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.