Literary Devices in Gatsby

As I write the module on The Great Gatsby, one of my concerns is how to deal with the issue of literary devices.  I don’t want the students to be intimidated by “hidden meanings.”  I don’t want them to go figure hunting as if they are bird watchers logging sightings of rare specimens.  However, I do want them to be able to interpret the novel, to appreciate the language, and not to be put off by Fitzgerald’s indirect ways.  My first move in this direction was the introduction for students which I posted earlier.

In the section below I am trying to explain how symbols, metaphors, similes, and irony work.  Many of the definitions I found on the web were too complex or confusing, even contradictory.  Others went too deep into semiotics or linguistics, attempting to describe cognitive processes or to create a host of types and sub-types.  I just want students to have a basic working understanding of figurative language so that they can read the novel with pleasure and understanding.  I want to empower them rather than intimidate them.

Please give feedback in the comments.


Although reading literature is not like an Easter egg hunt in which the reader is looking for hidden meanings buried behind symbols and metaphors, such devices are part of the novel and do have meaning. For example, automobiles are common in this novel. At this time, the automobile is a fairly recent introduction into American culture. Traffic lights to control intersections were introduced around the time the novel was written. In the novel, automobiles are meticulously described. Characters drive them, buy them, sell them, repair them, crash them, and sometimes the wheels fall off. People are killed by them. Is the automobile a symbol of some aspect of American culture? Is steering a car a metaphor for a new kind of American life? It is up to you, the reader, to decide. Maybe a car is just a car. Maybe it is more. Symbols take on their meaning from context and from the evolving value that they have for the characters and the reader. It is never a simple matter of “Symbol X equals Meaning Y.”

Let’s say that the automobile is a symbol of American technological progress. What is implied if the wheels fall off? What is implied if the automobile kills someone?

Some definitions:

A symbol is something concrete (like the automobile) that represents or stands for an abstract idea (such as progress). Symbols are usually related to major themes in the work and may reoccur several times. The symbol does not necessarily resemble the symbolized idea or share any of its qualities. For example, the American flag is a symbol of the United States, but it does not look like the country. The stars on the flag may symbolize the individual states that are the current components of the union and the stripes may symbolize the original states that joined at the beginning, but the states are not like stars or stripes in any way.

A metaphor causes us to see one thing in terms of something else. On page 2, Nick Carraway talks about “the foul dust” that “floated in the wake of Gatsby’s dreams.” There are two metaphors here. First, the dust is not literally dust, but at this point we don’t know exactly what it is. We will find out what dreams Gatsby has and what the foul consequences are as we continue reading. Second, the dust floats in the “wake” of Gatsby’s dreams. As a boat travels through the water it creates a turbulent track behind it which is called the “wake.” So Gatsby’s dreams are being compared to a boat that leaves foul dust floating behind it. But wait a minute! “Wake” is also another word for funeral. Could that be what it means here? It seems unlikely because the word “floating” is associated with water, which triggers the association with a boat. Note that these are not “hidden meanings.” The metaphors are just part of the way that the sentence creates meaning.

A simile is a type of metaphor that uses “like” or “as” or other comparison words to connect the ideas. The most famous simile ever is probably by the poet, Robert Burns, who wrote, “My love is like a red, red rose,” comparing a woman to a flower. In The Great Gatsby, when Nick is criticizing Jordan’s driving he says, to the reader, not to Jordan, “I am slow thinking and full of interior rules that act as brakes on my desires” (58). This statement compares his “interior rules” to the “brakes” on an automobile. Similes such as this are very common in fiction.

Irony is also common in this novel. The word “irony” comes from a Greek word that means to pretend. There are many types of irony, but in all types the surface meaning is different, often the opposite, of what is intended, creating a humorous effect. For example, if a person walking in pouring rain meets another person and says, “Beautiful day, isn’t it?” that would be an ironic statement. Another common form of irony is understatement. Say a woman who is very afraid of spiders finds a spider in her sink, rolls up a magazine and in a panic hits the spider 20 times. Her roommate says, “Do you think that’s enough?” In Gatsby, irony often takes the form of exaggeration, such as when Nick arrives at Daisy’s house and she says, “I’m paralyzed with happiness” (8).

You will find many examples of these and other literary devices in the novel. Take note of these, discuss them with your classmates, and think about how they influence your reading of the novel.

