Cary L. Pannell Eng. 206 Mrs. Sanders 20 May 1997 Symbolism in The Great Gatsby The Great Gatsby, by F. Scott Fitzgerald, is a novel about one man’s disenchantment with the American dream. In the story we get a glimpse into the life of Jay Gatsby, a man who aspired to achieve a position among the American rich to win the heart of his true love, Daisy Fay. Gatsby’s downfall was in the fact that he was unable to determine that concealed boundary between reality and illusion in his life. The Great Gatsby is a tightly structured, symbolically compressed novel whose predominant images and symbols reinforce the idea that Gatsby’s dream exists on borrowed time. Fitzgerald perfectly understood the inadequacy of Gatsby’s romantic view of wealth. At a young age he met and fell in love with Ginevra King, a Chicago girl who enjoyed the wealth and social position to which Fitzgerald was always drawn. After being rejected by Ginevra because of his lower social standing, Fitzgerald came away with a sense of social inadequacy, a deep hurt, and a longing for the girl beyond attainment. This disappointment grew into distrust and envy of the American rich and their lifestyle. These personal feelings are expressed in Gatsby. The rich symbolize the failure of a civilization and the way of life and this flaw becomes apparent in the characters of Tom and Daisy Buchanan. Nick Carraway, the narrator of the story, quickly became disillusioned with the upper social class after having dinner at their home on the fashionable East Egg Island. “Nick is forced unwillingly to observe the violent contrast between their opportunities- what is implied by the gracious surface of their existence- and the seamy underside which is it’s reality” (Way 93). In the Buchanans, and in Nick’s reaction to them, Fitzgerald shows us how completely the American upper class has failed to become an aristocracy. The Buchanans represent cowardice, corruption, and the demise of Gatsby’s dream Gatsby, unlike Fitzgerald himself, never discovers how he has been betrayed by the class he has idealized for so long. For Gatsby, the failure of the rich has disastrous consequences. Gatsby’s desire to achieve his dream leads him to West Egg Island. He purchased a mansion across the bay from Daisy’s home. There is a green light at the end of Daisy’s dock that is visible at night from the windows and lawn of Gatsby’s house. This green light is one of the central symbols of the novel. In chapter one, Nick observes Gatsby in the dark as he looks longingly across the bay with arms stretched outward toward the green light. It becomes apparent, as the story progresses that “the whole being of Gatsby exists only in relation to what the green light symbolizes This first sight, that we have of Gatsby, is a ritualistic tableau that literally contains the meaning of the completed book” (Bewley 41). A broader definition of the green light’s significance is revealed in Chapter 5, as Gatsby and Daisy stand at one of the windows in his mansion. “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.” “Daisy put her arm through his abruptly, but he seemed absorbed in what he had just said. Possibly it had occurred to him that the colossal significance of that light had vanished forever. Compared to the great distance that had separated him from Daisy it has seemed very near to her, almost touching her. It had seemed so close as a star to the moon. Now it was again a green light on a dock. His count of enchanted objects has diminished by one” (Fitzgerald 94). Gatsby had believed in the green light, it made his dream seem attainable. Upon meeting Daisy again, after a five-year separation, Gatsby discovers that sometimes attaining a desired object can bring a sense of loss rather than fulfillment. It is when Gatsby makes this discovery that the green light is no longer the central image of a great dream, but only a green light at the end of a dock. The most obvious symbol in The Great Gatsby is a waste land called the Valley of Ashes, a dumping ground that lies between East and West Egg and New York City. Symbolically “the green breast of the new world” (Fitzgerald 182) becomes this Valley of Ashes. As the illusions of youth give way to the disillusionment of the thirties, so green hopes give way to the dust of disappointment. Certainly Gatsby’s dreams turn to ashes; and it is dramatically appropriate that the custodian of the Valley of Ashes, George Wilson, should be Gatsby’s murderer. That