Great Gatsby Symbolism Essay

great gatsby / fitzgerald / symbolism / american dream / happiness / spiritual / character / materialism / plot


            Symbols are usually referred to as “objects, characters, or colors used to represent abstract ideas or concepts” (Bloom 25). In other terms, “symbol is an element of imagery, in which a concrete object stands not only for itself but for some abstract idea as well” (Layng 102). It is difficult to agree to either definition, if any of them is used to analyze the symbolism of Fitzgerald’s Great Gatsby. The fact is that Great Gatsby symbols can hardly be separated from each other; moreover, the majority of the central literary symbols which Fitzgerald used in his work were aimed at making plot clearer, and supplying it with numerous literary connotations. In Fitzerald’s Great Gatsby, the majority of literary symbols form a whole set of literary meanings, which stretch from the author’s dreams about the future toward the general understanding of the notion of an American dream.

            Very often in literature, authors use symbols as a chance to make their stories and plots deeper; symbols thus become the instruments for conveying the meaning that could earlier be obscured from reader. In Great Gatsby, the green light, Dr. Eckleburg’s eyes and the Valley of Ashes are the three most frequently analyzed symbols of materialistic strivings, so perfectly well described by Fitzgerald in his wonderful novel; and as the green light is expected to bring the reader at least some hope for a better future, the Valley of Ashes seems to deprive us of a single chance to change this world and its traditional materialistic values. Ultimately, under the peer glance of Dr. Eckleburg’s eyes we may also acquire the needed guidance in our never ending journey to happiness and perfection. All these connotations altogether form a persistent vision of the person trying to find his (her) way to the legendary American Dream – the journey filled with sorrows and disappointments, and the journey that could potentially lead to irreversible failure or eternal happiness.

            Fitzgerald is very attentive and scrupulous in the way he uses his own symbols in his work. First, the green light found in Daisy’s East Egg Dock gives the reader a set of hopes for a better future. For the majority of readers and literature professionals, the green light is commonly associated with the American dream (Giltrow & Stouck 32; Metzqer 42); however, can we limit the green light’s symbolism to the mere representation of a vague symbol of the American strivings to materialistic happiness, or can we extend it to fit into a more definite framework of emotional and spiritual happiness? From Metzqer’s viewpoint, that is very possible; moreover, the researcher suggests that the meaning of the rising green light may even denote the historical rise of the American nation and the rise of its new settlers. In the novel’s context, the green light may also be obscurely linked with Gatsby’s hope to win Daisy back; and as researchers are vainly trying to reinterpret the specific meaning of the symbol and to find one single clear definition to its role in Great Gatsby, Fitzgerald seems to have lost the power of choosing the exact meaning to the reader. Nevertheless, it is difficult to reject the feeling that the green light is something more than obscure idea of the American dream. Certainly, Gatsby’s strivings to material welfare, and his pursuit of material success are the central elements of Fitzgerald’s novel (Mizener 44). Moreover, the green light may be interpreted in the way it gives Gatsby optimism and hope for achieving his material dreams, but in this line of meanings, the green light bears additional connotations that “coarsely combine pioneer individualism and uninhibited materialism, which Fitzgerald perceived as dominating in the 1920s’ America” (Mizener 46). The green light is not only the search for the American dream. It is also a natural human search for a new identity – the identity that would fit into the new economic environment and that would satisfy the natural human strivings to better life.

            The green light is multifaceted; that is why researchers and readers risk making it too simple. When reading Gatsby, it is critical that the interpretation of the green light’s role in the novel is not limited to two or three connotations. Rather, it is more appropriate to see the green light as a flexible literary instrument, which Fitzgerald uses for different purposes. Regardless whether it is associated with materialistic happiness, or whether Gatsby sees the green light as just another chance to win back Daisy’s heart, the green light remains one of the most complex symbolic meanings in Fitzgerald’s novel, offering the reader an always new vision on a common problem. Ultimately, “It eluded us then, but that’s no matter – tomorrow we will run faster, stretch our arms out farther” (Fitzgerald). Everyone has something to hide, and everyone has something to strive for, and our dreams are always only a matter of time and the efforts we apply to achieve them.

