Symbols in The Great Gatsby: Decoding the Meanings in Each Chapter

Last Updated: November 7th, 2023 by Kerry Wisby (Teacher-BA English Literature, 1920s & Great Gatsby Expert)

The Great Gatsby is a novel by F. Scott Fitzgerald that is full of symbols. These symbols help to create a deeper meaning in the story, representing the themes and ideas that Fitzgerald was exploring.

Nick Carraway as narrator of The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald

Symbols are often objects, figures, and colors that represent something else. Occasionally these can be characters, but we most often think of symbols as being “things”, rather than people.

Since this novel has so many symbols and a few motifs, we are going to look at these symbols chapter by chapter.

Symbols in The Great Gatsby

Symbols are important in novels because they allow authors to convey deeper meaning and ideas than they could through straightforward storytelling. Symbols can represent characters, themes, or even entire concepts, and they can help readers understand the story on a deeper level.

Symbols in Chapter 1 of The Great Gatsby

The Great Gatsby Symbols Chapter 1

The first chapter of The Great Gatsby introduces several important symbols that will echo throughout the novel. These symbols include:

  • The green light – the green light at the end of Daisy’s boat dock represents Gatsby’s desire for Daisy, his hopes and dreams of the future. Yes, it also represents money and spring, when plants flower and have fresh new growth.
  • The color white – Nick describes Daisy and Jordan wearing white dresses, and the room he finds them in is filled with white, billowy curtains. White represents purity, innocence, and honesty.
  • East Egg and West Egg – These two fictional areas represent the class separation that occurs in America. Those who come from old money live in East Egg, and the newly rich are in West Egg. They are separated by a small bay, but it might as well be the Atlantic Ocean itself since one will never mix with the other.

Decoding the Real-Life Inspiration behind The Great Gatsby’s East Egg and West Egg

These symbols are used to create a deeper meaning in the story and represent the themes and ideas that Fitzgerald is exploring. For example, the green light on Daisy’s dock symbolizes Gatsby’s hope and desire to recapture the past but also his desire to live a fresh, new life with Daisy and his money.

Symbols in Chapter 2 of The Great Gatsby

The Great Gatsby Symbols Chapter 2

In this chapter, we find darker symbols than the colors and symbols we saw in the first chapter.

  • The Valley of Ashes: The color gray mentioned in The Valley of Ashes represents the poverty and despair existing alongside the wealth and glamour of the Roaring Twenties.
  • The eyes of Doctor T.J. Eckleburg: The eyes of Doctor T.J. Eckleburg are a pair of enormous blue eyes staring out from an abandoned billboard on the edge of the Valley of Ashes. They represent God who oversees all and the emptiness of materialism.
  • The cream color of Myrtle’s dress: Myrtle Wilson changes into a cream color party dress that Tom Buchanan had purchased for her. Cream is very close to yellow in color, which represents false dreams and corruption.

We will be reading more about the color cream and yellow further along in the story.

Symbols in Chapter 3 of The Great Gatsby

The Great Gatsby Symbols Chapter 3 - a collage with an owl, a mansion, and Nick Carraway

Chapter 3 is where the reader (and Nick Carraway) finally meet the mysterious Gatsby. Symbols in this chapter include:

  • The color yellow: Yellow is the most frequently mentioned color in this novel because it represents falsity, greed, and corruption. There are girls at Gatsby’s party who are wearing yellow, partygoers are drinking yellow champagne, and the band is playing yellow music.
  • Gatsby’s parties and mansion: Both the extravagant parties that Gatsby throws and his oversized mansion represent the greed and emptiness of the Jazz Age.
  • Nick’s invitation: Despite living next door, Nick never attends one of Gatsby’s parties until he is officially invited. This could represent Nick’s innocence, and the invitation could be seen as a literal invitation from the devil to join the greed and become a member of the club, not merely a spectator.
  • Owl Eyes: Like the eyes of Doctor T.J. Eckleburg, Owl Eyes represent the always-seeing eyes of God. Even inside Gatsby’s mansion, far from the Valley of Ashes, one cannot hide from the eyes of God.

Keep in mind that symbols are abstract ideas that not everyone will agree with. One person may see green as envy, while another will see green as money. Both ideas are correct.

Symbols in Chapter 4 of The Great Gatsby

The Great Gatsby Symbols Chapter 4 - a collage with a man smoking, a bridge, and a yellow car

The symbols in Chapter 4 are an important part of the story. By understanding these symbols, readers can gain a deeper understanding of the story and its themes.