Wilson is the demise of Gatsby’s dream- and that the dream gives way to ashes- is made clear through descriptive detail. Over the desolate area, known as the Valley of Ashes, brood the eyes of Dr. T. J. Eckleburg. “Gatsby is a kind of T. J. Eckleburg; he has created a god like image of himself, but the image is doomed- the dream will turn to dust- and like Eckleburg, Gatsby also has occasion to brood over the ashes of the past, over the solemn dumping ground of worn out hopes” (Lehan 121). The death of Gatsby comes ironically from George Wilson’s total misunderstanding of the world from which the Buchanans and Myrtle come. The eyes of Dr. Eckleburg, brooding over the Valley of Ashes, become what is left of the Son of God Gatsby has imagined himself to be. As the novel closes, the experience of Gatsby and his broken dream become the focus of that historic dream for which he stands. In the final thoughts of the novel, Fitzgerald would like the reader to see a much broader picture of the theme- a vision of America as the continent of lost innocence and lost illusions. He compares Gatsby’s experience to that of the Dutch Sailors who first came to Long Island and had an unspoiled continent before them. As Nick lies on the beach in front of Gatsby’s home, his last night in the East, he contemplates this thought, “I became aware of the old island that flowered once for Dutch sailor’s eyes – a fresh green breast of the new world. It’s vanished trees, the trees that had made way for Gatsby’s house, had once pandered in whispers to the last and greatest of all human dreams; for a transitory enchanted moment man must have held his breath in the presence of this continent, compelled into an aesthetic contemplation he neither understood nor desired, face to face for the last time in history with something commensurate to his capacity for wonder. 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 he could hardly fail to grasp it. He did not know that it was already behind him” (Fitzgerald 182). Gatsby’s greatness was to have retained a sense of wonder as deep as the sailor’s on that first landfall. Gatsby’s tragedy was to have had, not a continent to wonder at, but only a green light at the end of Daisy’s Dock and the triviality of Daisy herself. The evolution of such triviality was Gatsby’s particular tragedy and the tragedy of America. Gatsby fades into the past forever to take his place with the Dutch sailors who had chosen their moment in time so much more happily than he. By the close of the novel, Fitzgerald has completely convinced the reader that Gatsby’s capacity for illusion is touching and heroic, despite the worthlessness of the objects of his dreams. It is through combining faultless artistry with symbolism that Fitzgerald paints a vivid picture of the dream destined to fail because it’s basis was illusion. not reality The Great Gatsby Cary L. Pannell Eng. 206 Rough draft of Final Word Count 1328 Thesis: The Great Gatsby is a tightly structured, symbolically compressed novel in which predominant images and symbols reinforce the idea that Gatsby’s dream exists on borrowed time.
I. American Rich symbolize the failure of a civilization. A. Fitzgerald’s feelings toward wealthy B. Nick’s disappointment with Buchanans C. Rich fail as aristocracy D. Gatsby betrayed by class he idealized II. Green light symbolizes hope. A. Gatsby’s being significant to symbolism of green light. B. Green light ceases to be an enchanted object. III. Most obvious symbol is Valley of Ashes. A. Hope gives way to dust of disappointment. B. Death and destruction of dreams lie among ashes. C. T.J. Eckelberg’s eyes are God-like symbol. IV. America the continent of lost innocence and illusions. A. Gatsby’s experience compared to Dutch sailors. B. Gatsby’s tragedy was triviality of Daisy. Conclusion: Symbolism and artistry paint a vivid picture of a dream destined to fail.
Bewley, Marius. “Scott Fitzgerald and the Collapse of the American Dream.” Modern Critical Views F. Scott Fitzgerald. New York: Chelsea House Publishers. 1985. p. 41. Fitzgerald, F. Scott. The Great Gatsby. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons. 1925 Lehan, Richard D. “The Great Gatsby.” F. Scott Fitzgerald and the Craft of Fiction. Chicago: Southern Illinois University Press. 1966. p. 121. Way, Brian. “The Great Gatsby.” Modern Critical Interpretations F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby. New York: Chelsea House Publishers. 1986. p. 93.