Connotation, Character, and Color Imagery in The Great Gatsby

9 - 12
Lesson Plan Type
Estimated Time
Twelve 50-minute sessions
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In this lesson, students explore the connotations of the colors associated with the characters in F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby. During pre-reading activities, students first brainstorm other words for the color red, and then compare paint swatches to those color words. Students discuss the meaning of connotation and how word meanings can change based on circumstances. They work in groups to explore the cultural connotations of a particular color and present their findings to the class. Students then apply what they have learned to an analysis of the use of color in Robert Frost's "Nothing Gold Can Stay." As students read The Great Gatsby, they track color imagery using a color log. After they have completed their reading, students review the observations in their color logs and use the information to write an analysis of one of the major characters in the novel.

Featured Resources

From Theory to Practice

For many students, reading literature is like a scavenger hunt for "right" answers. From the perspective of these students, meaning is hidden and locked away, eventually to be revealed by the teacher. The students themselves typically believe that they do not know enough to unlock the meanings, so they wait for the teacher to reveal the secrets. This lesson plan models a process that shows students how to unlock such meaning on their own.

As Judith Burdan explains, we want students "to recognize the play of language with pleasure and to move forward into the analysis of literary conventions with a sense of understanding. As students learn to think about the rhetorical choices that an author makes and about the effect of those choices on them as readers, they become more perceptive and more confident as readers. They increasingly acknowledge themselves as part of the process of creating meaning through language, even the specialized language of literature, and learn to enjoy themselves along the way" (28).

Further Reading

Common Core Standards

This resource has been aligned to the Common Core State Standards for states in which they have been adopted. If a state does not appear in the drop-down, CCSS alignments are forthcoming.

State Standards

This lesson has been aligned to standards in the following states. If a state does not appear in the drop-down, standard alignments are not currently available for that state.

NCTE/IRA National Standards for the English Language Arts

  • 1. Students read a wide range of print and nonprint texts to build an understanding of texts, of themselves, and of the cultures of the United States and the world; to acquire new information; to respond to the needs and demands of society and the workplace; and for personal fulfillment. Among these texts are fiction and nonfiction, classic and contemporary works.
  • 3. Students apply a wide range of strategies to comprehend, interpret, evaluate, and appreciate texts. They draw on their prior experience, their interactions with other readers and writers, their knowledge of word meaning and of other texts, their word identification strategies, and their understanding of textual features (e.g., sound-letter correspondence, sentence structure, context, graphics).
  • 5. Students employ a wide range of strategies as they write and use different writing process elements appropriately to communicate with different audiences for a variety of purposes.
  • 6. Students apply knowledge of language structure, language conventions (e.g., spelling and punctuation), media techniques, figurative language, and genre to create, critique, and discuss print and nonprint texts.
  • 12. Students use spoken, written, and visual language to accomplish their own purposes (e.g., for learning, enjoyment, persuasion, and the exchange of information).

Materials and Technology



This video, Part 1 of 2, provides students with some help in understanding the major plot lines of The Great Gatsby.

This video, Part 2 of 2, provides students with some help in understanding the major plot lines of The Great Gatsby.  If you watch it on YouTube, take note of the "spoiler alert" for students.


Student Objectives

Students will

  • explore the concepts of connotation and denotation.

  • research and discuss cultural connotations of colors.

  • track color imagery in The Great Gatsby.

  • analyze a character from The Great Gatsby, based on their observations of related color imagery.

Session One


  1. Write the word Red at the top of the board or a sheet of white paper.

  2. Ask students to brainstorm other words for the color red and write their responses on the board or chart paper. Possible responses include burgundy, cardinal, carmine, cerise, cherry, cranberry, crimson, garnet, maroon, pink, rose, ruby, scarlet, vermilion, and wine. Students may also include compound words such as brick-red or blood-red. Allow students to explore the range of possible words. If students have difficulty thinking of options, suggest that they think about names for paint colors, crayon colors, or even fingernail polish.

  3. Share paint swatches or crayon names that you gathered before the session. Ask students to look for swatches or list of names for colors that they would identify as a shade of red.

  4. Compare the names for the paint swatches to the list of words for the color red that students brainstormed.

  5. Ask the students the following questions:

    • How would readers or listeners react to these color names?

    • What associations will they make?

    • What would you expect from a can of paint named after these colors?

