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In literature, color conveys powerful messages, expressing underlying themes when words fail to do so. Recognizing symbolism is an essential part of understanding any literary work. In F. Scott Fitzgerald’s American masterpiece The Great Gatsby, colors are used to develop the characters and theme in a way that mimics the era of the book, The Roaring Twenties; a time of social decadence and moral deterioration in which the superficial lives of the war-shattered people revolved solely around money. The colors blue, grey, lavender, gold, yellow, green and white occur considerably throughout the novel adding depth and dynamic to the otherwise trivial lives of the characters. Color also shines light on some truth behind the glittering facades put on by Gatsby and Daisy allowing the reader to grasp the actuality of the misunderstood relationship.
Blue describes Gatsby’s inner-self, which is full of sadness and fantasy. In the novel his garden is always described with the color blue. He holds all of his extravagant ravages in his blue garden to attract Daisy, but he never succeeds. Few people who attend the parties know the real identity of Gatsby, which is the reason he does not attend. Blue also symbolizes the illusion of his dreams. In his meeting with Daisy, he brings out his brightly colored and expensive shirts; and Daisy can’t seem to contain her emotions. “Shirts with stripes and scrolls and plaids in coral and apple green and lavender and faint orange with monograms of Indian blue. Suddenly with a strained sound Daisy bent her head into the shirts and began to cry stormily”(98). This proves that there is only a superficial love between the two. Nick realizes the disillusionment of Gatsby’s American dream when he sees the blue smoke of the leaves in the air and decides to go home where people have traditional morals.
Grey occurs throughout the novel in the valley of ashes. It symbolizes the bleakness and corruption of society and represents the moral decay and spiritual emptiness of the people. It is used to characterize the lower class that live there like George and Myrtle Wilson, who are condemned to the wasteland because they are not wealthy. The lower class desires to break free from their poverty-stricken lives, yet the wealthy are just as empty. Tom Buchanan is Myrtle’s only escape from her colorless, boring life with Wilson. She believes Tom will choose her over Daisy and take her away from the valley of ashes, but the reader can understand that he would not do that because he knows Myrtle is beneath him. Fitzgerald uses the Wilson’s grey life to emphasize that blind pursuit of an ideal can be destructive.
As purple usually symbolizes royalty, lavender symbolizes the rich and the indulgence associated with wealth. Myrtle picks out a lavender colored taxi with grey upholstery after letting four drive by. The taxi is metaphorical of herself; purple or seemingly wealthy on the outside but still grey or lower class inside. The rooms of Gatsby’s mansion are decorated in lavender, and he dresses in lavender shirts that he has specially imported. One of the twins in yellow, who attends Gatsby’s party also mentions that he sent her a new dress after hers was ruined at one of his other events. “It was gas blue with lavender beads. Two hundred and sixty-five dollars”(48).
The colors gold and yellow represent the corrupt wealth and substance, or lack thereof, of the luxurious East and West Eggers and it draws the line between Gatsby and his intangible paradise. Jordan Baker and Daisy are described as a golden girls multiple times in the novel. Nick says he was holding Jordan’s slender golden arm and he says “…high in the white palace the king’s daughter, the golden girl”(127), describing Daisy. The gold of the Buchanans is much different from Gatsby’s yellow money. Yellow is a fake gold; it is what separates the characters. Gatsby spends all of his time trying to acquire the essence of gold but he falls short because he is never truly an East Egger. Gatsby’s life is full of yellow. He has a yellow Rolls Royce and “yellow cocktail music [and] two girls in twin yellow dresses”(47) at one of his parties. T. J. Eckleburg’s glasses, looking over the wasteland of America, are yellow spectacles covering big blue eyes. At Gatsby’s party even the turkeys are “..bewitched to a dark gold”(44) which symbolizes his desire to be metaphorically golden himself. Fitzgerald also adds the months Gatsby is away during the war. “All night the saxophones wailed the hopeless comment of the Beale Street Blues while a hundred pairs of golden and silver slippers shuffled the shining dust” (158). Here even the dust in the rooms is shining, which emphasizes how hard he is trying to get Daisy to realize that he is wealthy. In the novel Nick says “we went about opening the rest of the windows downstairs, filling the house with grey-turning, gold-turning light”(159) which symbolically represents how Daisy has accepted Gatsby as the affluent man that he has strived to become and no longer the “poor boy” that she said she could not marry.
Gold and yellow are two colors that stand in close relation, yet also in stark contrast throughout The Great Gatsby. Members of the upper class who come from old money view themselves as more authentic and prestigious in comparison to members of the new money upper class whose money has been made in a variety of quick, and sometimes questionable ways, like bootlegging. Gatsby constantly aims to prove that he can belong in the gold section of society with Daisy.Green is greatly associated with the relationship Gatsby thinks he has with Daisy, and White is associated with the purposelessness that accompanies Daisy’s life.
White normally stands for innocence and purity, as Daisy appears on the outside but the reader can conclude that Daisy is indeed empty. The first time Nick meets with Jordan and Daisy, they are dressed in all white dresses that look like pale curtains floating in the air. She even says “what’ll we do with ourselves this afternoon…and the day after that, and the next thirty years?” To this Jordan replies “don’t be morbid…life starts all over again when it gets crisp in the fall”(125). This conversation proves that their lives are meaningless; they are just chasing material things that have no real substance. Daisy says she and Jordan lived out their “white girlhood” together.
Even though the Buchanans are obviously vacuous, Gatsby is drawn to their high-class life. He holds on to his hope by the green light shining at the end of Daisy’s dock. “Involuntarily I glanced seaward and distinguished nothing except a single green light, minute and far away…”(26) Nick is correct in the sense that the light, symbolizing Gatsby’s dream, is very minute and distant. Gatsby does not realize that his dream is abstract; he only sees what he wants to see. When Gatsby finally gets to see Daisy in person, he tells her that she will always have the green light at the end of her doc. Nick says “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”(98) At the end of the novel, Nick juxtaposes the American Dream of the early Dutch sailors to the illusionary and acquisitive dream of Jay Gatz. For the sailors, it was a natural cornucopia, promising the greatest of dreams, the American Dream. For Gatsby, his dream has not been something he could come to attain. “I became aware of the old island here that flowered once for Dutch sailors’ eyes — a fresh, green breast of the new world. Its vanished trees, the trees that had made way for Gatsby’s house, had once pandered in whispers to the last and greatest of all human dreams” (89).
Fitzgerald uses colors in The Great Gatsby frequently as symbols, and creates an atmosphere in different tones throughout the novel as a way to underline the key points and emphasize the theme. This classic American literary work is full of symbolism, but the colors utilized add a profound sense of dynamic to the lives of the characters and the moral of the book itself.
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