The Great Gatsby, written by F. Scott Fitzgerald and published in 1925, is considered one of the great American novels. Set in the roaring 1920s, the book explores themes of wealth, excess, love, and the American dream. One of the reasons The Great Gatsby has become such an enduring classic is Fitzgerald’s masterful use of symbols throughout the novel. Symbols allow writers to convey deeper meanings through literal objects, actions, and gestures. In The Great Gatsby, Fitzgerald uses symbols to represent abstract ideas and concepts that are key to the story’s themes. Three important symbols in The Great Gatsby are the green light, the Valley of Ashes, and the eyes of Dr. T.J. Eckleburg.
The Green Light
The most famous symbol in The Great Gatsby is the green light at the end of Daisy Buchanan’s dock in East Egg. The green light is first mentioned in Chapter 1 when the narrator Nick Carraway sees Gatsby reaching towards it across the water separating East Egg from West Egg. Nick calls the light “minute and far-away” but also “single green light, minute and far away, that might have been the end of a dock.” The green light takes on increased meaning as a symbol as the story progresses. It comes to represent Gatsby’s hopes and dreams for the future, especially to reunite with and reclaim his lost love Daisy. Gatsby associates the green light with Daisy, and his reaching towards it symbolizes his longing to reconnect with his past and recreate what he had with Daisy. The green light is an apt symbol for Gatsby’s nostalgic and romantic dreams of the future.
The Valley of Ashes
In stark contrast to the seeming vibrance and luxury of East and West Egg, Fitzgerald presents a place he dubs the “Valley of Ashes” in Chapter 2. The Valley of Ashes is a desolate industrial wasteland sitting among Queens, West Egg, and New York City. It is described as 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.” The Valley of Ashes represents the moral decay and social decay of society, as the rich characters like Tom Buchanan and those who inhabit East and West Egg use the Valley and exploit those who work and live there with no regard for the consequences. The Valley comes to symbolize the moral wasteland of the self-indulgent wealthy who take no responsibility for how their actions affect others.
|The Green Light||Gatsby’s hopes, dreams and longing for the future|
|The Valley of Ashes||Moral and social decay of society|
The Eyes of Dr. T.J. Eckleburg
On a billboard overlooking the Valley of Ashes are a pair of bespectacled blue eyes, described as the eyes of Dr. T.J. Eckleburg. The eyes are on an advertisement for an optometrist but take on symbolic meaning as the story progresses. Fitzgerald describes the eyes as looking out of no face but from an immense height over the wasteland. The eyes come to be associated with the ideas of an all-seeing God or omniscient being who is watching and passing judgment over the moral decay taking place in the Valley of Ashes. After Myrtle Wilson is killed by Daisy while driving Gatsby’s car, the novel mentions George Wilson staring toward the giant eyes before killing Gatsby and then himself. The eyes symbolize the loss of spiritual values in 1920s America and how God is watching humanity’s immorality and may sit in judgment of them. The eyes serve as a powerful reminder that moral decay has consequences.
In The Great Gatsby, F. Scott Fitzgerald masterfully employs symbols to represent complex ideas and themes that goes beyond the literal meanings of objects and images. The green light symbolizes Gatsby’s romanticized longings for the future. The Valley of Ashes represents the moral wasteland created by wealthy excess and exploitation. And the eyes of Dr. Eckleburg are a constant symbolic reminder that a moral reckoning may be coming, even as characters act without regard for ethics or spiritual values. Fitzgerald’s expert and multilayered use of symbols is one reason The Great Gatsby continues to be considered a Great American Novel that speaks profoundly to human nature and society. The symbols require analysis and reflection to fully appreciate the deeper meanings Fitzgerald conveys through these literal objects and images. Examining the symbols closely leads to a richer understanding of this acclaimed modernist novel.