F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “The Great Gatsby” is rich in symbolism, which is portrayed on several different levels in a variety of ways. One of the most important qualities of symbolism within this novel, is the way in which it is so fully integrated into the plot and structure. Some of the symbols are used mostly as tools for characterization such as Wolfsheim’s cuff links, Gatsby’s huge library of uncut books, and Tom’s repeated gesture of physically pushing other people around.
Other symbols such as Gatsby’s car, symbolizing material wealth in America and its destructfulness, have a function in the plot as well as a more abstract significance. However, the major symbols such as the valley of ashes, the green light, and the east and west, are filled with meanings that go beyond the plot, and truly capture Fitzgerald’s theme of this novel; the corruption of the American dream.
The corruptive effect of wealth is shown by the conflict between the established rich, represented by the East Eggers, and the newly rich, represented by the West Eggers. West Egg is the home of the nouveaux riche, of Gatsby and those like him who have made huge fortunes, but lack the traditions associated with inherited wealth and are therefore vulgar. The East Eggers, represented by the Buchanans have the traditions and lack vulgarity, but they have been corrupted by the purposelessness and the empty futures their money has provided. The downfall of the American promise is also symbolized by the reversal of east and west. When the settlers came to the “New World” (America) to escape persecution and the corruption of their countries, they traveled from east to west. However, since the ideal has been corrupted, people travel from west to east attracted by the wealth and a materialistic life, masking the true emptiness of their goal of happiness. Daisy, Tom, Nick, Jordan, and Gatsby all were westerners, and by moving east, they moved from a world of values to a moral vacuum, represented by the “valley of ashes.”
The valley of ashes represent a modern world, which is like a grotesque hell created by modern industry. Factories and trains, produced in the manufacture of wealth, has polluted America with its wastes. It is a physical desert that symbolizes the spiritual desolation, that a society based on money creates. Overlooking the valley, are the sightless eyes of T.J. Ecklburg, an advertisement on a billboard in which a character actually confuses as God. It represents a God who has been created by modern society to make money. It represents a God who no longer sees nor cares. The whole valley symbolizes a world whose inhabitants are so spiritually lost, that they worship money and wealth. The promise of happiness, hope, and freedom that America gave its first settlers, has been corrupted by the lies of greed, and the emptiness of a dream based on wealth.
Green is the color of promise,of hope, renewal, and ultimately the green light to which Gatsby stretches out his arms. The green light symbolically corresponds to the “green breast of a new world,” and at the end fuses Gatsby’s vision of Daisy with that of the explorers who had discovered the promise of a new continent. What ultimately preys on the vision, the goal, is that in America and by Gatsby it can only be attained through the acquisition of material possessions.
Gatsby is a symbol for the whole American experience. The corruption of his dream, by using materialism as its means and the illusion of youth and beauty as its goal, is the corruption of American idealism, which in turn becomes the empty promise. In the end Gatsby is destroyed by his illusions of Daisy, just as the fresh landscape of America has been converted into a depressing “valley of ashes,” and the sacred green light becomes nothing but a bulb burning at the end of Daisy’s dock.