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Symbols in The Great Gatsby
There are many symbols in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby. Symbols are secret messages that are imbedded in the texts of literature. Some symbolisms are more well-known and better understood than others. Some of these include the eyes of Dr. T. J. Eckelberg, the valley of ashes, and the green light on Daisy’s dock. Some of the lesser known symbols include the significance of colors such as in the valley of ashes and the green light on Daisy’s dock. Each character in The Great Gatsby can also be considered a symbol.
In The Great Gatsby, there is a plethora of meaning behind the billboard of Dr. T. J. Eckelberg. “But above the grey land and the spasms of bleak dust which drift endlessly over it, you perceive, after a moment, the eyes of Doctor T. J. Eckelberg,” (Fitzgerald 27). There is the underlying suggestion that he watches over everything that goes on around and in the valley, even as God watches over everything that goes on in the world. The eyes themselves can represent the characters in which they see. Near the end of the novel, Wilson and Michaelis discuss the eyes of Dr. T. J. Eckelberg being like the eyes of God. “The eyes of Doctor T. J. Eckleburg are blue and gigantic - their retinas are one yard high. They look out of no face but, instead, from a pair of enormous yellow spectacles which pass over a nonexistent nose,” (Fitzgerald 27). The gold or yellow rimmed glasses represent the materialistic desire for money, and superficial wealth. The empty face represents the hollowness of people and their materialistic values. “But his eyes, dimmed a little by many paintless days under sun and rain, brood on over the solemn dumping ground,” (Fitzgerald 28). Not only does this billboard symbolize the watching eye of God and the materialistic desire for money, but it also represents, “the ignored conscience of the idealistic people. Although it is there and ‘sees everything’ the characters don't pay attention to it,” ("123helpme.com").
The billboard of Doctor T. J. Eckelberg looks over the valley of ashes. “…a fantastic farm where ashes grow like wheat into ridges and hills and grotesque gardens, where ashes take the forms of houses and chimneys and rising smoke and finally, with a transcendent effort, of men who move dimly and already crumbling through the powdery air. Occasionally a line of grey cars crawls along an invisible track, gives out a ghastly creak and comes to rest, and immediately the ash-grey men swarm up with leaden spades and stir up an impenetrable cloud which screens their obscure operations from your sight.” (Fitzgerald 27). The valley of ashes itself has quite a few meanings. First of all, Fitzgerald’s use of color holds a lot of meaning in throughout the novel. The grey of the valley of ashes represents an area without life, one without the vigorous colors of yellow and green. “This is where Myrtle dies, Gatsby's dream dies, Nick's hope for something good dies, etc…” (mrerick). In a sense, the valley of ashes can reflect the theme that man destroys all that is good. “This setting of the book shows a once lively place that has been covered in soot and ash from modern industry, a visual disgrace created by man.” In other words, man took a place of life and turned it grey, thus created a place of death, and creating the place where all of Fitzgerald’s character’s dreams end.
Throughout The Great Gatsby, we read about the green light on Daisy’s dock. “‘If it wasn’t for the mist we could see your home across the bay,’ said Gatsby. ‘You always have a green light that burns all night at the end of your dock,’” (Fitzgerald 98). This light symbolizes all of Gatsby’s hopes and dreams for the future. Gatsby associates this light with Daisy, and in essence, as long as there is a green light, Gatsby has permission to move forward and attempt to attain his dream- Daisy. “…it was Mr. Gatsby himself… he stretched out his arms toward the dark water in a curious way, and far as I was from him I could have sworn he was trembling. Involuntarily I glanced seaward – and distinguished nothing except a green light” (Fitzgerald 25-6). Hope is not the only meaning this green light has. “Because Gatsby’s quest for Daisy is broadly associated with the American dream, the green light also symbolizes that more generalized ideal,” (F. Scott Fitzgerald). Everything that Gatsby has done since he met Daisy has been with the aim of acquiring her. He believes that if he does so, he will have achieved the American dream.
