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Symbolism in the Great Gatsby

Updated on November 23, 2013

Millgate praises, Fitzgerald, the master stylist, for his “imagery,...use of symbols [and] gift of rhetoric”, and throughout ‘The Great Gatsby’, he uses numerous symbols to illustrate his ideas and themes.

The Green Light

The green light is a significant image which pervades the novel, and can take on various meanings. It is introduced as at the end of chapter 1 Gatsby “stretch[s] out his arms” towards the “single green light”, at the bottom of Daisy’s dock, as if it were a religious icon or a point of idolization of some sort. In addition Jordan also validates this as she explains that “Gatsby bought [his] house so that Daisy would be just across the bay”, this suggests his obsessional devotion to Daisy. In addition the “Green Light” can also be interpreted to symbolise new life and growth, as demonstrated in chapter 9. Daisy’s dock modulates in Nick’s coda, into the “fresh green breast of the new world” which rises out of the ocean before “Dutch sailors”, who were struck by the green, verdant and fertile virgin American continent. The image conveyed in the last chapter also demonstrates the discrepancy between the founding ‘American Dream’ and Gatsby’s dream, and also plays on the idea of the impossibility to recreate the past. Nick Carraway’s technically fluent conveyance of “the old island here that flowered once for Dutch sailors’ eyes...” mirrors the letter of a Dutch Sailor in 1634 who refers to the “beautiful rivers, bubbling fountains etc...”. Therefore the fact that Fitzgerald depicts the “vanished trees that had made way for Gatsby’s house” poignantly combines the purity of Gatsby’s dream which has been rendered impossible by the “foul dust” which has caused its destruction. Further, green represents money (the Dollar bill is called a “green buck), thus it’s appropriate that Gatsby recognizes the woman whom the green light represents has a voice “full of money”. The subtle link the “green light” is presented as having with money also reinforces the failure of Gatsby’s dream due to “the foul dust floating in the wake of his dreams”.

Clocks and Time

Clocks and time are another important symbol in the novel. This is clear as time harasses Gatsby throughout the novel: “the clock ticked on the washstand” while Gatsby spun his gaudy, youthful dreams of the future. Significantly, even then, his memory is punctuated by sounds of time and “tick[ing]” ,and, at Gatsby and Daisy’s first meeting after five years, in Gatsby’s embarrassment he almost “smashe[s] the “defunct mantlepiece clock”. The clock thus becomes a symbol of Gatsby’s desire to reject time .In addition Nick’s following comment that “We all believed for a moment that it had smashed in pieces”, suggests Gatsby’s desire to, but impossibility of stopping time. Deliberately, therefore, when Gatsby is underwhelmed after their meeting in chapter five, his anxiety is expressed, ironically, through the simile of a timepiece: “Gatsby was running down like an over wound clock”, therefore even Gatsby’s romantic, idealistic and pure dreams must succumb to the relentlessness of time.

Imagery of Automobiles

Another recurring image Fitzgerald uses in his criticism of ‘Jazz age society’ is the automobile. To Gatsby his Rolls Royce is a flamboyant display of wealth, and Nick’s depiction of it, in “rich cream”, “swollen in its monstrous length”, and “terraced with a labyrinth of windshields”, makes it sound like a 19th century impressionist painting. It is so extravagant as to be grotesque rather than impressive. Likewise Daisy, in her youth, had a “little white roadster” that gave her freedom and sexual autonomy, while in Daisy’s hands, Gatsby’s car becomes a “death car” as she kills Myrtle Wilson. While Wilson’s garage contains only one “wreck of a Ford”, which covered in dust epitomizes the portrayal of Wilson himself within the setting of the “Valley of ashes”. Furthermore the intensely “violent” car accident at Gatsby’s party in chapter three adumbrates Myrtle’s horrific, gruesome death in chapter 7, thus cars personify Gatsby’s tendency to be excessive and tasteless; Daisy’s wanton callousness and Wilson’s despair and lifelessness.


Fitzgerald also uses various settings to great effect, in line with his critique of American society. Behind New York’s “wild promise of all the mystery and beauty of the world”-as described by Nick, lies debauchery and vulgarity, as “small” rooms are tastelessly furnished with pretentious “versailles” furniture. Also within the setting of New York itself is where Tom strikes Myrtle and “br[eaks] her nose with his open hand”, which surely demonstrates the “carelessness” of the upper classes, but also their inclination to “smash things up” with no care in the world. Moreover the description of “the Valley of Ashes” is purposefully placed to precede chapter 3 and the “desolate”, “bleak” and “grey” description of the Valley is the complete polarisation to the opulence and scintillating wealth of Gatsby’s parties in chapter three. Nick, ironically, observes that in the Valley of Ashes “ashes grow like wheat”, thus contrasting the fertility of a farm with the infertility of the Valley of Ashes, and all that lies therein. In the barren landscape stands out the eyes of “Dr T.J Eckleburg” which suggest that even in the decadent, poverty-stricken area, the true God has been displaced by the false blind gods of advertisement and capitalism.

In short, ‘the Great Gatsby” is rich with symbolism, and together they achieve more than a “mere triumph of language”[Samuels], but of a carefully selected range of symbols and images.

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    • Lynn Savitsky profile image

      Lynn Savitzky 3 years ago from New Jersey

      Great article. It's been a while since I finished this book, this makes me want to read it again.

    • truthfornow profile image

      truthfornow 4 years ago from New Orleans, LA

      I love this book.