Have you ever come across an object or an image in a book that was really over-described? That the author seemed way too over-invested in? Most of the time, that feeling is a hint that what you've encountered is a symbol! The Great Gatsby features many objects and images that pop up exactly like this.
But how do you interpret Great Gatsby symbols once you've found them? And how can you find symbols that don't have as much signposting around them? In this article, I'll take you through an explanation of what symbols are, how to locate them, and how to write about them. I'll also point you to in-depth articles about each of the most important symbols in The Great Gatsby.
Roadmap to This Article
- What are symbols and why do authors use them?
- How do you find symbols in a work of fiction?
- Tips and advice for writing essays about symbols
- Links to our detailed, in-depth discussions about the key symbols in The Great Gatsby
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 a Symbol?
Think about your own life. You probably save mementos from travel, or meaningful events, because they represent the experience or your connection a person rather than simply because they are airplane tickets or dried flowers. Just like these mementos are symbols of your feelings, memories, or hopes, so a symbol in a work of literature is something concrete that stands for an abstract idea.
In other words, it's when an object, a character, or a place doesn't just represent that type of object, but also evokes a feeling or a concept. This means that symbols have several layers of meaning, most of which are often hidden at first. What you are doing when you interpret a symbol is going above and beyond the object's literal definition to see a deeper, less obvious meaning.
Remember, symbols do not always have the same meaning or interpretation, so a particular symbol’s significance varies depending on context between different works, or even within the same work.
Symbols vs. Motifs
A symbol isn’t the same thing as a motif. A symbol occurs once or a few times, but a motif runs through the whole work.
A symbol tends to be something concrete that represents or stands for an abstract idea or concept, but a motif's meaning typically comes from the different ways and situations in which it recurs.
For example, in The Great Gatsby, one important symbol is the green light on Daisy’s dock, which is a concrete object that also represents the abstract concepts of yearning and the American Dream. Those same themes are also connected to one of the novel's many motifs - Gatsby's verbal tic of calling everyone "old sport." This phrase isn't a symbol, but its oddness point to the not-quite-successful way Gatsby is trying to act like the social elite.
That being said, you could always make the case that a particularly resonant instance of a motif is in itself a symbol of some idea! In literary analysis, to the maker of the best argument go the spoils.
Symbols vs. Themes
A symbol isn’t the same thing as a theme. Symbols are objects that carry a literal and one or several figural meanings, while themes are central ideas that can usually be summed up in a word or a phrase.
Symbols help explain themes, demonstrate varying versions of a theme, or build emotional richness into the way a theme works in the book you’re reading. For example, one theme in The Great Gatsby is “morality and ethics.” But we can’t know what the novel wants us to think about morality or ethics until we notice that the only symbolic representation of a higher moral power in the book is the inanimate billboard of Doctor T.J. Eckleburg. This symbol represents a lack of moral oversight in the world of the novel.
This crown: a symbol of monarchy? Of imperial oppression? Of unbearable ostentatiousness? Depends on the context.
Why Do Authors Use Symbols?
At its core, a symbol is a literary device that enhances fiction by building richness and adding color, depth, and realism. Rather than having the author have to explain everything in a heavy-handed way, symbols allow readers to discover connections between characters, bits of plot, and different settings on their own.
Authors also use symbolism to tie certain things that may initially seem unimportant to overarching themes, or to connect disparate objects or places to unify a work - all without having to be didactic or moralizing. For example, in The Great Gatsby, the symbol of the valley of ashes connects West and East Egg to the industrial poverty that the rich Long Islanders would rather simply ignore.
Finally, symbols create a more active and engaging reading experience for you! Hunting for symbols and interpreting their meaning makes you think, and it also makes you have a much more visceral, emotional reaction to the abstract ideas central to the book. In the case of The Great Gatsby, watching Gatsby reach in vain for the green light makes us feel his yearning much more than if the author had simply written, "Gatsby wanted to reunite with Daisy."
How Do You Find Symbols?
Mostly likely, your assignment will pick out specific symbols for you to analyze. However, often teachers ask you to find and explore a symbol of your own choosing.
So how do you know what’s just a thing and what is imbued with a deeper meaning?
Symbols Are Everywhere
First, you have to realize that almost anything can be a symbol.
