Symbols in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby
In F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, almost every aspect of the story can be interpreted as a symbol for something else. On the surface, it is a story about a young man’s passionate pursuit of a lost love and how that pursuit ends up in ruin, though not through the fault of the young man in question. Jay Gatsby, in trying to win back the love of his childhood sweetheart Daisy, reaches financial success in 1920s America and does indeed win the attention of Daisy. Yet all is brought to ruin because of the shallow, fickle nature of the woman herself. Reading this novel on a deeper level, however, one can see the allusions made to America itself, and the loss of its innocence and noble ideas in the face of an ever-increasing materialism and decadence following the First World War. In the character of Daisy herself, one can see the innocence of America as well as its fickle, inconsistent nature that changes as quickly as the views of those around her change.
When Daisy first appears in the novel, she does so in a flowing white dress, such that the reader sees a clean slate, a blank canvas and a picture of innocence. Nick Calloway, the story’s narrator, gives a hint as to how such a blank slate might not be a great thing as he describes the first glimpse of Daisy to be had: “They were both in white, and their dresses were rippling and fluttering as if they had just been blown back in after a short flight around the house … the caught wind died out about the room, and the curtain and the rugs and the two young women ballooned slowly to the floor” (p. 8). By equating Daisy and her friend with the curtains and rugs, Nick indicates that neither of them has a personality or presence of their own, but are instead merely the reflection of the beholder’s thoughts. The fact that they are clad in white further emphasizes this idea as neither one expresses color nor individuality. The inclusion of the effect of the wind blowing about the house and its effect upon the women’s dresses gives the reader a further impression that both of these women are little more than birds, ethereal creatures having little to do with everyday life but rather just existing from day to day in whatever form or shape the wind cares to impart. This concept is related to America of the 1920s in that its innocent goals for the pursuit of happiness, individuality and discovery had been overtaken by the winds of materialism and a shift of values to the decadent display of wealth. Although America was still there, it was no longer colored with individual thought, a drive for discovery or a pursuit of happiness.
Yet Daisy is seen as the perfect example of the American high society ideal. She has the family background that provides her with “old money” connections and a husband with enough wealth of his own to bring down a string of polo ponies. “It was hard to realize that a man in my own generation was wealthy enough to do that” (p.6). She has all the right friends and the personality, charm and decadent style to make her welcome in any social gathering. “Her voice is full of money” (p. 120), the pursuit of which was becoming even more closely associated with the American dream. However, her actions begin to speak even more eloquently of an ideal that has lost its purpose. As the reader learns more about her, she becomes even less a real person, having once promised herself to Gatsby only to marry Tom, then to again promise herself to Gatsby (Chapter 7) and again choose Tom based on the idea that Gatsby’s fortunes might be ruined upon further investigation. Finally, her willingness to allow Gatsby to shoulder the blame for the hit-and-run murder of Myrtle Wilson demonstrates her true nature, never taking the blame for what she’s done and running off to the next adventure. “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” (pp. 180-181). This changeable nature, always shifting with the most prevalent, loudest voice, is the way in which America is seen to operate in these post-war years, no longer standing true to her ideals but instead shifting and changing any way the money blows.
However unearned, though, Daisy is associated with the color green for the tragic form of Jay Gatsby, who stares each night at the small green light at the end of her East Egg pier as a beacon of hope, love and promise. Watching Gatsby upon his first view of the man, Nick describes the way in which Gatsby “stretched out his arms toward the dark water in a curious way, and, far as I was from him, I could have sworn he was trembling. Involuntarily I glanced seaward – and distinguished nothing except a single green light, minute and faraway, that might have been the end of a dock” (pp. 21-22). Eventually, Nick discovers that this green light is, indeed, at the end of Daisy’s dock and, as he gets to know Gatsby a little better, realizes the hope and the dream that Gatsby associates with Daisy. This light belonging to Daisy further reflects that old American dream, always just out of reach, always a little brighter than reality and always a little different from what one might have been expecting. This association is brought forward by Nick in Chapter 9 when he mentions “a fresh, green breast of the new world” (p. 182) that opened its doors for the Dutch settlers in much the same way that the green light seemed to spur Gatsby to continue following his dream. “Gatsby believed in the green light, the orgiastic future that year by year recedes before us. It eluded us then, but that’s no matter – tomorrow we will run faster, stretch out our arms farther…” (p.182). Yet the fact that Daisy was gone and Gatsby dead indicates the lie inherent in the promise.
Thus, throughout the story, Daisy herself becomes a symbol for the changing nature of the American dream following the war as can be seen in the symbols that become associated with her. She appears first as an innocent image, pure and desirable with no taint of evil or cunning in her nature. As we learn more about her, we learn that Daisy is not capable of obtaining the depth and strength of character that have been attributed to her by others. She has bought too far into the new ideals that follow money and lavish displays of ultimate comfort and self-indulgency. Finally, these new ideals lead to Daisy’s inability to stand for what is right and true in the world, completely rejecting the original ideals behind the American dream and redefining them in terms of dollars and cents.
Fitzgerald, F. Scott. (1925). The Great Gatsby. New York: Charles Scribner and Sons.