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Best Analysis: Green Light in The Great Gatsby

Posted by Dr. Anna Wulick | May 7, 2016 3:00:00 PM

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One of the most arresting images in The Great Gatsby is Nick’s vision of Gatsby stretching his arms out towards a small green light on the opposite shore of the bay. The mysterious, almost mystical nature of this gesture is a sure-fire sign that this green light is a symbol.

What is a symbol? It’s something that is given extra meaning beyond itself. Something that stops being simply an everyday object, and instead represents thoughts and ideas that are bigger than itself.

What are the abstract ideas behind the green light in The Great Gatsby? Read on to see where this symbol pops up in the novel, what themes it is connected to, which characters are most closely associated with it, and some ideas for essay topics on this symbol.

 

Quick Note on Our Citations

Our citation format in this guide is (chapter.paragraph). We're using this system since there are many editions of Gatsby, so using page numbers would only work for students with our copy of the book. To find a quotation we cite via chapter and paragraph in your book, you can either eyeball it (Paragraph 1-50: beginning of chapter; 50-100: middle of chapter; 100-on: end of chapter), or use the search function if you're using an online or eReader version of the text.

 

What Is the Green Light in The Great Gatsby?

Before we delve into the symbolic meaning of the green light, let's first establish what this object is in concrete terms.

The green light is a permanently lit electric lamp that marks the end of Daisy and Tom’s boat dock. It’s a way to warn boats at night or during inclement weather that there is a structure there - this is why it is always on.

Because the Buchanans' mansion is directly across the bay from Gatsby's mansion, Gatsby can always see the green light.

 

Quotes About the Green Light

In order to figure out what the green light means as a symbol, let’s do some close reading of the moments where it occurs in The Great Gatsby.

 

The Green Light in Chapter 1

The image of the green light at the end of Daisy’s dock occurs for the first time at the end of the novel’s first chapter. Before we have even met Gatsby, we get a description of him stretching out his arms towards something he can’t reach - a gesture he will repeat over and over again.

...a figure had emerged from the shadow of my neighbor's mansion and was standing with his hands in his pockets regarding the silver pepper of the stars. Something in his leisurely movements and the secure position of his feet upon the lawn suggested that it was Mr. Gatsby himself, come out to determine what share was his of our local heavens.

...he stretched out his arms toward the dark water in a curious way, and far as I was from him I could have sworn he was trembling. Involuntarily I glanced seaward--and distinguished nothing except a single green light, minute and far away, that might have been the end of a dock. When I looked once more for Gatsby he had vanished, and I was alone again in the unquiet darkness. (1.151-152)

 

One thing in particular is interesting about the introduction of the green light: it’s very mysterious. Nick seems not to be quite sure where the light is, or what its function might be:

  • Although physically bounded by the width of the bay, the light is described as impossibly small (“minute” means “tiny enough to be almost insignificant”) and confusingly distant.
  • Even though we find out later that the light never turns off, here Nick only seems to be able to see the light when Gatsby is reaching out towards it. As soon as Gatsby disappears, Nick is in “darkness.”
  • This vagueness and mystery is a good way for the novel to underscore the fact that this light is a symbol - it stands not just for the physical object that it describes, but for an idea within the book. What’s the idea? I’ll talk all about it in the next section of this article.

 

The Green Light in Chapter 5

We return to the image of the light exactly halfway through the novel, in the fifth chapter, when Gatsby is showing Daisy around his mansion after he “accidentally” runs into her at Nick’s house.

"If it wasn't for the mist we could see your home across the bay," said Gatsby. "You always have a green light that burns all night at the end of your dock."

Daisy put her arm through his abruptly but he seemed absorbed in what he had just said. Possibly it had occurred to him that the colossal significance of that light had now vanished forever. Compared to the great distance that had separated him from Daisy it had seemed very near to her, almost touching her. It had seemed as close as a star to the moon. Now it was again a green light on a dock. His count of enchanted objects had diminished by one. (5.117-118)

 

This appearance of the green light is just as vitally important as the first one, mostly because the way the light is presented now is totally different than when we first saw it. Instead of the “enchanted” magical object we first saw, now the light has had its “colossal significance,” or its symbolic meaning, removed from it. This is because Gatsby is now actually standing there and touching Daisy herself, so he no longer needs to stretch his arms out towards the light or worry that it’s shrouded in mist. 

However, this separation of the green light from its symbolic meaning is somehow sad and troubling. Gatsby seemingly ignores Daisy putting her arm through his because he is “absorbed” in the thought that the green light is now just a regular thing. Nick’s observation that Gatsby’s “enchanted objects” are down one sounds like a lament - how many enchanted objects are there in anyone’s life?

