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Literary Symbols in The Great Gatsby

Symbolism is a very important literary element.It is defined as “a figure of speech that is used when an author wants to create a certain mood or emotion in a work of literature. It is the use of an object, person, situation or word to represent something else, like an idea, in literature” (Thomas, 2015).Symbolism has been used extensively in articles, poems, plays, and books in both American literature as well as British literature and literature of other countries. As opposed to a sign which has a literal meaning and not a lot of room, if any, for interpretation, symbols can have complex and multiple meanings.Many times, the literal meaning of a symbol is silly and many times it is very complicated, and the symbolic meaning will possibly undo or invalidate the literal meaning.Often, many of the very important symbols in various works of literature can have an indefinite number of meanings and much of time, they are usually left up to the interpretation by the readers (http://web.mst.edu/~gdoty/classes/concepts-practices/symbolism.html).
In The Great Gatsby, the first use of symbolism is the shirts. These were used by Jay Gatsby to display how wealthy he is or how wealthy he would like to be, or at least how he wants to appear to others.He used them to try to impress Daisy Buchanan.She said, “It makes me sad because I’ve never seen such – such beautiful shirts” (Fitzgerald, p. 92).He often had his shirts imported from England, India, and France so he would look richer to Daisy.It shows that he doesn’t know how to spend his money appropriately and that he just buys things (shirts) to impress people instead of buying something practical or something that is necessary for him.He also does it because he thinks that people will think more highly of him; instead, he should be thinking they will like him for himself.
Even the colors chosen for his clothing represent different things.Tom Buchanan would wear more conservative colors and styles of clothes which show his classier and “richer” upbringing and background.In contrast, Gatsby would wear flashier or showier colors and styles of clothing.He thinks those kinds of things are impressive to others, but it really shows his poorer background and upbringing (Clemente, 2015).
The second symbol that is used is the green light at Daisy’s dock. According to Nick about Gatsby, “I didn’t call to him, for he gave a sudden intimation that he was content to be alone – he stretched out his arms towards 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 single green light, minute and far away, that might have been the end of a dock. When I looked once more for Gatsby he had vanished, and I was alone again in the unquiet darkness” (Fitzgerald, p. 21).During this incident, Gatsby is standing on the edge of his own dock, and looking out at and reaching across the water toward the green light at Daisy’s dock.This can also be symbolic of how Gatsby is trying to reach her but she’s far away for him, physically, literally, and emotionally, figuratively.He is longing to reach across to the light, just as he is longing to be with Daisy again one day (http://genius.com/Lit-genius-editors-symbolism-in-the-great-gatsby-annotated/).
The color of the light itself has many symbolic meanings.One is Gatsby being jealous of Tom Buchanan because Tom is with Daisy when Gatsby wants to be with her. Because green is a symbol of envy, it shows how Gatsby feels about Tom:he is green with envy. The green light also symbolizes hopes and dreams, both Gatsby’s personal hopes and dreams, as well as the American Dream. Gatsby dreams of being with Daisy again, and he hopes it will eventually work out for both of them.At one point, though, Gatsby realizes that his dreams of getting back together with Daisy may not come true, but he still continues to try and wish for it to happen: “Gatsby believed in the green light, the orgiastic future that year by year recedes before us. It eluded us then, but that’s no matter – tomorrow we will run faster, stretch out our arms fartherAnd one fine morning – So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past” (Fitzgerald, p. 180).
Gatsby also hopes and dreams of wealth, which is another symbol of green.He wants to believe that he would not be associated with his parents and that by changing his name, he could make a new identity for himself.“His parents were shiftless and unsuccessful farm people – his imagination had never really accepted them as his parents at all. The truth was that Jay Gatsby of West Egg, Long Island, sprang from his Platonic conception of himself. He was a son of God . . . and he must be about His Father’s business, the service of a vast, vulgar, and meretricious beauty. So he invented just the sort of Jay Gatsby that a seventeen year old boy would be likely to invent, and to this conception he was faithful to the end.” (Fitzgerald, p. 98).
