Students often have a difficult time grasping the abstract concept of “theme.’ Start by giving a mini-lesson on the definition of the term “theme" and discussing various books that the students have read or popular movies they have seen. Be sure to emphasize that the theme or themes of a work of literature is not the same as the moral. While the moral of a story is the lesson or message the author wants to convey, the theme is simply a central topic, subject, or idea that the author wants to explore. Themes usually cross cultural, social, and gender barriers and explore aspects of the common human experience.
Once students understand what a theme is, provide them with a list of the main themes in The Great Gatsby that will be traced by the students as they read the novel. Include Love, Society and Class, The American Dream, Deception and Lies, Death, and Marriage. It is helpful to give students a graphic organizer that has includes a place for writing a page number, passage, or direct quote on the theme and a place for their own interpretation or explanation of how the passage develops the theme. Depending on the level of students and their previous experience, a few examples can be provided. A list of common analysis sentence starters, such as, “This passage demonstrates…" or “This passage develops the idea that…" would also help students.
The organizer can also include a place to make a connection between the idea that is presented in the book and how it is thought of today. For example, in The Great Gatsby, infidelity in marriage is common. How acceptable is infidelity in marriage today?
Encourage students to complete the theme tracing activity as they read the book. The number of themes traced, number of examples required, and level of independence can be adapted for the needs of each particular class. Honors level students can trace all of the themes and give examples for each; whereas less advanced students can work on one theme and share their findings with one another in a group to gain further knowledge and understanding of each theme.