By 1925, author F. Scott Fitzgerald was known primarily as the historian of the Jazz Age and chronicler in slick American weeklies of the American flapper. Perhaps this is why critics and reviewers were caught off-guard in that year, at the height of the Roaring Twenties, when Fitzgerald published The Great Gatsby, a story cited today as the Great American Novel. It is true, as Magnum Bryant says, “The simple romance of Jay Gatsby and Daisy Buchanan is merely the foundation for a narrative structure that accommodates Fitzgerald’s ideas about irreconcilable contradictions within the American Dream and ultimately about the ideal quest itself”(Byrant n.pg.).
The intricate weaving of the various stories within The Great Gatsby is accomplished through a complex symbolic substructure of the narrative. The primary images and symbols that Fitzgerald employs in developing the theme of The Great Gatsby are the green light, the Valley of Ashes, and the overlooking eyes of Dr. T.J. Eckleburg.
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The green light at the end of Daisy Buchanan’s dock is the first use of one of the novel’s central symbols. The initial appearance of the green light occurs when the narrator, Nick Caraway, sees Gatsby standing in front of his mansion, stretching out “his arms toward the dark water in a curious way” (Fitzgerald 26; ch. 1). From his own house, Nick believes that he can see Gatsby trembling. As Nick looks out at the water, he can see “…nothing except a single green light, minute and far away, that might have been the end of a dock” (Fitzgerald 26; ch. 1). The colour green traditionally symbolizes hope in this case, Gatsby’s hope to win back his past love, Daisy Buchanan. Gatsby, lured on by Daisy, who is no more than a symbol for him, pursues the green light and the dream of progress and material possessions.
As James E. Miller remarks, “What ultimately preys on the vision, the goal, is that in America and by Gatsby it can only be attained through the acquisition of material possessions” (Miller 28). Gatsby is striving to find a better world in the green light and gets unbearably close to his dream, yet in all of his efforts, he comes up short in grasping the better life that he wanted: “The bay separated them (Gatsby and Daisy), yet Gatsby could always see the light. He hoped for the green breast of the new world, the people’s idea that tomorrow will bring a better day” (Pearson 639). This idea seems justifiable, yet it is far from coming true.
Another symbolic theme is the 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 through the powdery air”(Fitzgerald 27; ch. 2). The Valley of Ashes represents a modern world, a grotesque hell created by modern industry. Factories and trains, produced in the manufacture of wealth, have polluted America with its wastes. It is a physical desert that symbolizes the spiritual desolation created by a money-hungry society.
The valley symbolizes a world whose inhabitants are so spiritually lost, that they worship money and wealth. The promise of happiness, hope, and freedom that America gave its first settlers, has been corrupted by the lies of greed and the emptiness of a dream. The Valley of Ashes also symbolizes the moral decay that Fitzgerald saw behind the facade of wealth and happiness. It represents the plight of the poor, like George Wilson, who live among the dirty ashes and lose their vitality as a result. It is fitting, then, that the valley is chosen as a setting for such events as Nick’s meeting with Myrtle Wilson and Myrtle’s murder by Daisy. The gray colour is also symbolic of corruption. This symbol is evident in the land, the pollution, and the corruption of morality.
In the vast wasteland of the Valley of Ashes stands a solitary landmark, a billboard with an advertisement for an optometrist named Dr. T.J. Eckleburg. The symbol of T. J. Eckelburg’s eyes represents a godly being watching over society. Fitzgerald incorporates the symbol into his novel to represent a pair of all-seeing, all-knowing and judging eyes, which are meant to intimidate. Nick describes them as ” blue and gigantic-their retinas are one yard high. They look out of no face but, instead, from a pair of enormous yellow spectacles …but his eyes, dimmed a little by many paintless days under sun and rain, brood on over the solemn dumping ground” (Fitzgerald 27-28; ch. 2).
George Wilson, Myrtle’s husband and owner of a small gas station in the Valley of Ashes, believes that the eyes literally belong to God. He states, “I took her (Myrtle) 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 167; ch. 8). Standing behind him, George’s neighbour Michaelis realizes that George is looking at the eyes of Doctor T. J. Eckleburg. Though Wilson’s beliefs, Fitzgerald explains that the eyes can see everything, including Myrtle’s infidelities. Arthur Mizener observes, “Through Fitzgerald’s wording in describing the image of Eckleburg’s eyes, one develops a mental image of an omnipotent being who is constantly watching over the land” (Mizener 289). The use of the word “brood” suggests that whatever the eyes are seeing has made their owner disappointed. This lack of concrete significance contributes to the unsettling nature of the image.
Thus, the eyes also come to represent the essential meaninglessness of the world and the arbitrariness of the mental process by which people invest objects with meaning. Nick explores these ideas when he imagines Gatsby’s final thoughts as a depressed consideration of the emptiness of symbols and dreams: “I have an idea that Gatsby himself didn’t believe it (contact from Daisy) would come and perhaps he no longer cared…He must have felt that he had lost the old warm world, paid a high price for living too long with a single dream” (Fitzgerald 169; ch. 12).
F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby is rich in symbolism, which is portrayed on numerous levels in a variety of ways. One of the most important qualities of symbolism within the novel is the way in which it is so fully integrated into the plot, structure, and thematic development.
The primary images and symbols that Fitzgerald employs in developing the themes of The Great Gatsby are the green light, the Valley of Ashes, and the overlooking eyes of Dr. T.J. Eckleburg. The green light at the end of Daisy’s dock is the first use of one of the novel’s central symbols. The color green traditionally symbolizes hope, in this case, Gatsby’s hope to win back his past love, Daisy Buchanan. Gatsby, lured on by Daisy, who is no more than a symbol for him, pursues the green light and the dream of progress and material possessions.
The Valley of Ashes symbolizes a world whose inhabitants are so spiritually lost, that they worship money and wealth. The promise of happiness, hope, and freedom that America gave its first settlers, has been corrupted by the lies of greed, and the emptiness of a dream. It also symbolizes the moral decay that Fitzgerald saw behind the facade of wealth and happiness. It represents the plight of the poor, like George Wilson, who live among the dirty ashes and lose their vitality as a result. Finally, the symbol of Dr. T. J. Eckelburg’s eyes represents a godly being watching over society. Fitzgerald incorporates the symbol into his novel to represent a pair of all-seeing, all-knowing and judging eyes, which are meant to intimidate. James E. Miller has acutely observed, “Aside from being a good read, The Great Gatsby teaches the lesson of being true to one’s self through various images and symbols, since true closure may only come when honesty is achieved” (Miller 151)
Work Cited Page
Bryant, Mangum. “The Great Gatsby.” Encyclopedia of the Novel. International ed. 1998.
Fitzgerald, F. Scott. The Great Gatsby. New York: Simon & Schuster New York, 2003.
Miller, James E. Jr. F. Scott Fitzgerald: His Art and Technique, New York: New York University Press, 1986.
Mizener, Arthur. F. Scott Fitzgerald: A Collection of Critical Essays. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1963.
Pearson, Roger L. “Gatsby: False Prophet of the American Dream.” English Journal May 1970: 638-642.
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