The book uses two types of imagery—sound and sight—to describe the moment when Nick first sees his next-door neighbor, Jay Gatsby, from across the lawn:
The wind had blown off, leaving a loud, bright night, with wings beating in the trees and a persistent organ sound as the full bellows of the earth blew the frogs full of life. The silhouette of a moving cat wavered across the moonlight, and turning my head to watch it, I saw that I was not alone—fifty feet away a figure had emerged from the shadow of my neighbor’s mansion and was standing with his hands in his pockets regarding the silver pepper of the stars. Something in his leisurely movements and the secure position of his feet upon the lawn suggested that it was Mr. Gatsby himself, come out to determine what share was his of our local heavens.
The sounds of insects’ “wings beating in the trees” and the “persistent organ sound” of frogs lend musicality to the surrounding nature, foreshadowing the orchestras that will play at Gatsby’s parties throughout the summer. Notably, Gatsby is an observer of his glamorous guests at these parties—similar to how he gazes at “the silver pepper of the stars” in this passage—but he never actively participates in the festivities. The juxtaposition of the “loud, bright night” and the image of Gatsby standing alone outside his mansion gives a similar sense that Gatsby is something of a loner, an outsider whose motivations are different from those of the people around him.
On another note, Nick recognizes Gatsby not by his appearance, but by Gatsby’s “leisurely movements and the secure position of his feet upon the lawn.” This image of Gatsby moving lazily—not unlike the cat “waver[ing] across the moonlight”—and looking “secure” immediately characterizes him as confident and suave, someone whom other people are drawn to. Indeed, Nick can’t help but watch him here, and just after this he briefly considers calling out to Gatsby. Yet Gatsby’s magnetic presence does not counteract the sense that he’s isolated and perhaps lonely under “the shadow of [his] mansion,” just as he’s dwarfed by the vastness of the “local heavens” above.
Nick uses imagery to introduce the “valley of ashes,” an industrial area halfway between West Egg and Manhattan:
This is a valley of ashes—a fantastic farm where ashes grow like wheat into ridges and hills and grotesque gardens; where ashes take the forms of houses and chimneys and rising smoke and, finally, with a transcendent effort, of men who move dimly and already crumbling through the powdery air. Occasionally a line of gray cars crawls along an invisible track, gives out a ghastly creak, and comes to rest, and immediately the ash-gray men swarm up with leaden spades and stir up an impenetrable cloud, which screens their obscure operations from your sight.
While New York City represents promise and the American Dream (the idea that anyone who works hard can achieve success), and West Egg represents the realization of that dream, the valley of ashes represents the grim reality of the working-class people caught in between. The image of farms, neighborhoods, and people made out of ashes associates the valley with filth, death, and decay, creating the sense that while middle- and upper-class people are able to take advantage of the Roaring Twenties’ economic boom, working-class people are still toiling and suffering to no avail. Nothing life-sustaining or profitable can grow in “ridges and hills and grotesque gardens” that are made of ashes rather than fertile soil, which leaves little hope for the people who live and work here to succeed and rise up in the world.
Moreover, the ashes that “take the forms of houses and chimneys and rising smoke” contrast with the gaudy mansions in West Egg and East Egg, and with the gleaming rows of upscale apartment buildings in New York City. This image drives home the immense wealth gap between affluent characters like Nick, Gatsby, and the Buchanans and working-class characters like Myrtle and George Wilson. And, in fact, the debris in this area is a result of New York City’s industrial waste, a byproduct of the flashy cars and other expensive goods that Long Island’s wealthy North Shore residents indulge in. In this way, the image of houses made of ashes underscores the fact that working-class people are living in squalor as a direct result of the new technologies and luxuries that the upper classes enjoy.
Finally, the image of people made of ashes “crumbling through the powdery air” and the “impenetrable cloud” of ashes obscuring the valley from view give the sense that the people who live here are invisible to outsiders because they’re considered to be less than, to be expendable. All in all, the imagery in this passage shows that although the people in the valley of ashes are indispensable to the industry that has catapulted so many people in New York City and Long Island to success, they are cast aside and forgotten, and they have no hope of aspiring to success themselves.
The passage describing Doctor T. J. Eckleburg’s billboard contains rich visual imagery:
But above the grey land and the spasms of bleak dust which drift endlessly over it, you perceive, after a moment, the eyes of Doctor T. J. Eckleburg. The eyes of Doctor T. J. Eckleburg are blue and gigantic—their retinas are one yard high. They look out of no face but, instead, from a pair of enormous yellow spectacles which pass over a nonexistent nose. 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. But his eyes, dimmed a little by many paintless days under sun and rain, brood on over the solemn dumping ground.
In describing the industrial area in Queens where the billboard is located (the “valley of ashes”) as “grey land” full of “spasms of bleak dust,” the book sets the scene as one of desolation and filth. Then, the emphasis on the size of Eckleburg’s eyes on the billboard—”blue and gigantic” with “enormous yellow spectacles”—creates the sense that Eckleberg is a godlike figure who hovers over the valley of ashes, observing everything that goes on there. Indeed, later in the book, George Wilson (an auto mechanic who lives and works in the valley) likens Eckleberg’s billboard to God watching over people and judging their behavior. The Great Gatsby is largely a critique of the moral depravity of the Roaring Twenties, so Eckleberg’s eyes serve as a symbolic reminder of the fact that people’s actions have consequences.