Using Gatsby to Teach Inference

In Common Core under “Reading Literature” the first 11th/12th grade standard states:

Cite strong and thorough textual evidence to support analysis of what the text says explicitly as well as inferences drawn from the text, including determining where the text leaves matters uncertain.

The following activity asks students to determine whether specific statements about the novel are implied by the text, are true according to the text, are exaggerated, or are false. Then they share their charts with a partner and discuss their choices and their reasons for making them. This activity engages the students on several levels. It is a comprehension check, but most of the answers are debatable in or way or another. It requires students to interpret the text based on evidence and discuss or defend those interpretations with others.

In the example below, I provide only the statements for the first chapter. The completed module will have statements for each chapter.


Reading: Annotating and Questioning the Text

Skim the following statements before you read the chapter (the numbers in parentheses refer to pages in the Scribner paperback edition of 2004). After reading, go back and put an X or a check mark in the box that you think best describes the truthfulness of the statement. Use the following criteria:

  • “Implied” means that the text does not specifically say that the statement is a fact, but it is a reasonable conclusion to make.
  • “True” means that in the world of the story, this statement is factual.
  • “Exaggerated” means that the statement has some truth in it, but it overstates the facts (hyperbole).
  • “False” means that in the world of the story, the statement is false.

After filling out the chart, share your answers with a partner. If you don’t agree on every statement, discuss your reasoning and your evidence for your answers.

The first six are done for you to demonstrate how it works. Number 1 is clear. Your answer to number 2 might depend on how you define “friends.” Nick and Tom know each other, but they are not close. They are more like acquaintances. Number 3 is “exaggerated” because although Daisy knows people in Chicago who miss her, it is not the whole city and those people are not “desolate.” Number 4 is clear. Daisy has a daughter, though we do not see her at this point. Number 5 is “exaggerated” because although Jordan may have been lying on the couch for several hours, she probably remembers her life before the couch. Number 6 is a difficult one. Tom has been reading a racist book and he tries to summarize the arguments in it, but doesn’t present much detail. The others don’t seem to value his analysis very much, so “implied” is a good answer. One could argue, however, that Tom is smarter than George Wilson.


You may find that something that is implied at one point in the novel is confirmed as a fact, or proven false, later in the novel. This is part of the fun of reading a novel.

Reader Response Theories and How They Might Be Integrated in the ERWC Template

ERWC has always had the word “expository” in its name. Back in 2003, English Language Arts was still mostly about teaching literary texts, although the California English Language Arts standards required the teaching of multiple genres including expository texts. The role of the course was to provide teachers with a structured way to teach expository and persuasive texts, which we always defined broadly. ERWC allowed teachers to meet standards that were often left behind as they focused on literature, which was what they knew and loved.

However, ERWC has always contained literary texts. Now, as ERWC is offered on some campuses as a replacement for traditional senior English, and as ERWC expands into other grade levels, it is important to define the ERWC approach to literature. I think it is based on Reader Response theory.

Reader Response theory is naturally rhetorical because it allows authorial intention and reader affect back into the game after being sent to the penalty box for many decades by the New Criticism, under the guise of the “Intentional Fallacy” and the “Affective Fallacy.” I think that “Guided Reader Response” (my term for it) is the ERWC way. But I don’t think that this is actually something new for ERWC. It is just a different way of thinking about what we have always done. ERWC has always been interested in how authors achieve their aims and how students think and feel about what they read.

Different Versions

The descriptions that follow are based on a summary of various versions of Reader Response theory in Critical Theory Today: A User Friendly Guide by Lois Tyson (173-82). I have indicated where these activities inspired by Reader Response theory might fit in the ERWC Assignment Template.

1. Transactional Reader Response (Reading/Annotating and Questioning the Text)

This approach emphasizes determinate meaning versus indeterminate meaning, which could be rewritten as “facts” (in the universe of the story or in the mind of the narrator) versus “implications” or “inferences.” So we can ask students, “What are the facts? What are the implications? Have any previously noted “facts” become questionable as the story progresses? Have any implications resolved into facts? Following Wolfgang Iser, we can also ask about “gaps” in the text that the reader must imagine. Sometimes this is a matter of “scene” and “summary,” i.e. some action is described in full, some is simply summarized. Other action happens offstage and must be imagined. A good creative writing exercise is to take something that is summarized or offstage and ask students to write it as a scene.

