Set in the ’20s, The Great Gatsby tells the story through a third-person perspective, of Jay Gatsby, an enigmatic millionaire who throws first-rate parties. This article highlights the symbolism in The Great Gatsby, and the various themes prevalent in that era.
The Great Gatsby is based on the author’s youthful romances with Ginevra King.
If you need an easy setting to place The Great Gatsby in, think Boardwalk Empire meets Desperate Housewives. While Boardwalk Empire is about the Prohibition Era, the similarities end there.
The 1920s were a different era altogether. Alcohol flowed as freely as the Mississippi. If we need to remember that time, our mind immediately slips to Charlie Chaplin. Although his stories had reality with some humor mixed in, the novel ‘The Great Gatsby’ gives you the unadulterated version of the things behind the glitz and glamor of the upper class.
After World War I, everyone hoped to achieve the American Dream. Translation: good food, wine and late-night revelry. While no one ever truly conquered that dream, they hung on to it desperately, lest, reality would fade into a dream too.
Though this story is based in the ‘Jazz Age’, as dubbed by the author, he wanted to highlight the shallowness of people, irrespective of the age or times we lived in. Though some view it as a warning to curb our own selfishness, it’s a story of love at its core, with Jay Gatsby doing everything in his power to win back his former flame Daisy Buchanan. The narrator is Daisy’s cousin, Nick Carraway, who hopes to achieve his American Dream by selling bonds and writing books someday. He meets Daisy’s husband, Tom, who comes from a rich family, yet remains dissatisfied with his marriage, and has an affair with Myrtle Wilson. Jordan Baker is a dishonest golfer, and Tom Wilson, Myrtle’s husband, is oblivious of his wife’s infidelities. Some symbols remain prevalent throughout the novel, and are highlighted below.
It is the color of Gatsby’s car. It is also the color of T.J. Eckleberg’s glasses. It represents the corruptness of the city, as well as Gatsby’s. Probably not a coincidence that one of the major characters is named after a yellow flower.
It represents an illusion or a dream. Gatsby’s garden is blue. He wears a blue suit when he’s first introduced, and his chauffeur’s uniform is also blue. Blue was the color of the ocean that separated his house from Daisy’s. The eyes of T.J. Eckleberg are also blue, perhaps an allusion to the fact that dreams are an illusion, compared to reality.
It symbolizes purity. But in this case, false purity. Jordan and Daisy both wear white. Gatsby wears white while meeting Daisy after 5 years, perhaps retaining the fact that he alone remained pure and trustworthy, considering his untrustworthy dealings.
The Valley of Ashes is a place between East Egg and West Egg. Home to the working class, it is covered entirely in dust. It signifies hopelessness.
It represents the Benjamins that are never enough to satisfy our desires, i.e. money. It also stands for the green light that shines continuously at Daisy’s dock, and Gatsby’s hope that he may one day be accepted by Daisy and taken back. It also represents his wealth, as a means to get back Daisy.
After World War I, everyone seemed to revel in the easy pleasures of life. Gatsby’s car was a Rolls Royce, with the latest gadgets, which Tom calls a ‘circus wagon’. Tom himself drives a Coupe. Daisy herself is very materialistic, as evidenced by the fact when she settles for Tom, when she learns about Gatsby’s ill-gotten wealth. When she ran over Myrtle Wilson by accident, she had no remorse, even when Gatsby was ready to accept the blame on her behalf.
Our narrator has an affair with Jordana, even though he’s engaged to another in his hometown. Tom has an affair with Myrtle because of his disillusioned marriage. Daisy too succumbs to the charms of Gatsby, and starts an affair with him to feel a spark in her loveless life. Myrtle has an affair with Tom in order to escape her mundane life in the Valley of Ashes.
The Valley of Ashes
The Valley of Ashes is placed between East and West Egg. It represents the poverty and helplessness of the people caught between progress and industrialization. It also represents the social divide between the rich and the poor. When Tom meets Wilson, he talks down to him continuously, because he believes he’s below his level. He also physically abuses Myrtle, his mistress, which he would never do to his own wife. Every year, the ashes pile up, distorting the American Dream further.
The Green Light
Gatsby stands near his dock staring at the green light on the other side. The green light signifies the hope that Gatsby has, that he will be reunited with Daisy. Its significance is emphasized, when before the war, a lot of people desired Daisy, but she gave the green light to go ahead only to Gatsby. It also represents the past that Gatsby desires, to get back to when he and Daisy were still together.
The Eyes of T.J. Eckleberg
Another symbol that we see are the eyes of Eckleberg. It is a billboard designed to promote the business of a local optometrist. We first see the symbol when Tom goes to see his mistress in the Valley of Ashes. The eyes signify the commercialism that America is obsessed with, as evidenced by the fact by how Gatsby flaunts his wealth to impress Daisy. The eyes also depict the hollowness in his eyes, as he watches the people abandon their spiritual values to achieve wealth.
The eyes also seem to frown at The American Dream, which is one big lie. Jay Gatsby bootlegs liquor to achieve wealth, and Myrtle commits adultery for their respective goals. The truth is that, even if everyone works hard and takes every opportunity they get, they can’t be as wealthy as the Buchanans. While it has produced wealth for some, the rest have been left to live in the dirt, like the Wilsons in the Valley of Ashes.
These were the motifs and color symbols in The Great Gatsby. Although this novel was set in the ’20s, these themes remain imperative even today. With the advent of technology and relaxed religious values, we have become more self-centered and driven to achieve our desires at any cost. The novel warns us not to repeat the same mistakes the author made, and instead strive for a balance between wealth and our desires.