Color Symbolism in The Great Gatsby

Table of Contents


The novel Great Gatsby depicts the unique vision of the American dream and its impact on life of a person during the 1920s. The mystery of which Fitzgerald wrote the novel was based on mystery of the American ideal and romantic love. In this novel, Fitzgerald uses symbolism and unique images to create a story conflict and unveil reality of life. He alludes to and employs the language of the mystery in elucidating the symbols surrounding Jay Gatsby, the effect ultimately is to call into question the very possibility of any genuine intersection between the ideal and the real, any truly valid incarnation. Green light, as one of the symbols in the novel, means future hopes and ideals of Gatsby which never come true.

The symbol of Green Light

Green light is a symbol of philosophy and knowledge. Carraway’s characterization of Gatsby favorably invokes the highest of philosophical and religious conceptions, his comparison of Gatsby to Jesus must seem ironic to anyone familiar with the traditional doctrine of the Incarnation. The merely mortal work is styled a “son of God” not because of any literal fact but because of a poetic act which ignores rather than overcomes the gap between the Ideal and the real. Fitzgerald indicates: “Involuntarily I glanced seaward—and distinguished nothing except a single green light, minute and far away, that might have been the end of a dock. When I looked once more for Gatsby he had vanished, and I was alone again in the unquiet darkness” (Fitzgerald). In the novel Gatsby is faithful to his dream but disdainful of the factual truth which finally crushes him and his dream. As a romantic hero, Gatsby commands Carraway’s admiration not because of the facts of his life, not even because of the fabulous rumors surrounding his life, but because of his. “”If it wasn’t for the mist we could see your home across the bay,” said Gatsby. “You always have a green light that burns all night at the end of your dock” (Fitzgerald). Fitzgerald allows his respective heroes to pursue their dreams, but remain themselves sufficiently outside of the dream to remind the reader that those dreams cannot be reconciled with hard fact. Both romantic heroes attempt to bridge the gap between time and eternity, history and myth, but are finally caught in and destroyed by time. Indeed, as typical romantic heroes, Fitzgerald’s Gatsby enjoys ephemeral and illusory success in pursuing their dreams, but both are finally frustrated and destroyed by the intractability of an external world which refuses to conform to ideals (Gross and Gross 44).

Green light symbolizes relations with Daisy and romantic love. Gatsby, however, is so enamored of his transcendental vision that not even the love of a woman can recall him from it. It completes, rather than interrupts, the incarnation of self. Gatsby must transform Daisy into the virginal counterpart of himself, or into the maternal source of his own self-conception. He kisses her in order to suck on the impalpable pap of life, gulping down the milk of wonder that nourishes his vision. Because this vision flowers from within him, he can safely deflower it. He can protect himself from the same contagions of sexuality and biological connectedness from which his initial self-incarnation also attempts to free him. “The flowers were unnecessary, for at two o’clock a greenhouse arrived from Gatsby’s, with innumerable receptacles to contain it. An hour later the front door opened nervously, and Gatsby in a white flannel suit, silver shirt and gold-colored tie hurried in. He was pale and there were dark signs of sleeplessness beneath his eyes” (Fitzgerald). Daisy reveals her essential discomfort with the idea of love. Gatsby would purify history back to the essential paradigm, which, relocated within the world of self, can mean only self-incarnation and self-destruction (Gross and Gross 48).

Gatsby’s sexual repression is as conventional as repressions come. It splits sexuality and love and preserves the wife separate from the whore. But this sexual repression is not peculiar to Gatsby. Specifically, it recapitulates an essential aspect of American experience as Fitzgerald understood it. The American revision of the past was a flight from history, which in Fitzgerald’s view was also a flight from biological time and place. Although Fitzgerald’s novel primarily proves another set of American texts, Gatsby’s strangely imprecise version of dream evokes the same relationship between biblical promise and American misperception that circulates throughout American fiction. Gatsby’s ladder also reaches from the earthly to the spiritual. It also concerns the urgency of the seed and of the future blessing that seed may insure. Compared to the great distance that had separated him from Daisy it had seemed very near to her, almost touching her. It had seemed as close as a star to the moon. Now it was again a green light on a dock. His count of enchanted objects had diminished by one” (Fitzgerald). Gatsby’s ladder secures no place on earth. Gatsby ascends never to return to earth. The biblical Jacob changes his name to Israel to move history forward. James Gatz changed his name to Jay Gatsby and finds himself headed in the wrong direction. Borne back ceaselessly into the past of its own preverbal, preconscious origins, Gatsby discovers that total incarnation, total completeness, is absolute nothingness. “At his lips’ touch she blossomed for him like a flower and the incarnation was complete,” And he concludes: “he must have felt that he had lost the old warm world, paid a high price for living too long with a single dream. Gatsby is a literalist for whom property does not mean quality but ownership. What he sees when he looks at the world is what he might possess” (Gross and Gross 65).

