Symbolism in The Great Gatsby


The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald is a novel based on symbolism. Symbols throughout the novel aid in the development of all the characters, in particular Jay Gatsby and Tom Buchanan. Three major symbols assist in those characters’ development: the car symbolizes wealth, power of the upper class, and chasing dreams; the consumption of alcohol symbolizes revealing the truth; and New York City represents freedom to do what one pleases, not bound by the views of East or West Egg. The development of the characters Jay Gatsby and Tom Buchanan is shaped by these symbols throughout the novel.


Cars – the symbol of wealth, power and dreams – appear almost everywhere in the novel and show a lot about the owner’s character. Gatsby owns “a rich cream colour” (Fitzgerald, 63) Rolls Royce with green leather. This expensive car shows that Gatsby’s life is heavily based on materialism which he believes is necessary for his dream to come true. Symbolically, the car represents Gatsby’s dream of being with Daisy. The golden colour symbolizes the wealth he had attained to win her and the green colour symbolizes the hope he has for her. The fact that Gatsby prefers to drive his own car everywhere, rather than being chauffeured as other upper class people do, shows his trait of being able to take hold of his dreams and make them come true. Tom promises George Wilson a car, and uses that promise to control him. Tom uses his power and wealth that the car represents to dominate over Wilson who is in desperate need of it. Whenever Wilson says something that displeases Tom, Tom threatens to not give him the car:



“ ‘Works pretty slow, don’t he?’ (said Wilson) ‘No, he doesn’t,’ said Tom coldly. ‘And if you fell that way about it, maybe I’d better sell it somewhere else after all.’ ‘I don’t mean that,’ explained Wilson quickly. ‘I just meant – ’ ” (28)



The way Tom uses cars shows his character: a domineering person who uses his wealth and power to control others. Cars as symbols play an important role in developing character of Gatsby and Tom.


The consumption of alcohol symbolizes releasing the truth, which shows the character of the person that drinks it. Gatsby “formed the habit of letting liquor alone” (97), after he set up his fake identity to pursue his dream. At his parties he “was not drinking” (51), but provided free alcohol for all of his guests. The only time Gatsby takes a drink is at a restaurant with Meyer Wolfshiem, his link to the underworld and bootlegging: “Highballs asks the waiter… Yes, Highballs,’ agreed Gatsby” (68). He does not drink at his parties because he wants to hide his past from all his guests. Gatsby’s morally corrupt character is revealed when he drinks around Wolfshiem. Whenever Tom consumes alcohol it shows his domineering nature:



“ ‘Come on – we’re all going to town.’ (said Tom)… No one moved. ‘ Come on!’ His temper cracked a little… His hand, trembling with his effort at self-control, bore to his lips the last of his glass of ale.” (114)


Tom “brought out a bottle of whisky from a locked a bureau door” (31) while at the apartment that he shares with his mistress. At the apartment Tom had a couple of drinks since a “bottle of whisky – a second one – was now in constant demand by all present” (37). After the drinks, Tom’s violent character is exposed, when, with “a short deft movement, Tom Buchanan broke her (Myrtle’s) nose with his open hand” (39). The consumption of alcohol reveals many traits and assists in developing the character of Gatsby and Tom.


New York City symbolizes freedom from the views of the East and West Eggers. For Gatsby and Tom it provides the perfect place to do anything they want ambiguously – what they use New York for shows their character. Gatsby meets his “friend Mr Wolfshiem” (68) at a restaurant in New York, “the man who fixed the World’s Series back in 1919” (71) as Gatsby claims. Gatsby uses New York as a place to do his shady business of bootlegging alcohol, which he wants to hide from the East and