not Gatsby is a romantic hero in the modern era.

4. Discuss how the novel exemplifies the dehumanizing/corrupting nature of wealth (consider examining characters, plot, symbols, etc.). Consider doing a Marxist interpretation. Or, more generally, explain the theme of the corruption of people and society through an examination of characters in the novel who are corrupt.

5. Describe Fitzgerald’s satirical portrait of modern society using Gatsby’s parties as support.

6. Compare and contrast the homes of characters (consider Nick, Gatsby, Tom, and George/Myrtle Wilson). How does each home to (is a symbol for) its owner/renter (how does each home reflect the personality of its renter/owner)? Consider comparing and contrasting the characters, also focusing on their attitudes/ beliefs/values.

7. Argue who is/are the most admirable and/or despicable character(s) in the novel and why.

8. Compare and contrast the major female characters in the novel: Daisy, Jordan, and Myrtle. How does each act towards men? What are their motivations/goals/interests/values? How are they treated by men (including the narrator/author)?

9. Show how Fitzgerald uses clothing (and the changing of costumes) to tell the reader more about the characters and/or express theme(s). Consider discussing colors, fabrics, etc.

10. Do a close reading of a passage of your choosing, explaining the passage in light of the entire novel. *Note: the passage must be approved by me first!

Example: In reference to Tom and Daisy, Nick remarks, “They were careless people, Tom and Daisy; they smashed up things and creatures and then retreated back into their money or their vast carelessness, or whatever it was that kept them together, and let other people clean up the mess they had made” (180-181).  Explain this passage in light of the entire novel.

11. Discuss Fitzgerald’s use of symbolism (this is a large topic that must be significantly narrowed – such as focusing on one symbol and analyzing it in detail - with a specific thesis). How does it function in the novel (consider discussing how it relates to theme, communicates information about characters, develops the plot, etc.)? Possible symbols to discuss include: colors, eyes of T.J. Eckleburg, clothing, cars, the green light, biblical allusions (God, Jesus, grail), characters’ houses, weather, water, music, celestial bodies (moon, stars, planets), nature’s bounty (flowers, shrubs, trees, fruit), etc.

12. Trace the development of the narrator, Nick Carraway – how does he change, and how are these changes significant (how do they relate to the themes of the novel)?

13. Discuss how an aspect of 1920s society appears to change throughout the novel.

14. Is what Gatsby feels for Daisy love, obsession, affection, or accumulation/objectification?  What is Fitzgerald’s message here? Consider discussing whether or not Gatsby can really love, given his characteristics.

15. Who is the real person: Jay Gatsby or Jimmy Gatz?  Does he become “the Platonic conception of himself”? What does that mean? Is it a peculiarly American phenomenon?

16. Discuss how The Great Gatsby is the quintessential American novel. What does it have to offer about the American identity and the American Dream?

17. Morally ambiguous characters—characters whose behavior discourages readers from identifying them as purely evil or purely good—are at the heart of many works of literature.  Choose a character from the novel who is morally ambiguous and write an essay in which you explain how the character can be viewed as morally ambiguous and why his/her moral ambiguity is significant to the work as a whole.

18. Discuss the novel’s theme that the American Dream is corrupted by the desire for wealth. What does the novel and its theme offer about the American identity?

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