Symbolism is a very important device in Fitzgerald’s 1926 masterpiece, The Great Gatsby. Different objects, words or actions symbolize different character traits for each person depicted in his novel. Through symbolism, Fitzgerald manages to describe three completely different aspects of the human life. He conveys the glittery, magnificent life of the rich, the gray, ugly and desperate life of the poor, and the mundane struggles of those in between.
Through the eyes of Nick Carraway, which in this case substitutes the narrator as well, the author depicts the majestic life of those who, by pure coincidence or happenstance, were born more advantageously than the rest of society. Their life is full of riches and placed in a fairy tale decorous. However, despite all that, their life is not a fairy tale in the least. On the contrary, it is far from that.
From the first chapter, we are introduced to the Buchanans, who apparently have it all. Contrary to appearances though, they are miserable. The first sign of unhappiness is Tom’s need for another woman other than his wife. This is made known by the very indiscrete Jordan Baker, who mentions this fact to Nick Carraway: “Tom’s got some woman in New York….She might have the decency not to telephone him at dinner time. Don’t you think?”(Fitzgerald 20) This remark is made in response to Daisy’s abrupt reaction, when hearing the telephone. Later on in the novel, the telephone is again used as a means of insinuating Tom’s affair, when Jordan is once again, more than eager to tell everybody what the Buchanan’s situation is: “The rumor is that that’s Tom’s girl on the telephone.” (Fitzgerald 110) In this particular case the telephone symbolizes Tom’s affair and his marriage, which is threatened whenever the phone rings.
Further more, we observe how careless and ignorant the rich are, in this case Tom, in regard to those less fortunate. For him, a car is taken for granted; it is a mere disposable object that he uses to tease George Wilson, a member of the poor. When Wilson, doubtful of Mr. Buchanan’s interest in selling him the car, points out that he’s been waiting for it for a long time, Tom tells him, with no consideration to his needs, that, “I have my man working on it right now (Fitzgerald 28). Tom decides to tease him, saying that, “…if you feel that way about it, maybe I’d better sell it somewhere else after all.” (Fitzgerald 28) Tom Buchanan plays with Wilson’s needs once more, when the latter, trying to get him to sell the car, apparently disturbs Mr. Buchanan’s dinner. Tom replies: “Very well, then, I won’t sell you the car at all…”(Fitzgerald 111). Wilson however, is persistent, as his need for the car, which in this case is the equivalent of money, grows constantly. Tom taunts him yet again, showing him Gatsby’s car, and implying that it was his: “How do you like this one? I bought it last week…Like to buy it?”(Fitzgerald 117) This time, the car is symbol of the power of the rich over the unfortunate poor, “ash-gray men” on the lowest step of the social ladder. It is like a bone teasing a dog, like a dangling medication in front of a dieing, hungry man.
Tom is not the only one portrayed as a tease in the novel though. His wife, Daisy, is also in the same category of people. She plays the innocent victim when confronted with her husband’s affair, yet she is not so far from him as she claims. Similar to the car being Tom’s weapon, Daisy uses her voice. The way Daisy does this is described in the following excerpt, narrated by her own cousin, Nick Carraway: ” I’ve heard it said that Daisy’s murmur was only to make people lean toward her…”(Fitzgerald 14). Her voice and laughter are contagious, yet not as beneficial to others, as they are to her: “…Then she laughed, an absurd, charming little laugh, and I laughed too and came forward into the room…”(Fitzgerald 14). Her voice, although charming, is destructive and painful to the men that she teases. It implies money, fortune and superiority. However, Gatsby describes it best in one sentence, on the last day that he would see her, saying that, “Her voice is full of money…”(Fitzgerald 115). In this case, Daisy’s voice represents a trap for the ordinary men that do not have as much money in their pockets as she does in her voice. They fall for her apparent naivety suggested through the jingly sound of her tone, but then they are trapped in the works of her money and status.
The Buchanans are not the only ones to which Fitzgerald makes a reference as to their character and social status, although they are portrayed as the most indifferent people: “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 ) Jordan Baker is also, in herself, a symbol of ignorance and indolence. This is made known to the reader from the very first chapter of the novel. Through Nick’s eyes, Jordan is described as, “extended full length at her end of the divan, completely motionless…”(Fitzgerald 14). Maybe that would not have been that uncommon if, as Nick came into the room, she remained as described, with not intention of either standing up or greeting him. She is described as lackadaisical and indolent, not caring for anything or anybody else but herself. To Nick’s remark as to her terrible driving, she insensitively responds by saying: “Well, other people are….They’ll keep our of my way….It takes two to make an accident.” (Fitzgerald 59) This is suggestive of how she takes everything for granted and, just like on the coach, she just floats through life, eyes closed, always expectant of other people to fulfill her needs. Jordan alone, as a person, is a symbol. One person represents the whole Upper Class society. The way Jordan sees life is the way everybody of her status regards it.
