How does F. Scott Fitzgerald use figurative language in his novel The Great Gatsby?

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mwestwood eNotes educator| Certified Educator

In his artistic narrative, Fitzgerald employs figurative language to create metaphoric representations of his motifs and to enhance and develop his themes. Beginning with an almost magical Gatsby--the "great" Gatsby--who can recreate the past much like a magician, Fitzgerald introduces his character mysteriously one evening, stationed on the green lawn gazing at the single green light on the end of Daisy's pier. Poetically, Nick notes,

When I looked once more for Gatsby he had vanished, and I was alone again in the unquiet darkness.

And, with his magical power of dreaming, expressed in such figurative language as this example,

a promise that the rock of the world was founded securely on a fairy's wing,

Gatsby transforms himself into a platonic conception of himself--"a son of God"--but using illegal and corrupt means to do so. Thus, the romance is contaminated in the novel, and Daisy, whose voice possesses

an inexhaustible charm...the jingle of it, the cymbals' song of it.... the golden girl...

loses her appeal after she reveals her true materialistic nature as foreshadowed by her acceptance of Tom Buchanan's proposal and the spectacularly costly $350,000 string of pearls; Gatsby, then, understands "what a grotesque thing a rose is" and "the colossal vitality" of his illusion.  Like his automobile that once seems "to mirror a thousand suns" and have fenders "like wings," his dream of love is dead just as the car becomes the "yellow death car."

With the allusion of songs from the Jazz Age, Fitzgerald evokes the tenor of the time of his narrative, one that also acts as a metaphor for the disillusion of Jay Gatsby's personal and idealized American Dream; for his case is merely "the service of a vast, vulgar, and meretricious beauty."

Symbols also support motifs and themes. The eyes of Dr. T. J. Ecklebury "brood on over the solemn dumping ground" of the Valley of Ashes, which represent the waste and corruption of the industrial city of New York. Later in the novel, after Myrtle Wilson is killed, her husband George looks to these eyes as he searches for an answer to his wife's senseless death.  Later, George declares, "God sees everything."  Similarly, a guest of Gatsby's, a middle-aged man with "owl-eyed spectacles" much like those of Ecklebury, notices that Gatsby possesses a genuineness because his leather-covered books are real.  Gatsby's car, a metaphoric representation of the flying Icarus of mythology, symbolizes his grand dreams that crumble and are destroyed.

Certainly, abundant color imagery enhances the significance of Fitzgerald's motifs.  For instance, the white and gold associated with Daisy from her name to her dress, her pearl necklace, and her car connote a purity that is corrupted by materialism at its center like the flower for whom she is named, just as Gatsby with his many-colored shirts and pink suits develop his idealism that is later destroyed as having become an imitation of himself, he stands in the moonlight on the Buchanan lawn and the "pink glow from Daisy's room," as he "watch[es] over nothing."

A lyrical Realist, F. Scott Fitzgerald successfully combines illusion and disillusion in his novel The Great Gatsby through his utilization of figurative language that provides an aura of mystery and romance to Jay Gatsby, whose "extraodinary gift of hope" and idealization of Daisy ends with his floating on his pool like a ghost. The Great Gatsby is almost a fairy tale.

lhc eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Some of Fitzgerald's most effective figurative language is directed toward describing Daisy Buchanan, "gleaming like silver, safe and proud above the hot struggles of the poor", a woman whose voice is "full of money". This simile and metaphor, respectively, contrast sharply with Fitzgerald's description of the world of the poor couple George and Myrtle Wilson:

This is a valley of ashes—a fantastic farm where ashes grow like wheat into ridges and hills and grotesque gardens; where ashes take the forms of houses and chimneys and rising smoke and, finally, with a transcendent effort, of ash-gray men who move dimly and already crumbling through the powdery air.…

While Daisy inhabits the world of cool, green, picturesque New York estates, George and Myrtle struggle through every day in a hell of dryness and dirt that evokes some of the images of the Dust Bowl that will follow on the heels of the Jazz Age and the Great Depression. 

This use of figurative language is one of many things Fitzgerald is acclaimed for as a master of the literary form of the novel.  The Great Gatsby is a relatively short novel as novels go; its artistic excellence lies in Fitzgerald's ability to tell his story with the greatest possible meaning while using the fewest possible words.  Like a poet of sorts, Fitzgerald operates on an economy of words, choosing them so carefully that he creates meaning and emotion of the widest range, telling his readers things that would take an amateur writer pages and pages to describe, and perhaps still not attain. 

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The Great Gatsby

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