- Place. Often a setting isn't simply a location where events happen. Sometimes it's also a shorthand, evocative way of representing a particular set of people or their ideas. For example, in The Great Gatsby, Myrtle's Manhattan apartment isn't simply a place for her to host parties, but it also stands for her ambition and aspiration to leave her working-class life behind. More globally, it stands for the vulgar approximation of the upper class that the East Egg crowd scorns and mocks.
- Object. This is probably the most common type of symbol - a thing that carries meaning over and above its inherent thing-ness. In this novel, almost every object described at any length can be seen a symbol. Think, for instance, of the ridiculously expensive pearl necklace Tom gives Daisy before their wedding. He means it to be symbolic of his love for her, but it is also clearly a symbol of the way he uses his wealth to control other people (something he will later do with Myrtle). More globally, it symbolizes the rich using their money to get their way.
- Action. Sometimes, a character's actions, gestures, ways of speaking, or behaviors are themselves symbolic, representing an idea about that character alone, or about a group of similar people. One of Gatsby's most telling gestures is the outstretched arm pose he does several times in the book (like at the end of Chapter 1 or in the beginning of Chapter 8). One of Gatsby's most defining characteristics is his striving drive to attain Daisy's love and a position in the upper class - basically, a life that's just out of reach. His habitual gesture of reaching for the ungraspable symbolizes this trait.
- Person. Infrequently, a character can also function as a symbol of a greater idea. This is literary device is hard to pull off, because making a person into a symbol tends to take away at least some of their individuality and personhood. This is exactly what happens in The Great Gatsby, where Daisy is at once herself (lover to Gatsby, cousin to Nick, wife to Tom, mother to Pammy), and also a symbol of the American Dream and its flaws.
Is adjusting a cufflink: a symbol of impeccable taste? Prissy fussiness? Anxiety? Depends on who is doing it and why.
Universally Meaningful Symbols
Some symbols are culturally universal. That means that in almost every place, these objects will have layers of meaning built into them. So feel free to interpret these universally meaningful symbols in any work you come across! Here are some examples:
- Colors. Most civilizations imbue colors with meaning, although that meaning is by no means always the same either from one culture to another, or even within the same culture. For instance, think about the way we perceive the color red. It can sometimes represent a warning (red means stop), but at other times, it's a symbol of love and passion (red roses mean romance). In our case, The Great Gatsby places lots of significance on the color green, for example, which is associated both with hope and with sickness and death.
- Celestial Bodies. The moon, the sun, stars - these are all potential symbols. They don't play as prominent a role in The Great Gatsby as they do in some other books, but you can still find a lot of significance in the way the moon tends to illuminate the truth. It's particularly evident in Chapters 8 and 9, when the moon makes Gatsby look like a criminal to Nick after Myrtle's murder, and when Nick imagines East Egg as a creepy El Greco painting or as the lush shore Dutch sailors would have seen.
- Plants, Nature, Weather Events, or Bodies of Water. If it's naturally-occurring, and if it intersects with the characters in any way, chances are it can be read as a symbol of something. Weather, in particular, plays a key function in this novel, especially when in extreme situations, like when Gatsby and Daisy's reunion is almost ruined by a downpour, or when the tense confrontation in the Plaza Hotel is made even more excruciating by the unrelenting heat. In each case, the weather can be interpreted as a symbol for the characters' emotions.
- Body Parts. It's not surprising that humans find other humans' bodies to be of particular significance. Whenever a book pays a lot of attention to hands, eyes, lips, or any other part of the body, there are bound to be layers of meaning behind it. In this novel, bodies are very important symbols of how characters are perceived. Whether it's Myrtle's gruesomely graphic corpse which speaks to the many ways her body is mistreated, or Daisy's siren-like voice, which points to the way Gatsby sees her more as a mythically desirable prize than as a real live person, body parts are meaningful.
Discrete and Original Symbols
Many symbols aren't ones that have universal associations, but are instead more idiosyncratic and book-specific. Here are some tips for how to locate these less obvious Great Gatsby symbols.
- Lingering Description. Pay close attention to places or objects that are described at length, especially if the novel comes back to them multiple times, or if their description has a key element that slips its boundaries and starts being applied to other things. For example, in The Great Gatsby, the valley of ashes is a strange, dusty, gray place that is never referred to by its real place name (Queens), or some made-up town name (like West Egg and East Egg), but is instead given this Biblically-inflected nickname. Not only that, but the dust and ash that cover everything in this place are also said to coat the people that live there - so much so that even when George leaves his garage, he is still described as “ashen” (8.110).
