The Great Gatsby: Motif Tracking - Light


Summary of Motif:

The motif of lights occurs numerous times in The Great Gatsby, with the most major appearance being of the green light that Gatsby attempts to reach out to, with the green light representing Daisy. Furthermore, light also consistently appears in Gatsby’s parties.


Quotations & Analysis:





“Involuntarily I glanced seaward - and distinguished nothing except a single green light, minute and far way, that might have been the end of a dock.”

This light represents Gatsby’s dream and perhaps the fact that it is “minute and far way”, suggests not only his ability to dream but also the fact that it is unattainable.


The narrator’s fascination with Gatsby’s dreams and hopes is also explored in this quotation as he “Involuntarily … glanced seaward” and this suggests the way in which Nick seems, almost unwillingly at times, to be attracted to Gatsby and his ability to dream. This perhaps foreshadows some of the tension we see at the end of the novel where Nick is torn between wanting to believe in the power and beauty of dreams and his inherently pragmatic and skeptical instinct that these dreams aren’t realistic.


Gatsby’s astounding capacity for hope may also be suggested when he “stretched out his arms”, desiring to determine “what share was his of [the] local heavens” (20), with the reference to heaven possibly suggesting the magnitude of his dreams.


Although Nick yearns to be a dreamer like Gatsby, he does not understand why Gatsby reaches out to the green light, which may suggest that ultimately he is not able to dream on the same scale.



“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.”

The lights symbolize the glamour and extravagance of Gatsby’s parties, which have the same beautiful nature as dreams. At the same time, the image of “lurching away from the sun” suggests gaudiness and the grotesqueness of Gatsby’s dreams and so once again we see Nick’s ambivalence as he is both attracted to and repelled by what he sees in Gatsby.



“When I came home to West Egg that night I was afraid for a moment that my house was on fire. Two o’clock and the whole corner of the peninsula was blazing with light, which fell unreal on the shrubbery and made thin elongating glints upon the roadside wires.”

The overwhelming “blazing” of lights suggests a brightness and clarity, which differs from the soft ‘yellow’ colours of Gatsby’s parties. This description occurs when Gatsby is waiting for Nick to come back after the meeting with Jordan where she asks him to arrange a meeting between Daisy and Gatsby. The blazing lights and empty rooms they illuminate suggest not only Gatsby’s eagerness to meet Daisy but also the loneliness of his life and the potential emptiness of his dreams.


The fact that the lights make “elongating” glints, implies that the lights are distorting the natural form of objects which potential links the motif of lights to dreams which may also change the character and nature of a person like Gatsby, as well as distort reality.



“Possibly it had occurred to him that the colossal significance of that light had now vanished forever … Now it was a green light on a dock. His count of enchanted objects had diminished by one.”

When Gatsby finally meets Daisy again for the first time, he achieves what he has been dreaming of for the past five years but at the same time the “colossal significance” of the green light which is the symbol of his dreams “vanished forever”. Here Fitzgerald hints at the fundamental irony of dreams as they (and we) are at their most beautiful and compelling when we don’t have the thing we dream of. However, as soon as our dreams are realized they become dulled by the pragmatism of compromise and the necessity for ‘being realistic’ and as a result they inevitably lose their shine. In this sense dreams are self-destructive.


This creates pathos for Gatsby (and for the human condition in general) because he seems to lose a source of magic from his life as “his count of enchanted objects had diminished by one” where the word enchanted implies the way in which a mere physical object was lent a beauty by being associated with a dream … a beauty that it has since lost.



“The gray windows disappeared as the house glowed full of light … He lit Daisy’s cigarette from a trembling match, and sat down with her on a couch far across the room, where there was no light save what the gleaming floor bounced in from the hall.”

When Gatsby and Daisy hide away from the lights, Fitzgerald suggests that they want an intimate place to spend their time together and do not want to reveal their affair.


At the same time, the “glowing” light and Gatsby’s house may be a metaphor for the glamour and superficiality used to attract Daisy in the first place and as such this contrasts markedly with the darkness, which suggests the presence of a genuine emotion, a sincerity accentuated by the use of “trembling”.


This describes a moment of brief withdrawal into a darkness that does not, unfortunately, last forever. In the end, stronger forces (and perhaps also weaknesses) draw both characters out of their private and intimate dark corner, back into the world of superficiality and glamour.



