The Great Gatsby

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The Green Light and the Color Green Symbol Analysis

The Green Light and the Color Green Symbol Icon
The green light at the end of Daisy's dock is the symbol of Gatsby's hopes and dreams. It represents everything that haunts and beckons Gatsby: the physical and emotional distance between him and Daisy, the gap between the past and the present, the promises of the future, and the powerful lure of that other green stuff he craves—money. In fact, the color green pops up everywhere in The Great Gatsby. Long Island sound is "green"; George Wilson's haggard tired face is "green" in the sunlight; Michaelis describes the car that kills Myrtle Wilson as "light green" (though it's yellow); Gatsby's perfect lawn is green; and the New World that Nick imagines Dutch explorers first stumbling upon is a "fresh, green breast." The symbolism of green throughout the novel is as variable and contradictory as the many definitions of "green" and the many uses of money—"new," "natural," "innocent," "naive," and "uncorrupted"; but also "rotten," "gullible," "nauseous," and "sickly."

The Green Light and the Color Green Quotes in The Great Gatsby

The The Great Gatsby quotes below all refer to the symbol of The Green Light and the Color Green. For each quote, you can also see the other characters and themes related to it (each theme is indicated by its own dot and icon, like this one:
The Roaring Twenties Theme Icon
). Note: all page and citation info for the quotes below refers to the Scribner edition of The Great Gatsby published in 2004.
Chapter 1 Quotes
He stretched out his arms toward the dark water in a curious way, and, far as I was from him, I could have sworn he was trembling. Involuntarily I glanced seaward – and distinguished nothing except a single green light, minute and far away, that might have been the end of a dock.
Related Characters: Nick Carraway (speaker), Jay Gatsby
Related Symbols: The Green Light and the Color Green
Page Number: 20
Explanation and Analysis:

Nick observes, for the first time, Gatsby’s odd nighttime ritual: He looks out at a green light across the water.

The “green light” is undoubtably the most famous symbol from Fitzgerald’s novel, and it has been interpreted in a vast number of ways—from an indication of his love for Daisy to a model for the roaring-twenties aspirations of Americans. Part of that ambiguity comes from the writing itself: Nick describes the action as “curious” and dilutes its certainty with the phrase “could have sworn”—as opposed to simply saying “he was trembling.” The phrase “that might have been” to describe the location of the light plays a similar mystifying role. Thus the text places several layers of uncertainty between the reader and Gatsby, which mirrors Nick’s experience in the moment.

Despite these uncertainties, however, it is evident that the “green light” represents some kind of aspiration for Gatsby. That it is “single” stresses the directness of the goal, for Gatsby is not gazing at a general area but rather at a fixed and unique point. As it lies “seaward” and at the “end of a dock,” we can infer already that water symbolically separates Gatsby from the goal—and that crossing that water will allow him to access it.

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Chapter 9 Quotes
And as the moon rose higher the inessential houses began to melt away until gradually I became aware of the old island here that flowered once for Dutch sailors' eyes—a fresh, green breast of the new world.... And as I sat there, brooding on the old, unknown world, I thought of Gatsby's wonder when he first picked out Daisy's light at the end of his dock. He had come such a long way to this blue lawn, and his dream must have seemed so close he could hardly fail to grasp it. But what he did not know was that it was already behind him, somewhere in the vast obscurity beyond the city, where the dark fields of the republic rolled on under the night.
Related Characters: Nick Carraway (speaker), Jay Gatsby, Daisy Buchanan
Related Symbols: The Green Light and the Color Green
Page Number: 180
Explanation and Analysis:

In the novel’s closing passage, Nick reflects on how Gatsby’s dogged pursuit of Daisy is similar to the dreams of early settlers landing on the American continent. He uses the comparison to both elevate and belittle Gatsby’s character.

To introduce this idea, Nick first describes dissociating from the immediate surroundings: “the inessential houses began to melt away,” distancing him from the environment of wealth and commodities. This is a startling narrative technique, considering how Nick had earlier denied to Gatsby the potential of returning to the past: here he seems to do just that, indicating that storytelling and reflection may achieve this end far more effectively than Gatsby’s purchase of a mansion on West Egg. Next, he uses this trick of time to equate the “green breast of the new world” seen by settlers in America to “Daisy’s light” seen by Gatsby. In different ways, they represent an almost-reached, yet still-differed goal.