 

The Green Light in Chapter 9

The last time we encounter the green light is in the final paragraphs of the novel.

And as I sat there brooding on the old, unknown world, I thought of Gatsby's wonder when he first picked out the green light at the end of Daisy's dock. He had come a long way to this blue lawn and his dream must have seemed so close that he could hardly fail to grasp it. He did not know that it was already behind him, somewhere back in that vast obscurity beyond the city, where the dark fields of the republic rolled on under the night.

Gatsby believed in the green light, the orgastic future that year by year recedes before us. It eluded us then, but that's no matter--tomorrow we will run faster, stretch out our arms farther. . . . And one fine morning----

So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past. (9.152-154)

 

Now the light has totally ceased being an observable object. Nick is not in Long Island any more, Gatsby is dead, Daisy is gone for good, and the only way the green light exists is in Nick’s memories and philosophical observations. This means that the light is now just a symbol and nothing else.

But it is not the same deeply personal symbol it was in the first chapter. Check out the way Nick transitions from describing the green light as something “Gatsby believed in” to using it as something that motivates “us.” Gatsby is no longer the only one reaching for this symbol - we all, universally, “stretch out our arms” toward it, hoping to reach it tomorrow or the next day.

You can read more in-depth analysis of the end of the novel in our article on the last paragraphs and last line of the novel.

 

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We’re basically saying that the green light is Gatsby’s precious, right?

 

The Meaning and Significance of the Green Light in The Great Gatsby

Like many of the most interesting symbols, the green light changes and develops its meaning through the novel. 

In the beginning, the light stands for Gatsby’s dreams, hopes, and desires to reunite with Daisy and recapitulate their beautiful month of love from five years earlier. This positive association connects with the color green. Green means go (stoplights were introduced in the 1910s-20s, so this was a relatively new association), green means spring, rebirth, and the start of new life. The positive meaning also works well with the idea of a dock light. Daisy is a beacon, pulling Gatsby out of the darkness and steering him in the right direction.

However, during the novel, Gatsby’s dream is revealed to be the delusional conviction that he could ignore five years of events and Daisy’s own personality and inner life to get what he wants. With this disappointment, the symbolic meaning behind the green light collapses. Daisy is not a magically perfect creature, but instead a fallible and deeply flawed person. The love Gatsby feels for her can only be played out as a secretive and morally questionable affair. And the green light loses its “enchanted” qualities and instead is revealed to be the not particularly reliable indicator that it actually is (suddenly, it becomes invisible in the fog).

Finally, as Gatsby’s dream is dashed, the green light stops being something that is his alone, and instead takes on a universal quality. Now it stands for the unreachable dream that lives inside all people. For Nick, life is a constant struggle between our past mistakes, experiences, and sense of reality, which pull us back and weigh us down, and the green light of unrealistic hope that drives us to think we will do better and achieve more the next day. 

The green light ends up standing for this dream of an “orgastic future” - that’s right, that means a future lived at the height of orgasm - which is constantly getting farther and farther away, and that we keep trying to grab for, despite the impossibility of reaching it.

 

body_happy.jpgAccording to Nick, we all keep hoping our future will just be this for every second of every day. Fedora optional.

 

Characters, Themes, Motifs, and Symbols Connected to the Green Light

Jay Gatsby. Gatsby is most closely associated with the green light. He is the one who obsessively stares at this light at the end of Daisy’s dock, dreaming of reuniting with her. He is the one who reaches his hands towards it, showing us that it is a symbolic representation of his dreams that are always just out of reach. And he is the one whose belief in the green light and its promise of a future of perfect happiness so profoundly affects Nick that Nick ends up admiring Gatsby.

Daisy Buchanan. The green light is located at the end of Daisy’s dock, and is Gatsby’s only physical sign of her before he meets her at Nick’s house. For a long time, the green light, Gatsby’s ambitious hopes, and Daisy are all symbolically one and the same. Only when Daisy has an affair with Gatsby, showing that she is a flesh and blood person with her own desires, fears, and flaws, does she separate from this idealized symbol of hope. 

Nick Carraway. Nick is the one who realizes the significance of the green light for Gatsby when he sees Gatsby stretching his arms out towards it. He is also the one who connects the green light with everyone's hopes and dreams at the very end of the book.

Society and Class. For Gatsby, just as Daisy is visible through the green light, but in reality out of reach, so is the old money contingent of wealthy Long Island society. No matter how high Gatsby rises and how rich he gets, he still can't break through that final barrier - and he can never quite grasp the green light.