“It was dark here in front; only the bright door sent ten square feet of light volleying out into the soft black morning.”

There is a great contrast between the light in the house and the dark outside in the “soft black morning”. Perhaps the light represents the wealth and socially elite in society and its “volleying” connotes the power of glamour and the wealth but it also suggests a violence due to the association with gunfire. As such it seems to damage the beauty of the “soft black morning” making it seem like an unwanted, unnatural and harsh intrusion.



“Her glance left me and sought the lighted top of the steps … was drifting out the open door.”

At this point in Chapter 6, Daisy is leaving Gatsby’s house with Tom and her longing look back at the party suggests her attraction to the world of ‘romantic possibilities’ that exist at the parties that Gatsby has created for her. At the same time, the tune of a “sad” waltz is heard from the source of light, which evokes pathos as we realize that Daisy seems to be worried about the dream slipping away from losing Gatsby to someone else.



“The quiet lights in the houses were humming out into the darkness and there was a stir and bustle among the stars.”

The sense of quiet light and the way in which they hum out into the night seems to imbue this moment (Gatsby’s first kiss with Daisy five years ago) with a sense of romantic potential. Although Nick is clearly extemporizing here both we and he are caught up in the charm of the moment.



“Human sympathy has its limits, and we were content to let all their tragic arguments fade with the city lights behind.”



“City lights” suggests the charm of the wealthy lifestyle, however the reference to “tragic arguments” implies the corrupting nature of wealth and Nick’s “[contentment]” to let go of the attractive lights hints at his increasing disinterest and disillusionment with the superficial world of the elite of New York.



“His eyes would drop slowly from the swinging light to the laden table by the wall, and then jerk back to the light again, and he gave out incessantly his high, horrible call”


Fitzgerald conveys Wilson’s unwillingness to accept Myrtle’s death through the sudden sharp movements of his gaze. The presence of such a powerful emotion in a man who has seemed singularly unimpressive in the novel thus far evokes sympathy for him and suggests a genuine sincerity to him that has been missing from many of the characters that we have met in the novel.



“So I walked away and left him standing there in the moon-light - watching over nothing.” (145)


This quotation effectively creates a sense of pathos, encouraging the reader to sympathise with Gatsby. The abrupt ending of “watching over nothing” suggest the inevitable truth that Gatsby’s dreams are empty and unachievable and the use of moon-light and the night setting also creates a lonely atmosphere, which isolates Gatsby not only from Tom and Daisy in the Buchannan house but also as the only character who does not really grasp the ineffable nature of his dreams.


Nick’s metaphorical separation as an outsider can also be observed through the physical “walk[ing] away” and “[leaving]” Gatsby, displaying the sense that Nick is within and without at times.



“I waited, and about four o’clock she came to the window and stood there for a minute and then turned out the light”


This quotation occurs when Gatsby reveals to Nick that Daisy “turned out the light” the night before when he was waiting for Daisy. The use of “waited” suggests Gatsby’s unwillingness to accept that he has lost Daisy while the “turn[ing] out [of] the light” symbolizes the extinguishing of Gatsby’s dream. The use of “stood there for a minute” is poignant as it suggests a moment of pause before a definite decision. It becomes apparent to the reader at this point that Gatsby will never be able to fulfill his dream of marrying Daisy and this further creates pathos as this is a realsiation that Gatsby never makes as he continues to dream on in vain.



“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 - to-morrow we will run faster, stretch out our arms farther…. And one fine morning-”


Once again, the green light in this quotation represents Gatsby’s dream. The receding of the dream suggests that, regardless of how hard one tries, the dreams will eventually fade.


The use of “orgastic” (an invented word that suggests a cross between orgasmic and orgiastic) suggests the grandness of the dream implying a sense of awe but also hinting at its gaudy sexuality and echoing back to the ‘universe of ineffable gaudiness’ dreamt up by the 17 year old Gatsby.


A sense of optimism is portrayed through the use of asyndeton in the “run[ning] faster, stretch[ing] out our arms farther” creates a sense of rhythm and hope for the future. However, this hope falls short with the use of an ellipsis, suggesting a pause and the inevitable unachievable nature of dreams.



Role and Significance of Motif:

The motif of light may represent Gatsby’s hopes, dreams and ideals. As these hopes and dreams are often superficial and empty, the light that appears in the Great Gatsby also suggests emptiness of all the glamour.