The two Eggs represent one of the most constant symbols throughout the novel. The comparison between the two and the different classes of society living in each of them is constantly emphasized. East Egg is a symbol for the rich people of society. It represent the unattainable, the place for which most people strive; it is the point that they want to reach, the monumental struggle that they have to overcome. East Egg is described as a Paradise on Earth, while lying “across the courtesy bay…glittering along the water…”(Fitzgerald 11). Tom’s reaction to the mere mention of West Eggers and their way of life describes his stand towards the matter. The way he refers to West Egg implies disgust and suggests that he would never stoop that low. Not only is this comment offensive to Nick, who is in fact a West Egger, but it also suggests the whole atmosphere and mood in the West, compared to the glitter and magic of the East. “Oh, I’ll stay in the East, don’t you worry…I’d be a God damned fool to live anywhere else…” (Fitzgerald 15), he reassures Nick after first insulting his skill as a bond man. East Egg on its own is a symbol of the better half of society and the glamorous life associated with living there. It implies money and the respect that comes from owning it. The glitter of it symbolizes the dreamy, fairy-tale life of those born rich. On the other hand, West Egg symbolizes the struggles associated with the simple, yet harsh lives that the unsuccessful people, live.
In between those who are born rich and those who constantly and honestly work for their food and survival, there is Gatsby’s world. His life is an endless game of charades. He lies between the ugly truth of gold and the even worse, crimson gray poor. He was once part of the “gray men,” but now he has climbed higher up the social ladder, trying to be closer to the top, yet never reaching it. However, the more he tries and struggles, the deeper the whole that will eventually engulf him gets.
In the beginning and throughout the novel, we are given hints about Gatsby’s occupation and where his money comes from. This is done with the indispensable help of the telephone. The abruptness with which “suddenly he looked at his watch, jumped up, and hurried from the room…” (Fitzgerald 70) implies that his business is very important. Further more, we observe that his job is not only essential, but also probably illegal, since he rarely, if not never, talks about it, and when asked he coldly replies, “that’s my affair…”(Fitzgerald 87). Meyer Wolfshiem’s evasive response to Gatsby’s sudden departure suggests that he is aware of Gatsby’s affair and he is probably helping him. He simply says, “He has to telephone,” (Fitzgerald 70) with no other clue to the person, place or reason Gatsby “had” to telephone. Although Daisy becomes more important to Gatsby than his job, he is not able to completely ignore the telephone that comes while she is admiring his house. He tries to brush it off saying “I can’t talk now…” but when informed of a problem, he can’t help but to resolve it: “I said a small town…He must know what a small town is…Well he’s no use to us if Detroit is his idea of a small town…”(Fitzgerald 91). It is obvious from the one sided conversation heard that there was a problem and that Gatsby, acting as the leader, was frustrated. However, Daisy was more important and for that reason, “he rang off.” As seen before, the telephone is a very important symbol in the novel. However, it symbolizes two different things in two different circumstances. For the Buchanans, it is a sign that their marriage is collapsing, while for Gatsby, it represents hope for money and power that will eventually lead Daisy into his arms again.
Another thing that is of undoubted importance in describing Gatsby’s character is the green light. From the very first chapter, we are introduced to a crumb of Gatsby’s great secret desire. The first time he is described, he is portrayed as stretching “out his arms toward the dark water in a curious way…he was trembling.” (Fitzgerald 25) At first sight, the object of his admiration seemed, to an ordinary man, merely a “single green light, minute and far away, that might have been the end of o dock.” But for Gatsby, the light was his only dream, only hope, only real thing in a life full of illusions. When he encounters Daisy again, he explains the significance of her dock’s green light: “If it wasn’t for the mist, we could see the your home across the bay….You always have a green light that burns all night at the end of your dock.”(Fitzgerald 90) The house was not for him, the green light was not just that. It was all for her, to be close to her, to know that he could reach out his arms and almost grab her. In the end, the narrator, portrayed as Nick Carraway uncovers the mystery of the green light for those who did not understand it solely by reading Gatsby’s words. For Gatsby, that green light symbolized the unattainable, the dream, the fairy tale, and the one thing that was so close, and yet so far. But with Daisy being so near to him once more, holding her hand in his like old times and feeling his heart pulsating, “his count of enchanted objects had diminished by one.” (Fitzgerald 90) The green light is simple, small, yet filled with meaning, hope and dreams. It represents the light of Gatsby’s life, the goal that he is striving for, his one and only dream, for which he worked all his life, to which he dedicated every second of the hour. The green light is symbol for desire and at the same time, it is hope that the dream will come true.
