In which I analyse the symbols in The Great Gatsby.
Click here to view all of my analyses on The Great Gatsby.
Before we just started, I have to get a couple of disclaimers out of the way. First, there is a lot of symbolism packed into this short novel. I’m not going to touch on every symbol. In all the times I’ve read it, it’s probable that I haven’t even noticed every symbol. That’s what the comments are for: please feel free to come on down and discuss what I miss.
Second, I have never personally spoken with F. Scott Fitzgerald about his novel and asked him to explain all of his symbolism to me. Therefore, what I present to you here are not the definitive meanings of the symbols in the novel. This is my analysis, based on my understanding of the text, and likely heavily influenced by my perspective. Please feel free to disagree with me, and tell me what you think in the comments. Also, I will not be held responsible for anyone’s grade.
That said, if you happen to agree with my analyses and use them as a jumping off point to build your own argument, and your teacher gives you a poor grade because she does not agree, you may ask her if she has personally spoken to F. Scott Fitzgerald, and can thereby prove your/my conclusions wrong. If she has, please direct her to this post to tell me in the comments what he said. That would be amazing. Also, ask her whether she has a time machine, or if she has discovered the secret to astonishing longevity. Because that is awesome as well.
Without further ado… (Because this is a Gatsby analysis, not a Much Ado About Nothing analysis, am I right?
Laugh at me; let me think I’m clever.)
All page numbers are taken from the Scribner 2004 trade paperback edition.
Depending on the novel, the setting can range from a backdrop that could be switched out without changing anything about the story, to an integral component of both the plot and the characters’ lives. In The Great Gatsby, the settings are not only powerful in this way, but they are also used to great effect as symbols.
Early on, we are introduced to “one of the strangest communities in North America”:
Twenty miles from the city a pair of enormous eggs, identical in contour and separated only by a courtesy bay, jut out into the most domesticated body of salt water in the Western hemisphere, the great wet barnyard of the Long Island Sound. They are not perfect ovals—like the egg in the Columbus story, they are both crushed flat at the contact end—but their physical resemblance must have been a source of perpetual confusion to the gulls that fly overhead. To the wingless a more arresting phenomenon is their dissimilarity in every particular except shape and size.
(pg. 4, 5)
The fact that these two formations are so nearly identical, and yet there is still a clear demarcation between East Egg and West Egg (“the—well, the less fashionable of the two”) is telling. The distinction is made, not by nature, but by man and their class differences. It is imperceptible to the gulls flying overhead, but affects the humans of the novel greatly. I also enjoy the fact that Nick calls the bay separating these land masses “a courtesy bay” more than once. Geographically speaking, it is no great thing to hop in a boat and cross that bay from West Egg to East Egg. But socially speaking, the jump is effectively impossible.
Speaking of land and class differences, let’s talk about the houses in the novel. The first one we are introduced to is Gatsby’s. Newly built, ostentatious, and enormous, it screams “new money.” This is quite a contrast to the “white palaces of the fashionable East Egg,” most notably, the Buchanan residence. Their house also says money, and Nick describes it as “even more elaborate than I expected.” (pg. 6) However, in contrast to Gatsby’s “factual imitation of some Hôtel de Ville in Normandy,” this is a respectable Georgian Colonial; it is symmetrical, American, elegant, and restrained. (It’s owner, not so much, he shows it off rather aggressively to Nick. But that’s another topic.) Finally, we have Nick’s house, which is out of place amongst these mansions.
My own house was an eyesore, but it was a small eyesore, and it had been overlooked, so I had a view of the water, a partial view of my neighbor’s lawn, and the consoling proximity of millionaires—all for eighty dollars a month.
Who does this sound like? Nick himself. He is not a millionaire like these other characters, but he is inoffensive and goes along with what others do, so he is allowed intimate glimpses into the lawns and lives of these other characters.
Now, let’s leave these eggs behind and head towards the city. You cannot get there without passing through the valley of ashes, an eerie setting, vividly drawn in all of its grimy and hopeless detail. Everything here is described in terms of being colourless, decaying, and dismal. Quite a contrast from the sparkling setting we left behind! Gatsby’s house, with all of its parties and excess, represents the American Dream as people like to think of it. The idea that someone can rise from nothing to become as rich as they want to be, if they only work hard enough. (But actually, Gatsby has acquired his money dishonestly.)
