Symbolism in “The Great Gatsby”

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Symbolism is an important literary device utilized by authors and playwrights to construct characters and showcase themes in novels and plays. F. Scott Fitzgerald employs symbolism extensively in his novel “The Great Gatsby”, much like Tennessee Williams does in “The Glass Menagerie”. Both texts feature multiple symbols that offer readers a greater comprehension of characters’ qualities and amplify the importance of key themes and concepts. Specifically, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “The Great Gatsby” vividly portrays the cultural and social ambiance of the 1920s, commonly referred to as the ‘roaring’ twenties.

Written during the mid-1920s in America, a time marked by moral decadence and complacency following the Great War, “The Great Gatsby” initially appears to center around love, wealth, and power. However, this superficial interpretation fails to capture the intricacies and hidden depths of the text. Moreover, it explores themes of corruption, idealism, faith, and the illusory nature of dreams. Using various images and symbols, it delves into these concepts. Primarily focused on Jay Gatsby’s relentless pursuit of his long-time love Daisy, the novel addresses the corruption inherent in the great American Dream.

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Buchanan strongly believes in the American dream, which offers the promise of a better life. This dream is based on the idea that possessing material wealth is essential to achieving it, a belief that Gatsby wholeheartedly embraced. In American society, owning a car signifies wealth and social status. Hence, it is appropriate for Gatsby to own one of the most opulent cars ever manufactured. The car itself is yellow, a color Fitzgerald repeatedly uses as a symbol of corruption and excessive wealth. Including this symbolic automobile illustrates the harmful consequences of an ideal solely focused on materialism.

Myrtle Wilson, a woman with low self-esteem who desires attention and riches, is killed by the fatal car. This incident indirectly leads to Gatsby’s downfall. Gatsby’s dream also revolves around his appearance. To win Daisy’s affection, he opts to wear his finest attire. Fitzgerald sporadically incorporates silver and gold symbolism in the text to represent wealth and excess, but the reader understands that appearances can be deceptive.

Gatsby does not personally value his material possessions but sees them as a symbol of the person he has become, someone deserving of Daisy’s attention. He even evaluates his belongings based on how they are responded to by Daisy’s beloved eyes. Similarly, Williams also uses color as a symbolic element in his play “The Glass Menagerie” to convey important ideas. The play is set in the 1940s when America is going through a period of self-discovery, economic recovery after recession, and anxious anticipation of war.

In his narration, Tom Winnfield characterizes America at the time as a place filled with hot swing music, liquor, dance halls, bars, movies, and hidden sexuality that illuminates the world with fleeting and deceptive rainbows. This symbolism of color is also evident in the concept of “Blue Roses” in “The Glass Menagerie”. While this idea is only briefly mentioned, it holds great significance for the main character, Laura Winnfield. Laura is a twenty-four-year-old woman who is insecure, sensitive, and graceful.

Jim O’Connor, Laura’s first ever ‘gentleman caller’ in high school, gives her the nickname “Blue Roses”. Despite Laura rejecting the assertion, stating that “blue is all wrong for roses”, the name accurately represents her character. It encompasses not only her physical crippling defect but also her distinct personality. Moreover, “Blue Roses” symbolize Laura’s fragile physical presence, resembling a tender rose with an otherworldly aura that seems almost unreal.

The play uses the symbolism of both “Blue Roses” and a rainbow image to represent hope for escape and achieving dreams. Interestingly, every scene featuring the image of a rainbow is followed by some unfortunate or distressing events. For instance, the Paradise Dance Hall’s chandeliers create magnificent rainbow patterns, but these references to rainbows are quickly followed by disappointment for Laura upon discovering Jim’s engagement.

