What is the symbolic meaning of flowers in The Great Gatsby?how does it show Fitzgeralds views of 1920s society?

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mwestwood eNotes educator| Certified Educator

As flowers are an aesthetic representation of transitory beauty, F. Scott Fitzgerald employs their meanings in his narrative, especially in the names of two of his main characters, Daisy Buchanan and Mrytle Wilson.

Daisy Buchanan

A fragile flower, the daisy represents innocence, purity, and beauty.  To Jay Gatsby, Daisy Buchanan's name is an appropriate one; however, her innocence and appearance of purity are ephemeral, and at her center is the yellow of her cupidity and moral corruption.  For, at the core of Daisy Buchanan, whose voice "sounded like money," is the desire for wealth and it accompanying social position. Like the ephemeral flower, then, Daisy's love for Gatsby soon withers and dies.  Her name, then, is symbolic of the impermanence of the empty values of the Jazz Age.

Myrtle Wilson

An ancient flower, the myrtle became associated in Greek mythology with Aphrodite, the goddess of Love.  Roman gardens often contained myrtle as it is a hardy plant.  So, the myrtle has come to represent joy, love, and immortality.

Ironically, then, it seems that Fitzgerald used the name of his character to demonstrate, as Daisy's name does, the impermanence and falsity of the Jazz Age.  Whatever, joy and love that all associated with Myrtle Wilson have had--George, her husband, Tom, her lover, and Jay Gatsby who is with her on that fatal day--is destroyed along with her.  Therefore, her name symbolizes the impermanence of love and the reality of mortality.

 

In addition to the names of Daisy and Myrtle, Fitzgerald employs flowers in the characterization of others.  For instance, at one of Gatsby's parties attended by frivolous and dissolute guests representative of the era, one actress stands in great contrast to the other guests.  In her refinement and rarity, she is described as a flower symbolic of her character:

Gatsby indicated a gorgeous, scarcely human orchid of a woman who sat in state under a white plum tree.

Flowers, like Gatsby's great American Dream, symbolize the illusionary and transitory values of his life and the era in which he lives.  Nick reflects upon this duplicity of flowers that only briefly create the illusion of beauty, then decay and die:

He [Gatsby] must have looked up at an unfamiliar sky through frightening leaves and shivered when he found what a grotesque thing a rose is and how the raw sunlight was upon the scarcely created grass.

For, even the rose, symbolic of great passion and love, decays, an ugliness concealed by beauty and appeal.

 

edcon eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Daisy Buchanan's name calls to mind a delicate, long-stemmed flower, and, with its white petals and yellow center, it suggests things about her personality.  White is Daisy Buchanan's signature color in the novel, and one might see her as fresh, pristine, and untouched by life's struggles.  Upon closer examination, however, Daisy exhibits none of those character traits. In fact, her symbolic yellow core is indicative of her cowardice and decaying morality—something Fitzgerald felt about 1920s society generally. 

Myrtle is a hardy, evergreen shrub, and this seems to symbolically fit Mrs. Wilson's personality.  She is a tough woman, aggressive in her sensuality and unapologetic in her pursuit of Tom Buchanan.  Fitzgerald uses botanical symbolism to aid in the characterization of these two women and their respective social classes.  Though Daisy is ostensibly the frailer of the two women, it is her socioeconomic inferior who perishes. 

Beyond the symbolism involving flowers, Fitzgerald makes frequent use of flowers in his description of Gatsby's generosity.  When Nick sets up the tea party at his bungalow, Gatsby sends over "a greenhouse." In chapter four, after the over-the-top party in chapter three, women in Gatsby's garden observe "he's a bootlegger. . . moving somewhere between his cocktails and his flowers." This is followed by the statement "reach me a rose, honey, and pour me a last drop into that there crystal glass." After the party at Gatsby's mansion in chapter six, Gatsby despairs about Daisy's disapproval, pacing amidst a "path of fruit rinds and discarded favors and crushed flowers."  He reflects back on their first kiss during which "she blossomed for him like a flower."  Additionally, in the novel's final chapter, Nick remembers that "Daisy hadn't sent a message or a flower" to acknowledge Gatsby's death—a telling gesture of her callousness. 

Fitzgerald uses flowers in the traditional sense, for their beauty and use in marking occasions as special, but also to poignantly observe that they are quickly forgotten as people move on to other pleasures.  Flowers frequently function in the novel and bear witness to the thoughtless, crass behavior in the events in which they are present. This emphasizes the brevity of their own lives and functions as a tacit reminder of the transitory nature of life. The timing of the novel, just after the incredible loss of life in World War I, suggests an indirect criticism of the heedless and destructive behaviors many people adopted in the Roaring Twenties.

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The Great Gatsby

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