The valley of ashes provides a stark counterpoint to that. It is here that Wilson and Myrtle live. The hopelessness and poverty of the setting (and poor Wilson, who fits right in with it; the description on page 25 shows us a man washed out in colour, “spiritless,” and with only a “damp gleam of hope”), prove a point. Wilson constantly asks Tom about the car he promised to sell him, but Tom puts it off. Wilson is putting forth effort to make money and he works hard, but he is at the mercy of a careless rich man, who is also carrying on an affair with his wife. In other words, the valley of ashes represents the failure of the American Dream. Wilson is an honest man, and therefore, no matter how hard he works, he will never get wealthy. He is forever trapped in the valley of ashes. Dismal indeed.
There’s another important symbol in the valley of ashes, but we’ll get to that soon enough.
The apartment house where Tom and Myrtle carry on their affair is “one slice in a long white cake of apartment-houses.” (pg. 28) This reflects a sort of anonymity that one can have in the city. You’re just another slice in a long cake, and no one cares what you do. The inside, though small, is crammed with pretentiousness, and this reflects what Myrtle becomes in this setting. In the valley of ashes, there was “an immediately perceptible vitality about her as if the nerves of her body were continually smoldering.” (pg. 25) But in the apartment, her personality changes:
The intense vitality that had been so remarkable in the garage was converted into impressive hauteur. Her laughter, her gestures, her assertions became more violently affected moment by moment, and as she expanded the room grew smaller around her, until she seemed to be revolving on a noisy, creaking pivot through the smoky air.
(pg. 30, 31)
Myrtle becomes coarse, tacky, and pretentious—exactly like the apartment itself.
There is actually a little more to discuss when it comes to the symbolism of setting in The Great Gatsby, but those are the main ones I wished to talk about. We can discuss further in the comments. For now, we’ll move on with some of the more famous symbols in the novel…
The Green Light
When it comes to colour symbolism, authors have to work with the immediate cultural associations already there. They can add their own nuances to it, but they have to take audience preconceptions into account. Since The Great Gatsby is a quintessentially American novel set in America, let’s look at some of the associations of the colour green in this cultural context.
For one thing, green is often associated with greed and envy, which are certainly present in this novel. However, when it comes to the green light, I don’t think those associations are particularly relevant. You may disagree, and please make your case if you do. As for me, I’m going to make a case for two other meanings of the colour green, and link those together.
First, Fitzgerald associates green in the novel with hope and promise, with a newness and a freshness and an infinite possibility. This is not a hard association to make, as, from nature, green is literally associated with new life, growth, and therefore, by metaphorical extension, hope and possibility. Turning all the way to the back of the novel, you will find evidence for this:
I became aware of the old island here that flowered once for Dutch sailors’ eyes—a fresh, green breast of the new world. Its vanished trees […] had once pandered in whispers to the last and greatest of all human dreams; for a transitory enchanted moment man must have held his breath in the presence of this continent, compelled to an aesthetic contemplation he neither understood nor desired, face to face for the last time in history with something commensurate to his capacity for wonder.
I’m going to pause us here. From a completely flawed, romanticised, Eurocentric perspective, this was “the last time in history” humans would be faced with “something commensurate to his capacity for wonder.” I have issues with this perspective, but if we’re looking through those eyes, this is the last time a continent would be “discovered” (sorry, can’t say such an icky thing without quotation marks). This is a moment of infinite possibility, but the moment that possibility and hope and wonder and freshness and greenness opened up, it also narrowed. Because it was seen and then colonized, sealing the fate of the continent and closing that possibility. And ending in a lot of unwanted consequences and death. Sound familiar?
As I sat there brooding on the old, unknown world, I thought of Gatsby’s wonder when he first picked out the green light at the end of Daisy’s dock. He had come a long way to this blue lawn, and his dream must have seemed so close that he could hardly fail to grasp it. He did not know then that it was already behind him, somewhere back in that vast obscurity beyond the city, where the dark fields of the republic rolled on under the night.