The rainbow image in The Glass Menagerie is connected to the narrator Tom Winnfield, who is a dreamer trapped by his family responsibilities. Although the rainbow gives him hope, Tom never truly escapes his pain as the memories of Laura and his mother continue to haunt him. In the play’s conclusion, Tom describes the window filled with pieces of colored glass, resembling a shattered rainbow. Similarly, in The Great Gatsby, the color green symbolizes hope and dreams. The constant burning of the green light at the end of Daisy’s dock represents Gatsby’s longing for her and his desperate attempts to recreate the past. The symbol of the green light expands to the audience, encouraging them to keep hoping and dreaming despite the challenges they face. In contrast, the Valley of Ashes in the novel serves as a grim reminder of the emptiness in the world it portrays.Fitzgerald employs the color grey extensively to portray various elements of the valley, signifying the embrace of dreams. Moreover, the billboard featuring Doctor T. J. Cocklebur’s eyes serves as an incessant reminder of the diminishing purity and spirituality in America.

The abstract reference to the eyes of God is symbolic of the oversight of Daisy’s careless actions, resulting in the death of Myrtle, who was engaged in an affair with Daisy’s husband Tom. Daisy displays a lack of remorse for her actions. Nick concludes that Tom and Daisy are negligent individuals who cause destruction and then withdraw into their wealth or thoughtlessness, leaving others to rectify the mess they created. Despite Daisy’s apparent lack of remorse, other characters, like Wilson (Myrtle’s husband), comprehend that ultimately God sees everything.

While looking at Doctor T. J. Cocklebur’s eyes from his garage, Wilson weeps and says, “I took her [Myrtle] to the window and told her, ‘God knows everything you’ve been doing. You may deceive me, but you can’t deceive God!'” If Fitzgerald uses the grey Valley of Ashes to represent the decline of dreams, then we can compare this symbolism to the glass unicorn used in Williams’ play The Glass Menagerie. The unicorn plays a crucial role in symbolizing Laura and Jim’s relationship.

Laura dedicates a significant portion of her time to her glass collection which consists of various animals. Among these, the unicorn holds a special place as Laura’s favorite creature. This preference establishes a strong connection between Laura, who is an exceptional character, and the unicorn, a remarkable animal. During her high school years, Laura felt like a unicorn in a group dominated by horses due to her shyness and reliance on a leg brace. The fact that Jim accidentally breaks the horn of the glass unicorn shortly before disclosing his marital status to Laura holds great symbolism. This revelation destroys Laura’s aspirations as she discovers that Jim is already engaged.

Jim accidentally shatters the unicorn’s horn, which inadvertently brings Laura out of her protected imaginary glass world into reality. The unicorn, once unique with its horn, becomes just like the other animals in the glass menagerie. Similarly, when Laura gains confidence through Jim, she realizes her resemblance to others. The glass menagerie itself symbolizes the desires of the Wingfield family. Tom aims to escape, Laura wants to win the love of her crush, and Mrs. Wingfield has her own aspirations.

Winnfield, their objective is to relive the past. Ultimately, the menagerie represents the family’s broken aspirations and disappointments. The Windshield family perceives their mundane existence as immorality trapped within glass, and they are confined by the monotonous routine of their lives during “that quaint period, the thirties, when the vast American middle-class was receiving an education in blindness.” Collectively, all the characters strive to evade the harsh reality, but in every instance they fail and consequently shatter their dreams like glass.

Both Fitzgerald and Williams utilized the historical backdrop of their individual works, The Great Gatsby and The Glass Menagerie, in order to convey a cautionary message about the perils of unwavering faith in dreams and illusions, as well as to emphasize the decay of morals. Furthermore, both authors encourage readers to assess how characters’ social standing affects their choices and behaviors. Additionally, both The Glass Menagerie and The Great Gatsby underscore the futility of material possessions.

The character of Jay Gatsby illustrates that even the wealthiest individual in the world cannot attain everything. Despite his riches attracting Daisy, he was unable to truly possess her heart. He demanded Daisy to affirm that she had never loved Tom Buchanan. “Oh, you want too much!” she exclaimed to Gatsby, “I love you now, isn’t that enough? I cannot change the past. I did love him once, but I loved you too.” As demonstrated in this essay, symbolism is employed in both texts to elaborate on the authors’ main ideas and elicit a specific response from the reader.

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Symbolism in “The Great Gatsby”. (2018, Feb 03). Retrieved from

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