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The Great Gatsby- Symbolism

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Emily Steck

on 11 June 2013

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Transcript of The Great Gatsby- Symbolism

Syed Abbas & Emily Steck
The Great Gatsby

"Symbolism is the practice or art of using and object or a word to represent and abstract idea. An action, person, place, word, or object can all have symbolic meaning. When an author wants to suggest a certain mood or emotion, he or she can also use symbolism to hint at it rather than just blatantly saying it." (yourdictionary.com)
More Symbols
Most Well Recognized Symbols
The Green Light
Gatsby contains many easily recognized symbols that readers are usually quick to touch upon.
"I glanced seaward- and distinguished nothing except a single green light, minute and far away, that might have been the end of a dock."
-Chapter 1
"'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 now vanished forever. Compared to the great distance that had separated him from Daisy it had seemed very near to her, almost touching her. It had seemed as close as a star to the moon. Now it was again a green light on a dock. His count of enchanted objects diminished by one."
-Chapter 5
The color green in general is (in American culture) a representation of wealth and by extension the old wealth which resides in the East Egg area where the Buchanan's reside. Rather than reaching out for Daisy it can be noted that Gatsby is reaching out for his truest motivation in life, wealth. Due to his origins Gatsby can never be like Tom and Daisy (born into money/"old money") and live the life he so desires. The green light and his unwavering worship of it hint to his motivations.
The green light sets an ominous mood, especially in it's earlier mentions. At that point in the novel neither Nick nor us as readers know why Gatsby is reaching out or what exactly he is reaching out to. The symbol thus adds to the mystery surrounding Gatsby as a character and eventually adds clarification to his relationship with Daisy. The light being green and by extension representing wealth shows Gatsby's real motivations in his relationship with Daisy.
Dr. TJ Eckleburg
and the Valley of Ashes
"This is 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 translucent effort of men who move dimly and already crumbling through the powdery air."
-Chapter 2
"...you perceive after a moment, the eyes of Doctor T.J. Eckleburg. The eyes of Doctor T.J. Eckleburg are blue and gigantic- their retinas one yard high. They look out of no face, but, instead, from a pair of enormous yellow spectacles which pass over a non-existent nose."
-Chapter 2
"But his eyes, dimmed a little by many paint less days under sun and rain, brood on over the solemn dumping ground."
-Chapter 2
"we walked back a hundred yards under Doctor Eckleburg's persistent stare."
-Chapter 2
"Over the ashheaps the giant eyes of Doctor T.J. Eckleburg kept their vigil..."
-Chapter 7
"So we drove on towards death through the cooling twilight."
-Chapter 7
"as though she had choked a little in giving up the tremendous vitality she had stored so long."
-Chapter 7
(death takes place in valley)
The very nature of Dr. TJ Eckleburg represents a loss of American spirit. The billboard is erected to promote business yet it lays unkempt and solitary, traditionalism abandoned. Along with loss of American spirit one can infer a loss of American morality, as if God has abandoned the valley leaving blindness to all morality for most of the main characters.
Valley of Ashes is an in between of West Egg and New York City, both of which are places of mass spending with no real care for the effect of that spending or expansion. The Valley is the representation of the consequences of Industrialization (seeking out of wealth) and the death which it breeds is a comment on the carelessness which that seeking out breeds.
Unlike the lavish West and East Egg, the Valley presents a dark undertone to the text. Everything that occurs there feels morally unsettling because of the dark setting and ever-present eyes. The fact that Myrtle and George live there is no coincidence, the characters are meant to represent the struggle to move up from working class, their surroundings and ultimate demises signify a failure to achieve this.
"small block of yellow bricks"
-Chapter 2
"two girls in yellow"
-Chapter 3
"'It was a yellow car,' he said, 'big yellow car.'"