There are other numerous symbols throughout the novel. Unlike the green light, which symbolized the unattainable dream, they represent the steps and things Gatsby had to acquire in order for the dream to come true. All his valuable possessions are in fact ways to impress Daisy and to prove to her that he has changed and that he can offer her so much more now than he could when he was a mere soldier in the army. The house, the shirts, the library books are all proof that he is a changed man. But Daisy can see right through them. She knows that he wasn’t born rich and she knows that those are only things gathered along the years. Gatsby however is so deep in the thought that he finally got Daisy back, that he fails to realize that even though she is impressed, she could never accept him, as “rich girls don’t marry poor boys”(Fitzgerald ).
He is amazed with his accomplishment over the years and does not know what to do next to surprise Daisy: “My house looks well, doesn’t it…See how the whole front of it catches the light…It took me years to earn the money that bought it.” (Fitzgerald 87) Gatsby wants to show her so many things, that he does not know where to start and he becomes ridiculous. He starts showing her his shirts. This would seem quite pathetic to an ordinary man, but the shirts have more meaning than one would think. Each one is different, “sheer linen and thick silk and fine flannel…shirts with stripes and scrolls and plaids in coral and apple green…” (Fitzgerald 89) and each one represents all the different things that Gatsby is prepared to offer Daisy in order for her to come back. Daisy starts crying and to Gatsby it might seem like she is convinced of his upper-class status, but not to the realist readers. Daisy was not crying because of the sight of all the beautiful shirts. She was crying, for she knew that even though he had tried so hard, she could never take him back. To her, those weren’t real shirts and that wasn’t the real Gatsby. They were all bought, found or gathered from somewhere or another, including him. His character had no value, just like the shirts, even though expensive, had no real value. They were all just for show. The shirts didn’t have character, as the one who wore them had no character. They were all a bunch of authentic lies.
In many different ways, Gatsby tries to be someone else, someone that he can’t even recognize. The house is part of his whole unrealistic, self-created image, as even Daisy points out by saying that, “I don’t see how you live there all alone.” (Fitzgerald 87) Gatsby might seem rich and aristocratic on the outside, but he is as empty of value and character inside, as the books he keeps in his library, books he never opened, books that are just for show, “absolutely real – have pages and everything…what realism…knew when to stop too – didn’t cut the pages. But what do you expect?” (Fitzgerald 47) Yes, the question is “What do you expect?” indeed. How can one expect a person that has no past and no real history to have a character? Where would it have developed? When and how? A person that comes from nothing has nothing as his character. All his riches and luxuries are not what they seem. They are not a sign that he is better off now. On the contrary, they symbolize shallowness that Gatsby is falling pray to. They represent the things that are pulling him down in his struggle to reach “up.”
From the extreme of glitter and gold, to the one of grayness, ashes and dirt, with Gatsby in between, the story marches on. The novel describes the society at the top of the social scale, through the middle, into the struggling classes, to beyond the scale, off the face of the earth, engulfed in the power of the rich, “ash gray men.” Myrtle and Wilson are symbols of the men and women of that particular class of society. They live far from the “Vie en Rose,” where everything is bright, sunny and happy, into the forgotten “Valley of Ashes.” A “desolate area of land” represents their whole life, with its customs, daily chores and mundane activities”(Fitzgerald 26). Everything from men, cars, and buildings to life, is portrayed as gray. Usually gray is a neutral colour between white and black, but in this case gray represents depression, misery and desperation that grows “like wheat” with ever day that passes, with every hour on the watch, with every blink of a gray tired eye. In this case the “Valley of Ashes” represents the hungry starving, the needy lusting and the dead dieing. It is the worse it could get, the lowest a person can go, the unhappiest and most ungraceful side of life. Furthermore, the ones who have it all, the ones who don’t even know the other side exists – the rich, constantly oppress these poor ashes of a human being.
