An Analysis of the Symbolic Use of the Color Green
in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby
© Julia Weinmann
F. Scott Fitzgerald’s masterpiece The Great Gatsby was written in a time of social decadence, in which values no longer played an important role among the newly rich and wannabe famous, whose life was about parties, money and affairs. On the surface, Fitzgerald’s story also seems to deal with success, wealth and love. Although the superficial life of the rich and powerful is a major theme in The Great Gatsby, however, it mostly explores underlying complexities and personalities and in this way reveals the negative side of the American Dream to the reader. Corruption, despair and desperate desire come along with idealism, faith and illusions. The protagonist, Jay Gatsby, personifies the American Dream as he is a man with a dubious background who managed to accomplish a luxurious style of living and to achieve everything he wanted to have by his own efforts – except of his great love, that is Daisy. The Great Gatsby is built upon the desperate desires of the protagonist and reveals a glance behind the glittering facade of the rich. Fitzgerald manages to draw the reader’s attention to significant details and symbols in the text in order to make one think about so-called ‘truths’ and about the sham reality of a society that tries to keep up appearances. Consequently, symbols are an essential device of adding profundity to the text and of allowing the reader to gain insight into a character’s personality. The most significant symbolism applied in The Great Gatsby is color symbolism, green, white, gray, blue and yellow being the most prominent colors throughout the novel. In this paper, I will concentrate on analyzing Fitzgerald’s symbolic use of the color green based on the most significant examples and thus try to expose the meaning of its appliance in regard to society and the protagonists in the novel.
Although it is not the color mostly applied in the novel, green is assumably the most meaningful color Fitzgerald uses as a symbolic device of revealing ideas. In The Great Gatsby, green is predominantly associated with Gatsby’s character as it is mainly used to emphasize his desire and his unfulfilled wish to win his love Daisy back. As he has already achieved everything in life concerning material success, wealth and power, Gatsby’s only aim left is to reach Daisy’s heart. Therefore, the color green stands for his never-ending hope for her love and functions as a symbol of his desire, as it is mostly associated with the green light at Daisy’s dock. Throughout the novel, the green light consequently functions as a key symbol that carries a deep meaning. The initial appearance of the green light occurs when Nick Carraway sees Gatsby for the first time. He watches him standing lonely on his blue lawn, which is part of his world of imagination, and Gatsby “stretched out his arms toward the dark water in a curious way, and [...] he was trembling” (p. 31). This illustration shows his strong longing for Daisy and thus for the fulfillment of his dream which even affects him physically. However, the green light is too far for him to reach and will always stay out of reach as for him Daisy remains an unattainable princess. Only in an imaginary world of fairytales they could be re-united. Indeed, Gatsby does not want to disavow the forlornness of his dream although he assumably knows about it (this will be examined later on) – and so does the narrator when he says “I glanced seaward – and distinguished nothing except a single green light, minute and far away” (p. 31). Here the emphasis is to be put on “far away” which signifies unattainability. Besides, the single light does not yet carry any meaning for Nick as it looks tiny and insignificant to him.
The forlornness of Gatsby’s dreams is also revealed in the following passage:
“On the green Sound, stagnant in the heat, one small sail crawled slowly towards the fresher sea. Gatsby’s eyes followed it momentarily; he raised his hand and pointed across the bay. ‘I’m right across from you.’” (p. 105)
In this scene, Gatsby for the first time watches the green light from the other side of the water, that is from Daisy’s house. Here, the green light is replaced by the green sound, the green water, which functions both as a symbol of the distance between Gatsby and Daisy and as a symbol of his never-ending hope to overcome the water and thus the distance. He says to himself that he is right across from Daisy, so seemingly not far away. His hope of overcoming the distance, however, is as stagnant as the sound. And whereas the sail can slowly move towards its aim, which is represented by the fresher sea as a symbol of vitality, Gatsby cannot reach his. However, he does not want to stop believing in the green light and rather lives in his world of imagination than admitting that he has lost Daisy forever.
Gatsby’s denial to accept reality also becomes obvious in a scene that takes place at one of Gatsby’s parties when Daisy says:
“If you want to kiss me any time during the evening, Nick, just let me know and I’ll arrange it for you. Just mention my name. Or present a green card. I’m giving out green---“ (p. 94)
She is harshly interrupted by Gatsby, for although he has been waiting for this ‘green card’ as a free ticket to her love for such a long time, he is not allowed to overcome the distance between Daisy and him. Instead, he can only watch the green light at the end of Daisy’s dock which hardly ever promises him a green card. So he interrupts her because he does not want to hear about reality but rather keep up appearances.
