Symbolism

Symbolism is a term that many English teachers love to use yet most students wonder what on earth it has to do anything.  The answer is simple; symbolism is in everyone’s everyday lives.  Take a look at these images.  You have most likely seen each image at least once in your life time and that image has its literal meaning like the image in the middle row, farthest left.  That symbol literally means woman due to the fact that it is a picture of a woman.  However, it is also a perfect example of  symbolism or the “frequent use of words, places, characters, or objects that mean something beyond what they are on a literal level” (Wheeler 2008).  This symbol for a woman is used on many bathroom doors; therefore, it is symbolic of bathrooms.  The same thing with the picture of a man; it not only represents the literal meaning of a man but also is symbolic of bathrooms.


 

Here is another example.  When American citizens look at this flag, many different things might come to their minds including, The United States of America, loyalty, citizenship, democracy, freedom, or patriotism.  However, these are just examples of  symbolism because the literal meaning of this picture is a red, white, and blue flag.  The thoughts or feelings we have when we view this flag are based solely on the symbolist qualities that rather society or ourselves place on the flag.


 

Now that we understand how symbolism  is important to everyday life, let us examine how F. Scott Fitzgerald uses it in The Great Gatsby.  Many different images Fitzgerald uses are symbolic of something but we are going to focus on only three different images.  The first of which is the use of alcohol and parties.  During the 1920’s, when The Great Gatsby takes place, the 18th Amendment was enforced which was that the country would be “dry” or alcohol free.  However, each party that the book describes, rather it be one of Gatsby’s lavish parties at his estate or Tom’s private party in his New York City flat, involves alcohol and intoxication therefore immoral in the eyes of society.  On the surface it appears that the alcohol and parties  represent a fun time but if you were to take a closer look at what Fitzgerald is trying to get across, you will see him trying to symbolize the moral degrade of the 1920’s especially in the area of marriage and romance.  A perfect example of this is Tom and Daisy’s marriage for both of them violate their marriage vows by having lovers which is seen as immoral by many different areas of society.  They also meet or reunite with their lovers when alcohol is involved which further symbolizes the moral degrade of their marriage.  Therefore, you can show that alcohol and parties represent the moral degrade of marriage especially in the case of Tom and Daisy.


 

A second use of symbolism that F. Scott Fitzgerald uses is the green light that Gatsby stares at throughout the novel.  The green light is at the end of Daisy’s dock across from Gatsby’s house.  What Fitzgerald actually wanted this light to symbolize is highly debated but two meanings are evident; money and envy.  Both of these correlate to Gatsby’s relationship with Daisy for Gatsby has no money when he first falls in love with Daisy and therefore she will not marry him.  Gatsby then strives to earn the amount of money needed to make Daisy his wife.  However, while he is doing this, Daisy marries Tom because he does have the money to marry her.  Gatsby become envious and strives to woe Daisy back with the amount of money that he has made.  This is why Gatsby stares at the green light for it is his visual image of what he is striving for and what he hopes to obtain.


 

The third and final example of symbolismin The Great Gatsby is how Fitzgerald uses a character’s car.  Every time a character uses a car, they are trying to escape something in their life that they do not want to face.  This is Fitzgerald’s way of symbolizing the human desire to escape from real life and the secrecy of human nature.  This can be seen in Tom and Myrtle’s love affair.  The only time they see each other is when they escape into the city using Tom’s car.  This is Tom and Myrtle’s way of escaping their real lives and spouses therefore showing their secrecy and desire to escape from their real lives.