This parallel elevates Gatsby’s dreams to an epic stature—for they are deemed equal in aspiration to those who have "discovered" this very land. Yet the passage also renders Gatsby less unique by pointing out how traditional and ancient his aspirations are. Nick stresses this second perspective when he observes that Gatsby’s dream was “already behind him,” indicating that the destination has already been reached. This “behind” could refer to Gatsby’s previous relationship with Daisy, or his hometown to the West—but also the symbolic “behind” of those Dutch sailors. Fitzgerald seems to imply that America as “the republic” already holds the aspiration that Gatsby so desperately seeks—and that his attempts to search for fulfillment in new domains is pointless.

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 farther.... And then one fine morning—So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.
Related Characters: Nick Carraway (speaker), Jay Gatsby
Related Symbols: The Green Light and the Color Green
Page Number: 180
Explanation and Analysis:

In these last lines of the novel, Nick continues to offer an equivocal set of comments on his perception of Gatsby. Once more, he points out the flaws in his characteristic commitment, while simultaneously praising the way he so doggedly pursues an ideal.

To articulate this ambiguity, Nick once more summons the symbol of the “green light”—here defining it as something that can fundamentally never be obtained. Its vital quality is not actually the “orgastic future” but rather the perception of such a future that “recedes” and is “eluded.” Indeed, this is how it has symbolically functioned in the novel: never allowing the reader to pin down a singular meaning, promising to unlock the text but actually standing for a variety of conflicting allegorical ideas.

Yet it is in that very process of deferral that Nick locates the light’s significance. The light is significant because it motivates those who perceive it to “run faster, stretch out our arms farther”—whether that means to perform well at one’s job, or to more closely examine the symbolism of a green light. It is telling that the phrase “then one fine morning” does not end in an actual action, for it represents another of those "orgastic futures" that recedes rather than being caught. For Nick, this pursuit ends in the odd (but extremely famous) image of a set of boats futilely beating on against the current: a symbol which reiterates the wish to cross a body of water and reach the green light.

For although the boats “beat on,” they actually move “ceaselessly into the past,” indicating not only stagnancy but also a gravitational pull toward personal, social, and cultural history. Fitzgerald thus ends the novel by reversing Nick’s earlier claim that one does not repeat the past, instead asserting that though the pursuit of new dreams may indeed be worthwhile, these efforts are essentially minute compared to the natural inertia that the characters in the novel (as well as the United States itself) would experience as the roaring twenties came to a close.

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The Green Light and the Color Green Symbol Timeline in The Great Gatsby

The timeline below shows where the symbol The Green Light and the Color Green appears in The Great Gatsby. The colored dots and icons indicate which themes are associated with that appearance.
Chapter 1
The American Dream Theme Icon
...far side of the water. Nick looks across the water and sees only a tiny green light blinking at the end of a dock. (full context)
Chapter 4
The Roaring Twenties Theme Icon
The American Dream Theme Icon
Class (Old Money, New Money, No Money) Theme Icon
Past and Future Theme Icon
...the magnificent house would impress her and win back her love. Nick realizes that the green light he saw Gatsby gazing at sits at the end of Daisy's dock. Finally, Jordan... (full context)
Chapter 5
The American Dream Theme Icon
Class (Old Money, New Money, No Money) Theme Icon
...tour of his mansion. In Gatsby's bedroom, as he tells Daisy about staring at the green light on her dock. Daisy breaks down crying while looking through Gatsby's vast collection of... (full context)
The American Dream Theme Icon
...that mist on the bay blocks his view of Daisy's house and the single blinking green light on its dock. (full context)
Chapter 7
The American Dream Theme Icon
...where she was struck and killed by a passing car that may have been light green. (full context)
Chapter 9
The American Dream Theme Icon
...He wonders how the first settlers to America must have felt staring out at the "green breast" of the new continent, and imagines Gatsby's similar wonder when he realized that tiny... (full context)