A Handy Guide To: Fitzgerald's "The Great Gatsby"
“The Great Gatsby” is a modern classic and one of perhaps the most iconic novels set in the Roaring 20s.
Some key terms about the setting:
- The Roaring 20s: also known as the Jazz Age, the 1920s is when the novel was set, in a time of flappers and parties after the ravages of war, when curfews and restrictions were less severe than in the past.
- The American Dream: at this time, was to work your way from a poor social class to the top with a large amount of wealth. This had moved from a desire for a better life to more of a desire for material things.
Main Characters and some of their Symbolic Meanings:
- Nick Carraway: is the narrator of novel and there is some debate as to whether he is a reliable or unreliable narrator (depending on this, your interpretation of the text could be different!). He describes himself as a man of “infinite hope” who is honest, a good listener and who has been taught to reserve all judgments about other people. Carraway does not seem to follow through with this, as he is used to critique the Roaring 20s and the American Dream (he judges everyone and everything!). He is used to reflect on the emptiness of the American Dream. He loves the fast-paced lifestyle of New York, but also finds it grotesque – this inner conflict is symbolized by his simultaneous attraction and repulsion to Jordan Baker.
- Jay Gatsby (originally James Gatz): is Nick’s wealthy neighbor who has become well known through his hosting of large parties. Perhaps the parties are a symbol for lively New York and the American Dream; it is the embodiment of wealth, liveliness, a lack of curfews and restrictions, but once the lights are taken down, it returns to a place of loneliness, crime and darkness. Gatsby is a self-made man, coming from the lower class through to the top of society (the American Dream), though it is through rather dodgy dealings. Fitzgerald uses this aspect of Gatsby’s character to condemn the reckless lust for wealth and the Dream in the era of the 20s. He constantly tries to revive the past and does all he does to gain the affection of Daisy Buchanan – he eventually becomes seen as lovesick and naive. It is interesting to note that the title of the play – The Great Gatsby – uses “great” in the way that a magician or an illusionist may in their name. This further adds to the impression that perhaps Gatsby is two-faced, has a persona or hides much of his life from the world.
- Daisy Buchanan: is Nick Carraway’s second cousin once removed and had relations with Jay Gatsby five years before the novel is set. She seems to be a conformist and is easily swayed by others, lacking sincerity and conviction, yet presented as lovely and mesmerizing by Nick Carraway. She loves money, ease and material luxury and is a loving woman that has been almost willingly corrupted by greed. This is seen when she falls in love with Gatsby and promises to wait for him, but then marries Tom Buchanan to gain his “old money”. Daisy is perhaps the personification of the lust for wealth that captivated America in the Roaring 20s, but also the personification of the American Dream, especially for Gatsby.
- Tom Buchanan: is Daisy Buchanan’s husband from a family of old money. He is presented to the audience as a racist, sexist, disloyal and generally horrible person from the commencement of the novel, therefore making Gatsby look like a better candidate for Daisy’s affections, however, this changes later in the plot.
- Jordan Baker: is the famous golfer that stays with the Buchanan’s at points throughout the novel. She is perhaps the embodiment of the Jazz Age – she attends all the party and is quite materialistic. She is dishonest and cheats in her golf tournaments, but does show a large amount of affection for Nick Carraway, though she does not display this in many other areas of the plot.
- Myrtle and George Wilson: are husband and wife who live in the poor area near New York (the Valley of Ashes). Myrtle cheats on her husband with Tom Buchanan, hating her poor life and choosing him to improve her lot in life. Her greed and lust that is affirmed throughout the novel to be a characteristic of the Roaring 20s, is condemned through her downfall. George Wilson, on the other hand, loves his wife dearly and works hard, yet never gets any closer to the American Dream, perhaps suggesting that for honest, hard-working men it was very difficult to get further in life, discrediting the Dream.
Color Symbolism throughout the novel:
- Gold: richness, happiness and being prosperous, success, extreme value. At Gatsby’s parties, even the “turkeys [are] bewitched to a dark gold”, showing his riches. Jordan Baker is often portrayed as being gold – “Jordan’s slender golden arm resting in mine”, “Jordan’s golden shoulder” – perhaps as an indication of the richness of the Roaring 20s, if she is believed to be symbolic of the era.
- Yellow: suggesting falseness or cowardice in being honest, especially if the item turns from gold to yellow, such as the “orchestra… playing yellow cocktail music” at one of Gatsby’s parties.
- Silver: serenity, contemplation, richness. The stars, moon and moonlight are often described to be silver, suggesting contemplation.
- White: honorable, pure, clean , innocent, morally unblemished, especially of the wealth. There is an irony in the purity of their clothes and possessions (such as Daisy’s white car and clothes) and the dirty reality of their lives.
- Green: suggests naivety or newness, hope or jealousy. Most notably is the green light that Gatsby sees at the end of Daisy’s dock across the lake.
- Gray: used neutrally, when something is dull, unimportant, mechanical or cold. This is often used to describe the Valley of Ashes, representing how it and the people in it are looked down upon.
- Blue: sadness, moodiness. Describes places and people related with death and Gatsby’s gardens often, highlighting how there is a underlying hidden or prominent sadness.
- Red: love, shame, rage, passion. Inside the Buchanan’s house is red, highlighting the passion, rage and love that is often felt in the house, especially between the husband and wife.
- Pink: false innocence and naivety. Seen in Gatsby’s pink suits, suggesting he has a false innocence about him and a naivety in aiming for Daisy. The sky was also pink when Gatsby and Daisy were together, further affirming this point.
Woah that’s a lot of symbolism, and that’s not even all of it!
Is anyone else reading the Great Gatsby this year or is it just me? Let me know if you want any help or could help me! xo