“Involuntarily I glanced seaward – and distinguished nothing except a green light, minute and far away, that might have been at the end of a dock,” (Fitzgerald 26). By Nick describing the green light as ‘minute and far away,’ the reader is given a glimpse of the future that even as the book starts, any chance of Gatsby actually attaining his dreams is also minute and far away, though they are in his sight. “…and only the dead dream fought on as the afternoon slipped away, trying to touch what was no longer tangible, struggling unhappily, undespairingly, toward that lost voice across the room.” (Fitzgerald 142). Both at this time and when the light goes out towards the end of the novel, the reader receives a foreshadowing of Gatsby’s tragic end. “I thought of Gatsby’s wonder when he first picked out the green light at the end of Daisy’s dock. He had come a long way to this blue lawn and his dream must have seemed so close that he could hardly fail to grasp it. He did not know that it was already behind him, somewhere back in that vast obscurity beyond the city, where the dark fields of the republic rolled on under the night,” (Fitzgerald 189).
Colors, though widely unknown by the readers, play a big part in The Great Gatsby. F. Scott Fitzgerald uses colors to symbolize things such as false purity or hope. Gray, the most widely used color, tends to represent lack of life or spirit. A great example of this is the valley of ashes. “Occasionally a line of grey cars crawls along an invisible track, gives out a ghastly creak and comes to rest, and immediately the ash-grey men swarm up with leaden spades and stir up an impenetrable cloud which screens their obscure operations from your sight,” (Fitzgerald 27). Yellow in this book can mean different things, but the most common is corruptness or deception, as in the glasses of T. J. Eckelberg or Gatsby’s yellow car. Green is another color that has many meaning in this story. In the case of the green light at the end of Daisy and Tom’s dock, it means hope, something to reach out for in Gatsby’s case. It also means wealth and prosperity. These two meanings go hand in hand as wealth is something to hope for and reach out for. Gold also represents wealth, but more so, the show of wealth. Gatsby tried to win Daisy back with his show of wealth and his parties. Red represents blood and death, as in the bloody death of Myrtle. White is the color that has the deepest meaning in this book – false purity or false goodness. Characters who are often seen in white are Daisy and Jordan. Gatsby also wore white as if to show that he was good and pure when he wanted to meet Daisy again for the first time in five years.
Each character in The Great Gatsby symbolizes some object or idea, some holding more meaning than others. Myrtle, Tom’s mistress, represents the idea of vitality because she is full of life and makes spontaneous decisions. Tom epitomizes power, mostly the abuse of the power that has been given to him. Gatsby, himself, suggests the result of a dream deferred. He overestimated what it would be like with Daisy, so much so, that she could never live up to his expectations. Daisy, being a fragile person who can’t make up her own mind, embodies a fragile flower. Overall, Nick characterizes nothing more than an un-innocent bystander. He has his own opinion, yet he doesn’t always express it. Gatsby and Nick are also symbolisms’ of F. Scott Fitzgerald himself. Gatsby, “the flashy celebrity who pursued and glorified wealth in order to impress the woman he loved, side of him,” ("Sparknotes: The great gatsby") and Nick, “the quiet, reflective Midwesterner adrift in the lurid East,” ("Sparknotes: The great gatsby").
Of all the symbols in The Great Gatsby, the most well-known and best- understood are the eyes of Dr. T. J. Eckelberg, the valley of ashes, and the green light on Daisy’s dock. Even though the other symbols such as the representation of colors and meanings of the characters portrayed are barely known, they are still important, some even signifying the author himself.?
Fitzgerald, F. Scott. The Great Gatsby. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1925. 25-28, 98, 142, 189. Print.
F. Scott Fitzgerald, . "The Great Gatsby." Sparknotes. Spark Notes LLC, 2011. Web. 25 Jun 2012. <http://www.sparknotes.com/lit/gatsby/themes.html>.
. "The Great Gatsby." Sparknotes: The great gatsby. SparkNotes LLC, 2011. Web. 30 Jun 2012. <http://www.sparknotes.com/lit/gatsby/canalysis.html>.
. "Symbols and Symbolism in The Great Gatsby." 123helpme.com. N.p., n.d. Web. 20 Jul 2012. <http://www.123helpme.com/view.asp?id=16626>.
mrerick, . "What is the significance of the "valley of ashes" in this book?." eNotes. N.p., n.d. Web. 20 Jul 2012. <http://www.enotes.com/great-gatsby/q-and-a/what-significance-valley-ashes-this-book-2736>.