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

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?

Check out the Monopoly Streets on an Actual Map to see if you find anything familiar!


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

aerial view of Atlantic City, 2007

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 searching for jobs.

At the time, thousands of people leaving Atlantic City showed how badly the country's economy 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

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

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

  • What kind 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, remember these questions and notice 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. During World War II, German cities like Cologne were destroyed.

Cologne Cathedral stands undamaged while entire area surrounding it is completely devastated. Railroad station and Hohenzollern Bridge lie damaged to the north and east of the cathedral. Germany, April 24, 1945.

Between the imagery of the lathe being visible and comparing the city to one bombed during the war, McPhee shows the reader that Atlantic City is 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. (Marven Gardens in real-life, but it is Marvin Gardens in Monopoly.)

Take a second to review what McPhee wrote.

The author tried to get Marvin (Marven) Gardens in this fictitious game. If he could land on it, he could get a monopoly on the yellow-colored properties and potentially win the game.

Marvin Gardens

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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