    • Why would a paint company use one of these names for their products? What kind of buyer would they be trying to attract?
  6. Introduce the idea of connotation, defining it as the associations that people make with a word. You can contrast connotation with the denotative value of a word, its more literal meaning, and give an example of a word (such as "chicken") which has particular connotation depending on the listener: to a poultry farmer, it might bring one thing to mind; to a restaurant owner, another thing; to someone who is afraid, still another thing. In the phrase, "chicken soup," it can bring to mind another kind of thoughts. If desired, share online definitions of connotation and denotation:

  7. Ask students to apply this idea to the colors that they have listed as well as the colors on the paint swatches or the crayon names. Encourage them to discuss how the colors are connotative by asking such questions as "Why would you (or wouldn't you) use this color name for a paint color?" and "Are there other products that this color name would be appropriate for?" If students need more suggestions, you might ask them to compare the names for paint or crayon colors to colors used to describe cars, fingernail polish, or clothing (and how clothing colors differ by who might wear the article of clothing).
    More Practice
    If your students need more information to understand connotation, share the What Does the Word Chicken Mean? sheet as an overhead or handout to demonstrate the many connotations of the word. You can either explore the various meanings of the word in whole class discussion or divide your class into small groups that consider one or more of the images each then share their findings with the class before proceeding. Once students have completed this practice, you might return to your discussion of paint or crayon colors, perhaps asking students to think of a new name for a particular shade and to support their choice by explaining the connotations associated with their selection.
  8. Once you've defined connotation and you're satisfied that students understand the concept, divide students into eight small groups. Each group will be assigned a color to research, so eight groups are needed to cover the range of colors.

  9. Assign a different color to each group, so that you have a group for each of the following: red, blue, green, yellow, purple, orange, white, and black. If you have any students who have difficulties differentiating among certain colors, be sure to assign them to a color that they are able to distinguish.

  10. Explain that each group will research and compile information about the cultural connotations of the particular color they have been assigned during the next class session. After they complete their research, the group will create a presentation for the class that explains the connotations of their color. If desired, you may also ask students to create a handout for the class on their color.

  11. For homework, ask students to log places where they have seen their color in their journals. For instance, someone in the red group might write down "stop sign," and someone in the yellow group might write down "school bus."

Session Two

  1. Remind students that during this session they will research and compile information about the cultural connotations of the particular color they have been assigned. After they complete their research, the group will create a 3 to 5 minute presentation for the class that explains the connotations of their color. If desired, you may also ask students to create a handout for the class on their color.

  2. Share the Exploring Cultural Connotations of Color page, which asks students to visit four Websites and gather details on the associations and connotations for their group's color. Be sure to show students how to print out or save their research using the online notetaking tool of your choice.

  3. Give students the rest of the session to research and work on their presentations.

  4. As groups finish their online research, ask them to look through their lists of color examples from their homework and think about how the information on connotations relates to the examples that they have gathered. Encourage students to incorporate examples in their presentations.

  5. As students shift from research to creating their presentations, provide chart paper and markers or other supplies that will help them with their work. If computer access is adequate, you might ask groups to create PowerPoint presentation.

  6. Circulate among students as they work, providing feedback and support.

  7. At the end of the session, remind students that they will present the research on their group's color at the beginning of the next session.

Session Three

  1. Give students five to ten minutes to make last-minute preparations and to practice their presentations.

  2. Have groups present their color research to the entire class, allowing about five minutes per group.

  3. Encourage class discussion about the research, especially sharing of examples of color use that now seem meaningful in ways that they didn't previously. For instance, ask students to think about why fast-food restaurants use the colors that they do in their logos and designs.

  4. After you've discussed the general connotations of individual colors, spend a few minutes talking about what happens when colors are combined—Do their meanings complement one another? Do they mean something else? A simple, but likely obvious example to use is a combination of the colors red, white, and blue. What happens when those three colors are used together? How do their connotations change from those that each suggested when considered in isolation?

  5. Ask students to predict how the information about colors that they have explored will affect a work of literature. If students have recently read works that featured color imagery, you might refer to the examples as part of students' discussion of the issue.

  6. Ask student to read Robert Frost's short poem "Nothing Gold Can Stay" for homework, and write in their journals about the poet's use of color imagery and how the imagery relates to the color research the class has conducted. Encourage students to use the terms connotation and denotation as part of their entry.

Session Four

  1. Read Frost's "Nothing Gold Can Stay" to the class, and ask students to share their comments and observations on the poem's use of color. You can have students read their journal entries to the class, or ask students to discuss generally based on their entries. Provide reinforcement for correct use of the terms connotation and denotation as well as for concrete connections between imagery in the poem and the class's color research.

  2. Once you're satisfied that students understand the idea, explain that the class will be tracking color imagery through the novel The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald.