2. Affective Stylistics (Reading/Analyzing Stylistic Choices)

This approach involves a slow motion, phrase by phrase analysis of how the text structures the reader’s experience. We can ask, “As the sentence unfolds in time, how does it affect you, the reader? What effects do the words, the sentence structure, and the punctuation have on you?” (This approach is somewhat phenomenological.)

3. Subjective Reader Response (This is based on David Bleich.)

Experience-Oriented Response (Postreading/ Summarizing and Responding)

Discuss your reactions to the text, describing how specific passages made you feel, think, or associate. What do you think of the characters, their behaviors, characteristics and actions? How do specific word choices make you feel?

Response-Analysis Statement (Postreading/Reflecting on Your Reading Process)

Look at your “Experience-Oriented Response.” What was your response to the text as a whole? Did the text engage you? Why or why not? Did you enjoy the text, or did it make you uncomfortable or disappointed? What emotions did you experience while reading it, and why?

An Example

An example of a mini-module based on reader response: A Reader-Response Approach to Poetry.

Teaching Literary Texts

I have been working on writing a module based on The Great Gatsby.  I started out thinking that I would take a fresh approach that would avoid standard literary criticism altogether.  I wanted to ignore standard themes such as the “American Dream” and avoid looking at well-worn symbols such as the green light at the end of Daisy’s dock and the enormous eyes of Dr. T.J. Eckleberg.  However, when I re-read the novel I found that my original plan was impossible.  The elements that teachers have been pointing to for several generations are just too prominent, and too much a part of Fitzgerald’s design, to ignore.

I decided to take a multi-pronged approach that ran on several tracks at once, including the standard themes but also including some new perspectives.  My critical approach might be called “Guided Reader Response.”  As is typical in ERWC, the emphasis is on what authors are trying to do and how their decisions affect the reader.

First, I felt I had to neutralize some of the assumptions that students often have about reading literature.  I also wanted to argue against the use of “notes” publications such as SparkNotes and Cliff’s Notes.  What follows is a draft of an introduction to the module for students.

Note: I have updated this introduction based on feedback from teachers at the latest meeting of the Module Writing Institute.  I moved the last paragraph of the original draft to the beginning and reordered the other paragraphs.  I added a new conclusion.  Thanks to those who gave me feedback! 

Further note: I have revised this again to soften the polemical attacks I was making on figure hunting as an approach to literature and on the use of “notes” publications.  I have also introduced the “arc” language–prepare, understand, question, use, write, and revise–for students to think about.



Novels are tools for thinking about life in new ways. Characters face problems, make decisions, commit errors, deal with relationships, succeed or fail. Fictional worlds tend to be more focused and selective than the real one, so it is easier to see what the issues are and how to think about them. However, novels, even fantasy and science fiction novels, are ultimately about our own lives and what we make of them. Reading a novel allows the reader to experience someone else’s life, think someone else’s thoughts, and compare those fictional lives and thoughts with his or her own. Thus, reading literature is not just about extracting some meaning left behind by the author. It is ultimately about making meaning in your own life.

People often think that authors who write literature take big ideas and encrypt them in symbols, metaphors and other literary devices to hide them from casual readers. From this perspective, the reader’s job is to find and interpret the literary devices, decode them, and extract the correct meaning. It is true that literary language often includes symbols and metaphors. It is also true that when authors write they have meanings in mind and intentions for the reader. However, literary texts often have meanings beyond what the author intended, and every reader has a different emotional and intellectual experience. Literary devices are only a part of that experience.

This learning module is designed to help you read The Great Gatsby from a number of different perspectives. As you do the activities, you will go through a series of steps: preparing, understanding, questioning, using, writing, and revising. We call this the “arc” of the module. “Preparing” refers to thinking you do before you start reading—thinking about the title, reading the cover, skimming some pages, making connections to your own experiences. Then you read for understanding, making sense of the text. After you understand the text, you begin questioning it, looking for contradictions, unsupported claims, and faulty arguments. At that point, you begin to think about selecting words and ideas from the text to support your own claims and arguments. All of these processes are the basis for writing about the text. You will create a thesis, then explain and defend it using material from the novel. Once you have a draft of your essay, you will get feedback from peers and from your teacher so that you can begin revising your work, taking the feedback and your audience into account.

