The Great Gatsby (2013 Film)

The Great Gatsby (2013 Film) Symbols, Allegory and Motifs

Gatsby's Shirts (Symbol)

As we learn later in the film, Gatsby has gained his wealth by buying up drugstores and bootlegging alcohol, an illegal offense at the time. As a result, his wealth is what is considered "new money," because it is not old and inherited family wealth. In addition to the over-the-top qualities of his palatial mansion, the shirts in his bedroom that he throws down to Daisy represent his immense wealth, in all its ostentation and excess. Daisy marvels at the fact the shirts are extremely well-made, their materials are incredible to the touch. Gatsby announces their materials as he throws them down, proud of his success. The expense and value of the shirts symbolize just how far Gatsby has ascended in the world of material wealth. Their colors, however, complicate them as symbols. While they are extremely well-made shirts, they are also brightly colored, which represents the fact that Gatsby is still an outsider in the world of the upper classes. The showy colors of his shirts betray him as "new money," which diminishes his power. Therefore, the shirts represent the complicated nature of Gatsby's power and influence; while they are expensive, they are also showy and not as classy as a more "respectable" color choice. Similarly, Gatsby is very wealthy, but his wealth does not actually raise his class status in relation to the solid old money of Tom and Daisy Buchanan.

The Green Light (Symbol)

The green light is perhaps the most important symbol to Gatsby throughout the film. At the beginning, the green light represents Gatsby's desire to win back Daisy. As it is positioned directly across the harbor from his mansion, Gatsby looks at it longingly as a symbol for his desire to be reunited with the woman he loves. He can see her dock, and he knows she is there, just across the harbor. Both visible and out-of-reach, the green light represents the distance between the two lovers, both emotionally and physically. As the film goes on and Gatsby's romantic dreams fall farther and farther out of reach, we see that the green light symbolizes an even deeper desire in Gatsby to attain the unattainable. The green light, both distant and close, pulsing on and off, symbolizes Gatsby's desire to change his entire narrative, to reinvent his biography, to relive the past, so as to create an idealized and impossible future. Daisy tells Gatsby that he wants too much, and Nick marvels at Gatsby's almost delusional sense of hopefulness. The green light represents this quality in Gatsby, his search for the unattainable, his dogged and starry-eyed ambition.

Writing (Motif)

From the start, Nick Carraway is characterized as a reluctant writer. When he arrives in West Egg and surveys his small cottage, he narrates that he had dreamed of being a writer at Yale, but "gave all that up." When he first visits Tom at the Buchanan estate, Tom calls him "Shakespeare" and continually introduces Tom to people as a writer. Additionally, at the sanatarium, the doctor's prescription for Tom's various troubles is to write down what happened to him. Tom becomes well by writing down the events of his life in the form of a manuscript. From the moment he starts writing, his words are projected across the screen and we read his writing as he writes it from his room in the sanatarium. Writing becomes a central motif in the story, in that it provides Tom with a way out of his mental ailments, and also becomes a way for him to reconcile the ways that he feels both "within and without." By writing, he is able to have more of a perspective on the events of his life, rather than being haunted by the images of them.

The "American Dream" (Allegory)

The idea of the "American Dream" is that anyone who works hard in America can accrue wealth and therefore be successful and achieve their dreams. Gatsby, a poor boy who goes through various experiences to ascend the social ladder and make a lot of money very quickly, represents the average American who pursues the "American Dream." While his means of acquiring his wealth are shady and corrupt, Gatsby is the film's stand-in for the American "self-made man." Gatsby's wealth is acquired by illegal means, as he goes from poor to rich through selling bootleg alcohol. At the end, his wealth does not help him achieve his dreams, and only becomes a quality that implicates him as a fraud, less respectable than the unethical Tom Buchanan. When Gatsby attempts to assert that he is equal to Tom Buchanan at the end of the film, Tom insists that that is not the case, that class is about more than simply the amount of money one has. Class is about blood, Tom suggests, which dispels and demystifies the allegory of the "American Dream." Essentially, Tom asserts that old inherited wealth and the veneer of respectability are the actual ingredients of the "American Dream." Thus the film becomes an allegory itself for the broken promise of the "American Dream"; once Gatsby achieves the "Dream," he finds that it is not what it appears to be. An American aristocracy is firmly in place, and it demeans and marginalizes him, even though he has just as much money as Tom Buchanan.

Dr. Eckleburg's eyes (Symbol)

On a billboard in the Valley of Ashes there is a faded painting of Dr. T. J. Eckleburg's eyes, an old advertisement for "a forgotten oculist." The billboard symbolizes the hope for good business and a promising future that once existed in the Valley of Ashes. Over the years, the billboard has been neglected and has faded, which represents the failure of the American Dream. Eckleburg no longer has a business in the town, but its billboard remains, a remnant of a failed "dream" of prosperity. In this way, it represents the failure of business, and the disparity between wealthier communities and the Valley of Ashes, where poor, hard-working people struggle just to survive.

Additionally, the billboard is a symbol of an all-seeing God-like figure. When Nick first describes the Valley of Ashes, he says, "This fantastic farm was ever watched by Dr. T.J. Eckleburg, a forgotten oculist whose eyes brooded over it all like the eyes of God." The eyes are large and central to the Valley of Ashes, showing the ways that they look after the community. After Myrtle's death, we see the eyes in the billboard, as though they watched the whole hit-and-run incident. In this moment, they symbolize a kind of moral authority, and portend that justice will be served. As George Wilson pulls his gun out of the drawer of the desk, he says to himself, "God sees everything," and we see the Eckleburg billboard. Clearly, Baz Luhrmann sought to illuminate the symbolic weight of the eyes on the billboard for the viewer, to show that they stand in for the eyes of God, an all-seeing judgmental force.