The Great Gatsby Symbolism, Imagery & Allegory
Sometimes, there’s more to Lit than meets the eye.
An owl-eyed man at a Gatsby party sits in awe in the library, murmuring with amazement that all the books on Gatsby’s shelves are “real books.” But does Gatsby even read them? The image works to suggest that much of what Gatsby presents to the world is a façade; for example, he wants people to believe that he’s a well-educated man, an Oxford man, but in fact he only spent a short time there after the war. The books may represent the fact that Gatsby is a fraud – that he has built up an image of himself that is not consistent with the facts of his life. But, you could also argue that the unopened, unread books represent Gatsby himself: though there are many rumors about who he is and how he earned his money, the facts remain unexamined, unopened.
The Owl-Eyed Man
Speaking of those books, what’s up with that guy in the library? We almost listed the owl-eyed man as a character, but then we realized we know absolutely nothing about him. Even Nick reduces him from a man to a pair of eyes. So we’re thinking he’s really more of a symbol than a full blown character. Feel free to disagree.
And, yes, we are getting to the point. First, there’s the owl bit; owls are a symbol of wisdom, but can also be an omen of death (we don’t know how that came about, either, but we’re thinking someone got their signals crossed).
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Then there’s the glasses bit; a man with large eyes and spectacles would be expected to be more perceptive than those around him.
So does the owl-eyed man fit the bill? Being perceptive and all, the bespectacled man is right to be suspicious of Gatsby. He is the only guest who, in doubting Gatsby, is also wise enough to investigate further. Moving right along to the portent of death part, did you notice that it was the owl-eyed man who had the car accident outside of Gatsby’s house? And that, shortly after he got out of the car, he revealed that someone else was driving? Does any of this sound familiar?
If you’re really interested in the owl-eyed man (as we so clearly are), you should check out the scene at the end where he’s the only former guest to come to Gatsby’s funeral. Why would that be? Exactly.
The Eyes of Dr. T.J. Eckleburg and the Valley of Ashes Below Them
The first time we see the eyes of T.J. Eckleburg, the image is intertwined with Nick’s description of the valley of ashes. The ashes are, as ashes tend to be, “desolate” and “grotesque.” Nick and the others have to pass through this “bleak” land any time they travel between the Eggs and the city. Think of the valley of ashes as one big, grey reality check. Compare Gatsby’s lavish parties of fresh fruit and live music and champagne to this land of smokestacks and ash-men; it seems that not all the world is as privileged as our cast of characters.
But the valley of ashes can also be seen as more commentary on the American Dream. (THAT again?! Yes.) The America of The Great Gatsby is ashen, decaying, and barren. It is also, based on the action that goes down in the valley of the ashes, devoid of morality and compassion. Myrtle Wilson lives by the ashheaps, and so there resides Tom’s infidelity. George Wilson lives by the ash heaps, so we can place there both anger and envy. Myrtle is, of course, killed there, so we also come to identify death with the valley (in case Nick’s initial description wasn’t enough for you).
Which brings us to the eyes. T.J. Eckleburg’s billboard is the second notable pair of eyes in the novel (Owl-eyes, remember?).
But these ones are a little different from those of the party-going bibliophile. It’s no accident that the first time you hear about the eyes, your initial reaction is: “WHAT?!” Nick goes on for three sentences about these weird, disembodied eyes before actually explaining that they’re on a billboard. He gives your mind time to picture eerie images, to wonder what’s going on, even to form other notions of what the eyes could be. Clearly, to us, the readers, the eyes are more than just a billboard.
... the important themes presented in The Great Gatsby. The Valley of Ashes represents the poverty in America in the ... most of the time the guests are uninvited. Nick emphasizes this point when he states "I believe that ... include the color green, the overall setting, and the eyes of Doctor T. J. Eckleburg. The use of ... in the case of Gatsby, who inherited his money from Dan Cody, a man whom he met while ...
Now that we’ve established that, we’re sharp on the look out for more information. Nick notices the eyes again as the quartet heads into the city in Chapter Seven, shortly before the Tom vs. Gatsby showdown. He notes them keeping a “watchful vigil” – which sounds like a rather religious choice of words, at least in connotation. But we hit the jackpot in Chapter Eight, when George takes Myrtle to the window (from which, we know, the billboard is visible) and tells her she can’t fool God. Wilson then makes the very same connection we are; the eyes of T.J. Eckleburg are always watching, and so are the eyes of God.
There are a few directions you can take from here. The first is that, despite the absence of religion from the characters in this story, God is still there. He is all-seeing, ever present, and, as Nick points out, frowning. Things are not well in the valley of American ashes. The other shot you could take at this is to say that God has been replaced by capitalism. Instead of a truly religious representation, the best this world can do is manifest God in a billboard – an advertisement.
The Green Light
The green light on Daisy’s house that Gatsby gazes wistfully at from his own house across the water represents the “unattainable dream.” But the green light also represents the hazy future, the future that is forever elusive, as Nick claims in the last page of the novel, “Gatsby believed in the green light, the orgastic future that year by year recedes before us. It eluded us then, but that’s no matter – to-morrow we will run farther, stretch out our arms farther….” The interesting question is, if the green light is the future, how is it so tied up with Daisy and the dreams of the past?
Sometimes we sound like art snobs when we talk about The Great Gatsby (“Look at the use of green! Such marvelous blues,” and so forth).
