When Nick goes to Tom and Daisy Buchanan’s house for dinner, his description of first seeing Daisy and Jordan Baker contains alliteration:
The only completely stationary object in the room was an enormous couch on which two young women were buoyed up as though upon an anchored balloon. They were both in white, and their dresses were rippling and fluttering as if they had just been blown back in after a short flight around the house. I must have stood for a few moments listening to the whip and snap of the curtains and the groan of a picture on the wall. Then there was a boom as Tom Buchanan shut the rear windows and the caught wind died out about the room, and the curtains and the rugs and the two young women ballooned slowly to the floor.
Nick describes the scene in the room as dynamic and fluid—everything but the couch that Daisy and Jordan are sitting on is dancing in the breeze. The repeated “b” sound in the first half of the passage mirrors what Nick is seeing: it’s soft yet percussive, giving the feeling of delicately bouncing from one word to the next. This bouncy quality reflects the light, airy imagery of the women floating on the balloonlike couch in their billowing white dresses. This is the reader’s first introduction to Daisy and Jordan, and the alliteration helps convey how luxurious and carefree the women’s lives are, as though they’re lounging on a cloud.
The scene’s airiness dissipates, however, after Tom shuts the windows with a “boom,” which sounds harsh and jarring compared to the softer “b” sound in words like “buoyed,” “balloon,” and “blown.” The “boom” also disrupts the scene visually, as the window shutting cuts off the breeze and makes the women appear as though they’re sinking rather than floating. This abrupt shift associates Tom with the harsher sound and the women with the softer sounds, which characterizes Tom as an abrasive person who puts a damper on the other characters’ high spirits.
Nick’s description of the outdoor décor and catering at Gatsby’s summer parties is alliterative:
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. On buffet tables, garnished with glistening hors-d’oeuvre, spiced baked hams crowded against salads of harlequin designs and pastry pigs and turkeys bewitched to a dark gold.
The function of the alliteration in this passage is aesthetic: it gives the scene a rhythmic, percussive feel that evokes the jazz music that was popular in the 1920s (when the book is set). The soft “g” sounds in “Gatsby’s,” “garden,” “garnished,” and “glistening” contrast with the sharp, repeated “c” and “p” sounds that come before and after. This makes the sentences sound dynamic, like a piece of music or an ocean wave cresting and falling. This aesthetic choice is similar to how Nick later calls the crowd of guests at one of Gatsby’s parties a “sea-change” that “swell[s] with new arrivals” and “dissolve[s] and form[s] in the same breath,” again conveying a sense of fluidity. Paired with the elaborate, luxurious decorations and refreshments that Nick is describing, the alliteration in this passage reflects the boldness, liveliness, and dynamism of Gatsby’s parties and of Jazz Age culture more generally.
The Great Gatsby’s famous last line is an example of both metaphor and alliteration:
So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.
First, the passage uses metaphor to compare people (both the novel’s characters and Americans more generally) to boats that are propelled into the past despite their efforts to move forward into the future. Typically, boats move with the current, not against it—a current is usually thought of as something that propels things forward to their destination. Yet here, the boats are rowing “against the current,” meaning that the water is forcing them backwards. So, with this metaphor, the novel is suggesting that even as people try to move forward and embrace the present and future (i.e., as they chase their dreams), they will nonetheless be unable to ever fully escape the impact of their past.
This idea complicates Nick’s earlier claim in the novel that “you can’t repeat the past”—advice that Gatsby ignored as he shaped his entire life around impressing Daisy to win her back and recreate their youthful romance. The metaphor in this passage instead pessimistically suggests that you can’t escape your past—that even as people look forward to the future, doing so will paradoxically entrench them in the past. This is because even dreams and future goals—be it a dream like Gatsby’s or, more generally, the American Dream of success—are tied to recreating an idealized version of the past. Such an idealized vision can never be perfectly recreated (because it never even existed), but it also can’t be escaped because of its idealized perfection. The novel implies that this dynamic is true not only of Gatsby, but of the U.S. more generally, as the novel’s tragic end suggests that the boundless optimism and rapid progress of the Roaring Twenties will itself fade away as history inevitably repeats itself. The Great Gatsby was published in 1925, but this prophecy arguably came true, since the 1920s were immediately followed by the Great Depression and then by World War II.
The alliteration in this passage serves to deepen the metaphor. The hard “b” sound in “beat,” “boats,” “borne,” and “back” is meant to sound harsh and persistent, reflecting at once both the rhythm of the boat’s oars hitting the water and the chaotic image of the boats trying desperately to row forward while the turbulent sea propels them backward. The alliteration thus emphasizes the persistence and optimism of those who seek to fulfill or create their visions of the future, while also capturing the way that such efforts are self-destructive and futile.
Nick’s reflections on his last night in West Egg contain alliteration:
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.
The pairing of the “d” sounds in “Daisy’s” and “dock” is meant to emphasize the symbolic link between Daisy and the dock. For much of the novel, the green light at the end of the Buchanans’ dock represented Gatsby’s dream of winning Daisy back—while the unreachable distance across the water between him and the light symbolized the unattainability of that dream.
Nick’s use of the phrase “Daisy’s dock” here makes this symbolism more obvious by pairing the same “d” sound together, making the association seem natural because the phrase is almost poetic or songlike. In this way, the alliteration crystallizes the symbol of the green light as a clear stand-in for Daisy herself, and the unreachability of Daisy’s dock as a representation of the idea that Gatsby’s dreams were doomed to fail.