            Chapter II of Fitzgerald’s novel introduces us to the Valley of Ashes – one of the central tragic symbols in Great Gatsby. “The valley of Ashes between West Egg and New York City consists of a long stretch of desolate land created by dumping of industrial ashes” (Margolis 24). The symbolism of the Valley stems from the symbolism of ashes as such – the symbol of something that has forever been lost and does not give us a chance for revival. In Great Gatsby, the valley of Ashes is simultaneously the symbol of moral decay, and the inevitability of the tragedy. When Fitzgerald refers to the Valley as a fantastic farms where ashes take forms of houses and chimneys, does he imply that the symbol of ashes is the symbol of irreversibility of everything in our lives? Moreover, does that mean that ashes change our attitudes to life and impact all areas of our daily activity? That probably does; moreover, the symbol of tragedy and moral decay is further supplemented with the obscured feeling of something dark. This unique combination of feelings, literary connotations, and small elements forms a holistic vision of death and moral, spiritual, and social destruction. Taking into account the importance of Gatsby’s materialistic strivings and the role in the development of the novel’s plot, it seems that the symbol of ashes makes the book complete. Those who strive to achieve the social highs are compelled to go through the valley of ashes. Great Gatsby is the element that links the green light (the American Dream) with hardships (the ashes); as a result, the readers are expected to realize that materialistic wellness is impossible without tragedies and losses; whether these losses are social, moral, or human does not really matter, but anyone striving to realize his small American dream should be prepared to going through Ashes. Moreover, while the link between the green light and the ashes may seem natural at first, with time it acquires somewhat sinister tint, implying that Fitzgerald himself does not accept and does not recognize the relevance of Gatsby’s materialistic vision of the future. By using the symbol of ashes, Fitzgerald actually judges and condemns everyone, who dares to fall down to materialistic possessions, and who are not able to balance spiritual and material values. While many researchers view the Valley of Ashes as the symbol of economic industrialization at its start (Callahan 143), it is also probable that Gatsby has become the first to experience the so-called spiritual industrialization – the industrialization that killed his true feelings and has deprived himself of his true human feelings. “Gatsby is reclaimed by the living dead, by George Wilson, the agent of the Valley of Ashes as well as the agent of Gatsby’s death” (Fitzgerald). Here, Fitzgerald finally links the symbol of ashes, the green light, and the impact of wealth on hearts and minds of common Americans: while for Gatsby Wilson represented the green light of his hope for material wellbeing, for the rest of Gatsby’s friends he was no one else but the Valley of Ashes’ agent. Instead of making Gatsby flourish, he intentionally or unintentionally brought Gatsby to moral and spiritual decay, as the punishment for the futile Gatsby’s desires to reach unbelievable highs. The symbol of the Valley of Ashes actually supports the thesis that in his symbolism, Fitzgerald was striving to create a complex picture of one’s spiritual failure caused by the emptiness of one’s materialistic ambitions. With time, materialism has turned into the major social trend in America, burying social efforts to revive the spirituality and morality of the American people. Modernization might have been meant to improve the quality of the living standards, but “in the pursuit of happiness via materialistic desires, people are losing their ability to be freed from irresistible luxuries” (Barrett 46).