  • The Queensborough Bridge: Nick sees two things while riding in Gatsby’s car into New York, a somber funeral procession, but then they are passed by a limousine driven by a white chauffeur. Inside the limo, two African-American men and a woman are having a riotous time. This represents the socioeconomic disruption that was taking place at the time.
  • Gatsby’s yellow car: Yellow represents materialism, greed, and corruption, all of which are a part of Gatsby’s life.
  • Meyer Wolfsheim: The human molars he uses as cufflinks and a tie clip indicate that he has probably killed people (or at least one), but this man represents the dark side of New York and the criminal element surrounding Gatsby. (read more on Myer Wolfsheim here)

Symbols in Chapter 5 of The Great Gatsby

The Great Gatsby Symbols Chapter 5 - a collage with a white suit, pink cloud, blue sky, and a clock

Daisy and Gatsby are going to meet in this chapter, and it is full of symbolism.

  • Gatsby’s white suit: Gatsby wears a white suit to appear to Daisy as her knight in shining armor, riding a white horse, but it’s his silver shirt and yellow tie that represent the gold and silver coins he hopes to entice Daisy with.
  • The weather: Note that it is raining when Daisy comes to Nick’s house. This represents the nervousness and pessimistic view of Gatsby, who is sure Daisy isn’t coming. After they meet and find that they are still attracted to one another, the sun comes out full blast, representing the reawakening and warmth of their love.
  • Gatsby’s bedroom: Nick notes that Gatsby’s house is extravagant, but his room is quite simple and sparse. This represents the fact that Gatsby’s house is for show, for Daisy, but Gatsby himself is a simple man with few needs.
  • The clock: In his nervousness, Gatsby breaks an old clock in Nick’s living room. The clock represents Gatsby’s old life, which is now shattered by Daisy’s presence.
  • The pink clouds: Pink, like red, can represent love, and Daisy is telling Gatsby that she loves him and would like to envelope him in a pink cloud.

The clock could also be seen as Gatsby’s mortality and his time is “winding down”, but since the reader is unaware of the outcome of the novel, this seems unlikely.

What Motifs Are in The Great Gatsby?

Motifs are recurring words, themes, or ideas that are meant to instill an idea.

Motifs in The Great Gatsby - a collage of the east egg and west egg map in the background, with green, white, and yellow colors

Motifs in The Great Gatsby include:

  • East Egg and West Egg
  • The green light
  • The color yellow
  • The color white

Motifs can be symbols at the same time.

I will discuss motifs that can be found in The Great Gatsby in another article.

More Symbols in The Great Gatsby

We will find many more symbols in the last four chapters of The Great Gatsby.

Symbols in Chapter 6 of The Great Gatsby

The Great Gatsby Symbols Chapter 6 - a collage with Leonardo DiCaprio in a blue coat, a lady in a purple dress, and an old boat in the background

As we learn about Gatsby’s past, we find new symbols, including:

  • The dark blue coat: Dan Cody buys Gatsby a new dark blue coat and white pants. Dark blue represents bliss, and after living most of his life in extreme poverty, it makes sense that this new coat would bring Gatsby satisfaction and joy.
  • Dan Cody’s yacht: A yacht, not just any boat but a yacht, would represent everything that Gatsby ever dreamed of. All the splendor and beauty in the world in a single object.
  • The movie star: At Gatsby’s party, Daisy is thrilled to see a movie star that she recognizes. This woman represents Gatsby’s dream of Daisy. She is beautiful, glamorous, and unattainable.
  • Gatsby’s depression and frustration: Gatsby tells Nick that he believes Daisy didn’t enjoy his party, and he is frustrated that he cannot make her understand. His feelings represent the American dream. Gatsby believes that if he can’t “earn” it, he should be able to buy it. He’s the one who doesn’t understand why he cannot.

One might say that the movie star is also a symbol of the American dream- beautiful, glamorous, and appealing but in the end, unattainable.