Green light is a symbol of hopes and life chances for Gatsby which never come true. The Great Gatsby is finally concerned with speaking a truth that is neither a replication of a dream vision that exists in an condition of displaced meaning, nor a simple and therefore false statement of substantive fact. Rather, Gatsby is about a truth that recognizes the limitations of human speech and yet still undertakes to speak. Gatsby, however, wants literally to “recover something” in the past, a self- conceived idea of self and not a real or historical self (Fitzgerald). Gatsby’s religious conversion is an immaculate self-conception of self. His American dream is replicating what is repressed, concealing its meanings, and preventing any mechanism for change. “And as I sat there brooding on the old, unknown world, I thought of Gatsby’s wonder when he first picked out the green light at the end of Daisy’s dock” (Fitzgerald). Each incarnation of Gatsby’s vision, from the national self-conception on which it is based, to the personal self-conception, to the love, which further reproduces that self‐ conception, reductively translates or restates nothing more than an ineffable and untranslatable idea, remaining forever beyond the powers of speech or action (Gross and Gross 28).

In The Great Gatsby Fitzgerald focuses on the implicit subject of the romances. Fitzgerald links this relationship to the other major source of American identity. Gatsby is the real hero of Fitzgerald’s text (and of Nick’s) as he is the object of its criticism. “Gatsby… represented everything for which I have an unaffected scorn,” Nick confesses. He continues, “Gatsby turned out all right at the end; it is what preyed on Gatsby, what foul dust floated in the wake of his dreams that temporarily closed out my interest in the abortive sorrows and short-winded elations of men” (Fitzgerald). What redeems Gatsby as the American hero is the hope that Fitzgerald retrieves from within Gatsby’s dream and self-sacrificial fantasy. Upending the physical world, Gatsby imagines himself ascending to heaven, which is a barely disguised version of the maternal breast. “On the green Sound, stagnant in the heat, one small sail crawled slowly toward the fresher sea. Gatsby’s eyes followed it momentarily; he raised his hand and pointed across the bay” (Fitzgerald). This heaven is also the “secret place” from which all human life emerges. Gatsby’s vision is “unutterable.” It is preverbal and too horrible to be spoken. He must, then, deny it by wedding it to Daisy’s “perishable breath.” Gatsby on some level desires to link himself to sexuality and mortality. His self-conception denies this consciously, but when Daisy later contracts a cold, she becomes even more attractive to him. Yet Gatsby idealizes Daisy, immortalizing her perishable breath. “Gatsby believed in the green light, the 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…. And one fine morning“ (Fitzgerald). For Gatsby, breath does not evidence mortality. For the man persuaded that the creations of his own imagination, even when mendacious, are more valuable than factual truth, the Christian Incarnation is simply impertinent, and any other incarnation is finally impossible (Gross and Gross 87).


In sum, the green light is a unique symbol which runs through the novel and symbolizes romantic love and relations with Daisy. Thus, this symbol underlines false ideals and unachievable dreams of Gatsby. The Ideal and the real have come together, but rather a human demonstration that only frustration can result from the attempt to incarnate the ideal in the real. No one committed to a self-created imaginative ideal would ever look for salvation in the Truth which revealed Himself—nor could he ever be satisfied with any incarnation whatever.

Works Cited

Gross, D., Gross, M. Understanding the Great Gatsby: A Student Casebook to Issues, Sources, and Historical Documents. Greenwood Press, 1998.

Fitzgerald, S. n.d. Web.