Color Symbolism in The Great Gatsby
Color is everywhere, on everything, and is vital to how people interpret and view the world. Colors catch one’s attention and shape the appearance of the objects they represent. For many years, writers have been using colors symbolically to strengthen their novel’s plot and theme. One writer, in particular, F. Scott Fitzgerald uses the significance of colors vastly throughout his novel The Great Gatsby. Narrated by Nick Carraway, The Great Gatsby tells a story of a desperate man, Jay Gatsby, and his quest to win Daisy Buchanan. Although the novel depicts a failed love story, The Great Gatsby represents much more. F. Scott Fitzgerald presents the colors green, white, and grey throughout the novel to deepen the readers’ understanding of the plot and theme. This deliberate use of color in The Great Gatsby highlights the disillusionment of the American Dream and the corrupt nature of society.
Throughout time, many have associated the color green with rebirth and hope; however, in The Great Gatsby, Fitzgerald uses the color green to represent hopelessness and the failure of the American Dream. The American Dream is a belief held by many Americans that with hard work and determination one can achieve one’s dreams. In the novel, the color green is represented through the green light at the end of Daisy’s dock. The light symbolizes Gatsby’s hopeful quest to win Daisy back from her husband Tom Buchanan. Furthermore, the green light embodies Gatsby’s long-held hope for Daisy and the belief “that only if he tries his best to pursue it, he can touch the green light, hold his hope and realize his dream. But on the other hand, as the light is always minute and far away, it symbolizes that Gatsby’s dream is doomed to fail” (Haibing 41). In other words, the color green portrays Gatsby’s hope for Daisy, but also his failure to obtain her because Gatsby’s devotion to his dream ironically leads to his own failure (Seiters 90). Gatsby’s infatuation with Daisy blinds him to the reality that he is fighting a hopeless battle because he “believe[s] in the green light, the orgiastic future that year by year recedes before [him]” (Fitzgerald 180). Gatsby believes he can repeat the past he had with Daisy, and, therefore, he does anything in his power to obtain her. However, by the end of the novel, Gatsby’s dream is described as “boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past” (Fitzgerald 180). Because Gatsby trusts in his dream, he is unable to see that he is fighting for an unattainable girl. Fitzgerald uses the green light to highlight Gatsby’s struggle to turn his dream into reality to point out the disillusionment of the American Dream and the belief that if one works hard enough one will be successful. Through the color green and its representation of Gatsby’s dream for Daisy, Fitzgerald highlights that the American Dream is seen as wonderful and attainable, but corrupt and often elusive in reality.
Similar to the color green, Fitzgerald employs the color white through Daisy to contradict the belief that white represents innocence and purity. In the novel, Daisy wears white dresses, drives white cars, and lives in a white house to suggest she is innocent and pure. Furthermore, the first appearance of Daisy in the novel occurs when Nick goes to have dinner at the Buchanans’ house, where he finds Daisy wearing a white dress to further imply her innocence and purity. However, as the novel progresses, the reader gains an understanding that Daisy is not as pure as she appears:
“Fitzgerald evokes two meanings of white: one is the traditional meaning of purity; the second is the empowerment of whiteness. Daisy, as she is initially presented, represents both privilege and purity— a kind of princess figure [ . . . in] Gatsby’s dream. However, the different shades of white indicate that Daisy may not be an embodiment of purity and that privilege may have a corrupting effect.” (Samkanashvili 32)
Daisy’s corruption is evident towards the end of the novel when she and Gatsby return home from New York. On that ride back, Daisy, who is ironically associated with the color white, hits and kills Myrtle Wilson, Tom’s mistress. Not only does she cause Myrtle’s death, but she also causes Gatsby’s as well. Gatsby takes responsibility for Myrtle’s death due to his strong devotion to Daisy and because “he had committed himself to the follow of a grail. He knew that Daisy was extraordinary, but he didn’t realize how extraordinary a ‘nice’ girl could be. She vanished into her rich house, into her rich, full life, leaving Gatsby — nothing” (Fitzgerald 149). Gatsby’s blindness to Daisy’s corruption results in his downfall, thus revealing Fitzgerald’s symbolic meaning behind the color white. Fitzgerald demonstrates through the color white, the corrupt nature of society in that what appears pure on the outside is often hollow and superficial on the inside (Elmore 441). By the end of the novel, Daisy is seen as corrupt in contrast to her initial impression of pure and innocent. Daisy is one of the most corrupt characters in the novel due to her associations with the murders of Gatsby and Myrtle. However, she is too consumed with her privileged lifestyle to have remorse for their deaths. Fitzgerald contradicts Gatsby’s envisionment of Daisy as the paradigm of purity and uses the color white to instead cast Daisy as corrupt, selfish, and materialistic. This deliberate use of color reveals to the reader that Fitzgerald ironically associates Daisy with the color white to unveil the sinfulness and corrupt nature of society.
In literature grey symbolically represents corruption, death, decay, and emptiness; Fitzgerald uses the literary meaning behind the color grey through the Valley of Ashes to depict the failed American Dream and the corrupt nature of society. The Valley of Ashes is a desolate and impoverished place “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” (Fitzgerald 23). Nick describes the Valley of Ashes as a grey wasteland filled with death and decay. He even describes the inhabitants of the Valley of Ashes as decaying to depict their bleak and empty state of being. Not only does the atmosphere represent a decaying society, but an actual death occurs here as well. As mentioned before, the death of Myrtle Wilson occurs in the Valley of Ashes to further signify a dark and decaying society unknown to the likes of many like the Buchanans. Myrtle’s death portrays such a society because all of the deaths in the novel stem from her death in the Valley of Ashes. Fitzgerald uses the color grey to describe the “sordid reality lying beneath the fictions of the American [D]ream of limitless [o]pportunity and [a]chievement” (Schneider 145). In other words, the color grey signifies the truth behind society in that the American Dream is elusive and society is corrupt. Furthemore, Fitzgerald intentionally places the Valley of Ashes “between [the] West Egg and New York” to further represent the corrupt reality of society rather than the perfect facade both East and West Egg establish (Fitzgerald 23). Both Gatsby and Myrtle believe in the lives they envisioned; however, the grey-stained Valley of Ashes leads to their destruction. Fitzgerald’s deliberate use of the color grey, as seen through the Valley of Ashes, resembles a society of failed dreams and spiritless inhabitants highlighting the corruptive, bleakness, and elusive atmosphere of the novel. Therefore, one can see Fitzgerald uses the color grey to represent the reality of society rather than the facade it establishes.
Fitzgerald’s intentional use of colors in The Great Gatsby helps to portray a malicious society. Fitzgerald uses color symbolism to deepen the readers understanding of the plot, theme, and the characters. Although at first glance the novel seems to tell of a failed quest for love, the symbolic use of colors helps to reveal a story of a corrupt society and the disillusionment of the American Dream. The color green embodies Gatsby’s dream of achieving Daisy; however, by the end of the novel, green represents disillusionment and corruption. Furthermore, white, which is closely associated with Daisy, represents false purity to point out that in reality the American Dream is corrupt and flawed. Finally, the color grey is used to depict a decayed society drowned in death, corruption, sin, and disillusionment. All three colors are used vastly throughout the novel to express the corrupt nature of man and his dream. Therefore, as one can see, without the use of colors The Great Gatsby would fail to tell a story depicting the reality of society in the 1920s and the truths behind the elusive land of “milk and honey.” Fitzgerald’s deliberate use of colors in The Great Gatsby transforms the novel to reveal reality rather than the envisioned fictions of society, which is why the novel was as relatable when published as it remains today.
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