This sequence of preparing, understanding, questioning, selecting, writing, and revising can be used with any reading and writing project, in any discipline, at any level. It will serve you well in college.

We recommend that you avoid using any of the popular “notes” publications when working through this module. A good novelist or short story writer causes the reader to ask questions, then delays answering those questions (or answers the questions in ways that generate more questions) in order to keep the reader engaged and reading. The “notes” products answer all the questions you might have, short-circuiting engagement with the story and preventing you from having a real experience of the novel in the way the author intended. You will know many things about the novel, but you will not have read it, experienced it, or enjoyed it. If you think novels are boring, it might be because you are reading these published “notes,” which tend to drain the life out of the experience.

The Great Gatsby is one of the most widely-read and interpreted novels in American literature. Critics are still coming up with new interpretations of it. Lois Tyson, in a popular introduction to literary theory called Critical Theory Today: A User-Friendly Guide, offers 14 different interpretations of Gatsby from 14 different critical perspectives. We will explore some of these perspectives in this module. There is no single correct interpretation. However, this does not mean that all interpretations are equally good. Good readings are rooted in evidence from the actual text. Good readings are also persuasive to readers other than the critic who wrote the interpretation.

This module is designed to help you engage with the novel, experience the lives of its characters, think about the issues it raises, and make connections to your own life. You will create your own interpretations, based on the text, and share them with your fellow students and your teacher. Reading the novel is only part of the experience. Writing and discussing the ideas, trying to persuade others to interpret it the way you do, and experiencing the way your ideas change as you discuss them with others, are all important parts of the experience of reading literature.

From ERWC Template to the ERWC Arc

The ERWC team is working on a new i3 grant proposal and Nancy Brynelson is the main writer.  In drafting that proposal she took an outline of the Assignment Template and the descriptors from the Bloom’s Taxonomy chart in the previous post and created the following chart:


I tightened it up a bit and added some color.  This chart makes it easy to see the relationships between the main headings and subheadings in the Assignment Template and the six action verbs we are using to describe the ERWC “arc.”  The order has also been reversed to read top down rather than bottom up as Bloom’s Taxonomy is usually presented.

This chart could be very useful in introducing the core ideas of ERWC to administrators and other newcomers.

Bloom’s Taxonomy and The ERWC Arc

In the previous post, I discussed creating a list of easily-remembered words that could help facilitate the transfer of the stages of the ERWC arc to other texts and rhetorical situations that the student might encounter in the future.  As part of another discussion, I found a link to an excellent blog post on the revised version of Bloom’s Taxonomy.  It occurred to me to try mapping the ERWC terms onto the taxonomy.  The chart below is the result.

Bloom’s Taxonomy Compared to the ERWC Arc

The congruences and gaps are interesting.  Although the “Apply” cell in the chart is blank for ERWC, I would say that ERWC modules generally provide a lot of activities that allow students to apply concepts and language from the texts before they begin to question them.  Application permeates an ERWC module and happens in every stage.  ERWC also includes revision, which is not part of Bloom’s Taxonomy, at least in this expression of it.  Bloom’s Taxonomy was often applied in designing individual activities in modules, but it is interesting that it also applies at this sort of macro level.

The ERWC Arc and Terms for Transfer

In Writing Across Contexts: Transfer, Composition and Sites of Writing by Kathleen Blake Yancey, Liane Robertson, and Kara Taczak design a composition course specifically for transfer of concepts and practices to other writing situations.  Because research on transfer of writing skills shows that students have trouble finding language to describe what they learned in their writing courses, part of their design is the teaching and reinforcing of eleven key terms chosen “to help students describe and theorize writing,”  These key terms, organized into four groups, are:

  1. Audience, genre, rhetorical situation, and reflection
  2. Exigence, critical analysis, discourse community, and knowledge
  3. Context, composing and circulation
  4. Knowledge and reflection (57)

Each set of terms is taught and reinforced in a particular writing assignment. “Knowledge” and “reflection” are repeated in the last assignment. “Exigence” could be defined as the situation that gives rise to the need for writing.

