University School - Hunting Valley
Instructor: Scott Boehnen
Not Just Green: The Varieties of Light and Darkness in the Great Gatsby
Not Just Green: The Varieties of Light and Darkness in the Great Gatsby
In The Great Gatsby, Fitzgerald continually uses light and dark imagery to portray an important theme of the novel which is how things appear to the ignorant eye is in fact very different than reality. Fitzgerald's use of light and dark imagery is very similar to another famous piece of writing, Plato's Allegory of a Cave. Both Plato and Fitzgerald take a philosophical deep dive into the idea of reality and what is real and what is not? From a broad combined perspective of both works, light represents reality while dark represents ignorance and false truth. However, there are in fact many different degrees of light that represent a certain amount of truth. Within light there are two major subcategories, natural vs artificial light. Natural light represents reality to some extent while artificial light is a more deceiving type of false reality. The most famous example of artificial light would be the green light from The Great Gatsby. Additionally, within natural light, there are different types of natural light that represent different degrees of truth. The strongest and true form of light is sunlight which essentially is definitive reality. Unfortunately, the sunlight is too much truth/light for the human eye to handle and 99% of the time will burn one's pupil and portray a false reality just like artificial light and dark. The light that displays the most truth to the human eye would be moonlight. Moonlight is the most amount of truth/light the human eye can handle and take in without going blind and stems the majority of realizations throughout both pieces of literature. The final type of light we see is from the Allegory of a Cave which is campfire light and essentially represents partial truth and acts as the most amount of truth that can be attained by the prisoners of ignorance. The Great Gatsby is suffused with light, both natural and artificial, and Fitzgerald uses the imagery of these diffrent types of lights to apply diffrent degrees of truth to a particular setting-or to display the truth percived by the charecters. By organizing and analyzing those gradations of light, the reader discovers the novel's philosophical and moral theme: namely, that American materialism is at once a form of deception and of self-deception. Such materialism imprisons modern-day Americans in the cave of Plato's Republic.
We see an important example of how powerful the sunlight is in the Allegory of a Cave. When one of the prisoners finally escapes the cave of ignorance, he is exposed to the bright reality of sunlight. Unfortunately for the prisoner, the sunlight is too bright and is too much truth for the prisoner to handle. This is partially because the prisoner has only ever been exposed to the small light and truth created by the fire inside the cave. The prisoner becomes blinded by the sunlight. He then could only see dark which essentially means that despite the fact that he was exposed to the complete and utter truth, he came away from that encounter being as blind and as ignorant as ever for he could not handle the full truth and caused him to sink further into the darkness of false reality. Throughout The Great Gatsby, we see many examples of the sunlight blinding the majority of the characters from the truth rather than enlighten them. A main example from the Great Gatsby is when Tom confronts Mr. Wilson after Mr. Wilson learns that Myrtle is cheating on him. Tom asks Mr. Wilson too to fill up his gas but Mr. Wilson refuses claiming that he is sick and has "been sick all day" (94). Tom is suspicious because he called him earlier and he seemed fine. However, "in the sunlight his face was green" (94). When one's face is green, it is usually a clear indicator that the person is in fact sick. However, we the reader know that Mr. Wilson is not in fact sick, but simply emotionally unstable because he has learned that his wife is cheating on him. Mr. Wilson may be sick in the head, but he does not actually have a physical sickness. This means that the sunlight is portraying a false reality by displaying an image to Tom that Mr. Wilson is sick when in fact we know that he is not. The only time in either piece where we see someone come close to handling the enlightenment of the sunlight is Gatsby, right before he is murdered. As Gatsby lays on a float in the middle of his pool, staring into the sky, he is momentarily struck with a major revelation of some sort. Fitzgerald wrote, "He must have looked up at an unfamiliar sky through frightening leaves and shivered as he found what a grotesque thing a rose is and how raw the sunlight was upon the scarcely created grass" (124). In that moment Gatsby has a major realization. Gatsby is first enlightened to the "true" form of a rose. Despite a rose's consistent affiliation with beauty, Gatsby now sees that a rose is in fact not beautiful, but grotesque and he also only is able to see this through the lens of the powerful sunlight that shows him this new unknown reality of world we know.