Somewhere Over the Rainbow
The green light isn't the only symbolic color in Great Gatsby. Fitzgerald uses color like a preschooler let loose with tempera paints—only a little more meaningfully. Let's break it down:
Yellow and Gold: Money, Money, Money. Oh, and Death.
First off, we've got yellows and golds, which we're thinking has something to do with…gold (in the cash money sense). Why gold and not green? Because we're talking about the real stuff, the authentic, traditional, "old money" – not these new-fangled dollar bills. So you have Gatsby's party, where the turkeys are "bewitched to dark gold," and Jordan's "slender golden arm[s]" (3.19), and Daisy the "golden girl" (7.99), and Gatsby wearing a gold tie to see Daisy at Nick's house.
But yellow is different. Yellow is fake gold; it's veneer and show rather than substance. We see that with the "yellow cocktail music" at Gatsby's party (1) and the "two girls in twin yellow dresses" who aren't as alluring as the golden Jordan (3.15). Also yellow? Gatsby's car, symbol of his desire—and failure—to enter New York's high society. And if that weren't enough, T. J. Eckleburg's glasses, looking over the wasteland of America, are yellow.
White: Innocence and Femininity. Maybe.
While we're looking at cars, notice that Daisy's car (back before she was married) was white. So are her clothes, the rooms of her house, and about half the adjectives used to describe her (her "white neck," "white girlhood," the king's daughter "high in a white palace").
Everyone likes to say that white in The Great Gatsby means innocence, probably because (1) that's easy to say and (2) everyone else is saying it. But come on – Daisy is hardly the picture of girlish innocence. At the end of the novel, she's described as selfish, careless, and destructive. Does this make the point that even the purest characters in Gatsby have been corrupted? Did Daisy start off all innocent and fall along the way, or was there no such purity to begin with? Or, in some way, does Daisy's decision to remain with Tom allow her to keep her innocence? We'll keep thinking about that one.
Blue: This One's Up For Grabs
Then there's the color blue, which we think represents Gatsby's illusions -- his deeply romantic dreams of unreality. We did notice that the color blue is present around Gatsby more than any other character. His gardens are blue, his chauffeur wears blue, the water separating him from Daisy is his "blue lawn" (9.150), mingled with the "blue smoke of brittle leaves" in his yard.
His transformation into Jay Gatsby is sparked by Cody, who buys him, among other things, a "blue coat"—and he sends a woman who comes to his house a "gas blue" dress (3.25). Before you tie this up under one simple label, keep in mind that the eyes of T.J. Eckleburg are also blue, and so is Tom's car. If blue represents illusions and alternatives to reality, maybe that makes the eyes of God into a non-existent dream. As for Tom's car…well, you can field that one.
Grey and a General Lack of Color: Lifelessness (no surprise there)
If the ash heaps are associated with lifelessness and barrenness, and grey is associated with the ash heaps, anyone described as grey is going to be connected to barren lifelessness. Our main contender is Wilson: "When anyone spoke to him he invariably laughed in an agreeable colorless way" (2.17). Wilson's face is "ashen," and a "white ashen dust" covers his suit (2.17), and his eyes are described as "pale" and "glazed." We're not too surprised when she shows up with a gun at the end of the novel.
Green: Life, Vitality, The Future, Exploration
Last one. We're thinking green = plants and trees and stuff, so it must represent life and springtime and other happy events. Right?
Well, the most noticeable image is that green light we seem to see over and over. You know, the green light of the "orgastic future" that we stretch our hands towards, etc. etc. (9.149). Right before these famous last lines, Nick also describes the "fresh, green breast of the new world," the new world being this land as Nick imagines it existed hundreds of years before. Green also shows up—we think significantly—as the "long green tickets" that the rich kids of Chicago use as entry to their fabulous parties, the kind of parties where Daisy and Tom meet, and where Gatsby falls in love. So green does represent a kind of hope, but not always a good one.
When Nick imagines Gatsby's future without Daisy, he sees "a new world, material without being real, where poor ghosts, breathing dreams like air, drifted fortuitously about...like that ashen fantastic figure gliding toward him through the amorphous trees." Nick struggles to define what the future really means, especially as he faces the new decade before him (the dreaded thirties). Is he driving on toward grey, ashen death through the twilight, or reaching out for a bright, fresh green future across the water?