Yancey et al argue that “students would understand writing differently and better were a course organized through key terms or concepts rather than through a set of assignments or processes” (40). They cite Bransford, Pellegrino and Donovan, How People Learn:Brain, Mind, Experience and School who say, “The ability to monitor one’s approach to problem-solving–to be metacognitive–is an important aspect of the expert’s competence. Experts step back from their first, oversimplistic interpretation of a problem or situation and question their own knowledge that is relevant.”

Terms represent concepts and bringing concepts learned in prior situations to bear on current situations is an indication of transfer of knowledge. Knowing the right terms allows the concepts to be recalled and used. But what are the right terms?

The terms embedded in the “Teaching for Transfer” course designed by Yancy et al are a mixed bag. Some are elements of the rhetorical situation–audience, genre, exigence, context–while the umbrella term “rhetorical situation” is also part of the list. Others are cognitive: knowledge and reflection. “Composing” is part of the writing process, part of another list of terms that has been part of composition research since the 1970’s: pre-writing, composing, revising, and proofreading. “Circulation” (by which I think they mean the way texts circulate in a community; they do not define it) and “discourse community” are sociolinguistic concepts. In the context of the assignments and the course, these may be memorable concepts, but as a list, not so much. Given that terms are so important, I wonder if a better selection could be made.

ERWC, as currently expressed, has a similar problem. Our template, while it guides students through a well-defined process of prereading, reading and re-reading for different purposes, and repeats and reinforces this process until students have internalized it, doesn’t provide a convenient list of terms. Students may have internalized these processes so well that they do not need terms to recall them. However, a list of memorable terms certainly could not hurt.

After many conversations with ERWC committee members and teachers participating in the ERWC Module Writing Institute that is currently underway, and especially with Mary Adler, who is co-facilitating the Institute with me, I would like to propose the following set of terms to describe the intellectual processes embedded in the ERWC:


Of course, there are many complexities lurking under each one of these terms, which I will discuss in a subsequent post.

The Organization of a Roman Speech

In the Module Writing Institute today we were talking about a metalanguage for commencement addresses. I suggested that it was worth looking at the six-part organization of a classical Roman speech as described by Cicero in De Inventione and De Oratore. This pattern has lasted for thousands of years.

  • Exordium–An introduction in which the speaker states the subject and purpose of the discourse and establishes his or her ethos.
  • Narratio–A narrative of the facts of the case.
  • Partitio or Divisio–A statement of what is to come, consistent with the point at issue.
  • Confirmatio–Arguments in favor of the case. Oriented toward logos.
  • Refutatio–A refutation of the arguments against the case.
  • Peroratio–A conclusion, often oriented toward pathos.

I argued that if we were still teaching this pattern, instead of the five-paragraph essay, our society would be much more advanced. All of the requirements of good logical argumentation are built into this pattern, though it also addresses ethical and pathetic appeals. And it is still in use in sermons and other ceremonial discourse.

More can be found at the Silva Rhetoricae site.  Click on “Canons of Rhetoric/Arrangement” in the column on the left side.

ERWC Leadership Certification 2015: Opening Speech

The following speech was given at both Leadership Certification events, on June 16 in Sacramento and on June 19 in Los Angeles. I wanted to create an upbeat opening for the event, celebrate the positive findings of the i3 study, thank many people for their hard work, emphasize the concept of “transfer,” and introduce the new slogan, “text to text,” which I hoped would help teachers trace the arc of a module and get to the destination without getting bogged down in prereading and reading.


Welcome to the 12th year of ERWC! It’s been a long, interesting trip and the past year has been especially exciting. We are in the third year of our i3 study and soon there will be an exhaustive report. Tony will talk about this more, but I have heard that we have robust, statistically significant evidence that ERWC increases college readiness. We suspected this all along, but it is nice to have our suspicions confirmed by a rigorous, quasi-experimental study.

ERWC has a history of being ahead of the curve. We also have staying power. We were doing Common Core before Common Core even existed. I have a feeling that ERWC will still exist in some form after Common Core has morphed into something else. A hot topic in the field of composition and rhetoric right now is “transfer.” Researchers are asking questions such as

Do the knowledge and skills learned in a writing course transfer to other courses and workplaces?

Is it possible to “teach for transfer”?

