Throughout The Great Gatsby, F. Scott Fitzgerald repeatedly uses a number of symbols that are associated with specific characters or groups of characters. By attaching an object to a specific person, the author helps the reader understand an individual’s motivation for behaving in specific ways. Each person has distinctive hopes and dreams and has specific ways of pursuing those goals. Beyond individual considerations, Fitzgerald situates the characters within their social environments, especially class, and reveals how their status limits them from getting what they want. Two of the symbols that work well on both the individual and the group level are the green light on the Buchanans’ dock and the bleak landscape that Nick calls the Valley of Ashes.
The green light is especially significant in regard to Gatsby, and it applies to his unfulfilled desire for Daisy as well as his optimism about winning her over once again. Although Jay is tied to the past in many ways, he has boundless faith in the future. His obsession with convincing Daisy to share his future is shown by his constantly gazing at the light. However, the light on the dock is actually out of reach, across the water, just as Daisy is unattainable. Despite gaining immense wealth, Gatsby cannot overcome the class difference between them.
On the way into New York, Tom persuades Nick to stop and visit the Wilsons’ garage. As the train passes through a “desolate” landscape scattered with ashes and “bleak dust,” Nick vividly describes how the heaps of ashes resemble not just hills but even buildings. Referring to the grayness of this “waste land,” Nick explains where the isolated garage is located. The vast extent of this area stands for the futility of Myrtle’s hopes of escaping through her affair with Tom. The desolation and lack of color symbolize the hopeless situation of George Wilson, which eventually overtakes Gatsby when George kills him.