Colors in F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby

Color Symbolism in The Great Gatsby

We know that Fitzgerald endows the colors in his novel with symbolic significance. But what does each color symbolize?

In this blog post, I argue that Fitzgerald deliberately endows each color with multiple and contradictory meanings. What’s more, the author endows each color with double-edged significance in order to deliver a devastating message about the viability of the American Dream.

For example, Fitzgerald associates the color green with hope and wonder — but also with greed and envy. He associates the color white with innocence and purity — but also with privilege and exclusivity. Why might Fitzgerald endow each color with multiple and contradictory meanings? What is the author’s message? 

If you’re a teacher who’d like to explore color symbolism with your students, you’ll definitely want to check out this Complete Teaching Unit on The Great Gatsby! The unit features worksheets which invite students to analyze the significance of colors such as green, gold, blue, and white.…


1. Green: Hope + Envy

From the first chapter of The Great Gatsby, the color green is explicitly associated with hope, wonder, and dreams. When Gatsby reaches out toward the green light at the end of Daisy’s dock, the color green gets elevated into a symbol of romantic hopefulness. When Gatsby is finally reunited with his beloved, he tells Daisy, “You always have a green light that burns all night at the end of your dock” (92). On the last page of the novel, Nick’s reference to the lush green trees which Dutch sailors encountered upon arriving in New York serves to connect the color green with the wonder of discovery and the sense of possibility associated with founding a new country. “I became aware of the old island here that flowered once for Dutch sailors’ eyes — a fresh, green breast of the new world” (180).

Of course, the color green is also associated with the desire to accumulate money and to achieve upward mobility — which often spills over into greed, hedonism, and moral decadence. Toward the end of the novel, when George Wilson sees Tom Buchanan driving Gatsby’s car, George’s face is described as turning “green” with envy (123). While filling Tom Buchanan’s car with gas, George explains to Tom, “‘I need money pretty bad, and I was wondering what you were going to do with your old car’” (123). By associating the color green with both Gatsby’s economic prosperity and Wilson’s envy, Fitzgerald suggests that some people’s opportunities may be built upon other people’s oppression.


2. Gold: Materialism + Decay

The color gold — together with yellow — is consistently associated with wealth, materialism, and luxuriousness. It is also associated with the desire to impress others through the flamboyant display of one’s wealth. It is no accident that Gatsby has purchased a large yellow Rolls Royce described as “swollen here and there in its monstrous length” (64). Nor is it any accident that, as Nick reports, “Everybody had seen it” (64). Gatsby purchases a car that will show off his wealth and ensure that everybody is aware of his riches. Daisy is similarly associated with the color gold: she is “the golden girl” who even carries around a “little gold pencil” (106, 105).

Yet by the end of the novel, the characters’ flamboyant opulence shades into gross negligence and violence. The bulky yellow “death car” rips through a human body and extinguishes the life of Myrtle Wilson. And in the last chapter, the trees next to Gatsby’s pool are described as turning from green to yellow — suggesting that his romantic hopefulness has begun to decay and elapse: “the chauffer asked him if he needed help, but he shook his head and in a moment disappeared among the yellowing trees” (161). The association of yellow with decay may also suggest that the wealthy neighborhoods of West Egg and East Egg amount to a pair of rotten eggs.


3. Blue: Labor + Loneliness

The color blue is most frequently associated with characters who live in the valley of ashes. Fitzgerald uses the color blue to describe the eyes of T. J. Eckleburg, the dress of Myrtle Wilson, and, perhaps most importantly, the eyes of George Wilson. Blue emphasizes the feeling of depression and melancholy that besets the characters who live and work in this industrial wasteland. The narrator describes George Wilson as a “spiritless man, anemic, and faintly handsome. When he saw us a damp gleam of hope sprang into his light blue eyes” (25). Not only is George Wilson a blue-collar worker, but he is one of the only characters in the novel who is depicted as actively engaged in labor. Yet all of Wilson’s hard work has come to naught. Manual laborers like George Wilson did not partake in the prosperity of the Roaring Twenties and could perhaps be described as stuck or buried at the bottom of an hour-glass economy. The vacant look in Wilson’s blue eyes serves to amplify his feeling of betrayed and abandoned not only by the economy but by his wife.

Interestingly, the color blue is also used to describe Gatsby’s lawn and gardens. “In his blue gardens men and girls came and went” (41). In that context, the color blue may amplify Gatsby’s own experience of loneliness and abandonment. While he resembles George Wilson in the sense that both men were born into poverty, Jay Gatz amasses an enormous fortune and manages to transform himself into Jay Gatsby. But is Gatsby any more successful than Wilson in achieving his dream? “He had come a long way to this blue lawn, and his dream must have seemed so close that he could hardly fail to grasp it” (171). In the end, Gatsby is shot and killed by Wilson even as Tom and Daisy Buchanan escape into the white cloud of their ethereal affluence.


4. White: Innocence + Exclusivity

The color white is most closely associated with the characters of Daisy Buchanan and — perhaps to a lesser extent — Jordan Baker.  The color is used most frequently to associate these women with purity, cleanliness, airiness, lightness, and freedom. The wealth enjoyed by Daisy and Jordan enables them to be unburdened by the weightiness and gravity of life. “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” (8). It is interesting and perhaps telling that working-class white women like Myrtle Wilson and her sister Catherine are associated not with the color white but with grays, blues, and reds.

The Great Gatsby Complete Teaching Unit

In the second half of the novel, when the color white is used to describe Daisy and Jordan, its association with lightness and levity increasingly shades into empty vacuity and hollow superficiality. “High in a white palace the king’s daughter, the golden girl. . . .” (120). Towards the end of the novel, when readers learn that Gatsby has done a “favor” for the police commissioner that protects him from being stopped by police officers, the color’s traditional association with innocence is turned on its head and becomes a symbol of corruption. “Taking a white card from his wallet, he waved if before the man’s eyes. […] ‘Right you are,’ agreed the policeman, tipping his cap. ‘Know you next time, Mr. Gatsby. Excuse me!’” (68).


The Great Gatsby Complete Teaching Unit by Rigorous Resources

Teach It Today…

Teachers who’d like to explore color symbolism with their students will definitely want to check out this Complete Teaching Unit on The Great Gatsby. The 200-page resource packet includes discussion questions, vocabulary lists, reading quizzes, and writing tasks for every chapter of The Great Gatsby. It also features special-topics worksheets on the novel’s symbolic settings, literary devices, color symbolism, socioeconomic hierarchies, and much more!

Save yourself dozens of hours of prep time while motivating your students to be highly engaged. Check out this Complete Teaching Unit on The Great Gatsby. You'll use it for many years to come!

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