Symbolism in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby

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Scott Fitzgerald’s novel is an intriguing literary work and an impressive window into Eastern American culture during the 1920s. The novel tells the story of Gatsby, a wealthy man who yearns desperately for a long-lost lover. So he creates a life where he can be close to her and makes romantic advances to rekindle this love until his tragic death. However, the novel goes far beyond telling a tale of romance and tragedy. It also reflects its era and the class struggles that defined it through its symbolism (Will, 2005). The Great Gatsby presents four significant symbols in the book, including the green light, the valley of ashes, and the haunting eyes on Dr T.J. Eckleburg’s billboard, which symbolize optimism, socioeconomic class difference, and God’s watching eyes.

The Green Light

The green light at Tom Buchanan’s house is a meaningful symbol with two plausible interpretations. The first interpretation refers to the relationships in the book, where the green light signifies Gatsby’s love for Daisy Buchanan. It represents his hope that he will be reunited with Daisy to continue their romance, which had been interrupted (Ismael & Samardali, 2018). Gatsby chooses his house deliberately, ensuring that he lives across the water from Daisy’s house. He intends to get close to her to maintain hope of being with her. Consequently, the green light becomes a symbol of this hope and optimism. This understanding is evident when Nick, the narrator, sees Gatsby staring and stretching toward the water one night, where the only prominent feature in the dark is the green light that marked Daisy’s house (Fitzgerald, 2021).

A broader and more subtle interpretation of the green light refers to the American Dream. The American dream was touted as the idealized understanding of success in America, rooted in material wealth and egalitarianism. It posits that anyone, regardless of their background, can rise to achieve material success in America. Therefore, the American dream for success is comparable to Gatsby’s search for love (Yongping, 2019). However, this love, like the American dream to many at the time, was beyond reach. It is similar to the green light that symbolizes Gatsby’s hope and optimism was separated by a water body from the dreamer. Fitzgerald used the green light to represent the distant and unattainable nature of the American dream, which is emphasized in other symbols in the book.

The Valley of Ashes

The “Valley of Ashes” is a term coined to refer to the desolate area between the wealthy Egg neighborhoods and New York City (Ismael & Samardali, 2018). The author compares this desolation to a wheat field, indicating that the region was covered in the ashes and soot of industrialization and pollution that defined the era’s corruption (Fitzgerald, 2021). The Valley of Ashes helps readers understand the contrast between the two areas representing the difference between the wealthy and the poor. The West Egg region was populated by lavish residences, luxury, and people from the highest social class. They drove expensive cars, drank extravagant drinks, and lived in massive mansions.

On the other hand, blue-collar workers such as George Wilson, a mechanic and repairman, populated the Valley of Ashes. It presented a significant difference between the wealthy and the poor, drawing clear distinctions between those who had achieved the American dream and those for whom the dream was beyond reach (Yongping, 2019). The Valley of Ashes also refers to the desolation caused by wealth and class gap. The soot, ashes, and polluted river that gave the area its distinct identity were pieces of evidence of the pollution from the industries where the higher class made their wealth. It was the author’s vision of social decay and wealth inequality.

The Eyes on Dr T.J. Eckleburg’s Billboard

Dr T.J. Eckleburg’s billboard advertising his optometry business was one of the most prominent features in the Valley of Ashes. It stood out because of its strange massive eyes that overlooked the desolate Valley of Ashes. Consequently, it symbolizes an omnipresent and omniscient, God-like figure, always watching over the misery, social decay, and immorality that defined society at that time (Ismael & Samardali, 2018). For instance, the billboard’s position along the highway made it visible to all motorists, including the wealthy driving from West Egg to the city. It suggests that Dr Eckleburg’s eyes witnessed Tom Buchanan’s adulterous affair with Myrtle, her tragic death, and the hordes of partygoers that made the frequent trip from the city to East Egg for Gatsby’s decadent parties. The eyes on the billboard, much like the narrator, were witnesses to the roaring twenties, class difference, and society in social decline.

Conclusion

Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby employs symbolism to highlight certain aspects of the era that it reflected. The green light across from Gatsby’s house symbolizes distant and minute hope and optimism for Gatsby and the American population who aspired to the American dream. The Valley of Ashes represented the desolation of the poor that gave rise to the wealthy class in the region. It also symbolized the class difference that made the American dream a distant dream for many blue-collar workers. Finally, the eyes on Dr T.J. Eckleburg’s billboard signified deity-like vigilance over a decaying society. Overall, the book pays homage to the roaring twenties, a period characterized by class struggle, luxury, and decadence.

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  1. Fitzgerald F. S. (2021). The Great Gatsby Original Classic Edition: The Complete 1925 Text. Ascent Audio.
  2. Ismael, A. M. H., & Samardali, M. F. S. (2018). Symbolism in the Great Gatsby. Journal of Literature, Languages and Linguistics, 45(1). 42-45. https://www.iiste.org/Journals/index.php/JLLL/article/view/42856
  3. Will, B. (2005). “The Great Gatsby” and the Obscene Word. College Literature, 32(4), 125–144. http://www.jstor.org/stable/25115310
  4. Yongping, C. (2019). American Dream: The Concrete Embodiment of Symbolism in” The Great Gatsby [Conference Session]. 2019 5th International Conference on Education Technology, Management and Humanities Science (ETMHS 2019), Xi’an, China. 1490-1493. https://webofproceedings.org/proceedings_series/article/artId/6143.html
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