As you know from Nelson Graff’s most excellent article on the ERWC website, “Transfer and Engagement: From Theory to Enhanced Practice”

Four aspects of teaching make it more likely that students will transfer their learning:

  • Students have a command of the knowledge that is to be transferred.
  • Students have a theoretical understanding of the principles to be transferred.
  • The classroom culture cultivates a spirit of transfer.
  • Students get plenty of practice.

As you know, ERWC does all of that.

A study described in a recent book, Writing Across Contexts: Transfer, Composition and Sites of Writing by Kathleen Blake Yancey, Liane Robertson, and Kara Taczak found that in many cases, students did not transfer knowledge and skills from their Freshman Composition course to other courses and tasks. Whether they did or not depended a lot on how the course was taught. Students in the “Teaching for Transfer” course were much more likely to use the skills taught later than students in an expressive writing course or a cultural studies course. Students in these latter types of courses were much more likely to fall back on what they learned in high school, especially if they got good grades in English in high school and considered themselves to be good writers.

That’s right. What you teach in high school is likely to persist for a long time. This can cause problems sometimes if students overgeneralize their knowledge and write five-paragraph essays when they are supposed to write lab reports, or feel that using first person or passive voice is a sin and a crime. But the skills and concepts you impart may still be serving the students you teach for their whole lives.

I recently taught a 300-level writing course for English majors called “Advanced Expository Writing.” I taught them many modes of rhetorical and stylistic analysis including stasis theory, tropes and figures, cumulative and period sentences, principles of organization such as BLUF (“Bottom Line Up Front”) and many other strategies. I reinforced these by going over what was in their “rhetorical toolkits” every other week. Still, when I asked them to freewrite about their “theory of writing” in the ninth week of the course, almost everything they included was something they learned in high school. High school English teachers have a powerful influence!

What ERWC can do is make that influence broader and more appropriately applicable to a wider range of discourses and situations. For concepts to transfer, the students need metalanguage to conjure up the concept. They need terms for what they are doing, and they need to remember them. Ethos, logos, and pathos are a good example. Easy to remember, powerful concepts, applicable to any rhetorical situation.

This is why we teach rhetoric. We spend a great deal of time teaching the essay, a genre that is pretty much a school genre. If we teach business letters, they have got another genre, but one that might be handled differently in different contexts. We can teach other genres, one by one. But if we teach rhetoric, we are teaching concepts that apply to any communicative context. The elements of the rhetorical situation–audience, purpose, available means of persuasion, the three appeals, kairos–are by definition metacognitive and portable. They transfer.

And of course in ERWC we use the same strategies over and over, so students know that they will use it again, and after many repetitions, they are likely to bring those strategies with them to college.

So we are really very much ahead of the game on transfer. We’ve got the concepts, we’ve got the terms, we’ve got the repetition, we’ve got the practice. Also, we are doing this with both reading and writing, which even sophisticated folks like Kathleen Blake Yancy don’t do.

So transfer is one of the themes of our conference today. Another related theme is our new slogan, “Text to Text.” ERWC modules are designed to follow an “arc” from an existing, often professional text (or texts), through a series of reading and writing activities to the production of a new student text. This is what we mean by “Text to Text.” The power of the module to induce transfer is activated by the journey from an old text to a new one. In order to demonstrate this text to text concept we have created a series of micro-modules that make it easier to see the “arc” of a module. You will undoubtedly encounter some of these later in the day.

Our session today is a celebration of our accomplishments, an introduction of these new themes, and a test run for our new committee structure. We now have a steering committee, a high school committee, a middle school committee, and an expansion committee. All of these committees have made a tremendous effort to make this event the best Leadership Certification session ever. Nancy and I thank all the committee members for their ideas, innovation, and hard work.

As you attend your sessions, think about transfer, text to text, the arc of a module, and the principles and practices of ERWC. As you learn, discuss, comment, and ask questions, remember to have fun, laugh, and share the joy of teaching with your colleagues. We are all in this together!

Writing An ERWC Module: TOC

In a series of posts, I am working through the ERWC Assignment Template step-by-step as if I were writing a module around a short article by Michael Kinsley about Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s proposed ban of Big Gulp sodas.  These posts appear below in typical reverse-chronological blog format.  If you want to read them in the right order, click on the “Module Projects” tab to find a Table of Contents page with clickable links.