... her and Tom. Gatsby in some way knows Daisy is materialistic. He tells Nick, ?Her voice is full of money.? Nick agrees and writes, ?It ... could have sworn he was trembling.? Gatsby is entranced by this green light because it symbolizes Daisy. All he has is knowing that ... could hardly fail to grasp it.? (189). To Gatsby the green light symbolizes Daisy, Daisy in a way represents her peers in the same ...
Honestly, it seems like there’s a little too much color stuff going on here to be coincidental.
Yellow and Gold: Money, Money, Money. Oh, and Death.
First off, we’ve got yellows and golds, which we’re thinking has something to do with…gold (in the cash money sense).
Why gold and not green? Because we’re talking about the real stuff, the authentic, traditional, “old money” – not these new-fangled dollar bills. So you’ve got your “yellow cocktail music” playing at Gatsby’s party where the turkeys are “bewitched to dark gold” and Jordan and Nick sit with “two girls in yellow.” It seems clear, then, that Gatsby is using these parties to try to fit in with the “old money” crowd. And it doesn’t stop there; when Gatsby is finally going to see Daisy again at Nick’s house, he wears a gold tie. Nick later mentions the “pale gold odor of kiss-me-at-the-gate,” which may seem weird (since last we checked, colors didn’t have a smell) until we remember Nick’s description of New York as “a wish out of non-olfactory money.” Odor then is associated with gold, and non-odor with money. The difference? Perhaps the same distinction as Daisy’s upper class world and Gatsby’s new-found wealth. While Gatsby buys a yellow car to further promote his facade, he’s really not fooling anyone. Lastly, we’ve got Daisy, who is only called “the golden girl” once Gatsby realizes that her voice, her main feature, is “full of money.” Yellow is not just the color of money, but also of destruction. Yellow is the color of the car that runs down Myrtle. The glasses of Eckleburg, looking over the wasteland of America, are yellow. This dual symbolism clearly associates money with destruction; the ash heaps are the filthy result of the decadent lifestyle led by the rich.
White: Innocence and Femininity. Maybe.
While we’re looking at cars, notice that Daisy’s car (back before she was married) was white. So are her clothes, the rooms of her house, and about half the adjectives used to describe her (her “white neck,” “white girlhood,” the king’s daughter “high in a white palace”).
Everyone likes to say that white in The Great Gatsby means innocence, probably because 1) that’s easy to say and 2) everyone else is saying it. But come on – Daisy is hardly the picture of girlish innocence. At the end of the novel, she is described as selfish, careless, and destructive. Does this make the point that even the purest characters in Gatsby have been corrupted? Did Daisy start off all innocent and fall along the way, or was there no such purity to begin with? Or, in some way, does Daisy’s decision to remain with Tom allow her to keep her innocence? We’ll keep thinking about that one.
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Blue: This One’s Up For Grabs
Then there’s the color blue, which we think represents Gatsby’s illusions — his deeply romantic dreams of unreality. We did notice that the color blue is present around Gatsby more so than any other character. His gardens are blue, his chauffeur wears blue, the water separating him from Daisy is his “blue lawn,” mingled with the “blue smoke of brittle leaves” in his yard. His transformation into Jay Gatsby is sparked by Cody, who buys him, among other things, a “blue coat.” Before you tie this up under one simple label, keep in mind that the eyes of T.J. Eckleburg are also blue, and so is Tom’s car. If blue represents illusions and alternatives to reality, God may be seen as a non-existent dream. As for Tom’s car…well, you can field that one.
Grey and a General Lack of Color: Lifelessness (no surprise there)
Then there is the lack of color presented in the grey ash heaps. If the ash heaps are associated with lifelessness and barrenness, and grey is associated with the ash heaps, anyone described as grey is going to be connected to barren lifelessness. Our main contender is Wilson: “When anyone spoke to him he invariably laughed in an agreeable colorless way.” Wilson’s face is “ashen.” His eyes are described as “pale” and “glazed.” It is then no coincidence that Wilson is the bearer of lifelessness, killing Gatsby among yellow leaved trees, which we already decided had something to do with destruction.
... . The combination of phycobilin and chlorophyll produces the characteristic blue-green colour from which these organisms derive their popular name. ... the prokaryotic nature of the blue-green algae has caused them to be classified with bacteria in ... one time treated as algae, hence the common name of blue-green algae. Algae have since been reclassified as protists, and ...
Green: Life, Vitality, The Future, Exploration
Last one. We’re thinking green = plants and trees and stuff, so life and springtime and other happy things. Do we see this in The Great Gatsby? The most noticeable image is that green light we seem to see over and over. You know, the green light of the “orgastic future” that we stretch our hands towards, etc. etc. We can definitely see green as being hopeful, as being the future, as being vitality and freshness. Right before these famous last lines, Nick also describes the “fresh, green breast of the new world,” the new world being this land as Nick imagines it existed hundreds of years before. The new world might be green, but when Nick imagines Gatsby’s future without Daisy, he sees “a new world, material without being real, where poor ghosts, breathing dreams like air, drifted fortuitously about…like that ashen fantastic figure gliding toward him through the amorphous trees.” Nick struggles to define what the future really means, especially as he faces the new decade before him (the dreaded thirties).
Is he driving on toward grey, ashen death through the twilight, or reaching out for a bright, fresh green future across the water?