Symbols in Chapter 7 of The Great Gatsby

The Great Gatsby Symbols Chapter 7 - three women wearing white dresses

Things are really heating up in more ways than one in this chapter. Several symbols have been mentioned in the previous chapter, including Gatsby’s yellow car and The Valley of Ashes. Other symbols from this chapter are:

  • Extreme heat: People have less patience when it is very hot. Tom and Gatsby’s conversation is certainly heated, as was Myrtle’s frustration with her husband and Tom’s lack of caring that she was locked in her apartment.
  • All the women wearing white: While it might seem sensible to wear a light color in the heat, all the women in this chapter are wearing white, including Pammy, Jordan, and Daisy. White represents innocence, and the women are at least trying to appear innocent and pure. It’s interesting to note that Fitzgerald doesn’t mention the color of Myrtle’s dress when she got killed, but we can guess that it wasn’t white.
  • The color red: While red is often associated with passion, in this instance, red means violence and bloodshed. Fitzgerald goes into great detail to describe the wounds and blood left on Myrtle’s body.
  • Gatsby’s pink suit: Despite Tom’s disdain, pink was not an uncommon color for men to wear in the Roaring 20s. Pink represents love and affection and is a subtle way for Gatsby to show his love for Daisy in front of the whole world.

Daisy is also feeling the heat when she tells Tom that “it’s so hot and everything is so confused.”

Symbols in Chapter 8 of The Great Gatsby

The Great Gatsby Symbols Chapter 8

Chapter 8 finds Gatsby and Nick the day after Myrtle is killed. Here are key symbols in this chapter:

  • Gatsby’s pool: Of course, owning a swimming pool is a sign of wealth, but in The Great Gatsby, this pool symbolizes Jay Gatsby’s dream of luxury that he hasn’t fully appreciated until it’s too late. The blue color of the pool represents an illusion since the water isn’t really blue, but the pool is painted blue.
  • The falling leaves: The leaves from the trees that started to fall are representative of both the end of Gatsby’s dream and his life.
  • The color red: We see Fitzgerald use the color red once more to indicate the violence and bloodshed that surround Gatsby.
  • The dog leash: George Wilson realizes his wife must be having an affair when he finds an expensive dog leash on Myrtle’s dresser. The dog itself symbolizes the quality of love that is missing in all but George, who is treated “like a dog” by his wife. The leash mentioned in this chapter represents Myrtle’s control over her devoted, trusting husband.

Gatsby and Myrtle both try to find love via money, and both pay a terrible price.

Symbols in Chapter 9 of The Great Gatsby

The Great Gatsby Symbols Chapter 9

In the final chapter, the reader will find plenty of symbolism. Some have been mentioned earlier. East Egg represents old money, Daisy Buchanan wearing white represents innocence, the green color and green light symbolize multiple things, and West Egg represents new money. Other symbols include:

  • Green land: Similar to the green light, Nick speculates on what the new settlers to this land thought of their fresh, green world. Green in this chapter also represents the American dream and hope, which brought people to America to pursue their dreams.
  • The book Hopalong Cassidy: It’s actually the notes that a young Jay Gatsby had once written. His schedule, filled with self-improvement tasks, shows that Gatsby had a deep need to be successful and rich, many years before he ever met Daisy.
  • Nick’s depression: Nick is depressed by the end of the novel. His disgust over everyone’s behavior, Gatsby’s needless death, and perhaps he even grieved for Myrtle and George Wilson, but Nicks’ depression is representative of the grieving he must do for the loss not only of his friend but also his dream.

Nick explores other ideas in this chapter, all of which have symbolism if the reader wishes to see it as such.

Final Thoughts on Great Gatsby Symbols

The Great Gatsby and the mind of F. Scott Fitzgerald

The Great Gatsby is full of symbolism because it is a novel that explores the themes of love, loss, and the American dream. Fitzgerald uses symbols to represent these themes and create a richer and more complex story.

  • Fitzgerald was a master of symbolism. He used symbols to create a richer and more complex story and explore the themes of the novel in a deeper way.
  • The Great Gatsby is a novel about the American dream. The American dream is a complex idea, and it can be difficult to express in words. It also can mean different things to different people. Symbols can help to express the American dream in a way that words cannot.
  • The Great Gatsby is a novel about the Roaring Twenties. The Roaring Twenties was a time of great change and upheaval in American society. Symbols can help to capture the spirit of the Roaring Twenties.

Overall, The Great Gatsby is a novel that is full of symbolism. This symbolism helps create a richer and more complex story, allowing the reader to explore its themes in a deeper way.

Not everyone will agree with what each symbol represents, but that’s the reason literature is so liberating.

Symbols in The Great Gatsby: Decoding the Meanings in Each Chapter
Symbols in The Great Gatsby: Decoding the Meanings in Each Chapter
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