Using examples from F. Scott Fitzgerald's novel The Great Gatsby, decide what color would Gatsby be associated with and explain how the color imagery helps the reader gain a deeper understanding of the character. How do color connotations apply to Gatsby? How does Fitzgerald use particular colors to illuminate specific character traits?
As with other elements of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s novel The Great Gatsby, the author’s use of color has been extensively analyzed for its significance. The first, and most obvious use of color involves the green light at the end of Daisy Buchanan’s dock, which Jay Gatsby fixates on from his estate across the bay. Gatsby, and the story’s narrator, Nick, live in the nouveau riche West Egg section of Long Island, which Fitzgerald contrasts with the “old money” community of East Egg. Gatsby’s habit of gazing longingly across the bay at the Buchanan’s estate, with that green light the most visible landmark, imbues the color green with great significance for Fitzgerald’s story. Late in Chapter 1, Nick describes his first sighting of Jay Gatsby as the latter stands alone on his lawn:
“I decided to call to him. Miss Baker had mentioned him at dinner, and that would do for an introduction. But I didn’t call to him for he gave a sudden intimation that he was content to be alone—he stretched out his arms toward the dark water in a curious way, and far as I was from him I could have sworn he was trembling. Involuntarily I glanced seaward—and distinguished nothing except a single green light, minute and far away, that might have been the end of a dock.”
The green light is perhaps the novel’s most prominent symbol. To Gatsby, it represents his hoped-for entrée into the world of the “old money” aristocracy whose respect he so desperately craves. It also, however, represents his entrée into the heart of Daisy Buchanan, a woman about whom he is obsessed. Chapter 5 of The Great Gatsby is one of the more important in terms of the development of the Gatsby character, and his need for the seemingly superficial and impetuous Daisy. Having convinced Nick to arrange a get-together between Daisy and Gatsby, the color green assumes increasing importance to the narrative. As Gatsby and Daisy enjoy each other’s company, but with the realization that any meaningful relationship is likely out of reach:
“‘If it wasn’t for the mist we could see your home across the bay,’ said Gatsby. ‘You always have a green light that burns all night at the end of your dock.’
“Daisy put her arm through his abruptly but he seemed absorbed in what he had just said. Possibly it had occurred to him that the colossal significance of that light had now vanished forever. Compared to the great distance that had separated him from Daisy it had seemed very near to her, almost touching her. It had seemed as close as a star to the moon. Now it was again a green light on a dock. His count of enchanted objects had diminished by one.”
Any doubt that Fitzgerald intended that green light to carry great weight in is novel is certainly dispelled with the story’s ending, after Gatsby has been killed and Nick reflects upon the dead friend he would never really know:
“And as I sat there brooding on the old, unknown world, I thought of Gatsby’s wonder when he first picked out the green light at the end of Daisy’s dock.”
“Gatsby believed in the green light, the orgastic future that year by year recedes before us. It eluded us then, but that’s no matter . . .”
Green is not the only color that carries symbolic importance in Fitzgerald’s novel. White is also a much discussed theme among literary critics. White represents both purity – in the eyes of Gatsby – and of success. Early in the novel, Nick, describing that “old money” enclave known as East Egg, provides the following observation:
“Across the courtesy bay the white palaces of fashionable East Egg glittered along the water, and the history of the summer really begins on the evening I drove over there to have dinner with the Tom Buchanans.”
And, as Nick is guided through the gleaming white mansion of Tom and Daisy Buchanan, he encounters two women:
“The only completely stationary object in the room was an enormous couch on which two young women were buoyed up as though upon an anchored balloon. They were both in white and their dresses were rippling and fluttering as if they had just been blown back in after a short flight around the house.”
During dinner that evening, the color white is once again used to suggest purity, only, this time, of the racial kind. Agitated by the evening’s discourse, Tom laments the threat to Anglo-Saxon dominance he perceives building across the country:
“’I’ve gotten to be a terrible pessimist about things. Have you read ‘The Rise of the Coloured Empires’ by this man Goddard?’
‘Why, no,’ I answered, rather surprised by his tone.
‘Well, it’s a fine book, and everybody ought to read it. The idea is if we don’t look out the white race will be – will be utterly submerged.’”
The racial theme recurs later in the evening, when Jordan Baker departs and Daisy begins to describe the two women’s upbringing:
“’Is she from New York,’ I asked quickly.
‘From Louisville. Our white girlhood was passed together there. Our beautiful white . . .’”
Daisy Fay (the future Mrs. Buchanan) is described in her youth as having dressed in white and owning a “little white roadster.” White represents purity, but only in the sense that Gatsby idolizes Daisy and views her through his own particular prism in which she is the one pure possession he believes he must own.
Jordan Baker’s hair is described under the light as “autumn-leaf yellow.” Dr. T.J. Eckleberg is described as wearing “enormous yellow spectacles,” the auto repair shop Tom takes Nick to visit is a yellow-brick building, from which, “high over the city our line of yellow windows must have contributed their share of human secrecy to the casual watcher in the darkening streets.” As Gatsby’s party drags on into the night, “the orchestra is playing yellow cocktail music and the opera of voices pitches a key higher.” One can surmise from these examples, and others, that the color yellow, to Fitzgerald, represents something less than virtuous – a contrast from his use of white. The “two girls in twin yellow dresses” are the vacuous partiers lacking in any kind of substance and eager to spread rumors regarding Gatsby’s background (“Somebody told me they thought he killed a man once”; “. . .its more that he was a German spy during the war.”) Gatsby drives a “big yellow car. New.” Yellow represents the falsity of Gatsby’s existence. It isn’t real. There’s no there there, to paraphrase Gertrude Stein. In this sense, if one is looking to select a color to represent the character of Jay Gatsby, it should be yellow, just like his car – the ostentatious symbol of his vanity. Personally, however, I would choose black. Jay Gatsby is a tragic figure. He is struggling with all his might to gain entrance into a world not his own. He is an enigma. The former Jimmy Gatz has tried to transform himself into the personification of white, but he’s really quite black.