The Great Gatsby Symbolism
Table of Contents
The Great Gatsby is rich in symbolism which functions on several levels and in a variety of ways. One of the most important qualities of Fitzgerald’s symbolism is the way it is fully integrated into the plot and structure, so that the symbols seem naturally to grow out of the action rather than existing as mere abstractions. Some symbols are used primarily as devices for characterization, such as Wolfsheim’s cufflinks (“Finest specimens of human molars”), Gatsby’s spectacular library of uncut “absolutely real” books and Tom’s repeated gesture of physically shoving other people around. Other symbols, such as Gatsby’s swollen and monstrous yellow car, have a function in the plot as well as a more abstract significance it is an overblown absurdity created by wealth to fulfill the American dream of personal material success. Later, it is also the fatal car that kills Myrtle Wilson and leads indirectly to Gatsby’s own death.
Symbol of the Faded Timetable
The faded timetable on which the names of Gatsby’s guests appear serves to characterize the whole social class rather than a single person, and the names themselves are symbolic in their connotations. The vulgarity of such names as S.W. Belcher, the Smirks, Miss Hagg and James B. (“Rot-Gut”) Ferret, combined with the briefly noted activities of those named, gives a portrait of the Jazz Age society. The names are written in the margins of an old, disintegrating railroad timetable, an ideal symbol of ephemerality, and it is important that the timetable is in effect from July 5, 1922. July Fourth is, of course, the great American holiday, and so these are the people who appeared the day after the declaration of American independence. They represent what has become of American idealism in a corrupt age.
The East and the West
Nick’s move to West Egg and the subsequent comparison of this location with the fashionable East Egg bring up the favourite Fitzgerald theme of the effects of wealth. West Egg is the home of the nouveaux riches, of Gatsby and those like him who have made huge fortunes but who lack the traditions associated with inherited wealth and are, therefore, vulgar. The East Eggers, represented by the Buchanans, have the inherited traditions and lack the vulgarity, but they have been corrupted by the purposelessness and ease their money has provided. Thus, both kinds of wealth result in similar human deficiencies, though manifested differently. This is why East Egg and West Egg, superficially so dissimilar, are physically identical when seen from a proper perspective; literally, they are alike as eggs.
Valley of Ashes
Gatsby’s dream is destroyed by the “foul dust of the valley of ashes”, which represents the modern world which, like Eliot’s is a waste land, a grotesque hell created by modern industry that sends railroad cars full of ashes, poisoning the American landscape with waste produced in the manufacture of wealth. It is a physical desert that represents the spiritual desolation of modern society. The Valley of Ashes symbolizes the effects of capitalism. In one form or another these ashes pervade the second chapter, recurring as the dust on Wilson’s wrecked Ford, the ashen veil on his hair and clothing, and the heavy white powder on Catherine’s face. The symbolic ashes of spiritual desolation create the “smoky air” at the party in the New York apartment.
Eyes of Dr. T.J. Eckleburg
Overlooking the scene are the gigantic, sightless eyes of Dr. T.J. Eckleburg, which later George Wilson identifies with God. But if these are the eyes of God, it is a God who is no longer present and who was created by the desire of an ambitious oculist to make money. Dim and shabby, the eyes brood over a world that has become a dumping ground. A few paragraphs later, they have their human counterpart in the light blue eyes of George Wilsona shabby, spiritless denizen of the waste land.
Symbolic Drive of Nick and Gatsby
On their trip to New York, Nick and Gatsby drive over a symbolic landscape. First they pass through the desolation of the valley of ashes, representing reality, and the sense of corruption is heightened by a policeman. Then, moving across the bridge, they pass into a world of unreality in which the city appears to be made of sugar lumps because of its white beauty and its lack of real substance. The hearse they pass is premonitory: two death cars speed along the same road in view of the city of illusion. The encounter with the wealthy Negroes in the Limousine is intended to emphasize the infinite possibilities of the city of “wild promise”, the symbol of all America. The ridiculous ostentation of the Negroes is, of course, parallel to Gatsby’s own, and their appearance has already been fore-shadowed by Tom’s racist worries.
Nick receives a hint in the form of Meyer Wolfsheim of how Gatsby really amassed his wealth. This bizarre denizen of the 1920s underworld, with his cuff links made of human teeth and his comical nostalgia for “the night they shot Rosy Rosenthal”, serves to give another insight into the corrupt reality on which the attainment of Gatsby’s dream is based.
Symbol of Time
Throughout the novel time is a recurring theme and it represents Gatsby’s hope of going back to the past. Gatsby was over at Nick’s house with Daisy and he knocked his clock off the fireplace. “I think we all believed for a moment it had smashed to pieces on the floor”. The clock represents Gatsby’s attempt to relive the past by trying to get Daisy back and it fails.
Gatsby appears for the crucial meeting with Daisy in a white suit, a silver shirt and a gold tie, which is implicitly contrasted to Tom’s traditional attire so much admired by Myrtle. Again, silver and gold are the colours of wealth, and Gatsby’s sartorial splendour is a vulgar and nouveau as his car, his house or his lavish entertainments. When he takes Daisy on a guided tour of his mansion, Gatsby’s shirts become a significant symbol. Far more than mere garments to wear on one’s back, they are the “enchanted objects” created by money, significant only inasmuch as they contribute to the winning of the ideal vision.
Symbol of the Green Light
In chapter one Gatsby is shown to reaching out towards a green light which is at the end of Daisy’s dock. Now that he has Daisy herself the green light is no longer an enchanted object, since there is no use for the symbol when one has the real thing: the green light, the visible symbol of his vision, vanishes forever. Green is the colour of promise, of hope and renewal, and ultimately the green light at the end of the first chapter is made parallel to “the green breast of the new world” at the end of the last, fusing Gatsby’s vision with that of the explorers who discovered the promise of a new continent. What ultimately preys on” the vision, the end or goal is that in America and by Gatsby it can only be attained by the acquisition of material possessions, and so the means corrupt the end and the sacred green light becomes nothing more than a bulb burning at the end of Daisy Buchanan’s dock.
When Gatsby describes Daisy’s voice as being “full of money”. he defines the charm she holds for him. In American culture as well as Gatsby’s personal dream, the idea is always found up with wealth. Therefore, to be properly qualified as the goal of Gatsby’s aspirations, it is essential for Daisy to be the “golden girl” of popular romance, the princess who marries the young man of humble antecedents.
It is important that Gatsby’s commitment to Daisy is described in terms of a quest for a grail. The pursuit of his ideal has often been associated with religious imagery: he appears to be in the attitude of a worshipper in Chapter 1 his mind is compared to the mind of God, the sidewalk stairway to the stars is a kind of Jacob’s ladder his vigil over Daisy is ‘sacred’, and towards the end he is compared to a knight in pursuit of the Holy Grail. On one level this imagery suggests the spiritual nature of his quest, but on another, it implies that his faith is misplaced because his goal is nothing more than Daisy Buchanan. By extrapolation from Gatsby to America as a whole, one can say that the spiritual capacities of the nation are misplaced in the pursuit of material wealth and that the result is a national delusion which parallels Gatsby’s own.
The symbolism becomes more explicit in the novel’s final paragraphs in which Gatsby’s green light in compared to “the green breast of the new world”. The word ‘breast’ suggests that for the early explorers the promise of America was like that of a woman, just as Gatsby’s personal dream is incarnate in a woman. Here Gatsby’s dream is universalized by its identification with the wonder of the newly founded republic, and so Gatsby himself is enlarged into a mythic figure whose career and fate represent that of America itself.