The Great Gatsby, a novel authored by F. Scott Fitzgerald, portrays the events that took place over a period of several months during the summer of 1922. These events occurred in a fictional town known as West Egg showing the thwarted love between two individuals. The story is mainly concerned about Jay Gatsby, a young and cryptic millionaire, who is obsessed with his former lover, Daisy Buchanan. In the novel, Fitzgerald tends to portray the 1920s as a period of deteriorated social values and rotten morality. This is evident from the demonstration of the all-embracing greed, cynicism and meaningless pursuit of love and pleasure depicted in the novel. The Great Gatsby is perceived as a greatly symbolic meditation on the United States as a whole. Specifically, it is considered a symbol of the decaying American dream during the 1920s, an era of material excess and unprecedented prosperity. Consequently, the use of symbolism is inherent in the story as shown by the way in which it helps the author in capturing the reality in the contemporary society.
There are numerous instances where Fitzgerald uses the green color as symbolism. One of the representations of this symbol is the green light that is shown at the end of Daisy’s dock, which is used to imply Gatsby’s dreams and hopes. It tends to represent everything that beckons and haunts Gatsby. This includes the physical and emotional distance that exists between Daisy and him, the disparity between the past and the present, his promises about the future and everything green, in which he craves for in his life, such as money. The author says, “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” (Fitzgerald, 20). The green light also symbolizes the ways through which the Americans envision the American dream. In the novel, Gatsby tends to instill Daisy with idealized perfection that she does not possess or deserve. However, Gatsby’s dream at the end is ruined by what is seen as unworthiness of the object. This is similar to what happens to the American dream of 1920s that was destroyed by the pursuit for pleasure and money. Generally, in the 1920s, Americans were seen to fruitlessly seek a bygone era that seemed to have held value on their dreams. Therefore, in the novel, Gatsby longs to reconstruct a vanished past.
Gatsby’s mansion tends to symbolize two main themes in the novel. Firstly, the house is the physical love that Gatsby has for Daisy. Gatsby is seen using his new money for creating a place that he believed rivaled the houses built by old money that he thought had initially taken her away. “‘I wouldn’t ask too much of her,’ I ventured. ‘You can’t repeat the past.’ ‘Can’t repeat the past?’ he cried incredulously. ‘Why of course you can!’ He looked around him wildly, as if the past were lurking here in the shadow of his house, just out of reach of his hand” (Fitzgerald 110). In addition, Gatsby’s mansion represents the emptiness and grandness that existed in the 1920s. Fitzgerald is seen positioning the characters in the novel as emblems of various social trends. Gatsby and Nick who fought in the World War I tend to exhibit the newly attained cynicism and cosmopolitanism that had resulted from the war. Gatsby justifies living in his mansion all alone by filling it up with celebrated individuals on a weekly basis. The different ambitious speculators and social climbers who attended Gatsby’s parties embody the greed as they scramble for wealth. There is a clash between new money and old money. West Egg was representing the self-made rich individuals, while East Egg was associated with the established aristocracy.
The Valley of Ashes is used symbolically by the author to represent the dismal ruin of individuals caught in between those that got rich as a result of pursuing the American dream and those that were already rich before the economic boom of the 1920s. The Valley of Ashes is an area located between West Egg and New York City. It is an industrial wasteland that is covered by soot and ash “This is a 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 a transcendent effort, of men who move dimly and already crumbling though powdery air” (Fitzgerald 23).
The dichotomy of East and West was also used as a source of symbolism. Nick, Gatsby, Jordan, Daisy and Tom are known to hail from other places rather than the East. In the 1920s, most of the Americans had the romanticized idea of heading to the East with the aim of seeking and making a fortune as a result of the stock boom. The author states, “That’s my Middle West… I see now that this has been a story of the West, after all-Tom…were all westerners and perhaps we possessed some deficiency in common which made us subtly unadaptable to Eastern life” (Fitzgerald 176). Gatsby says that although there was some kind of honor in working hard to build a name and make a fortune for oneself on the frontier, the East had a hollow quest for finances. The immense gap between the western and eastern American states is depicted in the novel by the great disparity between the East Egg and the West Egg. The latter is seen as the frontier of the individuals making money, but they are also described as corrupt and hollow just as is the case with the Easterners.
Another important symbol is Doctor T. Eckleburg’s eyes on the billboard. They are seen overlooking at the Valley of Ashes, which seems to represent numerous things about the haunting waste and pollution of the past. Additionally, these eyes can be linked to those of Gatsby who tends to stare out in the vicinity in a blank manner.
In conclusion, it is evident that the author depicted the 1920s as an era of degrading social values that corrupted the American dream. This is reflected in the plotline when Gatsby’s dream of falling in love with Daisy is ruined by differences in social standing. The author uses different forms of symbolism to explain about life of Americans in the 1920s.
Fitzgerald, F. Scott. The Great Gatsby. Scribner, 2004.