Since Doctor T. J. Eckleberg’s eyes are also an important symbol of the past’s ability to haunt people in the present, describing their vast size and “dimmed,” weathered appearance in such vivid detail emphasizes how large the past looms over the novel’s characters—particularly Jay Gatsby. The image of Eckleberg’s eyes “brood[ing]” above the city is similar to that of Gatsby gazing across Long Island Sound at the green light on Daisy Buchanan’s dock, desperately longing to rekindle his and Daisy’s youthful romance. Yet the fact that the eyes are brooding “over the solemn dumping ground” gives the sense that the present is like a wasteland where nothing new or beautiful can grow—and therefore that Gatsby’s dreams of recreating the past are doomed to fail.
The book uses auditory and visual imagery to describe the first party that Nick attends at Gatsby’s mansion:
The lights grow brighter as the earth lurches away from the sun, and now the orchestra is playing yellow cocktail music, and the opera of voices pitches a key higher. Laughter is easier minute by minute, spilled with prodigality, tipped out at a cheerful word. The groups change more swiftly, swell with new arrivals, dissolve and form in the same breath; already there are wanderers, confident girls who weave here and there among the stouter and more stable, become for a sharp, joyous moment the centre of a group, and then, excited with triumph, glide on through the sea-change of faces and voices and color under the constantly changing light.
The first type of imagery in this passage is sound. The “yellow cocktail music” and “opera of voices” reaching a higher pitch connote happiness and vibrancy, corresponding with the lights growing brighter and the attendees’ growing excitement and energy as the sun sets and the party gets underway. Then, the laughter “spilled with prodigality, tipped out at a cheerful word,” associates the guests’ gaiety with the bootleg alcohol that’s no doubt being served at the party, flowing freely and further lifting people’s moods and lowering their inhibitions.
The second type of imagery in this passage is sight. The image of the groups of guests “swell[ing] with new arrivals, dissolv[ing] and form[ing] in the same breath” gives the sense that the people at Gatsby’s parties are like ocean waves repeatedly cresting and dissipating, again imbuing the party with liveliness and fluidity. It also gives the sense that the individual attendees are indistinguishable and interchangeable, subtly hinting that the upper-class characters in the novel all conform with one another. This is further emphasized by the “sea-change of faces and voices and color under the constantly changing light,” which again likens the crowd to a homogenous yet ever-changing body of water and emphasizes the dizzying backdrop of different voices, colors, and bright lights.
Together, this vivid imagery immerses the reader in the party and makes the event seem larger-than-life, almost as though the crowd and the surrounding sensory details are an immense natural force flowing as one entity. It captures the intoxicating and bustling atmosphere of Gatsby’s parties, giving readers a sense of the grandeur that the titular “great” Gatsby has built up around himself.
The passage where Daisy meets Gatsby at Nick’s house contains visual and auditory imagery:
Under the dripping bare lilac-trees a large open car was coming up the drive. It stopped. Daisy’s face, tipped sideways beneath a three-cornered lavender hat, looked out at me with a bright ecstatic smile.
“Is this absolutely where you live, my dearest one?”
The exhilarating ripple of her voice was a wild tonic in the rain. I had to follow the sound of it for a moment, up and down, with my ear alone, before any words came through. A damp streak of hair lay like a dash of blue paint across her cheek, and her hand was wet with glistening drops as I took it to help her from the car.
The first type of imagery in this passage is visual: the “lilac-trees” and Daisy’s “three-cornered lavender hat” and “bright ecstatic smile” all convey a sense of brightness and optimism—perhaps reflecting Gatsby’s romanticized view of Daisy and his hope that this meeting will lead to a rekindling of their past love affair. And although this meeting takes place during the summer, the pastel colors and rainstorm connote spring, a time of year that’s symbolically associated with new life or rebirth. In this sense, the imagery in this passage makes it seem as though Daisy’s presence is reinvigorating Gatsby’s life and bringing his dream into fruition, like spring rain makes flowers bloom. Yet the fact that the lilac trees are “bare” rather than flowering hints that Gatsby’s dream is doomed to fail—that he won’t be able to win Daisy back.
The second type of imagery in this passage is auditory: Nick describes Daisy’s voice as an “exhilarating ripple” and a “wild tonic in the rain” that Nick feels pulled in by even before he understands the actual words Daisy is saying. This imagery characterizes Daisy as exceptionally captivating and charming, even for someone like Nick, who (as Daisy’s cousin) isn’t interested in her romantically. Gatsby will eventually be so taken with Daisy that he’ll take the blame for a serious crime she commits, so the description of her here as “exhilarating” and intoxicating (like a “wild tonic”) speaks to the fact that she’s a difficult person to resist or distance oneself from—particularly for Gatsby.
At the very end of the novel, Nick’s observations of Long Island in the autumn of 1922 contain visual imagery:
Most of the big shore places were closed now and there were hardly any lights except the shadowy, moving glow of a ferryboat across the Sound. 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.
First, the image of the closed businesses and “the shadowy, moving glow of a ferryboat” in the darkness creates an atmosphere of isolation, mournfulness, and desolation. This is fitting given that Nick is still reeling from Gatsby’s death. Whereas the imagery used to describe his surroundings earlier in the novel was bright and lush, now it becomes dark and moody to match his grief and pessimism.
By contrast, describing Long Island as a “fresh green breast” emphasizes how vast and full of potential this part of the “new world” seemed to the Dutch settlers who colonized it in the 17th century. The color green here subtly links this image to the green light at the end of Daisy Buchanan’s dock, which for much of the novel symbolized Gatsby’s dream of winning Daisy back. In creating this link, the imagery in this passage elevates Gatsby’s dream to epic proportions and suggests that in pursuing Daisy, Gatsby was chasing a different form of the same American Dream that the original settlers were trying to achieve: wealth, success, and happiness.