Symbolism and Motifs in The Great Gatsby


The Eyes of Doctor T. J. Eckleburg

     Doctor T. J. Eckleburg is the previous owner of an abandoned billboard featuring a giant pair of eyes, faded by sun and weather.  They look out over the valley of ashes, which represents corruption (explained in further detail farther down the page).  The eyes of Dr. Eckleburg are God's eyes, observing his own lack of consideration by the people of the 20's.  God's absence from peoples thoughts is brought to the reader's attention at roughly the climax of the book. His one honorable mention comes from the grief-stricken Wilson.  When Wilson sees the eyes of Eckleburg on the morning following the night of his wife's death, he announces, to no one in particular, that "God sees everything."


     The houses of characters in The Great Gatsby represent the characteristics of their inhabitants.  The Buchanans' house, beautiful on the outside yet ever-changing on the inside, represents Daisy and Tom's relationship: while they appear to be in love in front of guests, for a short time at least, Tom changes partners between Daisy and Myrtle (this is the ever-changing inside part).
    Gatsby's mansion, gigantic and ostentatious, is symbolic of Gatsby's lifestyle and how it came to be.  The American Dream, to Gatsby, is the acquisition of money and goods which, in theory, will lead to a happier life.  Gatsby's thinking is fatally flawed (literally) because while he has achieved unlimited material wealth, all he really wanted was Daisy.  His quest to rekindle his love with Daisy, however, will end with a case of misinformation that leaves Gatsby dead.
     George Wilson is also quite accurately represented by his accommodations. The leader of a simple life, George Wilson is stuck in poverty just like his house in the middle of the valley of ashes.  Like his place of dwelling before the eyes of Doctor Eckleburg, George is fully aware of God's observation of everything.


     The characters in Fitzgerald's novel are symbolic of different aspects of the corruption of the 1920's.  Many are included here, but not all. Almost every character in the book can be related to an event in the 20's or in Fitzgerald's life.
     Jay Gatsby, the main character, is symbolic of the inevitable destruction that accompanies quick and illegitimately earned wealth.  Gatsby has achieved the American Dream but has failed to achieve his own.
     George Wilson represents the few, the proud, the God-fearing.  In an age of godlessness, Wilson still acknowledges His presence, even in his time of grief. Awareness of the Almighty, however, is not enough to live a successful and happy life.  As a result, Wilson is always stuck in the valley of ashes and thus poverty.
     Meyer Wolfsheim, like the valley of ashes, represents corruption and the violation of all that is sacred.  While he is introduced to the reader by Gatsby, Jay does not seem to have a particular fondness of Meyer (and Nick certainly does not).
     Nick Carraway, tucked nicely away in his modest house rented for eighty dollars per month, represents a clear and unbiased view of the 1920's.  This is the reason why Carraway is the narrorator.
     Daisy Buchanan has more of a connection to Fitzgerald's life than the 1920's.  Daisy, Gatsby's love of the past who turned him down because of his low social status, represents Zelda, who turned down Fitzgerald initially because of his low social status.  Gatsby purpose for obtaining wealth, like Fitzgerald, is to try to win back his love.

The Valley of Ashes

      The valley of ashes lies halfway between West Egg and New York City.  It is a "fantastic farm where ashes grow like wheat into ridges and hills and grotesque gardens..." The valley of ashes represents the corruption and social decay that came with the lavish and careless lifestyles of the rich during the 1920's.  Those who live in the valley of ashes, including the Wilsons, are stuck in poverty.  The valley of ashes is the location of Myrtle Wilson's death, indicating its sinister ambiance.  This is the only geographical location in the book that suffers from poverty and it is the result of those living in the Eggs and New York City.

New York City

     What happens in New York City, stays in New York City.  And what does happen? Drinking, sex scandals, criminal activities involving Gatsby, and more drinking.  New York City is symbolic of immorality and carelessness. Indeed, in the 1920's NYC was exactly what it symbolizes in Fitzgerald's book.  When they are in the city, the actions of the characters are executed without any consideration of consequences.  New York City is also the setting where the reader is first introduced to Meyer Wolfsheim who also represents immortality; this strengthens and confirms both Wolfsheim's and NYC's symbolic meaning.

East Egg and West Egg

     East and West Egg are the residential neighborhoods of the rich.  While they both represent wealth, they are not at all the same; in fact, they represent two different kinds of wealth: East Egg represents old wealth, aristocracy, and high social class.  West Egg represents the new wealth, the quick and easy money earned unlawfully during the Roaring 20's, and the destruction and guilt that accompanies the illegitimate money.  Although those who live in the West Egg are super wealthy (excluding Nick), they do not have the high social status that the East Eggers have inherited with their money.  Gatsby lives in West Egg but aspires to live in, literally reaches forward from his lawn toward, East Egg.