-Chapter 7
"golden girl"
-Chapter 7
"yellow cocktail music"
- Chapter 3
"gold colored tie"
-Chapter 5
The colors yellow and gold are undoubtedly the most frequently used in the novel. Both are always mentioned surrounding the rich or their lavish possessions, but are also referred to in context to the modest home of Myrtle and George Wilson and the spectacles of Dr. T.J. Eckleburg. In American culture yellow is generally a symbol of hope and gold a direct hint at wealth. Fitzgerald's constant use of the color serves his purpose of disassociating the wealth with goodness and re associating it with corruption and impurity. All of the objects of yellow (or gold) belong to or carry out the actions of the corrupt. The mention of yellow is also pivotal when exploring the beginning of the novel's attention to white. As the work progresses we see more and more mention of yellow- as if the formerly pure is being sullied.
"a small block of yellow brick"
-Chapter 2
One of Fitzgerald's clearest intentions in "The Great Gatsby" involves unveiling the corruption of wealth and a society that so prides itself on it. In taking a historical symbol of wealth and re purposing it to show such corruption he redefines something embedded in American consciousness as a downfall rather than something to aspire towards.
The yellow car best portrays this theme. When Daisy hits Myrtle with the vehicle rather than turn around to face her crime she continues driving . The car is a vehicle for her corruption and the general tendency of the rich (in the novel) to flee from any real morality or responsibility.
Individual Characters
Nick Carraway
Text-to-Text Connections
"When I came back from the East last autumn I felt that I wanted the world to be in uniform and at a sort of moral attention forever; I wanted no more riotous excursions with privileged glimpses into the human heart."
-Chapter 1
Nick presents a parallel to most characters in the novel. Like Daisy and Tom, following Gatsby's death he seems to flee from the mess he's made, disillusioned with the East as a whole. He continuously admires Gatsby's ambition/drive because it is one that he seems to not have. Again, like Daisy and Tom (also from wealth) Nick is very unsettled and ever moving, trying to find some sort of fulfillment. Even Jordan notes that Nick is not immune to the corruption we see in the novel:
""You said a bad driver was only safe until she met another bad driver? Well, I met another bad driver, didn't I? I mean it was careless of me to make such a wrong guess. I thought you were rather an honest, straightforward person. I thought it was your secret pride."
-Chapter 9
Nick ultimately represents the moral struggle between right and wrong as he is exceptionally attracted to the wealth and glamor of New York but repelled by the lack of morals. This is paralleled in his attraction to Jordan but repulsion based on her dishonesty. His most important contribution to the thematic value of the novel (besides narrating the book itself) is the internal conflict he struggles with throughout the novel. Nick somewhat loses this battle and succumbs to the immorality of it all, concealing affairs and helping along illegal action eventually leading him to retreat to the West.
Jay Gatsby (Jimmy Gatz)
"The truth was that Jay Gatsby of West Egg, Long Island, sprang from his Platonic conception of himself. He was a son of God – a phrase which, if it means anything, means just that"- Chapter 6
Gatsby is perhaps the only character in the novel with a distinct purpose assigned to himself (with the slight exception of George Wilson). Unlike the rest of his counterparts he does not have the kind of restless urges to move about. This being said he is also just that, a character, completely fabricated from his own imagination. Everything about Gatsby is a well practiced facade. Despite all of this Nick still admires Gatsby because of his ambition, the one thing that everyone in the novel who craves wealth lacks entirely. Therefore, his character is a symbol for tragic passion towards one lone ambition. His death furthermore is a symbol for the death of that ambition and the belief that in a society as corrupt as our own dreams are not accessible.
Being that Gatsby is the only central character not born into wealth his biggest impact on other characters is presenting and antithesis to the hollowness that those who were born into wealth represent. As far as theme goes Gatsby is the epitome of Fitzgerald's death of moral ambition in a society that no longer stands for equal opportunity. The only two characters that we meet in the novel who have ambition (George Wilson and Jay Gatsby) end up dead sending a clear message that the society that breeds such corruption has consequences. Gatsby is also paired with a sort of ghostly imagery. The first time we see him standing on the dock he is described as there one second and gone the next. Almost all of his characterization is indirect. Thus, Gatsby serves to represent the untouchable quality of his own ambition and furthermore the fact that he isn't really a real person but once again an image of his own concoction.
