Symbols and Imagery
In The Great Gatsby, Fitzgerald uses the geography of East and West to convey his views of the inhabitants and societies of the American East Coast and Midwest.
The East initially excited Nick - he was dazzled by the incalculable wealth and elegance of old-money aristocrats. Towards the end of the novel, Nick views the East as a nightmare or a distorted “night scene [painted] by El Greco: a hundred houses, at once conventional and grotesque, crouching under a sullen, overhanging sky and a lustreless moon” (176). The darkness Nick sees in the East symbolizes a society where the people are morally bankrupt - careless, selfish, shallow and corrupt.
At the outset, Nick was bored by the West and its self-made nouveau riche, who could be gaudy, vulgar, and violent. By the end of the novel, Nick changes his opinion. The West seems homey and wholesome - like a scene from a Christmas card, with “street lamps and sleigh bells in the frosty dark and the shadows of holly wreaths thrown by lighted windows on the snow” (176). This symbolizes the core of traditional values and ideals that lie beneath the unsophisticated veneer of the Westerners.
Nick describes Gatsby’s ostentatious mansion as a “huge incoherent failure of a house” (179). With its brick glowing golden in the sun, Gatsby’s opulent mansion symbolizes the American Dream and the glittering façade that Gatsby created when he reinvented himself. When Nick comments that the house is a failure, it is Fitzgerald’s way of acknowledging the decline of the American Dream and Gatsby’s failure to attain it; after Gatsby’s façade is torn down by Tom, Daisy abandons him, his dream is shattered, and the entire house of cards tumbles down.
“Dan Cody, a token of forgotten violence” (165), represents the death of James Gatz, and the birth of Jay Gatsby. It was Dan Cody who first involved Gatsby in bootlegging and the other illegal but profitable activities that allowed Gatsby to amass his wealth. In doing so, Cody pushed Gatsby farther and farther away from James Gatz, the man he once was.
When we first meet Owl-eyes, we realize that he represents the outsider who takes a closer look at Gatsby, and recognizes Gatsby’s true nature. Of the “hundreds” (175) of people who frequented Gatsby’s parties, Owl-eyes is the only one who attends the funeral (174); he understands that there is another, deeper layer to Gatsby.
The weather in The Great Gatsby corresponds to the tone of the narrative. At Gatsby’s funeral, the melancholy mood is mirrored in the symbolically dark, gloomy, and rainy weather (174).
Fitzgerald uses colour imagery to convey moral and spiritual values. Green symbolizes hope for the future; white signifies innocence, purity, and honesty; yellow, gold, and brown indicate corruption; gold denotes wealth; and blue represents illusion and romantic bliss.
The “green light at the end of Daisy’s dock” (180) is without doubt the most important and iconic symbol in The Great Gatsby. It represents both the hopes and dreams of American society and Gatsby’s single-minded goal of winning Daisy’s love – his American dream.
“I became aware of the old island here that flowered once for Dutch sailor’s eyes - a fresh, green breast of the new world” (180). Nick reflects that the green island once represented the hope that the new world gave to immigrants and dreamers, as a land of opportunity; it has since become the empty shell of the American dream.
Green and Yellow
Nick recalls “the long green tickets” and “murky yellow cars of the Chicago, Milwaukee & St. Paul railroad” (175) from his long-ago visits to the West while living in the East. The yellow cars represent the corruption Nick saw in the West, and the green tickets symbolize the hope he had for his future in the East. After spending more time in the East, Nick feels differently about where hope and true corruption lie.
At the beginning of the novel, Jordan wears white to signify Nick’s belief in her innocence, purity and honesty. Later, Nick describes Jordan as having golden shoulders to highlight her wealth and imply corruption. When Nick speaks to Jordan for the last time, he notices “her hair the color of an autumn leaf [and] her face the same brown tint as the fingerless glove on her knee” (177). Nick’s association of brown with Jordan is symbolic of his realization that she is corrupt - a cheater and an inveterate liar.
Gatsby’s “blue lawn” (180) symbolizes the illusion that Gatsby created during the five year period in which he did not see Daisy; his view that Daisy was the embodiment of ideal perfection; and also his belief that they would share romantic bliss once he won her love.