- Incongruity. Anything that is either completely out of place in its surroundings, or is creepy, confusing, mysterious, or discomfiting in some way is probably a symbol. For example, the billboard with the eyes of Doctor T.J. Eckleburg clearly unnerves everyone who looks at it. And it’s totally out of place: it’s the only colorful object in the gray valley of ashes, and it’s advertising something that is no longer being sold.
- Character Obsession. Anything that one of the main characters is fixated on is probably a symbol. In our case, Gatsby’s unyielding focus on the green light at the end of Daisy’s dock clearly marks this as no ordinary shore marker for night sailing.
Why is that chair not like the others? What does symbolize by standing out?
Tips and Advice for Writing About Symbols
Most of your assignments will ask you to analyze a symbol and explore its significance in the novel. So how do you do this well? There are two different types of essay you can build.
How to Write an Essay Built Around Close-Readings
This kind of essay is a great way to show your engagement with the text. Because you’ll stay so close to what is on the page, you’ll be protected from making your essay too broad, generalized, and unsupported by evidence. How do you write this kind of essay?
When you're planning your essay, look for each instance of the symbol you’ll be discussing. One good way to do this is to use an online, searchable version of the text here (like this one or this one), and search for keywords associated with your symbol. Remember to first read the book all the way through to know what you're looking for, and to try several versions of your keyword when searching.
When you're writing your essay:
- First, build out from the instances of the symbol you found. Discuss the symbol's meaning in each context, paying close attention to the author’s word choice, sentence structure, and any literary devices like similes or metaphors. How does the symbol stay the same with each appearance? How does it change between appearances? What does this change or lack or change demonstrate?
- Second, link the symbol to its larger meaning within the novel through these choices the author made about the way the symbol is described. What theme or themes is this symbol is connected to? What does it represent for the characters associated with it? How can you tell?
How to Write an Essay Built Around an Argument
This type of essay is great if you’re making a statement about why a symbol is the way that it is, or why it’s being used to represent what it represents. You can use it to show your understanding of the book as a whole. How do you write this kind of essay?
First, follow the same planning steps as the close-reading essay above. Then:
- 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.
- Work from the text out. You’ll still need to do a certain amount of close reading to nail this essay, so start small by analyzing chunks of the text where the symbol pops up, and then broadening your points out to the rest of the book. This way, your argument will be strengthened by textual evidence rather than seeming to come out of nowhere
- Don’t overthink it. For example, it’s fine to argue that the green light on Daisy’s dock stands for delusional optimism - but it definitely doesn’t stand for environmental degradation. Watch out for stretching your symbol analysis too far from what the text is telling you.
Do these paintbrushes symbolize creativity? Sure. A wealth of resources? Maybe. Industrialist waste? Probably not.
Analyzing The Great Gatsby Symbols
This novel is very rich, symbol-wise. For in-depth discussion of the most important object symbols, check out our articles on:
Some characters (primarily the women) are often treated as symbols as well. For more on how that works, read our guides to:
The Bottom Line
- A symbol in a work of literature is something concrete that stands for an abstract idea.
- A symbol isn’t the same thing as a motif, since a motif's meaning typically comes from the different ways and situations in which it recurs.
- A symbol isn’t the same thing as a theme, which is a central idea that can usually be summed up in a word or a phrase.
- Authors use symbols to help explain themes, demonstrate varying versions of a theme, or build emotional richness into the way a theme works in the book you’re reading.
- Almost anything can be a symbol: a place, an object, an action, or even a person.
- Some symbols are culturally universal, like colors, celestial bodies, plants and nature, or parts of the body.
- Many symbols are book-specific symbols. You can find them by paying attention to any objects that are described at length, are out of place in its surroundings, are creepy, confusing, mysterious, or discomfiting in some way, or are obsessed over by one or more characters.
- Most of your assignments will ask you to analyze a symbol and explore its significance in the novel.
- You can either write an essay built around close-readings, analyzing how the different ways a symbol is described in the novel connects it to a specific theme.
- Or you can write an essay built around an argument, where you prove a particular interpretation of a symbol in the book.
Learn how to write about the themes that symbols are usually linked to.
Explore the differences between symbols and motifs further in our overview of the novel's motifs.
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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.