Analyzing Essay Structure

Contributor: Nathan Murphy. Lesson ID: 13888

What do Monopoly and casinos have to do with one of the most famous essays in the 20th century? The 1970s were a time of change for the country, and a journalist used a board game to help explain it.


Social Studies, Writing

English / Language Arts
learning style
Auditory, Visual
personality style
Grade Level
High School (9-12)
Lesson Type
Dig Deeper

Lesson Plan - Get It!

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  • Have you ever played the game Monopoly?

Monopoly logo

Image owned by Parker Brothers, via Wikimedia Commons, is being used for identification and, therefore, qualifies as fair use under the Copyright law of the United States.

Odds are you have experienced what a roller coaster playing this game can be.

  • Did you know that this board game was inspired by an actual city when it was created in 1904?

Read the street names on Monopoly Streets on an Actual Map, from, to see if you find anything familiar!


The game Monopoly was based on Atlantic City, which is a casino town in New Jersey on the Atlantic coast.

aerial view of Atlantic City, 2007

Image by Bob Jagendorf, via Wikimedia Commons is licensed under the CC BY 2.0 license.

In the 1970s, the economic troubles of the United States meant that people stopped gambling, and the casinos had to lay off their employees. This led to massive numbers of people leaving the city in search of jobs.

At the time, thousands of people leaving Atlantic City was a visible sign of how badly the country's economy really was.

In 1972, journalist John McPhee set out to talk about this phenomenon and used the Monopoly board game to help structure his essay in a recognizable and impactful way.

Monopoly game board

Image by Rich Brooks, via Wikimedia Commons, is licensed under the CC BY 2.0 license.

McPhee took on the complex ideas of income inequality by starting at Go and moving around the board as he discussed the reality of Atlantic City in the 1970s.

The Search for Marvin Gardens

Based on this title for the essay, write down a sentence or two explaining what you think it will be about.

McPhee used the game of Monopoly to talk about a city in decline. Remember, the prosperity of Atlantic City is what inspired the game 70 years prior.

  • How do you think this affected the way McPhee presented his ideas?

As you read the following excerpts from The Search for Marvin Gardens, by John McPhee for The New Yorker, pay attention to how the game tokens were included in the story and how imagery was used to bring the Monopoly board game to life, for better or worse.

Monopoly tokens

Image [cropped] by Bengt Oberger, via Wikimedia Commons, is licensed under the CC BY-SA 3.0 license.

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By the end of the first page of his essay, McPhee has already taken us a quarter way around the game board to St. Charles Place. In that time, he used the tokens from the game to put us, the readers, in the crumbling center of Atlantic City.

  • What king of imagery did you notice in this passage?
  • Who do you think the author's opponent was?
  • Who is the "tall, shadowy figure" across from him?

While you continue to read, keep these questions in mind and take notice of how powerful the imagery is. Pay attention to how the author connects the Monopoly game board to the current reality of the city.

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In the center of his essay, John McPhee utilized imagery even more.

Instead of just using his own words to paint the picture of Atlantic City, he referenced well-known events from the time. During World War II, German cities like Cologne were completely destroyed:

Cologne, 1945

Image by U.S. Department of Defense, via Wikimedia Commons, is in the public domain.

Between the imagery of the lathe being visible and comparing the city to one bombed during war, McPhee shows the reader that Atlantic City is clearly a very different place than it once was.

  • What changed?
  • How did it get this way?
  • What comes at the end of this "game" of Monopoly?

Let's keep reading!

Monopoly houses

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Notice how McPhee ended his essay with a smooth transition from the game Monopoly to the real place that was Marven Gardens.

Let's take a second to review what McPhee wrote.

In this fictitious game, the author was trying to get Marvin (Marven) Gardens. If he could just land on it, he would be able to get a monopoly on the yellow-colored properties and potentially win the game.

Marvin Gardens

Image [cropped] by Mark Strozier, via Wikimedia Commons, is licensed under the CC BY 2.0 license.

McPhee then wrote about the real Marven Gardens, a small community outside of Atlantic City that was the last wealthy community in an otherwise crumbling area.

  • What do you think he was trying to say?
  • How might the connection to Monopoly help inform our understanding of his message?

Work through it all in the Got It? section!

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