Symbols and Symbolism in The Great Gatsby

Symbols and Symbolism in The Great Gatsby

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Symbolism in The Great Gatsby  

In The Great Gatsby F. Scott Fitzgerald presents a novel with intricate symbolism. Fitzgerald integrates symbolism into the heart of the novel so strongly that it is necessary to read the book several times to gain any level of understanding. The overtones and connotations that Fitzgerald gives to the dialogues, settings, and actions is a major reason why The Great Gatsby is one of the classics of the 20th century.

Three themes dominate the text of The Great Gatsby. They are time / loss, appearance / mutability, and perspective. Most of the novel's thematic structure falls neatly into one of these categories. In order to satisfactorily understand the novel, we must examine the roles of these three themes.

The word time appears 450 times in the novel either by itself or in a compound word. Fitzgerald obviously wanted to emphasize the importance of time to the overall design of the book. Time is most important to Gatsby's character. Gatsby's relationship with time is a major aspect to the plot. He wants to erase five years from not only his own life but also Daisy's. Gatsby's response to Nick, telling him that he can repeat the past, is symbolic of the tragic irony that is behind Gatsby's fate. Gatsby exclaims on page 116, "Can't repeat the past? Why of course you can!" Gatsby cannot accept Daisy until she erases the last three years of her life by telling Tom that she never loved him to his face. Gatsby fully believes what he says and thinks (or desperately hopes) that that is true about Daisy. At one part of the story he actually tells Nick how, as soon as Tom is out of the picture, he and Daisy were going to go to Memphis so they could get married at her white house just like it were five years before hand. In another scene, when Gatsby and Nick go to the Buchanans' for lunch towards the end of the book, Gatsby sees Daisy's and Tom's child for the first time. Nick describes Gatsby's expression as one of genuine surprise and suggests that Gatsby probably never before believed in the girl's existence. Gatsby is so caught up in his dream that he becomes vulnerable to the world's brutal reality.

Fitzgerald masterfully creates a time symbolism in the scene when Daisy and Gatsby meet for the first time in five years.

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As Nick enters the room where Daisy and Gatsby have just met, Gatsby is leaning nervously against the mantelpiece while resting his head upon the clock on the mantle. At an awkward pause in the conversation, the clock starts to tip as if to fall off the mantle. Gatsby dramatically catches the clock before it falls and all three characters are speechless, stricken with a strange awe of the precious clock. Nick, narrates, "I think we all believed for a moment that it had smashed in pieces on the floor." The clock was symbolizing time and Gatsby's head resting on it was all the pressure that Gatsby was putting on time. Time could not support the demands that Gatsby was making. Gatsby gingerly catching the clock and his resultant apology symbolizes the sensitivity of his plan and how necessarily delicate his methods were.

Gatsby's continuous trouble with time is again brilliantly illustrated in the scene when a couple stops by Gatsby's house with Tom Buchanan on a Sunday afternoon in the midst of a ride. The woman invites Gatsby to join them for dinner. While her invitation was sincere, she was a bit tipsy and her partner, Mr. Sloane, tried to persuade her out of it. Having accepted the invitation, Gatsby went for his coat. Mr. Sloane then dragged the other two with him and rode off saying to Nick, "Tell him we couldn't wait, will you?" Just then Gatsby walks out the door with his coat and hat, ready to go. This scene has strong overtones that connect it to how Gatsby lost Daisy to Tom.

Five years ago, Daisy and Jay Gatsby were in love. He loved to tell her all the things he was going to do in the future and she loved to listen. After he was sent overseas, they loved each other through their letters. When the war ended, he had only been gone from her for a little over a year. However, at that point Daisy was running out of time and desperately wanted Gatsby to return. Gatsby, however, realized the social barrier separating himself from Daisy and subsequently delayed his return so he could go to Oxford for an education in an attempt to remove the barrier. This delay cost him his love. Daisy did love Gatsby for one time she tried to leave home to be with him in New York before he went overseas, and on another occasion, Gatsby touched her so much that she wanted to call off the wedding the day before the ceremony. However, after such a wait she finally gave in to her parents and married Tom Buchanan. Similarly, Mr. Sloane dragged a woman away from Gatsby while he was briefly absent, as Tom Buchanan was present. Gatsby is the common victim, who does not receive even the smallest apology, in both instances with time as one of the chief assailants.

There are many characters in this novel whose perspectives are important. Since we just learnt about Daisy's history, she would be a good person to start with. Actually, Daisy's appearance blends in with her perspective. The most insightful view we have at Daisy's character comes in the first chapter when Nick has dinner at her house. After the meal, while Jordan and Tom are inside, Daisy takes off her mask and confides in Nick for a brief moment. Everything about Daisy is strange, including her eyes and voice. Daisy is always cheerful ( probably strainedly so ) and makes jokes and pointless, almost idiotic, comments. She behaves like a young girl. This conversation with Nick demonstrates her oddness. She starts by telling Nick how they hardly know each other despite being cousins, yet she then proceeds to open up and tell him her feelings which she had probably not told to more than two people in the whole world. Daisy told Nick about how she was unhappy and how her experiences had made her bitter and cynical toward everything. As suddenly as Daisy had become upset, she becomes gay again. After the intercourse, Nick actually feels farther from Daisy than before because he feels that the walls or masks that Daisy and her fellow established upper-upper class neighbors use to protect themselves from reality are a trick.