Tom Buchanan
"sturdy, straw-haired man of thirty with a rather hard mouth and a supercilious manner. Two shining, arrogant eyes had established dominance over his face, and gave him the appearance of always leaning aggressively forward … you could see a great pack of muscle shifting when his shoulder moved under his thin coat. It was a body capable of enormous leverage—a cruel body."
-Chapter 1
Each time that Tom is described it is with a sort of brute arrogance. It is clear that Nick as a narrator doesn't particularly enjoy Tom. Tom not only has multiple extramarital affairs but also lies, is a racist, and hasn't worked a day in his life. He is the epitome of the typical man from "old wealth."
Tom's need to fill his life with woman and control is a representation of the hollowness that Fitzgerald warns about in wealth. Tom is desperate to reclaim the success he once had in his time at Yale (as a football player) to have some sort of distinct purpose, because everything he has ever been is given to him he is unable to cherish what is important in his life. Tom (and his wife's) shifty-ness (moving from the South, to the West, to Paris, to the East, and then back to Europe again) further symbolizes the hollow/restless side effects of old wealth.
Daisy Buchanan
"'Her voice is full of money,' he said suddenly."
-Chapter 7
Everything about Daisy is very feminine- right down to her name. Flowers constantly surround her throughout the novel as well as lavish descriptions of the wealth surrounding her. Her femininity is breed from a family that taught her to act that way. Her docile nature however may be more of a guard than we think based on her understanding that it is best for every girl to be a "beautiful fool." To Gatsby (and in the novel)Daisy is a symbol of wealth. Even her voice is "full of money." When looking into Daisy and Gatsby's relationship it is clear that the real reason he feel in love with her was more so the mansion she lived in and therefore the "old money" she came from rather than the person she is. When Gatsby reaches towards the green light on Daisy's dock he is reaching towards her money more so than he is her.
Daisy (like her husband) is very unfulfilled and corrupt. She simply drives away when she hits Myrtle, she is very distant from her own child, she makes her decisions more so out of convenience than she does genuine emotion, and she succumbs to being Tom's docile little wife in the end. Like her husband, she serves as a warning against the hollowness of wealth and also the hollowness of traditional womanhood. Since Daisy is also a symbol of wealth, her hollowness corresponds with Fitzgerald's aforementioned themes.
Jordan Baker
"Jordan Baker instinctively avoided clever, shrewd men, and now I saw that this was because she felt safer on a plane where any divergence from a code would be thought impossible. She was incurably dishonest. She wasn't able to endure being at a disadvantage and, given this unwillingness, I suppose she had begun dealing in subterfuges when she was very young in order to keep that cool, insolent smile turned to the world and yet satisfy the demands of her hard, jaunty body."
-Chapter 3
Jordan Baker is a distinct contrast to her friend Daisy. Her name itself is gender neutral, she has her own career, and she avoids much attachment to any one gentlemen. However, she is still from old money and depicts the traits of that old money in her cheating in golf and implied promiscuity. Jordan is constantly described as "golden" in skin tone meaning tan which furthermore means not white, not pure. While she is a representation of the modern woman, she is still a dishonest and selfish woman who seems very bored with life. Her restlessness ties into that of all of the other wealth hungry characters in the novel however she is perhaps the only character that does not retreat away from the East following the end of the novel. Her staying East can be interpreted as her being the type of woman able to survive in the modern world, despite her corruption.
Jordan illuminates to the audience Nick's own moral corruption in their final encounter. While she isn't exactly the most moral of people herself she is capable of seeing truth in people in a way that mirrors Nick's narration (being why she is chosen to narrate briefly). Jordan has the most distinct impact on Nick's character, she causes him to be lured deeper into the world of the wealthy. The appeal of her glamor causes him to question his own moral values, the fact that he has a relationship with her at all seems to hint at him betraying his values for her allure. Jordan is a representative of the charm of wealth and moral ambiguity to even the more determined of men.
Myrtle Wilson
"'He had on a dress suit and patent leather shoes, and I couldn't keep my eyes off him, but every time he looked at me I had to pretend to be looking at the advertisement over his head. When we came into the station he was next to me, and his white shirt-front pressed against my arm, and so I told him I'd have to call a policeman, but he knew I lied. I was so excited that when I got into a taxi with him I didn't hardly know I wasn't getting into a subway train. All I kept thinking about, over and over, was 'You can't live forever; you can't live forever.'"
