What are three symbols in The Great Gatsby?

Three symbols in The Great Gatsby are the green light, the valley of the ashes, and Gatsby's clothing. The green light symbolizes Gatsby's dream of being with Daisy. The valley of the ashes represents the dichotomy between the lives of the rich and the poor. Finally, Gatsby's clothes symbolize his idealism and desire to impress others.

Expert Answers

An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

Three of the main symbols in The Great Gatsby are the green light, the valley of ashes, and Gatsby's clothes.

The green light:From his house in West Egg, Gatsby can look across the Sound and see Daisy 's house in East Egg. He is often seen standing on...

Unlock
This Answer Now

Start your 48-hour free trial to unlock this answer and thousands more. Enjoy eNotes ad-free and cancel anytime.

Start your 48-Hour Free Trial

Three of the main symbols in The Great Gatsby are the green light, the valley of ashes, and Gatsby's clothes.

The green light:
From his house in West Egg, Gatsby can look across the Sound and see Daisy's house in East Egg. He is often seen standing on his lawn at night, looking wistfully toward a green light that burns on Tom and Daisy's dock. For him, this light represents his longing for Daisy, who seems so remote from him, yet so sublime, like a star. In chapter five, when Gatsby finally gets to meet Daisy again, he tells her,

"If it wasn't for the mist we could see your home across the bay ... You have 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.

The significance has vanished forever because now that he has the presence of Daisy herself, his enchanted dream of her is gone. The light, then, could be said to symbolize not just Gatsby's longing for Daisy and her way of life (which Nick calls Gatsby's "incorruptible dream"), but also the transience of that dream and the impossibility that things could ever actually be as Gatsby imagines.

The valley of ashes:
The valley of ashes is Nick's term for an industrial area between West Egg and New York City. In one of the links below is an article where the author shows the actual historical location of the valley of ashes, "the vast trash-burning operation in north-central Queens in the exact spot that is now Flushing Meadows-Corona Park." The valley of ashes is as different as could be from the large, gracious houses of East and West Egg. However, the residents of the Eggs have to pass through this valley every time they go to the city. They cannot ignore it. So, among other things, it symbolizes the vast difference between their lives and those of working-class people.

The inescapability of the valley of ashes hints that it symbolizes something deeper as well. The Buchanans would never consider living there, and Gatsby has spent his whole life trying to escape from places like this; nevertheless some of the novel's most important events happen in the valley. This is the home of Tom's mistress, Myrtle Wilson, and her husband George, who runs a garage. It is in the valley of ashes, right in front of the Wilsons' garage, that Daisy runs over Myrtle Wilson while driving drunk. It is from the valley of ashes that George Wilson emerges to confront Tom and kill Gatsby.

In other words, though Tom, Daisy, and Gatsby have tried to insulate themselves from the valley of ashes, they end up having to deal with it, and it even in a sense comes after them. You could say, then, that the valley also symbolizes death, fate, or perhaps simply real life.

Gatsby's clothes:
Gatsby seeks to create the impression of fabulous wealth and decadence, not only with his huge house and massive parties, but with his clothes. There is the scene in chapter five where Gatsby, manic with joy at finally meeting Daisy again, opens his closet and starts throwing his expensive shirts out onto the bed for her to admire. They are in glowing colors, "shirts with stripes and scrolls and plaids in coral and apple-green and lavender and faint orange."

The shirts help paint a picture of Gatsby's character. Gatsby is newly rich and probably has wilder taste in shirts than Tom, whose taste is likely to be more restrained. His imagination is full of impossibly beautiful hopes and longings, and he is willing to do anything to make them happen, just as he is the sort of person who buys dozens of showy shirts every season.

The connection between Gatsby's clothes and his class is made even more clear in chapter seven, during the horrible showdown between Gatsby, Daisy and Tom. Gatsby is wearing a bright pink suit during this confrontation. When someone mentions to Tom that Gatsby is "an Oxford man," and Tom sneers, "An Oxford man! Like hell he is. He wears a pink suit." Here, Gatsby's flamboyant clothing represents his "new money" status, while Tom's contempt for Gatsby's suit highlights the class divide between "old" and "new" money.

After the big confrontation at the hotel, Myrtle is tragically killed when Daisy accidentally hits her with Gatsby's car. Gatsby is still wearing the pink suit at the end of that awful evening, and Nick remarks,

I must have felt pretty weird by that time, because I could think of nothing except the luminosity of his pink suit under the moon.

At this point, Nick is feeling angry and disgusted with Gatsby, who helped Daisy flee the scene of the crime. The cheerfulness of Gatsby's pink suit seems glaringly inappropriate after what has just happened, and Gatsby himself only seems to care about Myrtle's death insofar as it affects Daisy. In this moment, Gatsby's flashy and inappropriate clothes symbolize the ways in which Gatsby—with his obsession with wealth and naive dreams of an ideal life with Daisy—is shallow, hollow, and disconnected from reality.

Last Updated by eNotes Editorial on
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

Some additional symbols in The Great Gatsby include Gatsby's mansion, car, and library.

Gatsby's mansion and car:
Gatsby's ostentatious home and car could certainly be considered symbolic of his failure to understand that being a member of society's upper crust is not just about being rich. Gatsby seems to think that money is all that is required for success, that a vast fortune will confer upon him the same social status that Tom and Daisy Buchanan enjoy. Eager to be seen as an elite member of society, Gatsby flaunts his wealth with his rather gaudy and obviously costly yellow car (that Tom calls a "circus wagon") and his over-the-top mansion in West Egg. People not born into wealth, like Gatsby himself, might think Gatsby's flashy purchases are all very fashionable and fancy, but to "old money" folks like Daisy and Tom, it is a clear sign that Gatsby is not one of them. Thus, Gatsby's mansion and car symbolize both Gatsby's desire to be seen as successful and his "outsider" status when it comes to the elite social circles to which Daisy and Tom belong.

Gatsby's library:
When Nick encounters a man he calls "Owl Eyes" in the library at one of Gatsby's parties, Owl Eyes points out that the pages of the books in the library have not been cut apart:

"See!" he cried triumphantly. "It's a bona-fide piece of printed matter. It fooled me. This fella's a regular Belasco. It's a triumph. What thoroughness! What realism! Knew when to stop, too—didn't cut the pages. But what do you want? What do you expect?"

The fact that the pages haven't been cut means that Gatsby has never read any of the books and that the whole library is just there for show, although Owl Eyes admires that Gatsby went to the trouble of filling the shelves with real books in the first place rather than simply using fakes. "Belasco" refers to a famous theatrical producer, and by calling Gatsby a Belasco, Owl Eyes is saying that Gatsby knows how to put on a fantastic show. Just like Gatsby himself appears to be totally authentic and respectable, his books look real and are beautifully bound. The library is thus symbolic, not only of Gatsby's desire to impress others—especially Daisy—but also of his deception: he is not the upper-class, respectable, old-moneyed man that he pretends to be.

Last Updated by eNotes Editorial on