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Symbolism of Green in Great Gatsby

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Indian-American author Fareed Zakaria once stated, “Americans have so far put up with inequality because they felt they could change their status. They didn’t mind others being rich, as long as they had a path to move up as well. The American Dream is all about social mobility in a sense – the idea that anyone can make it.” The idea of social mobility and the creation of oneself into one’s idolized vision of affluence in society is central in the novel The Great Gatsby, as it is pursued religiously by Jay Gatsby, the eccentric millionaire behind lavishly outrageous parties in the 1920s era. The Great Gatsby is the story of Jay Gatsby, as told by Nick Carraway, a Midwesterner who travels to Manhattan to begin a career in the bond business. Living adjacent to Gatsby’s mansion, Nick becomes curious about his neighbor, finally meeting him as he is invited to one of his famous parties. Here Nick learns that Gatsby is in love with Daisy Buchanan, Nick’s cousin and the wife of Tom Buchanan, Nick’s colleague from Yale. He also learns that Gatsby and Daisy had once been in love, but Daisy married Tom while Gatsby was away during the Great War, thus prompting Gatsby to abandon his old identity and amass a fortune in hopes to win her back; ultimately failing to regain her admiration, he falls into utter despair, his life violently extinguished by the end of the novel. In the case of The Great Gatsby, symbolism is heavily demonstrated through the use of the color green. No matter the culture, green insinuates vitality and hope, and conversely, wealth and ambition, much like Gatsby presents in his perusal of his dreams. In the novel The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald, the symbolic and repeated use of the color green throughout the novel first exemplifies Gatsby’s aspirations to reunite with Daisy, but progresses to symbolize the delusional conviction possessed by Gatsby in his pursuit of his idealized vision; with his failure to reconcile his desires, the symbolism of green collapses, now standing for the unreachable dream that lives inside all people, connecting to Fitzgerald’s commentary on the illusion of social mobility.

The archetypal color green is first introduced as a green light at the end of Daisy Buchanan’s dock, as an elusively powerful object that has great symbolic meaning for Gatsby, later transitioning to represent the invention of Gatsby into his idealized self-vision, and developing later to symbolize the destruction of Gatsby’s pursuits, and simultaneously the impossibility of social mobility. The first time the color green is observed is After Nick returns home from dinner with the Buchanans, where he sees Gatsby for the first time. Nick looks out at the water, but all he can see is a distant green light marking the end of a dock. He notes how, “… [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 far away, that might have been the end of a dock.” (24). In Gatsby’s eyes, the green light is representative of Daisy. Gatsby, set to win Daisy back, is yet to lose hope and yearns towards the green light, which possesses the same hopefulness archetypally. Though the light is “… minute and far away…”(24), he retains the belief that he is able to reach the green light, hold onto his hope and reconcile his dreams, despite the truth that Gatsby’s illusions of prosperity are brief, unattainable figments. As the novel progresses, rumors about Gatsby circulate. Having learned the truth about Gatsby’s life sometime before writing his account, Nick now retells Gatsby’s personal history truthfully, writing, “James Gatz- that was really, or at least legally, his name. He had changed it at the age of seventeen and at the specific moment that witnessed the beginning of his career… It was James Gatz who had been loafing along the beach that afternoon in a torn green jersey and a pair of canvas pants, but it was already Jay Gatsby…” (104-105). Nick’s description of Gatsby’s life reveals the sensitivity to status that spurs Gatsby on. Aware of his poverty, the young Gatsby developed a powerful obsession with amassing wealth and status that contradicts the air of simplicity that his “green jersey and pair of canvas pants…” (104-105) represents. Gatsby’s act of recasting himself through the creation of “Jay Gatsby” symbolizes his desire to relinquish his lower-class identity and become the wealthy man he envisions. In truth, Jay Gatsby sprang from his envisionment of himself, and to this illusion, he was faithful to his demise. In this instance, green is most representative of Gatsby’s youth; his old self on the cusp of transformation, and his development into Jay Gatsby, enamored with the meretricious beauty of a life of wealth and luxury, yet still ignorant to the facade of such aspirations. As the novel continues, Gatsby shows his enormous fortune to Daisy, who begins to cry when she is faced with his incredible wealth. Gatsby speaks to Daisy, saying, “If it wasn’t for the mist we could see your home across the bay… You always have a green light that burns all night at the end of your dock” (100). Daisy, “seemed absorbed in what he had just said. Possibly it had occurred to him that the colossal significance of that light had now vanished forever” (100). Gatsby, nearly realizing his dream, becomes lost in a deep reverie in lieu of the disparity between the real Daisy and Daisy as he’d imagined her. Now the green light seems to have lost its original allure and fascinating charm for Gatsby, symbolic of the difference between his dreams and reality and indicative of the spuriousness of social mobility; what is beautiful in the imagination is but fragility in reality. Gatsby tells Daisy about his nights spent outside, staring at the green light at the end of her dock, dreaming of their future together, and Nick wonders if Daisy can live up to Gatsby’s vision of her. As Gatsby, previously enamored, becomes aware of this, he realizes that the green light, once representative of, “the great distance that had separated him from Daisy…” (99-100) was now just “… again a green light on a dock. His count of enchanted objects had diminished by one” (99-100). Gatsby revalued his character according to the measure of response he believed it would draw from Daisy, and with the loss of the meaning of the green light comes the failure to reconcile his desires, and the projection of the futility in aspiring towards wealthiness; With the green light no longer symbolic of Gatsby’s hopefulness in the way it once was, Gatsby looks upon his possessions in a dazed way as though in the green light’s actual and astounding presence, none of it was any longer real, a signifier of the beginning of the end.

