What Does the Green Light Symbolize in the Great Gatsby?

December 8, 2023

green light great gastby symbolize

Much ink has been spilled (perhaps too much) trying to explain what the green light symbolizes in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby. For those of you who read the book in high school (and those of you who pretended to), you likely remember at least one lengthy class discussion dedicated to the significance of the green light at the end of Daisy Buchanan’s dock. You might have heard people argue that the green light symbolizes “the American Dream,” or Gatsby’s love for Daisy, or maybe Gatsby’s love of money (money is green, get it?). None of these arguments is wrong, per se. But none of them approach the text with any level of analytical sophistication. In this article, we’re going to talk about how we can discuss the symbolism of the green light in Gatsby without resorting to simplistic, reductive readings.

If it’s been a while since you’ve read The Great Gatsby, let’s review the plot of the book. On the first page of Gatsby, we meet our narrator, Nick Carraway. A recently returned WWI veteran, Nick has gone East to learn the bond business. Once there, he reconnects with his distant cousin, Daisy Buchanan, meets her violent, philandering husband, Tom, as well as Tom’s mistress, Myrtle. The house Nick is renting in Long Island turns out to be next to the mansion of Jay Gatsby, another WWI veteran who has made millions through some very shady deals. Coincidentally, Gatsby had met (and fallen in love with) Daisy before he left for the war.

What does the green light symbolize in The Great Gatsby? (Continued)

When Gatsby finds out that Daisy is Nick’s cousin, he asks him to arrange a meet-cute so that he can rekindle his relationship with her. By the end of the book, Daisy ends up accidentally killing Myrtle. Gatsby takes the blame and gets shot by Myrtle’s jealous husband. Tom and Daisy emerge unscathed and Nick goes back to the Midwest. Through all these events, the green light at the end of Daisy’s dock reappears as a suggestive metaphor for desire, love, and the inability to recapture the past.

What’s a “Symbol” and Why Do Your Teachers Love Them?  

Most basically, a symbol is something – an object, a word, or picture – that stands for something else. You can probably name a bunch of symbols off the top of your head. The cross is a symbol for Christianity, a heart is a symbol of love, a dove for peace, etc. In all of these examples, the symbol distills a complex set of meanings into an easily readable sign. This is the strength of a symbol – it turns something complicated into something simple. In other words, symbols simplify. So far, so good. Things go wrong when we try to read simple symbols into complex works of literature. Like, for example, the green light in Gatsby.

What does the green light symbolize in The Great Gatsby? (Continued)

In his article “The Abuse of Symbols,” Rob Goodman tries to explain why literature teachers are so hung up on symbols. Goodman argues that complex literary texts are uniquely ill-suited to assessment culture. In other words, literary texts (which, if successful, “thwart right answers”), confound an educational system that requires simple ways to judge student performance. Because symbols provide a testable correspondence between “object and meaning,” they are particularly well-suited to assessment. Goodman writes,

“[Symbols] allow for a set of answers to be written on whiteboards, penciled in on flashcards, repeated on tests. They allow students to be marked right or wrong. That’s why Cliff’s Notes and Spark Notes regularly come with handy indexed guides to symbols and their meanings—because those meanings are such a predictable feature of English tests.”

I know many of you are probably here because you’re looking for a symbolic reading of the green light in Gatsby. We’ll get there! At the same time, I’m going to try to add just a bit more analytic complexity to our discussion 🙂

When is a light just a light?

Goodman’s article is primarily about symbols and the American education system. However, he does make a brief mention of a text by Erich Auerbach that might help us understand how the green light functions in Gatsby. Goodman cites Auerbach’s Mimesis to explain why symbols feel important. Goodman cites Auerbach’s belief that realism (of which Gatsby is a prime example) must be considered in relation to the “figural worldview” in which “events or objects can be assigned significance as signs, or ‘figures’ of a divine plan.” While Goodman uses this citation to sum up artists’ ability to imbue metaphysical significance to the banal – I take a different view. I’m inclined to understand our desire for symbols as simply a desire for some sort of significance in the face of a world bereft of meaning.

You’re probably wondering how this connects to The Great Gatsby. Let’s look at the final paragraph of the text to try and understand what’s happening. In perhaps the most affecting lines in American literature, our narrator Nick Carraway writes that,

“Gatsby believed in the green light, the orgastic future that year by year recedes before us. It eluded us then, but that’s no matter—tomorrow we will run faster, stretch out our arms further… And one fine morning—So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.”

What does the green light symbolize in The Great Gatsby? (Continued)

There’s no doubt that the green light is a symbol. Gatsby can’t believe in a literal light. Rather, Gatsby can only believe in what the light symbolizes—the “orgastic future that year by year recedes before us.” Or does he? In this moment in the text, it’s important to remember who’s talking—our narrator, Nick Carraway. Rather than establishing the green light as some sort of definitive symbol, what if we say that this moment merely tells us something about Nick’s own desire for meaning?