The American Dream. The green light comes to represent not just Gatsby’s dream, but the aspirational American Dream that the novel shows in both its positive and negative aspects. Like this national myth, the green light is forever just out of reach, but also forever motivating feats of improbable achievement.

Symbol: Colors. That the light is green is very significant in a novel that is methodically color-coded. Somewhat in opposition to its culturally positive associations, in The Great Gatsby, green tends to be a sign of either hopeful rebirth, or sickness, greed, and death.

 

body_reachingout.jpgWait, is the idea that we are constantly reaching for the unreachable happy or sad?

 

Essay Ideas and Tips for Writing About the Green Light

Now that we’ve explored the layers of meanings behind the green light at the end of Daisy’s dock, you’re in a good place to think about how to write about this symbol.

 

How to Write an Essay About This Symbol

Here are some tips for how to write an essay about the role of a symbol in a novel:

  • Build from the text out. In this article, I first looked at the green light in context and discussed its meaning in the exact places where it appears, and only afterward wrote about its general significance in the novel. The same basic rule of thumb is good to keep in mind for your own essay. Work from small ideas to big ones, and your argument will be well supported.
  • Make an argument. It’s not enough to just describe the symbol and explain its possible meanings. Instead, you have to make sure that you’re making some kind of point about why/how the symbol works. How do you know if you’re making an argument and not just saying the obvious? If you can imagine someone arguing the opposite of what you’re saying, then you’ve got an argument on your hands.
  • Don’t overthink it. Sure, the green light can be said to represent lots of things: Gatsby’s dreams, Daisy, or the quest to grab the elusive brass ring. But that doesn’t mean that it also stands for world peace, environmental degradation, or Nick’s pining for his war days. In other words, watch out for stretching your symbol analysis too far from what the text is telling you.

 

Essay Topics Ideas

Here are some possible essay arguments. You can build from them as-is, argue their opposite, or use them as jumping-off points for your own interpretation.

  1. The green light is a kind of affiliation test for Gatsby. Those who imbue it with meaning like he does (like Nick) end up sympathizing with Gatsby; those who only see it as an object (like Daisy and Tom) are doomed to dismiss Gatsby also.

  2. Gatsby’s downfall starts at the moment when he stops seeing the green light as a symbol for his dreams and goals.

  3. Ultimately, the green light means far more to Nick than to Gatsby.

 

body_dogpigeon.jpgEssays: it’s not an argument unless a pigeon is pecking a chihuahua.

 

The Bottom Line

  • The green light is a permanently lit lamp that marks the end of Daisy and Tom’s boat dock.
  • The image of the green light occurs:
    • at the end of Chapter 1, when Gatsby is reaching towards it and it is very mysterious,
    • in Chapter 5, when Gatsby and Daisy have reconnected, taking the symbolic meaning away from the green light,
    • at the end of Chapter 9, when it transitions from being a symbol just for Gatsby and instead becomes a universal symbol of hope for the future.
  • The significance and symbolic meaning of the green lights shifts:
    • In the beginning of the novel, the light stands for Gatsby’s dreams, hopes, and desires to reunite with Daisy.
    • During the course of the novel, Gatsby’s dream is revealed to be delusional and unrealizable, so the symbolic meaning behind the green light collapses.
    • Finally, as Gatsby’s dream is dashed, the green light stops being something that is his alone, and instead stands for the unreachable dream of an “orgastic future” that is constantly getting farther and farther away and that we keep trying to grab for.
  • The green light is associated with:
    • Jay Gatsby, who obsessively stares at this light at the end of Daisy’s dock, dreaming of reuniting with her.
    • Daisy Buchanan, since the green light, Gatsby’s ambitious hopes, and Daisy are all symbolically one and the same.
    • Nick Carraway, who is the one who realizes the significance of the green light for Gatsby and who connects the green light with everyone's hopes and dreams.
    • Society and class, the upper echelon of which is just as out of reach for Gatsby as the green light.
    • The American Dream, which is the aspirational hope that the novel shows in both its positive and negative lights.
    • Colors, which are very significant in this methodically color-coded novel.

 

What’s Next?

Review where the green light appears to get a better sense of its context: Chapter 1, Chapter 5, Chapter 9.

Compare and contrast Nick and Gatsby to see what the different ways they relate to the green light says about them.

Decide whether Gatsby primarily treats Daisy as an object, or whether he does have a sense of her as a person and loves her for herself.

Explore the way the end of The Great Gatsby connects to its beginning through the recurring image of the green light.

Check out all the other symbols that enrich this novel.

 

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Dr. Anna Wulick
About the Author

Anna scored in the 99th percentile on her SATs in high school, and went on to major in English at Princeton and to get her doctorate in English Literature at Columbia. She is passionate about improving student access to higher education.



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