Explain the green light in The Great Gatsby.

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Lorraine Caplan eNotes educator| Certified Educator

The green light in The Great Gatsby (Fitzgerald) is probably one of the most famous symbols in American literature.  We first see it in the very first chapter and see it again on the very last page of the book, with a symmetry that is stunningly effective.

As a literal matter, the green light is a light at the end of the dock of the house of Daisy and Tom Buchanan, who live in one of the "white palaces of fashionable East Egg" (10).  From Gatsby's house in West Egg, across the bay, the light is "minute and far away" (26).

The light symbolizes the American dream and Gatsby's version of it.  When Gatsby "stretched his arms toward the dark water in a curious way..." (25), Nick says it seemed that his arms trembled, and while Nick knows little of Gatsby at this point, it does seem as though Gatsby is reaching out toward the green light, since that is all Nick can see in the distance.  Looking back, Nick says, it "must have seemed so close that he could hardly fail to grasp it" (189). But the dream, Nick goes on, "was already behind him..." (189), the green light representing "the orgiastic future that year by year recedes before us" (189).  From the earliest settlers, the Dutch sailors, Americans were given a green light, a hope and promise of "a fresh, green breast of the new world" (189), but that green light is an ever-receding goal and promise. 

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The Great Gatsby

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