Nick Carraway–Reliable Reporter? 

We need to remember that the story of Gatsby has always already been filtered through the lens of our narrator, Nick Carraway. When Nick writes the first line of the novel: “In my younger and more vulnerable years my father gave me some advice…” all the events of the story have already happened. Thus, when Nick says “No—Gatsby turned out all right at the end,” Gatsby is already dead. This retrospective rewriting of the past cannot be overstated. When Nick waxes eloquently about “the abortive sorrows and short-winded elations of men,” in the first section of the text, he has already attended Gatsby’s parties, met Daisy, Tom, and Jordan, watched Daisy fall in and out of love with Gatsby, and attended Gatsby’s funeral.

This is all to say that the entire text of The Great Gatsby is Nick looking back on a particularly fraught period of his life. As with any memory, there are bound to be elisions, gaps, and erasures. I certainly don’t mean to say that Nick is purposefully lying to the reader. At the same time, given the violence, grief, and upheaval of his time with Gatsby, he could be forgiven for letting his emotions and desires cloud his reporting.

Dreams of the Past / Dreams in the Present

With this new perspective, let’s take another look at the last mention of the green light in the novel. Earlier we read Nick’s assertion that “Gatsby believed in the green light…”, but it’s important to examine this “green light” in relation to the entirety of Nick’s final musings. In the final paragraphs of the novel, Nick establishes a direct analogy between Gatsby’s light and “the old island here that flowered once for Dutch sailors’ eyes—a fresh, green breast of the new world” (emphasis added). Only after this meditation on the “discovery” of the American continent does Nick consider Gatsby. He writes,

“And as I sat there brooding on the old, unknown world, I thought of Gatsby’s wonder when he first picked out the green light at the end of Daisy’s dock. He had come a long way to this blue lawn, and his dream must have seemed so close that he could hardly fail to grasp it. He did not know that it was already behind him, somewhere back in that vast obscurity beyond the city, where the dark fields of the republic rolled on under the night.”

What does the green light symbolize in The Great Gatsby? (Continued)

In this first part of this quote, Nick establishes a contrast between Gatsby’s dream and reality. On the one hand “[Gatsby’s] dream must have seemed so close that he could hardly fail to grasp it”—on the other, “it was already behind him.” Let’s try to figure out what Nick means here. It’s safe to say that Gatsby’s dream has always been Daisy. If this is the case, what does Nick mean when he says that Gatsby’s dream of Daisy “was already behind him”? To understand this statement, we have to remember that Gatsby met and fell in love with Daisy five years before at Camp Taylor in Louisville, Kentucky. With this in mind, what Nick means becomes clear. Gatsby thinks that his dream is within reach. He doesn’t realize that he’s still chasing a dream from five years ago.

Nick Carraway and the Tyranny of Hope

According to Nick, Gatsby is split between the present and the past. This same divide plays itself out in the final lines of the novel. Recall Nick’s statement:

“Gatsby believed in the green light, the orgastic future that year by year recedes before us. It eluded us then, but that’s no matter—tomorrow we will run faster, stretch out our arms further… And one fine morning—So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.”

On the one hand, we (along with Gatsby) believe in “an orgastic future.” On the other, we are “born back…into the past.” We know that Gatsby was chasing a future with Daisy that was based on a past that cannot be recreated. Understood in this way, the quote above does two things. 1) it generalizes this condition to all humanity. 2) asserts its absolute inevitability. Reading the quote above, Nick implicates himself (and perhaps everyone) in this temporal split—“it eludes us…we will run…stretch our arms.” According to Nick, we continue in this impossible striving due to some perverse optimism. After all, if we run fast enough and stretch out far enough, “one fine morning—”

At the same time, Nick seems to imply that this condition is inevitable. According to Nick, this imaginary future is always already our past coming back to haunt us. In other words, what we imagine for our future is merely the already dead dream of our past.

What’s Left for Nick? 

Like I said at the beginning of this essay, it’s not wrong to say that the green light symbolizes Gatsby’s love of Daisy. At the same time, to claim that “green light = Daisy’s love” doesn’t give us much insight into how the green light functions in the text. Remember, everytime we read about the green light, it’s because Nick wants to talk about the green light. It’s safe to say that it’s not actually Gatsby who’s obsessed with the green light—it’s Nick.

When I read the final lines of the book, I’m struck by a feeling of resignation. For Nick, it’s as if we’re stuck replaying the past, even when we try to dream our futures. In some ways, it makes sense that Nick might come to such a conclusion. We mustn’t forget that Nick has been scarred by the violence of the world. Coming home from the incalculable death of WWI, he finds himself surrounded by the impersonal violence of capitalism run amok. One can understand how, for Nick, the idea of meaningful progress seems unlikely. More likely is an unending cycle of state violence and economic callousness. Considering the events that came after Gatsby’s publication—the worldwide economic depression and subsequent world war, Nick’s pessimism seems prescient.

What does the green light symbolize in The Great Gatsby? – Additional Resources

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