Figurative Language in The Great Gatsby

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  • 0:02 Understanding…
  • 0:48 Personification
  • 1:52 Symbolism
  • 2:58 Similes & Metaphors
  • 4:29 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Liz Breazeale
F. Scott Fitzgerald's famous novel ''The Great Gatsby'' contains many excellent examples of figurative language. Read on to see how literary tools like personification and metaphors are utilized and what their effects are.

Understanding Figurative Language

The Great Gatsby, F. Scott Fitzgerald's popular novel about the Jazz Age, has entertained many people since it was published in 1925. In this lesson you'll learn about a very important literary tool that Fitzgerald made use of throughout his novel: figurative language. Figurative language is a way of conveying ideas using the non-literal meaning of words to describe something. It's used a great deal in literature, and not only does it make reading more interesting and beautiful, but also can highlight some very important aspects of a character's personality, thoughts, or motives.

Fitzgerald work includes some excellent examples of figurative language including personification, symbolism, simile and metaphor. Let's get to them!


Personification is when an inanimate object is given human characteristics. It's used as a literary technique when something more descriptive is needed in order to give a full picture of a scene. For example, 'I watched the trees wave at me in the wind.' Well, can trees really wave at a person? Nope. But that's a pretty descriptive sentence, right? And it helps you develop a more vivid picture of what the trees are doing than if the sentence simply said: 'The wind blew the trees.'

Here's a good example of personification from The Great Gatsby:

'...a snub-nosed motor-boat that bumped the tide offshore.'

Can you spot the human trait here? Yep, the boat is being described as 'snub-nosed'. Do boats have noses? They have prows at their front, sure, but you can't say that's the same as a nose on a face. This very short, punchy description gives the reader an exact picture of what this boat looks like. It's simple, too, and stays away from any confusing thoughts a non-boat person might have about what one looks like.


Symbolism refers to the use of an object to represent something else like a thing, person, or place. For instance, in America the bald eagle represents patriotism. While a bald eagle in and of itself isn't patriotic, in our country it's come to mean loyalty.

Symbolism in literature is often used because it's artful and ideally much more subtle than simply coming right out and saying something. It's also a cool way to add layers to a text and kill two birds with one stone - telling an awesome, compelling story, while commenting on something completely different.

The green light is probably the most famous symbol found in The Great Gatsby. This green-tinted light found at the end of Tom and Daisy Buchanan's pier and visible to Gatsby all the way across the water becomes something of an all-consuming symbol for the main character. It not only represents Daisy, but also Gatsby's dream for their hazy, elusive future. Fitzgerald's use of the green light as a symbol gives the reader a tangible image for Gatsby's desire.

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