Because green is characteristic of wealth, money and dreams, it is also symbolic of the American Dream for many people.Nick describes the fading of the dream for Gatsby and Daisy:“And as the moon rose higher the inessential houses began to melt away until gradually I became aware of the old island here that flowered once for Dutch sailors’ eyes-a fresh, green breast of the new world…. And as I sat there, brooding on the old, unknown world, I thought of Gatsby’s wonder when he first picked out Daisy’s light at the end of his dock. He had come such a long way to this blue lawn, and his dream must have seemed so close he could hardly fail to grasp it. But what he did not know was that it was already behind him, somewhere in the vast obscurity beyond the city, where the dark fields of the republic rolled on under the night” (Fitzgerald , p. 180).Here, Nick talks about living the American Dream, which for Gatsby was wealth and getting Daisy back, and how they could not come together for him at the same time.By this, he probably meant that Gatsby’shopes and reality were behind him instead of ahead of him.He was living in his past which is actually not the American dream.
Since green is a symbol of money, it represents the kind of money that Daisy and Tom Buchanan have instead of the kind of money that Gatsby has.Because they are from East Egg, it represents “old money” for the Buchanans rather than money earned by those such as Gatsby who are from West Egg(Millett, 2015).According to Gatsby, he said about Daisy: “Her voice is full of money.That was it. I’d never understood before. It was full of money-that was the inexhaustible charm that rose and fell in it, the jingle of it, the cymbals’ song of it” (Fitzgerald, p.126).
Nick Caraway also references money and how it affects people:”They’re a rotten crowd.You’re worth the whole damn bunch put together. I’ve always been glad I said that. It was the only compliment I ever gave him, because I disapproved of him from beginning to end. First he nodded politely, and then his face broke into that radiant and understanding smile, as if we’d been in ecstatic cahoots on that fact all the time” (Fitzgerald, p. 156 ).Talking specifically about Daisy and Tom Buchanan, he said:“They were careless people, Tom and Daisy-they smashed up things and creatures and then retreated back into their money or their vast carelessness, or whatever it was that kept them together, and let other people clean up the mess they had made” (Fitzgerald, p. 149).He’s implying that even though they have money and supposedly a better upbringing, it does not necessarily make them better people.
Green also shows up as “long, green tickets” which is what the rich Chicago kids would use as a way of getting into magnificent parties like where Daisy and Tom meet and where Gatsby fell in love with her. They felt that if they had a green ticket, they were better people, but tat was not the truth.
A final important symbol is the eyes of Dr. Ecklesberg.This can be representative of God.Just like the eyes are on the billboard looking down, it’s symbolic of God watching from above. The eyes of T.J. Eckleburg “witness” both the affair Myrtle Wilson is having with Tom Buchanan, and her death when Daisy accidentally runs her over with her car and kills her. This is symbolic because it is like God is watching and judging all the sinners from above.George Wilson, who is not a religious person, even begins to believe that people may think their sins will not be known if they are not seen or witnessed by someone, but that God is always watching everyone (http://genius.com/Lit-genius-editors-symbolism-in-the-great-gatsby-annotated/).Wilson talks abut his wife’s sins being witnessed when she was unfaithful to him with Tom Buchanan.He said: “I spoke to her.I told her that she emight fool me, but she can’t fool God.I took her to the window 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’” (Fitzgerald, p. 159). He was looking at the eyes of Dr. Ecklesburg when he said this.
The eyes also show how people are judgmental and always critical of others.Always looking and judging, “his eyes, dimmed a little by many paintless days under the sun and rain, brood over the solemn dumping ground” (Fitzgerald, p. 24).
Finally, it can be representative of the meaninglessness of the world and how America has lost their spiritual values because of the growing commercialization and materialism of the people in America.People were becoming more concerned with things instead of with one another.This is ironic, especially during a time like the Great Depression, when money is not something that can be easily gained. The symbols used in The Great Gatsby were all very important to the overall flow of the story, explanation of themes, and understandingcharacter development.All of the symbols are associated with money in some aspect: the expensiveness of the shirts, the color of green in the green light, and the eyes watching down all deal with people’s love of money and being materialistic and/or sinful.This shows that people can be more concerned with physical objects than with people or with the important things in life.It also shows that people were not truly understanding of the real meaning of the American Dream.

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Literary Symbols in The Great Gatsby. (2018, Oct 12). Retrieved from https://thepoetrytrust.org/literary-symbols-in-the-great-gatsby-essay

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