            To form an objective picture of Fitzgerald’s symbolism, it is not enough to review the significance of the green light and the Value of Ashes in the novel; literary critics and research professionals pay special attention to Mr. Eckleburg’s eyes as the distinctive feature of Fitzgerald’s symbolic attitudes towards his main character. Doctor T.J. Eckleburg’s eyes are usually described as “a pair of fading, bespectacled eyes painted on an old advertising billboard over the valley of ashes” (Barrett 47). Although this Barrett’s description is rather simplistic and does not convey all hidden meanings at once, but it provides a brief insight into the way Fitzgerald could turn the common things we see daily into the symbol of one’s gradual moral decay. Dr. Eckleburg’s eyes may represent some unknown omnipotent force that controls our actions and makes us rethink the values that govern us in our lives; or, Dr. Eckleburg’s eyes could imply the growing role of religion and God. Here, Fitzgerald provides the reader with a choice: a choice between one’s spiritual completion and one’s spiritual failure. However, beyond representing the omnipotent force that drives our materialistic and spiritual needs, Dr. Eckleburg’s eyes suggest that the American world is gradually losing its moral essence, moving into the darkness of meaningless search for one’s material identity. Theses eyes look like an illusion – the illusion that moves Gatsby and the illusion he represents to others (Bloom 58; Mizener 102). By using a simple advertisement as a symbol, Fitzgerald further suggests that the contemporary American society has forever ceased to be moral; rather its immorality is now hidden beyond the large advertisements of their false identities. It would be appropriate to state that Great Gatsby is a kind of an advertisement in itself, where all characters have to play their roles, without revealing their true identity, but moved by the need to conform to the changing norms of the American social environment. Neutrality of spiritual ideas and the lack of moral support and religious ideals have become the distinguishing features of the then American society, and Fitzgerald has successfully combined all those symbolic elements into one large, almost unlimited novel about human materialistic tragedies and failures.


            Never before has a writer been capable of revealing the hidden facets of economic development in such details; never before has a writer being capable of revealing the immorality and non-spirituality of the American materialism. Never before has a writer succeeded to depict the American dream as the direct pathway to moral and spiritual decay; and that was Fitzgerald, who was eager and willing to form a holistic system of literary symbols that ultimately formed a unique vision of the American striving for nothing. “All those symbols provide us with the main theme, where the American idealism and spirituality have been corrupted by material possessions and wealth” (Giltrow & Stouck 35), and while the whole America was perceiving the benefits of the long anticipated economic development, the latter was gradually changing the American attitudes toward everything beyond money; and money come to an end, and when nothing more ties one to the earthy life, the green light ceases to be the stimuli that moves mountains before; rather it becomes the inexhaustible source of the falling ashes.    

            Fitzgerald remains one of the masters of symbolism in the American literature. His symbols provide sufficient freedom for interpretation, and simultaneously tie the reader to the plot. Symbols facilitate the reader’s transition into the then American reality, and offer him a unique chance to experience the tragedies and losses of the American materialism. Simultaneously, Fitzgerald does not imply that materialistic ideals do not have the right to exist; on the contrary, the symbolism of Gatsby’s character is in that material strivings should be balanced with spiritual revelations; otherwise hollow materialism risks drowning the American society in the dirty waters of their futile search for oneself.

Works Cited

Barrett, L. “Material without Being Real: The End of Reality in ‘The Great Gatsby.’” Studies

in the Novel, vol. 30 (1998): 43-54.

Bloom, H. F.Scott Fitzgerald’s the Great Gatsby. Chelsea House Publications, 2003. 

Callahan, J.F. “F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Evolving American Dream: the ‘Pursuit’ of Happiness’

in Gatsby, Tender is the Night, and the Last Tycoon.” Twentieth Century Literature, vol. 42 (1996): 135-180.

Fitzgerald, F.S. The Great Gatsby. Penguin Books, 2007.

Giltrow, J. & Stouck, D. “Style as Politics in “The Great Gatsby.” Studies in the Novel, vol.

29 (1997): 29-36.

Layng, G. “Fitzgerald’s the Great Gatsby.” The Explicator, vol. 56 (1998): 101-119.

Margolis, A. “The Maturing of Scott Fitzgerald.” Twentieth Century Literature, vol. 43

(1997): 19-33.

Metzqer, M. “Teaching Reading: Beyond the Plot.” Phi Delta Cappan, vol. 80 (1998): 40-50.

Mizener, A. F. Scott Fitzgerald: A Collection of Critical Essays. Prentice-Hall, 1993.


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