The Green Light & the Color Green in The Great Gatsby

Instructor: Terri Beth Miller

Terri Beth has taught college writing and literature courses since 2005 and has a PhD in literature.

This lesson examines the use of the color green in F. Scott Fitzgerald's 1925 masterpiece, The Great Gatsby. Additionally, this lesson explores the symbolism of the green light which plays such a key role in the novel.

F. Scott Fitzgerald

Green with Envy

F. Scott Fitzgerald's 1925 novel, The Great Gatsby, tells the story of beautiful people leading beautiful lives in the Jazz Age. It is the tale of Jay Gatsby and his love for the girl who got away, Daisy, the Southern debutante, heiress, and now wife of the brutish millionaire, Tom Buchanan.

Having made his fortune through suspicious means, presumably bootlegging, the illegal sale of alcohol, and other crimes, Gatsby builds a fantastic mansion across the harbor from where his long-lost love lives. There, Gatsby throws lavish parties and cultivates his reputation as a man of wealth and power--all to regain the love of the socialite who rejected him five years prior, when he was a penniless soldier.

1925 First Edition Book Jacket


Perhaps the most obvious interpretation of the color green in The Great Gatsby is money. In the novel, cash flows like water. The characters are driven by it; the plot is built around it. After all, it's Gatsby's poverty that drives Daisy to reject him in the first place. He returns five years later obscenely wealthy, with as much money and power as her family and Tom's combined, if not more. it would seem he had found the cure-all for his life's single unhappiness.

But here's the rub: not even money can turn back time. In the five years that Gatsby was off making his fortune, time moved on, and Daisy moved with it. She married. She had a daughter. She built a comfortable life for herself, with all the money, social connections, ease, and luxury an heiress, pampered from birth, could want. Seeing Gatsby again stirs up old feelings in her, but how is she to abandon this new life?

Green Lights Don't Mean Go

If money is a prevailing theme in Gatsby, mobility is a close second, as evidenced by the symbolic role cars play in this novel. Cars are everywhere: who owns what car, who is buying, who is selling, what is this car worth, what can that car do. Cars are, of course, a status symbol, particularly in this era, when not everyone owned one. Automobiles were the domain of the higher classes and those who were upwardly mobile, like Gatsby himself.

It is no wonder the gas station and auto repair shop owned by George and Myrtle Wilson is struggling. The image of the American Dream that plays such a role in this novel is a sort of perpetual green light, suggesting that Americans have the permission and opportunity to be and do whatever they want. It is an image of limitless upward mobility.

But the Wilsons' failing shop, just like Gatsby's ultimate failure in achieving his heart's desire, proves the truth: the perpetual green light is a lie. There are some things beyond our reach. Whether we are born into the wrong class or our money and our family name just aren't 'old enough', for some people, the light will always be red.

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