Chapter I
Chapter II
Chapter III
Chapter IV
Chapter V
Chapter VI
Chapter VII
Chapter VIII
Chapter IX
Women in the 20s
East vs. West
The Jazz Age
American Dream
The class

Symbols in The Great Gatsby

Symbol: an element of imagery, in which a concrete object stands not only for itself but for some abstract idea as well. Symbols are an important element in all literature. (1)
For example: A red rose can be a symbol of love or beauty.

One of the first symbols mentioned in the book is the Valley of Ashes, “a fantastic farm where ashes grow like wheat into ridges and hills and grotesque gardens; where ashes take forms of houses and chimneys and rising smoke and finally, with a transcendent effort, of men who move dimly and already crumbling through the powdery air” (22,4ff.).

The green light

The Valley of Ashes resembles something dark and lifeless. As a result of fire ashes stand for destruction and death. Furthermore the death of Myrtle Wilson in the Valley of Ashes stands for the pain associated with this valley. Also the fact that the Wilsons live in the valley shows that they are not of such high social standards as the other characters in the novel. By having to pass through the Valley of Ashes in order to get to New York, the other characters have to betake themselves to this lower status.

  But above the grey land and the spasms of bleak dust which drift endlessly over it, you perceive, after a moment, the eyes of Doctor T.J. Eckleburg. The eyes of Doctor T.J. Eckleburg are blue and gigantic- their retinas are one yard high. They look out of no face but, instead, from a pair of enormous yellow spectacles which pass over a nonexistent nose…But his eyes, dimmed a little by many paintless days under sun and rain, brood on over the solemn dumping ground. (22,10ff.)  

When you group these two passages together it becomes very apparent that he is talking about the eyes of God looking over the world, Nick describes it as a dumping ground. Not only can this passage be seen as symbolizing the eyes of God but also as Nick’s. He is the only one in the novel who really knows what is going on. All other characters are influenced by every day life and are not able to judge situations from their own perspective. They are all as blind as these eyes which are just painted on a billboard. Because of Wilson's strong belief in God this poster is not just an advertisement. It has a deep meaning to him. His view “God sees everything” (114,39) shows how strongly he believes in God watching over him through the eyes of Doctor T.J. Eckleburg. His neighbor Michaelis makes fun of Wilson's faith and says about the billboard "that's an advertisement" (114,40).

The green light is probably one of the most important symbols in The Great Gatsby. Green is the color of hope and it first appears when Gatsby stares across the bay towards a green light at the end of a dock (21,8ff.). Later the reader finds out that this light stands on Daisy Buchanan’s dock. In the context of the novel this green light represents Gatsby’s hope to meet Daisy again and a chance to win her back. “Gatsby believed in the green light”(128, 26).

Written by Charlotte v. Einem and Kathy Barske


(1)Naumann-Schütze, Dr. Annelore et al. “Symbols”, Student’s Glossary of Literary Terms, Berlin: Cornelsen Verlag, 1992, p. 73