One again, as it was present in the first category of people described, the car is also a symbol of the poor. While for Tom Buchanan, it wasn’t anything but another object to taunt the less fortunate with, the car represents a whole lifetime of work and struggles for George Wilson. He understands that the rich use the poor to their advantage, but he is naïve enough to believe that Tom Buchanan is different and is going to sell him the car promised at some point in time. After a long period of waiting, he finally raises the courage to ask Tom, “When are you going to sell me that car?” (Fitzgerald 28) Tom does not realize that Wilson’s entire life depends on that car. For Tom, it is merely a mode of transportation, while Wilson’s survival depends on having that car: “Repairs. GEORGE WILSON. Cars Bought and Sold”(Fitzgerald 27). For Tom, the car is just an object of which he can dispense easily. For Wilson, it is the equivalent of money, survival and life. We observe this when, tired of waiting and in desperate need of money, Wilson confronts Tom by saying that he needs “money pretty bad and I was wondering what you were going to do with your old car…”(Fitzgerald 117). Even if Tom Buchanan did realize in the end how important that piece of metal was to Wilson, it would be too late, as Wilson chooses life in death rather than life in the harsh gray reality of the “Valley of Ashes.” But what is one less unfortunate soul on the face of the earth to the ones who can’t even conceive people living other than like themselves?
Myrtle Wilson thought she was better off going to New York with her lover, cheating on her “stupid” husband, who didn’t even know he was alive and treating herself to apartments at expensive hotels, wearing dresses she would never afford on her own and buying dogs that would be of no use in the “Valley of Ashes.” Myrtle is a totally different person when she leaves the “desolate area of land.” As soon as she reaches New York, she becomes one of the “inn crowd.” She loves being treated well so much that she even starts to believe all the lies she has to tell to conceive her real background. When faced with the compliment of “I like your dress…I think it’s adorable,” (Fitzgerald 33) she is totally hypocritical and acts like she was born into that certain society, grew up surrounded by money and fortune: “Its just a crazy old thing…I slip it on sometimes when I don’t care what I look like”(Fitzgerald 33). Otherwise, Myrtle’s words could be interpreted as whenever she puts on the dress she is a different person, with different values and different conceptions of life, yet same background and same miserable life to go back to once she leaves the hotel room. The dress is a symbol of how money and the feeling of being spoiled metamorphoses even the most ordinary person into a “dame de societe.” However, no matter how many elegant dresses, luxurious hotel rooms or little puppies money can buy, happiness cannot and will not be bought at any price.
Money does make a difference in life, but that feeling cannot last forever. The more money one has, the more they want until a person becomes enslaved to money, becomes controlled by it, ruled and commanded. The dog collar found my Wilson in Myrtle’s drawer has a multitude of meanings. On a literally level, it represents Myrtle’s affair, her hunger for money, and Wilson’s unfortunate demise in the end. If looked at metaphorically, the collar represents the power of the rich over the miserable unfortunate others. Tom was controlling not only Myrtle, but also Wilson and everybody else that was not at the same level of life as him. The diamonds in the collar represent the people that were oppressed under Tom, people that he controlled, people that he thought he could buy and sell like little dogs on the street: “Here’s your money. Go buy ten more dogs with it”(Fitzgerald 30).
Symbolism is used in many different ways in Fitzgerald’s work, The Great Gatsby. If one were to try and explain the significance of each word, object or action, an entire book would undoubtedly result. For this reason, this essay focused on a certain aspect of symbolism only. The way the author portrays the different classes of society using symbolism is remarkable and must be commented on. Fitzgerald manages to portray the rosy rich, the dreary dreamers and the dieing dead all in one magnificent 1926 masterpiece called The Great Gatsby. The talent with which he enchants his readers is that of a tenor hitting the most exquisite “notes” of society, all in one colossus concert, brilliantly topped with a very interesting and mysterious plot. Symbolism is present in this novel at the turn of every page, however it is up to the reader to understand the characters in such a way as to be able to decipher every single pun, joke or reference, instantly.
As for the truth and the lies present in the novel, the reader would have to carefully analyze both and associate them with the type of people the characters symbolize. In doing so, one would realize that the rich, the poor and the climbing, struggling class, are all based on a lot of lies and very little truth. Then how does one know how to look at life if one cannot distinguish the truth form the lies and vice versa? The answer is simple: One must learn how to take the truth with what lies between and make something of the life and world one lives in.