Author F. Scott Fitzgerald’s novel The Great Gatsby is well known for its portrayal of the Jazz Age. Often referred to as "the Great American Novel," the story gives readers insight into the Roaring Twenties with its wealth, power, lavish parties, and alcohol bootlegging. To bring high energy to his tale, the author uses a variety of literary techniques, like metaphors and other figurative language. However, of great interest to critics is Fitzgerald’s use of symbolism. The novel is riddled with symbols from beginning to end, and each of those symbols is ripe for numerous interpretations, which should be explored separately. This analysis presents one version for each of the symbols to be discussed.
In chapter 2, narrator Nick Carraway refers to a particular bleak area symbolizing the barrenness of the American Dream as follows:
About half way between West Egg and New York the motor-road hastily joins the railroad and runs beside it for a quarter of a mile, so as to shrink away from a certain desolate area of land. 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... The valley of ashes is bounded on one side by a small foul river, and when the drawbridge is up to let barges through, the passengers on waiting trains can stare at the dismal scene for as long as half an hour.
While the "wasteland" does not necessarily relate directly to the plot or the characters in the novel, the symbol is used by Fitzgerald as a way to criticize the American society of the 1920s as morally desolate. This is one of the major themes of the book.
Peering out over the valley is a faded billboard with the large spectacles of Dr. T. J. Eckleberg, weathered by time. The leering eyes symbolize how human beings are degraded in the society of the Jazz Age. Once again, the author does not relate the sign directly to a particular character or action, but to the major themes of moral and spiritual emptiness:
But above the grey land and the spasms of bleak dust which drift endlessly over it, you perceive, after a moment, the eyes of Doctor T. J. Eckleburg. The eyes of Doctor T. J. Eckleburg are blue and gigantic—their retinas are one yard high. They look out of no face but, instead, from a pair of enormous yellow spectacles which pass over a nonexistent nose.
Consistent with the author’s use of symbolism to bolster the themes of the novel, the green light on Daisy’s dock strikes the narrator as the same scene early settlers must have witnessed upon their arrival in the New World with the hopes and dreams of a better future:
I became aware of the old island here that flowered once for Dutch sailors’ eyes—a fresh, green breast of the new world.... Its vanished trees, the trees that had made way for Gatsby’s house, had once pandered in whispers to the last and greatest of all human dreams... I thought of Gatsby’s wonder when he first picked out the green light at the end of Daisy’s dock... 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....
Through the use of symbolism, Fitzgerald defines the American Dream as the "good life" that comes from hard work, but in the Roaring Twenties, the dream decayed. American society had become a moral wasteland where deep emotions and meaningful thoughts were replaced by false appearances.