Alliteration in the Great Gatsby

Instructor: Christina Boggs

Chrissy has taught secondary English and history and writes online curriculum. She has an M.S.Ed. in Social Studies Education.

Alliteration, a common literary device, is a useful tool that F. Scott Fitzgerald uses throughout his writing. This lesson explores Fitzgerald's use of alliteration in the novel 'The Great Gatsby'.

Glowing, Glorious, and Glamorous...

Take a few moments to glance over the sentences below. As you read, consider what each sentence has in common:

  • Fifty flimsy flivvers flew past the filthy farm.
  • Despite dire conditions, Dan deftly defended the dam.
  • 'Surely she cannot be serious,' Sally screamed.

If you're a savvy student, you've likely spotted that each of these sentences includes words that repeat the same first letter. This lilting literary device, called an alliteration, occurs when two or more words beginning with the same consonant (any letter other than A, E, I, O, and U) appear side by side, or close to one another, in a sentence or passage.

Now that you know what alliteration is, it's important to consider two questions: what does alliteration do and why do authors use it? Alliteration creates a rhythmic way of reading and speaking, allowing the words to seemingly flow forth. Authors employ alliteration to bring both a magical quality to their writing, but to also create emphasis, humor, and mood. F. Scott Fitzgerald, author of The Great Gatsby, uses alliteration throughout the novel.

Alliteration to Create Rhythm

F. Scott Fitzgerald frequently uses alliteration to give his writing flow and rhythm, helping to engage the reader:

At least once a fortnight a corps of caterers came down with several hundred feet of canvas and enough colored lights to make a Christmas tree of Gatsby's enormous garden.

Repeated use of the letter 'C' draws the reader into the passage. Each time the hard 'C' sound is repeated, the momentum of the passage builds as phrases like 'corps of caterers' roll off the tongue.

Alliteration to Create Emphasis

One of the most obvious uses of alliteration to create emphasis is in the novel's title, The Great Gatsby. Use of 'great' and 'Gatsby' next to each other is memorable for readers and truly hits the point home that Jay Gatsby is 'great', a word synonymous with 'epic' and 'significant'.

Alliteration is used to create emphasis in other parts of the novel as well. The narrator, Nick Carraway, explains to readers his plans to study up on the financial sector:

I bought a dozen volumes on banking and credit and investment securities and they stood on my shelf in red and gold like new money from the mint, promising to unfold the shining secrets that only Midas and Morgan and Mæcenas knew.

'Midas and Morgan and Mæcenas' refers to three prominent individuals associated with wealth:

  • King Midas, the mythical king who turned things to gold just by touching them
  • J.P. Morgan, a fabulously wealthy American banker and tycoon
  • Mæcenas, a political adviser to the Roman emperor, Caesar Augustus

While this reference certainly emphasizes to readers Carraway's commitment to his studies, repetition of 'M' names also helps readers to remember the narrator's efforts.

Alliteration to Create Humor

Alliteration is also a useful tool to create humor in a story. While The Great Gatsby is not an outright hilarious novel, Fitzgerald does use sporadic alliteration to lighten the text.

As Nick Carraway and Tom Buchanan pass through the 'valley of ashes', they come across a massive billboard of T.J. Eckleburg:

Evidently some wild wag of an oculist set them there to fatten his practice in the borough of Queens, and then sank down himself into eternal blindness, or forgot them and moved away.

The word 'wag' refers to a joker. Carraway's reference to Eckleburg is light and vaguely comical largely because few would describe an eye doctor as either 'wild' or a 'wag'.

Later in the novel, Carraway finds himself at one of Gatsby's parties where he meets three men; ...each one introduced to us as Mr. Mumble. In this example, use of 'Mr. Mumble' is meant to be humorous. Clearly their last names aren't mumble, however Carraway assigns this moniker because they don't speak clearly and they're likely not very memorable.

Alliteration to Create Mood

Finally, Fitzgerald uses alliteration to create a specific mood, or feeling for readers. One of the earliest examples of this occurs when Daisy visits Gatsby's home for the first time. Overwhelmed, she finds herself consumed by her emotions:

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