Nick is probably the character whose perspective is hardest to grasp. While he is relatively minor in the plot, his role in the novel is tremendous. Fitzgerald chose a great way to tell the story by using an observant third party. Nick gives the readers a close-up and exclusive angle on the story. However, while Nick is a spectator, his role is invaluable. Fitzgerald inserts subtle hints throughout the book that help us understand Nick, and thus the message of the novel. Nick begins his story with two helpful points; that he adheres to his father's advise and seldomly judges people and that he is bias in the favor of Gatsby when he writes, "Gatsby turned out all right at the end, it was what preyed on Gatsby..." Later in the story he confesses that he believes every man to be worthy of some virtue and that his is honesty. During the course of the book, Nick's actions also help define his character. Reading closely, we know that during his time on Long Island, he has a girlfriend, with whom he was rumored to be engaged, back at home in the west and he corresponded with her throughout the duration of the book and his affair with Jordan Baker through letters signed "Love, Nick." His relationship with Jordan Baker and their awkward breakup, when Jordan calls him dishonest, is also meaningful. Finally, the scene when Nick gets drunk for the only time in the story adds a bizarre twist to Nick's character. After drinking the entire day with Tom and his mistress, Myrtle, Nick leaves with a guest and has a homosexual experience with that guest, Mr. McKee (p.42), before ending up passed out on a bench in Penn Station at four o'clock in the morning.

Fitzgerald begins the book by giving us Nick's final thoughts on the entire summer. This interesting method previews Nick's personality. The brilliantly written discourse about a half of page long explains how Nick's experience with Gatsby and the Buchanan's has ended his interest in the "abortive sorrows and short winded elations of men."

Dr. T.J. Eckleberg's eyes give a completely different perspective to the book. His huge and unblinking celestial eyes add the presence of something higher that constantly watches and looks down upon the human scene.

Fitzgerald uses eyes as an important symbol throughout the novel (and on the cover) to help clarify the different perspectives. Owl Eyes, from Gatsby's library, provides us with an excellent example. Nick and Jordan stumble upon Owl Eyes while looking for Gatsby during a party. Owl Eyes is a character who right away realizes that Gatsby is putting on a show. His spectacles lead him to ascertain that Gatsby has a purpose behind his extravagance. In Owl Eyes' drunken ramblings about the books in the library, we can see their implications on Gatsby. Owl Eyes thought the books would be fake but since, to his astonishment, they are real, he calls Gatsby a "regular Belasco," implying that Gatsby went all out (like Belasco would) in making his home (or set) as real as possible. Nick describes Owl Eyes: "He snatched the book from me and replaced it hastily on its shelf muttering that if one brick was removed the whole library was liable to collapse." This quote echoes our previous observation about the fragileness of Gatsby's hopes and dreams. This Owl Eyes, who was so observant at Gatsby's party, was the only patron of Gatsby's parties that showed up to the funeral. Perhaps this shows that Owl Eyes was the only person who shared a similar understanding of Gatsby with Nick.

Owl Eyes conveniently brings us to the ongoing theme related to appearance and change. Gatsby's existence in West Egg was completely for Daisy. Owl Eyes was right. Gatsby built a set to fit into the role he needed to have to get back Daisy. He was "concealing his incorruptible dream." Every patron at his parties gossiped about him because he was a mystery. His shady occupation added substance to the fassade. He was continually accused of being a bootlegger (a maker of false copies). Tom referred to Gatsby's car as a "circus wagon," his actions as "stunts" and his whole operation as a "menagerie." Gatsby simply wanted to be the man that was able to have Daisy. This dream was torn down by the utter carelessness of the Buchanan's and that "rotten crowd."

The key to Daisy's appearance was her lack of foundation. She was constantly changing and had no real definition. By the end of the book, she becomes utterly despised by the readers. Her recklessness was without end. Despite killing Myrtle Wilson ( ironically the lover of Tom, who was running towards the car because she thought Tom was in it) and in her silence, killing Gatsby, was amazingly able to go on living her life like it had never happened. Daisy's statement earlier in the book partially explains her state of oblivion; "That's the best thing a girl can be in this world, a beautiful little fool." The only explanation for Daisy's destructiveness was that, as a fool, she did not know any better.

Daisy and Tom, along with all of the other patrons at the Saturday evening parties, forgot about Gatsby as soon as Mr. Wilson finally made the book so tragically ironic. The plot involving the two cars and a round trip to and from New York City was a masterpiece. Throughout the book, Fitzgerald had been using water / ocean words, like floating and drifting, to have a strong negative connotation of loss. One person at Gatsby's party participated in the gossip by adding that she had heard that Gatsby's house wasn't a house at all, but a disguised ship that floated around to different places to give parties. Finally, near the books conclusion, Fitzgerald hints at his thesis with Nick's description on page 141 when Jordan, Tom and he returned from the city: "The Buchanan's house floated suddenly toward us through the dark..." Tom's facilitation of Mr. Wilson's murdering of Gatsby followed by Mr. Wilson killing himself was a post-climatic climax. This end finally made us realize the definite evil of the "Tom Buchanans" and feel wrenched emotions on behalf of Gatsby, "the poor son-of-a-bitch." While Gatsby was perhaps corrupt, what he stood for (his dream) was absolutely immaculate and genuine.
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