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When writing a literary essay in English what tense should be used:

Past as in:

Gatsby’s parties were ostentatious and exquisite

Or present as in:

Gatsby’s parties are ostentatious and exquisite

Another example:

His house is a ‘colossal affair.’

As opposed to:

His house was a ‘colossal affair.’

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From what I remember, such essays are written in the past tense (your first example). –  FrustratedWithFormsDesigner Aug 29 '11 at 18:52
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Especially if Gatsby's parties occurred in the past... –  Daniel δ Aug 29 '11 at 18:57
    
@drɱ65 δ Okay that example wasn't too great because It was definitely the past. Please refer to my added example. –  Proffesor In English Aug 29 '11 at 18:59
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2 Answers

I'd suggest past tense but with a caveat- if the essay is for a specific publication, audience, or purpose that should be the guide as to what tense to use. Of course make sure the same tense is used throughout.

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If your essay is analytical (and I'm struggling to think of any other reason you'd write an essay about The Great Gatsby) then I'd put it in the present tense.

Gatsby loves Daisy, but Daisy is married to Tom. Gatsby doesn't have the bloodline to impress her; all he has is money. So he throws lavish affairs at his ostentatious house in a effort to show her how riche he is, and only comes off looking painfully nouveau.

Even though the book is in past tense, as you read it you are in the book's "present," so you are in the action. When you're analyzing it, you're analyzing what occurs. You'd use past tense if you were talking about something which happened in the character's past:

Jane Eyre is hired by Mr. Rochester as a governness. When he asks her if she can play the piano, she modestly replies, "A little," and proceeds to reel out some Chopin. She learned the piece when she was a child, when she lived at Lowood. Mr. Rochester snorts at how English girls are brought up to downplay their achievements.
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