-Chapter 2- Myrtle Meeting Tom for the first time.

As seen, Myrtle is very concerned with wealth and is so entirely enraptured by Tom's wealth that she doesn't seem to care that she's just been practically pushed into a cab with by a forceful strange man. Like Gatsby, Myrtle represents a desire for wealth however she is shown in a very different light. Fitzgerald writes her as a somewhat foolish woman, because her ambition towards wealth is something she is trying to win with her womanly attributes rather than an exceptional amount of work (like Gatsby).
It is no coincidence that both Myrtle and Gatsby (who strove for wealth) end up dead. Fitzgerald uses them both to represent the inability of human beings to truly rise above themselves. The fact that Myrtle is killed by her lover's wife, a woman from true wealth is substantial. Daisy and the car that she kills Myrtle with are direct symbols of wealth in the novel meaning that wealth was Myrtle's true killer.
George Wilson
"'I told her she might fool me but she couldn't fool God. I took her to the window'- with an effort he got up and walked to the rear window and leaned with his face pressed against it- "and I said 'God knows what you've been doing, everything you've been doing. You may fool me but you can't fool God!'"
-Chapter 8
With the exception of Nick in his recollection of the story at hand, George is the only character in the novel to truly question the morality of the situation at hand.Upon discovering his wife's affair he intends to move West with the purpose of repairing his marriage and is more concerned with doing so than he is with knowing whom it was she had the affair with. Wilson (unlike Daisy at Gatsby's death) shows genuine guilt upon discovering his wife's death, repeating "Oh my God" over and over. Wilson doesn't have ulterior motives, he seems comfortable with his nobody status and his lone ambition is his simple business and his wife. Still, he is corrupt by the moral miss doings of the wealthy and ends up committing murder and killing himself.
Wilson stands for the normal man, destroyed by the immorality of others. Unlike Daisy who kills without remorse, Wilson immediately takes his own life after taking that of another. He seems to have a somewhat biblical "eye for an eye" belief about him. He thus takes responsibility for his actions in a manner that no other character does in the novel. His destruction is a symbol for the consequences that the carelessness of the wealthy have on the average person, contributing to Fitzgerald's larger theme in the corruption of the wealthy
West Egg vs. East Egg/
Large Bodies of Water
"I lived in West Egg, the- well, the less fashionable of the two, though this is a most superficial tag to express the bizarre and not a little sinister contrast between them."
-Chapter 1
"'If it wasn't for the mist we could see your home across the bay'"
-Chapter 5
Between Daisy and Gatsby there is almost always a large body of water. During their five years apart (WWI) the Atlantic Ocean serves as a barrier. Even when Daisy and Gatsby are reunited the Bay separates them, symbolizing the both a psychical and emotional barrier between them. Daisy own disposition and upbringing keeps her from truly committing herself to Gatsby and Gatsby's lack of true wealth keeps him from ever being the type of wealthy that Daisy is. Both of these separations are shown in bodies of water and furthermore the separation of the West and East Eggs (old and new money).
The gaps between Daisy and Gatsby hint at the doomed nature of their relationship. The conflict that the separation between them causes exemplifies Gatsby's failure to get to what he has spent his whole life striving to achieve and therefore the death of true ambition in America, a central theme in the novel.
"I pulled the door to against the increasing rain"
-Chapter 5
"The rain cooled about half-past three to a damp mist, through which occasional thin drops swam like dew."
-Chapter 5
"The next day was broiling, almost the last, certainly the warmest, of the summer."
-Chapter 7
"relentless beating heat"
-Chapter 7
"'You always look so cool,' She repeated."