To Gatsby, the green light spelled hope and possibility and the realisation of his dreams. But by reaching for it, his fate was already sealed. (I don’t believe in fate or inevitability, except in fiction, where I think it is necessary in order for a work to feel satisfying.) The second Gatsby set his sights on Daisy, all the possibilities that seemed to lay before him actually narrowed and closed to him, so that he found himself on a path that would lead only to unwanted consequences and death.
He knew that when he kissed this girl, and forever wed his unutterable visions to her perishable breath, his mind would never romp again like the mind of God.
But Gatsby believed in that green light. He believed in what Daisy seemed to promise:
[…] there was an excitement in her voice that men who had cared for her found difficult to forget: a singing compulsion, a whispered “Listen,” a promise that she had done gay, exciting things just a while since and that there were gay, exciting things hovering in the next hour.
Which brings us to the other thing green can symbolise from an American cultural perspective: money and wealth. Later in the novel, Gatsby identifies what’s really in that voice of Daisy’s.
“Her voice is full of money,” he said suddenly.
That was it. I’d never understood before. It was full of money—that was the inexhaustible charm that rose and fell in it, the jingle of it, the cymbals’ song of it. . . . High in a white palace the king’s daughter, the golden girl. . . .
I would argue that money is inextricably tied up in the symbolism of the green light. Originally, lack of money stands in Gatsby’s way of marrying Daisy. So, he accumulates his wealth with the sole purpose of winning Daisy back. When he has enough money to build his enormous house across the bay, that is what makes his dream seem “so close that he could hardly fail to grasp it.” It is money that makes the promise of the green light possible. It is money that he believes can elevate him high enough to reach “the king’s daughter, the golden girl.”
However, just as the green light is all the way across the bay, so too is the respectability that Daisy gets from being married to Tom. No matter what Gatsby does, he can never provide her that. He cannot narrow the distance between himself and that light, between West Egg and East Egg. Ultimately, no matter how much Gatsby believed in the green light, he was doomed to see it recede before him and elude him.
The Eyes of Doctor T. J. Eckleburg
This is perhaps the most famous symbol in the novel. You have probably heard that the eyes represent the eyes of God, watching over the events that transpire in the novel, not a little disapprovingly. But why do we say that? Because of Wilson’s words on pages 159 and 160:
“I told her she might fool me but she couldn’t fool God. I took her to the window—” with an effort, he got up and walked to the rear window and leaned with his face pressed against it— “and I said ‘God knows what you’ve been doing, everything you’ve been doing. You may fool me, but you can’t fool God!'”
Standing behind him, Michaelis saw with a shock that he was looking at the eyes of Doctor T. J. Eckleburg, which had just emerged, pale and enormous, from the dissolving night.
“God sees everything,” repeated Wilson.
So that’s one definite meaning of this symbol. From this, we see clearly that Tom’s utter carelessness extends even to what God may think of his brazen actions:
“Terrible place, isn’t it,” said Tom, exchanging a frown with Doctor Eckleburg.
However, I have an further meaning I would like to add. I can make a case for this, so hear me out. I don’t think it’s entirely accidental that the advertisement is for an oculist, and is wearing enormous spectacles. Because there is a serious lack of clear vision in this novel, of the kind that the oculist of the advertisement wouldn’t have been able to fix. There are so many examples I can cite, but this post is already extremely long, so let’s stick with four.
One example is when Daisy tells Nick about the “family secret” of the butler’s nose to drown out the real family secret: the ringing telephone. (pg. 13)
Another is Tom on page 130, talking about family values when he is the last person in the world who should have anything to say on the topic. But he can’t see his own hypocrisy. “Flushed with his impassioned gibberish, he saw himself standing alone on the last barrier of civilization.”
Wilson mistakenly kills Gatsby to avenge Myrtle’s death, unable to see how Tom has taken advantage of him and gone behind his back, and not knowing it was Daisy who was driving Gatsby’s car.
Finally, Gatsby’s complete inability to see Daisy for who she really is, and give up hope.
I hope you have enjoyed this analysis of the symbolism in The Great Gatsby. This is one of the most symbolically rich novels I have read, and I have not touched on all of that here. So, let me know: do you disagree with anything I said in this post? Are there other symbols in this novel that you find especially striking? I look forward to hearing your thoughts.
Have a lovely day!