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Just as the archetypal color green served to represent Gatsby’s diligent hopefulness, the color progresses further to symbolize the delusional conviction possessed by Gatsby in his pursuit of wealth and failure to reconcile Daisy as he realizes his incapability to satisfy her, and finally, as Gatsby’s dreams are devastated, green instead conveys the unreachable dream that lives inside all people, one that is as unattainable as the green light at the end of Gatsby’s dock. Gatsby invites Tom and additional guests to stay over for dinner, yet Tom, contemptuous of Gatsby’s lack of social grace and critical of Daisy’s habit of visiting Gatsby’s house alone, is suspicious of the pair. He has not yet discovered Gatsby and Daisy’s fondness of each other. Later, Daisy, Nick, and Tom attend one of Gatsby’s parties, and while Daisy is initially awed by the excitement, finds the revelry oppressive at its conclusion. Nick, aware that Gatsby’s dream is dwindling, had, “grown used to it, grown to accept West Egg as a world complete in itself, with its own standards and its own great figures…” (112). Daisy, initially enamored, states, “These things excite me SO… If you want to kiss me any time during the evening, Nick, just let me know and I’ll be glad to arrange it for you. Just mention my name. Or present a green card. I’m giving out green…” (112). Green here is symbolic of the initial vitality of Daisy’s excitement, yet it is quick to fade as Daisy becomes cognate of the gaudiness of Gatsby’s display of wealth. Gatsby retains that his fortune and social class can reconcile Daisy, yet Nick reflects that much like the meretriciousness of West Egg social class, Gatsby’s dream is spurious. Gatsby is later framed in cold blood by Tom, and is consequently murdered; Daisy retreats back to Tom, extinguishing Gatsby’s unfulfilled dreams of winning her over. On his last night in West Egg before moving, Nick walks over to Gatsby’s empty mansion and considers what the island looked like to explorers who discovered the New World centuries before. He imagines that it was once a goal for dreamers, just as attaining his idealized vision of himself was to Gatsby. He pictures the green land of America as the green light from Daisy’s dock and muses that Gatsby failed to realize that the dream was an illusion and that his goals had become hollow and empty. In his thoughts, Nick voices, “… I became aware of the old island here … a fresh, green breast of the new world… had once pandered in whispers to the last and greatest of all human dreams; for a transitory enchanted moment man must have held his breath in the presence of Free…” (192). Green is symbolically used to portray the fertility and opportunity that was once present in this “.. new world…” (192), but is soured by the implementation of a rigid class structure that excludes newcomers from its upper reaches, and is instead representative of the eventual destruction of Gatsby’s hopes. Gatsby, presented with the “… fresh, green breast of a new world…” (192) had the audacity to dream of creating a radically different future for himself, but his dream ends in failure, solidifying the illusion that was social mobility in the 1920s era. With the death of Gatsby comes the death of the opportunistic faith in the accumulation of wealth and prosperity, indicative of the disillusionment of social mobility. Nick once again ponders of Gatsby, thinking, “… of Gatsby’s wonder when he first picked out the green light at the end of Daisy’s dock. He had come a long way… and his dream must have seemed so close that he could hardly fail to grasp it. He did not know that it was already behind him, somewhere back in that vast obscurity beyond the city… Gatsby believed in the green light, the orgastic future that year by year recedes before us. It eluded us…” (192-193). Besides the disillusionment of this dream, the reappearance of the green light also is symbolic of new hope and the ceaseless struggle to climb the social ladder. Gatsby, with love and wealth, disconcerts his dream and gambles on Daisy, who remains indifferent. In such a society full of materialism, carefree hedonism, and rigidly defined classes, Gatsby’s pursuit of his idealized vision is incompatible with the social environment, thus proving Fitzgerald’s theme of the illusion of social mobility to be veracious.

The Great Gatsby is a work of literary masterpiece serving to capture the mood and characteristics of the 1920s era. The symbolism through the color green at work throughout the entirety of the novel plays an integral role in developing the plot, shaping characters and deepening the theme of the illusion of social mobility. Among different symbols Fitzgerald employed in this novel, the intrinsic nature of the color green makes a deep impression, containing and being given a meaning deeper than surface-level wherever it appears. Green, most associated with the idea and character of Gatsby’s dreams and idealized vision of himself, is just as minute and out of reach as this is to Gatsby. Symbolic of Gatsby’s original hopes and dreams of rekindling his lost love with Daisy, green is intertwined with his ceaseless pursuit and the eventual corruption and futility of this dream, and allows readers to question whether Fitzgerald’s theme of the true illusion of social mobility is ever-present among society today, much as it was in the 1920s era.

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Symbolism of Green in Great Gatsby. (2022, December 27). Edubirdie. Retrieved March 30, 2023, from
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