What are some symbols in Chapter 3 of The Great Gatsby?

Expert Answers

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

Chapter 3 of The Great Gatsby is particularly filled with symbols of wealth, opulence and wastefulness. Some of these symbols are very subtle in their suggestiveness. Gatsby has a Rolls-Royce, perhaps the most famous luxury brand of car in the world, but also an English car rather than an American limousine. Gatsby fetishes England, partly because its antiquity trumps the old money of East Egg, but also because it is safely distant. Oxford is a lot older than Yale, but Gatsby can also pretend to have been educated at Oxford with impunity: if he claimed to have gone to Yale, Nick and Tom would both know he was lying. The Rolls-Royce symbolizes not only Gatsby's wealth, but his aspirations.

The crates of oranges and lemons are equally symbolic. To have five crates of them delivered from New York every Friday is an extravagant gesture, and the bright orange and yellow fruits must be as beautiful as flowers. On Monday, they are nothing but pith and skin, as empty and lifeless as the hungover party guests probably feel. In the meantime, they have had all the juice squeezed out of them, rather as Gatsby's false friends have bled him dry. The fact that the party, like all parties, never lives up to the anticipation is symbolized by the tedious repetitiveness of the butler having to operate the juicing machine two hundred times in half an hour.

The same care is taken with many other symbols in the chapter. Gatsby's library, for instance, is like him: a fake, but a thorough and partly convincing fake, the type of fake, in fact, which makes one question the genuineness of the real thing. The library is panelled with carved English oak, which may come from a real English library, but was "probably transported complete from some ruin overseas." The books are real books, not merely leather spines glued onto shelves. That sort of cheap sham would be beneath Gatsby. On the other hand, Gatsby has never read the books, as the pages remain uncut. In any case, they are the type of books no one ever reads: Stoddard's Lectures. Gatsby has purchased rows of worthy, classic, leather-bound books to fill the shelves of his faux gothic library, creating an approximate simulation of the type of library old families and colleges build up over centuries. This, like his gigantic new house, is a symbol of Gatsby and his approach to life.

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

While the most important symbols in the chapter have been covered by a previous educator, other symbols can be found. One is the sea. We read of Gatsby's vast party with its "sea-change of faces and voices and color" and of the "swirls and eddies of people." This connects us back to Nick's dinner with Daisy, Tom, and Jordan earlier in the novel. The women's white dresses and the window curtains are said to have rose and billowed like sails in the breeze, and the rug in the room is wine colored, like Homer's wine-dark seas in the Iliad. 

The library, with its real books, is a symbol of Gatsby's sophisticated artifice. As Owl Eyes realizes, the books are not fakes, not cardboard. Picking up a book, he says:

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!

This library symbolizes that Gatsby is not simply a cheap con artist, but a master of theatrical production, like the producer Belasco. He knows how to weave his magic—but it is not quite perfect, for, as Owl Eyes notes, the pages of the books are not cut.

Gatsby's smile, which so impresses Nick when he meets him, symbolizes both Gatsby's expansive personality and his ability to project an illusion. As Nick notes: 

It was one of those rare smiles with a quality of eternal reassurance in it, that you may come across four or five times in life. It faced or seemed to face the whole external world for an instant, and then concentrated on you with an irresistible prejudice in your favor.

The smile symbolizes the illusion surrounding Gatsby, for when it vanishes, the spell breaks. Nick then realizes he is simply seeing an "elegant young rough-neck."

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

Some symbols that dominate in this chapter are colors (especially yellow), automobiles, and eyes. Each of these carries throughout the novel, reappearing in various forms. Yellow is a symbolic color in this chapter, representing luxury, decadence, and moral ambiguity. Incidentally, yellow is also the color of decay, of decadence. Gatsby’s station wagon scampers “like a brisk yellow bug to meet all trains”. Food offerings include “turkeys bewitched to a dark gold.” The orchestra plays “yellow cocktail music,” and the setting is “gaudy with primary colors”, with enough “colored lights to make a Christmas tree of Gatsby’s enormous garden.” Two girls at Nick’s table wear “twin yellow dresses,” and Jordan rests her “slender golden arm” on Nick’s.

The dominant symbol, perhaps equally important as the green light, is the automobile. The society obsessed with driving and the recklessness with people’s lives and morals, parallels the theme concerning wasted potential and wasted goodness. In addition to Gatsby’s yellow station wagon, his Rolls-Royce becomes an “omnibus,” bearing guests to and from the city. Cars at the party are “parked five deep in the drive.” The one in which Owl Eyes was a passenger is a “new coupé” with the wheel detached. The very drunk guest insists he was not driving, that he knows next to nothing about driving. This accident seems to foreshadow the later one when Daisy is driving the “death car” which kills Myrtle. Another automobile accident involved Tom and a chambermaid at the Santa Barbara hotel where he and Daisy were staying three months after they were married. He “ran into a wagon on the Ventura road” and “ripped a front wheel off his car.” Additionally, Jordan leaves a borrowed car out in the rain with the top down.

The drunken Owl Eyes also seems to repeat the motif of the eyes of Dr. T. J. Eckleburg. The emphasis on eyes, later equated by George with the eyes of God, unites with the message hinted at through automobiles. this message suggests the dangers of drinking. At this particular party, “the bar is in full swing, and floating rounds of cocktails permeate the garden.” Champagne is “served in glasses bigger than finger bowls.” Still, although the bar is crowded, “Gatsby was not there.” The fact that he does not drink sets him apart from guests like Owl Eyes who boasts of having been drunk “for about a week now.” Prohibition, the law of the land, is ignored. Yet, rumors, undoubtedly to some extent based on fact, picture Gatsby as a bootlegger. To provide the liquor is as immoral as drinking it during prohibition.

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team

We’ll help your grades soar

Start your 48-hour free trial and unlock all the summaries, Q&A, and analyses you need to get better grades now.

  • 30,000+ book summaries
  • 20% study tools discount
  • Ad-free content
  • PDF downloads
  • 300,000+ answers
  • 5-star customer support
Start your 48-Hour Free Trial