While sunlight is too much to for truth for humans to handle, moonlight is the fullest form of knowledge that can be seen by man. In the Allegory of the Cave, when the prisoner first escapes the cave, he is unable to see during the day but can eventually see more than ever before in the moonlight. The moonlight gives a glimpse into the truth without exposing us to enough of it that it will harm us. In The Great Gatsby, moonlight is particularly effective in removing the false truth that is presented to us through materialism. Fitzgerald wrote, "And as the moon rose higher, the inessential houses began to melt away" (138). This quote evokes a paradox which is that the moonlight is melting a physical object. This ironic because we know that the moon is only present in the night, which is usually the coldest time of the day. The warmest time of the of the day would be in broad sunlight and the sun is known for melting stuff such as popsicles and ice-cream, but these houses stand clear as day in the sunlight but "melt" in the moonlight. The moon is pointing out how inessential these mansions are. The truth is that these mansions are not any more important than a small apartment. Having a nice house is not more essential to life. Also, the truth about those houses is that a lot of the time they are just for show and nobody even lives there, making them even more nonessential. Another important moment of the moon shining truth onto this unknown world is when Gatsby and Daisy finally seem to be once again in love. During this romantic moment as Gatsby and Daisy share a kiss, they are only separated by a "thin ray of moonlight" (82). This also ties into another line when referring to Gatsby's pursuit to regain his romantic relationship with Daisy where "his dream must have seemed so close that he could hardly fail to grasp it" (138). While it may seem that Gatsby and Daisy are so close to rekindling their love, that thin ray of moonlight shows that they are not getting back together and that the truth is that their love was "already behind them" (138), back in the past. Fitzgerald expands the light and dark imagery idea by implementing the idea of artificial light throughout The Great Gatsby. Artificial light is a deceptive light that is just as false as the dark but looks more realistic. The most popular artificial light of The Great Gatsby was the green light. The green light represents the dreams that people pursue that are impossible but seem close to obtaining. Gatsby falls victim to the green light. He is chasing the green light at the end of Daisy's dock. Gatsby believes that he can make Daisy love him again. Gatsby believes that he can re-win over Daisy's love if the stars align and everything goes perfectly. In reality, what Gatsby wants is not possible no matter what he does. Gatsby also chases old-money status and other things to try to win over Daisy's love, all unattainable. When Gatsby finally confesses to Daisy, he has minor realization of the possibility "that the colossal significance of that light had now vanished forever" (72). He is unfortunately correct and that the green light he is chasing is in reality not there, for it is not a real light. The green light is not the only artificial light, light switches, car lights, all non-natural lights are deceptive. What is most fascinating is that a lot of the artificial lights are much brighter than the moon, however they display much less truth.
Additionally, we see the effect of a mix of dark and light in both the Allegory of the Cave and The Great Gatsby. In the Allegory of the Cave, the prisoners are exposed to mostly dark and ignorance. The only light and truth exposed to them is firelight. The fire casts on a bit of truth to these ignorant souls however even the fire is manipulated to cast false views onto these people. One image from Plato's work depicts puppeteers using the firelight to create deceptive shadows that tell a false truth. An example of someone who is tricked by the shadows in The Great Gatsby is Tom Buchanan. Tom reads a racist book with false information called, "The Rise of Colored Empires" and becomes totally convinced that colored people are taking over the world and that it is the duty of white men to take back control and rule all other races. These pieces of literature are essentially suggesting that higher up people with platforms repress reality from the ignorant and misinform them to follow their beliefs. These people who are casting this false truth could be a government, a movement leader, or a journalist, as well as many others. This a conspiracist idea that holds a lot of truth especially during the time period of Plato's Allegory of the Cave where governments controlled the media and the information being received by people. There are even countries today unfourntantly where the governments control the media and depict favorable narratives of the government to try to keep its citizens in the dark. Another example of the mix of light and dark is when Nick is exploring a room filled with the artifacts of Gatsby's past. The room was half-light and half dark to represent the half-truths of these artifacts. For example, Gatsby has a picture of him at Oxford to prove that he attended this prestigious school. He did go to Oxford, but he was only there for 6 months as part of a military program. The amount of light versus dark determines to what extent something is true but there is no period where everything is light, and everything is dark thus there is also some minor truth or minor deception in all things.
All of the light and dark imagery in these works is used to explore and define reality. So, then the question becomes, what is their vison for reality? The closest we ever get to seeing the full truth of reality is when Gatsby briefly can look at the sunlight without being blinded right before he is killed. Gatsby has a vision of what this unknown new world looks like. Gatsby sees, "a new world, material without being real, where poor ghosts, breathing dreams like air, drifted fortuitously about" (124). Gatsby becomes enlightened to the materialistic societal construct that controls our actions but yet constantly is eluding us. Our actions, our goals, our will to succeed is all based around the idea of improving our situation and obtaining as much materialistic desires as possible in our lifetime. Money and materialism drives society! Every obtainable physical thing that we can desire stems from materialism. Gatsby is able to see that in the bigger picture, these materials are nonessential pieces of falsely painted reality. These materials have no significance or true benefit in the grater scheme of life. Gatsby also sees humans as poor ghosts who breath in dreams. I think that Gatsby is pointing out here that humans need dreams in order to live, dreams are essential to life like air and those who stop dreaming like Daisy and Tom, essentially lose their will to live. The idea of something better, a dream, a hope, is what propels us to keep going and the moment our dreams cannot be obtainable is the day we as a species lose our purpose. This "orgastic future that year by year recedes before us" (138), gives us something to pursue, to "beat on" (138), to "stretch our arms out further" (138), to "run faster" (138), to keep going until we deem our dreams no longer attainable. Despite all these attempted interpretations of what Plato and Fitzgerald envision reality is, like the green light, the desire to truly see into the mind and vison of these men is an unattainable desire. We will never truly know what their reality is because we are blinded by the sunlight, and it is physically impossible to see the full truth.