Symbolism plays a significant role in The Great Gatsby. Various substances, words or activities represent distinctive character features for each person described in the novel. Fitzgerald illustrates three completely distinctive aspects of the human life through symbolism. He narrates the glittery, magnificent life of the rich; the gray, ugly and desperate life of the poor, and the everyday struggles of those in between. The Great Gatsby, as a masterpiece, contains hidden and very important symbols that helps us understand the characters’ inner thoughts, conflicts and feelings.
The author successfully depicts the majestic life of those, who were born advantageously or whom life is majestic because of a coincidence, through the eyes of our narrator, Nick Carraway. Their life is full of richness and placed in a fairytale-like place. However, their life is not a fairytale. On the contrary, it is far from being one.
As first chapter begins, we are introduced to the Buchanans, who apparently have everything. Even though they look majestic, they are very miserable. We can take account of Tom’s need for another woman as a huge unhappiness sign. This is revealed to the readers by Jordan Baker who mentions the situation 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 32). She says this only after Daisy hears telephone and gives a reaction abruptly. Later in the novel, the telephone is used as a sign of implicating Tom’s affair, when Jordan is once again, more eager than ever to tell everybody what the Buchanan’s situation is: ”The rumor is that, that’s Tom’s girl on the telephone.” (Fitzgerald 130). In this case the telephone symbolizes Tom’s affair and his marriage, which is threatened whenever the phone rings.
Furthermore, we observe how careless and ignorant the rich are. For Tom, 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 of his needs, that, ”I have my man working on it right now.” (Fitzgerald 41). 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 41). Tom Buchanan plays with Wilson’s needs once more. Wilson is stubborn about trying to get him to sell the car, he interrupts Mr. Buchanan’s dinner. Tom replies: ”Very well, then, I won’t sell you the car at all…” (Fitzgerald 130). Wilson however, is persistent, as his need for the car, which in this case is the representation of money, grows constantly. Tom taunts him 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 137) 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 bone-teasing a dog.
Tom is not the only one portrayed as a teaser 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 very different from him. 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 cousin, Nick Carraway: ”I’ve heard it said that Daisy’s murmur was only to make people lean toward her…” (Fitzgerald 25). 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 25). 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 134). 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 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, Along with their character and social status, 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 190). 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 25). Maybe that would not have been that uncommon if, as Nick came into the room, she remained as described, with no intention of either standing up or greeting him. She is described as listless 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 out of my way… It takes two to make an accident.” (Fitzgerald 75). 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 represents 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 22). 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 27). 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, fairytale 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 in the social ladder, trying to be closer to the top, yet never reaching it. However, the more he tries and struggles, the deeper the hole 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 87) implies that his business is very important. Furthermore, we observe that his job is not only essential, but also probably illegal, since he rarely talks about it, and when asked he coldly replies, ”that’s my affair…” (Fitzgerald 105). Meyer Wolfsheim’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 87) 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 about a problem, he can’t help to solve 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 109). It is obvious from the one-sided conversation heard that there was a problem and 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 diverse ways. 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 38). 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 your home across the bay… You always have a green light that burns all night at the end of your dock.” (Fitzgerald 108). 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 108). 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 her that he has changed and that he can offer her so much more now than he could when he was just a soldier in the army. The house, the shirts, the library books are