Symbolism in The Great Gatsby
In his most fully realized artistic achievement, Fitzgerald creates a rich pattern of evocative language and some equally provocative symbols to carry the weight and meaning of his ideas. In this presentation I will be showing how three of these symbols are used to represent what Fitzgerald views as the most pressing problem of his society; the dangerous reality of pursuing dreams obsessively. I will be looking primarily at the valley of ashes, T K Eckleburg and the green light as symbols which reinforce Fitzgerald’s warning about the obsession with materialistic concerns.
The first of these symbols is the valley of ashes. The novel’s geographical symbol carries a huge importance throughout the novel. Fitzgerald in this novel brings out this idea about a land that lies between the west egg and New York known as the valley of ashes, a place where ashes grow like wheat. This piece of land is considered so disgusting that no one wants to come close to it. Even the trains try to pass away from this gray land quickly keeping as much of a distance as possible.
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Nick describes this as a wasteland, a physical desert which symbolizes spiritual desolation and moral degradation created by money hungry people. The people living in the valley move dimly and are already crumbling. Fitzgerald clearly tells us that these men have no significance; they are spiritually lost and are already dead and in some ways made up of the ashes that grow in this valley. These people try desperately to get out of this valley, the two best example of this desperation are Mr. Wilson, who seems so blinded by the idea of buying tom’s car to make some that he seems ready to ignores his wife’s affair and the second person is myrtle herself who is desperate to get out of the valley that she is ready to even take blows from tom just to escape her reality by entering the world of luxury products and pursuing the idea of her belonging to the leisure class. These people worship money and wealth. The valley of ashes also symbolizes the moral decay of our society behind the facade of wealth and money.
Gatsby himself seems to be one of those men who have dumped all their morals in this land. On the outside he seems a very sensitive being who is extremely hard working and most importantly a romantic idealist. But the truth is that he is a fraud, a man you can go to any cost to get what he wants. His identity shifts like sand in order to be what he wants. This tells us that he has no morals whatsoever, he is bootlegger and he is after a woman who is married and also has a child. At the same time he is very similar to the people living in the valley of ashes.
During one of Gatsby’s party tom says “Mr. nobody [Gatsby] from nowhere”. So like the people of the valley, Gatsby is also insignificant and he also has no importance. Myrtle, tom’s mistress seems to say only one refrain “I want”. She goes on announcing cheap and tawdry items throughout the scene where she and tom go to their love nest. Myrtle seems completely tasteless and pretentious, she seems to aspire to be part of the leisure class and she sought to achieve this by her material possession.
In this aspect Gatsby is similar to myrtle, he buys everything with his wealth just to impress daisy. We are also provided evidence in the novel which suggests that Gatsby’s taste isn’t exactly great. When Tom comments on Gatsby’s car he says that its looks like a circus wagon. What saves him from being another Myrtle Wilson, however, is his dream. Gatsby’s purpose is not merely to amass a fortune with which to purchase things, but to amass a fortune with which to purchase things that will prove him worthy of attaining Daisy. The next symbol is the billboard of Doctor T. J. Eckleburg. Nick describes the disembodied eyes without telling us that it is an advertisement for the first few lines. Nick description of the billboard is very detailed and precise, which tells us that the symbol is very important. In The Great Gatsby’s materialistic world this abandoned advertisement is a representation of the remnant of the American dream, a dream that started out as dream of self. Literally it is the billboard of an oculist who wanted to expand his business in the valley but failed; possibly as a result of his greed for the American Dream.
In this case it is a man who already had a business, likely to be thriving enough to afford purchasing a billboard but in the end finds failure, possibly as a result of avarice. The current condition of the billboard signifies this reality; its shows us the corruption caused by money, it mocks the very notion of the American dream and shows us hollowness of this dream. The grey color of the valley of ashes is symbolic of this corruption. Fitzgerald says that “his eyes dimmed a little by many paintless days, under sun and rain, brood on over the solemn dumping ground. Another interesting aspect of the billboard is the allusion that is made to God. Eckleburg is described as keeping a “watchful vigil” by Nick just before Tom and Gatsby’s final showdown and then again, George takes Myrtle to the window (from which, we know, the billboard is visible) and tells her she can’t fool God. Wilson makes a connection between god and Eckleburg because he feels that the eyes of Eckleburg are always watching just like the eyes of god. Nick describes Eckleburg’s eyes as blue and gigantic and these eyes look out through a pair of gigantic yellow spectacles.