  3. Use the F. Scott Fitzgerald: Career Timeline, from PBS' American Masters, to introduce biographical information on Fitzgerald's life (or ask students to explore the interactive timeline individually at computers).

  4. If desired, share additional resources from the F. Scott Fitzgerald Centenary site, which includes biographical material, photographs, texts, and critical essays.

  5. Explain that Fitzgerald relies on color imagery to reveal details about the character, plot, and setting in his novel.

  6. Pass out copies of the Color Imagery Journals and explain that students will use the form to track the novelist's use of color imagery as they read. Alternately, display an overhead of the Color Imagery Journals and ask students to copy the 4-column format into their journals, and explain that students will track the color imagery by recording it in their journals as they read.

  7. Demonstrate the process of filling out the Color Journal form—either fill out a blank form as a class, or display an overhead of the sample color journal.

  8. Stress that students are not expected to find and list every single reference, especially if looking for colors disrupts their reading.

  9. Answer any questions that students have about the process.

  10. Ask students to begin reading the book and tracking its color imagery for homework.

Sessions Five to Ten


  1. Cover the novel in your class sessions as you would any other reading, completing any comprehension and discussion activities that are appropriate for your students. Discuss color imagery as the issues come up during your conversations about the various sections of the novel.

  2. For additional, structured activities for the novel, try the following lesson plans:

Session Eleven


  1. After you have finished reading the novel, ask students to review their Color Imagery Journal entries. Ask students to choose a particular color to track through the novel, noting how Fitzgerald uses the color and the character(s) that it relates to. You might share an example with students to be sure that they understand the expectations. For instance, Fitzgerald often mentions shades of red when Tom is in a scene. Explain that students' job is to think about why Fitzgerald has made this association between color and character.

  2. Have students freewrite for ten minutes about the character who is most often associated with the chosen color and what they noticed as they reviewed their journals.

  3. Arrange students in random groups of two or three members each—there is no need to group them based on the colors they have written about. In fact, it's desirable for the groups to discuss a range of colors and characters.

  4. In these groups, ask students to share and discuss their observations and freewriting. Encourage students to talk about the color, character, general conclusions, and questions.

  5. If student groups have not brought up the topic on their own, ask the groups to draw direct connections to their research on color connotations from the earlier sessions in the unit.

  6. Bring the class together, and divide the board into five sections, one each for Daisy, Tom, Jordan, Gatsby, and Others (or post a piece of chart paper for each character).

  7. As an entire class, list the colors associated with each of the characters along with the possible symbolic meanings based on students' presentations on the colors.

  8. Once all the characters have been labeled, discuss the results. Students may disagree about what a particular color tells readers about the characters. Encourage students to point to evidence in the novel that supports their interpretations.

  9. For homework, ask students to gather their conclusions about the character and color they wrote about at the beginning of the session.

Session Twelve

  1. Invite students to share any comments from their homework or reflections on the color imagery in the novel.

  2. Explain that students will use their Color Imagery Journals and research on color associations to write a final paper that explains their analysis of a specific character from the novel.

  3. Pass out copies of the character analysis assignment and character analysis rubric. Explain the assignment and answer any questions that students have about the activity.

  4. Point out the resources that students can use as they work on their character analysis papers. Specifically talk about how to use notes in the Color Imagery Journals and the presentation information from earlier sessions on color associations. Additionally, remind students that their notes from the previous class session and that they wrote for homework include details that they can use in their drafting process.

  5. Students may be concerned that they missed important references to the colors that they are researching. If you find this situation in your class, visit the online version of The Great Gatsby, and show to use the Find command in their Web browser to locate particular color references in the book.

  6. Allow students to begin work on their drafts during the time remaining in class. Students can share drafts as the session progresses.

  7. At the end of the session, remind students when the final draft of their work will be due.


  • Continue the lesson by allowing additional class sessions for students to write, share their drafts with small groups, and compare their work to the rubric.

  • Since students' work will include quotations from the novel, the class may benefit from a minilesson on how to punctuate sentences using quotation marks. During the editing process for drafts of the character analysis, use the ReadWriteThink lesson Inside or Outside? A Minilesson on Quotation Marks and More to discuss the punctuation conventions; then have students apply the minilesson to their drafts.

Student Assessment / Reflections


  • Monitor student interaction and progress during group work and research sessions to assess social skills and assist any students having problems with the project.

  • Check students’ Color Imagery Journals for completion and detail. If possible, monitor entries informally while students are reading so that you can provide advice and feedback before students finish reading the novel. Since the color journals will be resources for students’ character analysis papers, it’s ideal to ensure that their notes will be helpful in later sessions.

  • Use the rubric to assess students’ final drafts.


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