The Great Gatsby | Study Guide

F. Scott Fitzgerald

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Professor Tony Bowers from the College of DuPage explains the symbols in F. Scott Fitzgerald's novel The Great Gatsby.

The Great Gatsby | Symbols


Valley of Ashes

Like many locations in The Great Gatsby, the valley of ashes is symbolic of its residents' social status, but the symbolism found here goes even further. The valley, which is covered in ashes from the neighboring New York City factories, becomes symbolic of the waste left behind in the pursuit of wealth. The Wilsons, residents of the valley of ashes, are collateral damage in the wake of the Buchanans' elitist, immoral pursuits.

Green Light

The green light at the end of the Buchanans' dock is there for a practical purpose: it is a beacon to alert boaters that there is an obstacle there that they need to avoid. For Gatsby, the light symbolizes a dream—his dream of obtaining Daisy. In broader terms it also symbolizes the American dream. The novel opens with Gatsby reaching his open arms toward the light, and ends with Nick's realization that the dream is elusive: "tomorrow we will run faster, stretch out our arms farther." The novel questions the sacrifices individuals must make to achieve their dreams, and whether the ends justify the means.

The Eyes of Dr. T.J. Eckleburg

The abandoned billboard promoting Dr. T.J. Eckleburg's optician services is symbolic of the immorality of the 1920s. In a time of fierce capitalistic gains and elaborate, wild parties, many Americans abandoned their religious morality in pursuit of personal pleasure. The billboard serves as a reminder of God's watchful eyes, yet its faded, forgotten appearance suggests that the characters (with the exception of George Wilson) are no longer concerned with the consequences of their actions. Even George Wilson, who believed that God's eyes were watching down from the billboard, eventually breaks down and commits an immoral act by murdering Jay Gatsby.

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