The whole size aspect of this billboard adds to this god like symbolism as Eckleburg’s gigantic blue eyes give us a feel that he is everywhere just like god. The presence of the billboard in the valley of ashes is also symbolic of the lack of importance of god in people’s life through the jazz age. We can also understand this as a loss of morals. We can understand that people have absolutely no regard for god and he has been dumped in the valley of ashes just like their morals. The other thing that reader interprets from this symbol is that god has been replaced by capitalism and the worship of money.
Instead of a truly religious representation, the best this world can do is manifest God in a billboard – an advertisement. Finally colors are used powerfully as symbols to present some of the themes of the story. Most important among these are blue, yellow and green. The first reference to the blue color appears in chapter 2 when Eckleburg’s eyes are described to be blue and gigantic. The real meaning of this color does not become clear until the third chapter, which begins: “There was music from my neighbor’s house through the summer nights.
In his blue gardens men and women came and went like moths among the whisperings and the champagne and the stars. ” There are many other references to this color; the color blue is present around Gatsby more than any other character. His gardens are blue, his chauffeur wears blue, and the water separating him from Daisy is his “blue lawn”, mingled with the “blue smoke of brittle leaves” in his yard. His transformation into Jay Gatsby is sparked by Cody, who buys him, among other things, a “blue coat”—and he sends a woman who comes to his house a “gas blue” dress.
The blue color thus represents the illusion/the dream which Gatsby has mistaken for reality. The other important color yellow also appears in the novel countless times. The color yellow represents the ugliness of reality. For example the five crates of oranges and lemon that arrive every Friday leave from the back door as a pyramid of pulp less halves. The blue gardens of Gatsby almost promise us perfection, the perfection of a party. But the pulps less halves that leave Gatsby party present us with “the ravages of the night before”.
The blue of the dream are inevitably sullied by the yellow. So T. J. Eckleburg’s blue eyes are surrounded by yellow spectacles; so the music in the blue gardens is “yellow cocktail music” and across the “blue lawn” separating him and Daisy is Daisy’s yellow haired daughter. So with the blue comes the yellow; with every dream/promise comes the reality of those things. As of doctor T. J. Eckleburg/god, he sees the dream but with the help of the enormous yellow spectacles he sees the reality that comes with it unlike the some of the characters in the novel.
Then there is, finally, the green light at the end of Daisy’s dock, that symbol which Fitzgerald explicitly identifies with “the orgiastic future that year by year recedes before us. ” green, as the mixture of yellow and blue, is once again the tragic commingling of dream and reality. In the first chapter Gatsby almost stretches out to get to the future, where he sees his dream become a reality. Gatsby, seeking the blue, is blind to the sordid yellow. For him the money does not matter does not exist; it is finally only the blue that enchants him.
But it is in the pursuit of an adulterated grail, he is destroyed. The color green has traditionally been used as a symbol for hope. In Gatsby’s case he is hoping to make his dream a reality. Gatsby’s dream is to win back his past love, but what stands in his way is the reality and this is exactly what Gatsby ignores. Hence the choice of a green light is perfect and completely pure. Gatsby did come very close to capturing his dream or so he thought. What he thought could be the future was actually the past, already behind him and it was something which could not be recreated.
Fitzgerald’s warning about the dangers of the American dream inscribed in the character of Jay Gatsby and made even clearer through his expert use of symbolism. His symbols are loaded with a resonance that echoes on till this day for we live in an age of pursuing material dreams at the expense of all other things, including our humanity. The ghosts of jazz age speak to us eloquently through these symbols and we would be wise to heed their advice against obsession, no matter how strong the justification may be and even if the justification is love.