-Chapter 7
The most prevalent examples of weather as symbolism occur in chapters 5 and 7, both of which are major turning points in the novel. In Chapter 5 we see rain used to exemplify Gatsby's nervousness in meeting Daisy for the first time in five years. We see the rain clear as they become reacquainted and assume all is well in their relationship but see the rain return towards the end of the chapter (when the two of them are left alone together) symbolizing that all is not as well as it may seem. In Chapter 7 we come to a boiling point in the tensions of all of our characters and it is shown in the exceptional heat of the day, we can especially see which characters are feeling the tensions in their constant mentions of such heat (Daisy and Tom- Tom for his loss of control and Daisy for her fickle minded-ness.
Weather as a symbol contributes most to the motives and emotions of the characters in the text. The most tangible impact is more so the lack of the impact that the heat of chapter 7 has on Gatsby. While everyone else frequently remarks on the weather, Gatsby never says anything and is even called "cool" by Daisy. This symbolizes the fabricated/rehearsed nature of Gatsby.
"Sometimes when reading, readers are reminded of other things that they have read, other books by the same author, stories from a similar genre, or perhaps on the same topic. These types of connections are text-to-text connections. Readers gain insight during reading by thinking about how the information they are reading connects to other familiar text"
Other Important Symbols
"'Can't repeat the past?' he cried incredulously. "Why of course you can!"
-Chapter 6
"Luckily the clock took this moment to tilt dangerously at the pressure of his head.."
-Chapter 5
Gatsby is obsessed with the past because he believes it is a means to achieve a perfect future, but instead of aiming to that future he looks to far into the past, leading to his ultimate downfall. Clocks and Gatsby's obsession with the past symbolize his obsession to repeat what he once had with Daisy in order to gain her form of wealth.
The fact that Gatsby is often surrounded by clocks symbolizes his motivations to repeat the past and go about things the "right way." Ultimately those motivations reveal that living in the past leaves us as "boats against the current" rather than success stories. Gatsby even dies for his past ambitions. The symbol of clocks and time in the novel reveal Fitzgerald's theme warning against dwelling in the past. However, the novel is indeed written to retell the past which also reveals the author's belief that reflecting on the past is human nature.
The Things They Carried
Theme from 'Gatsby':
Dwelling on the past will only curse your future.- Gatsby's obsession with achieving the past rather than looking to the future ultimately became his downfall as a human being
Theme from 'The Things They Carried':
Storytelling (reflecting on the past) can often preserve our humanity and our experiences as long as we do not dwell on such - The authors stories are a reflection of a darker time in his life but they serve to help him understand human nature more completely and are worth looking into for the sake of preserving human history.
In the section "To Tell A True War Story" O'Brien reflects on the importance of storytelling even if it isn't all entirely true to remind people of the evil at hand and the situations that can arise from such. Unlike Gatsby- O'Brien is able to separate the past and the present and look at the past in the from of story telling rather than something to achieve. This point of view can also relate to Nick as a narrator, for being somewhat biased in his methods. By O'Brien's thoughts in "To Tell A True War Story" one can draw that Nick's story is still worth listening to because regardless the themes are intact and he is reflecting to learn/teach.
In looking at both texts together we see two different views of the past. While O'Brien is somewhat fearful to look back into the horrors of his past but does so to keep intact history (war), Gatsby desires to relive his past in order to gain his truest motivation. O'Brien presents a healthy way of reflection whereas Gatsby's obsession leads to his downfall.
Of Dumpster Diving
Theme from 'Of Dumpster Diving
Theme from 'Gatsby'
Eighner comments upon discovering the wastefulness of human kind in looking through the things which we throw away- Means to illuminate how silly and stupid it is to throw out perfectly good products.
Fitzgerald writes about the hollowness and corruption of the wealthy.- Everyone becomes so self-motivated that they no longer care for morality or truth, only personal gain and blindness.
Eighner remarks, "People throw away good stuff, a lot of perfectly good stuff." This wastefulness and out of sight out of mind mentality is reflected in the Valley of Ashes. The Valley is a direct result of industrialization and mass spending without regard to the environment. Another form of carelessness in human beings.
Both authors comment on humanities downfalls in completely different eras. Although the texts are almost a century apart they both echo the same idea, that human beings are both wasteful and unaware of their blessings. Looking at both texts together reminded me that wastefulness has been a problem for so long and is still fairly unaddressed in our world.
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