University School - Hunting Valley
Instructor: Scott Boehnen
A Captive in Plato's Cave: Gatsby's Pursuit of the Green Light
A Captive in Plato's Cave: Gatsby's Pursuit of the Green Light
In Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby, the green light symbolizes Gatsby's fascination with the deceptive appearance of a fulfilled desire. This fulfilled desire differs from money or social status and revolves around a memory of his love for Daisy. Just as Gatsby is interested in this false reality, the prisoners of Plato's cave are fascinated by the shadows from the campfire's light. Gatsby and the prisoners in Plato's Cave are surrounded by darkness, representing their ignorance to realize the truth of their material world. Gatsby's interest in this artificial green light is an attraction to the false, unattainable reality that relates to his past, just as Plato's prisoners are attracted to the false reality of the puppets and the shadows they create.
As the reader reads on in The Great Gatsby, they understand that an essential part of Gatsby's life is missing, which is to have a fulfilled desire. This fulfilled desire is not the money or social status Gatsby has attained but rather his passion for reliving his previous encounters with Daisy. This love he has for Daisy is legitimate in the sense that he feels these emotions for her, but it is just the feelings that are real, and this true love that will bring him a fulfilled desire is fake. The green light that is artificial and fake at the end of Daisy's dock represents his desire for Daisy. This infatuated dream is only a nostalgic memory of Gatsby's past that cannot be attained. The green light in The Great Gatsby draws similarities with Plato's Allegory of the Cave as the campfire light, and green light are both symbols of false reality. In Plato's Cave, a similar false reality has to do with the natural light from the campfire and the puppeteers who create shadows with puppets. These shadows are the prisoner's only form of entertainment and "life" besides each other. These shadows are a false, fabricated reality, and like Gatsby, the prisoners believed and cherished reality is not real. Gatsby's dream of his future with Daisy "must have seemed so close he could hardly fail to grasp it. He did not know that it was already behind him." This dream of Gatsby's is filled with aesthetic emotions but ceases to come true and slowly drifts further away from reality. The green light symbolizes this dream that faded into the past and his desire for "the orgastic future that year by year recedes before us." This orgastic future is part of Gatsby's desire for love and his expressive feelings towards Daisy. Along with Gatsby, Plato's prisoners share a common belief: the prisoners believe that the shadows on the wall are genuine, like the green light. Both Gatsby and Plato's prisoners are stuck in their fantasies and choose to stay unaware of the actual veracious world in front them.
The prisoners and Gatsby share a similarity as they are both imprisoned under similar conditions. While the prisoner's bodies and heads are physically chained to a wall, they are trapped in this cave due to ignorance and a fixed mindset. In Plato's Cave, an escaped prisoner is told that this cave and these shadows are all just an allusion. This escaped prisoner is led out of the cave and witnesses the bright sun for the first time. He sees the sunlight and ponders about which reality is real and which is an allusion. The prisoner looks at a real tree and a real horse that puppets in the cave had impersonated, and at that moment, he understands that the cave is an inexplicable reality that he could not understand. The prisoner goes back into the cave and tries to convince the chained prisoners to escape this cave and see the real world outside. The chained prisoners laugh at the escaped prisoner and refuse to leave the cave, where they get food, water, and a repeated pattern of shadows moving on the wall. Because this form of reality is the only one, they know, these chained prisoners are stuck in an misleading fake reality, which is the same situation that Gatsby is in. Gatsby is not physically restrained to a wall like the prisoners, but he is caught up in an illusory fantasy where he is unaware that his desire cannot be met. Gatsby "believed in this green light" which is his desire for unattainable love that has already passed him. Gatsby believing in this green light is the same as the prisoners choosing to stay in the cave as Gatsby and the prisoners are caught up in their own fake reality. The prisoners and Gatsby similarity to one another is that they both try to decipher between authentic and fictitious realities while they favor the fictitious ones.
In The Great Gatsby, Fitzgerald draws a similarity to Plato's Allegory of the Cave as he relates the dark imagery of the night to the light imagery of the sun; he compares the antithesis between true and false. In The Allegory of the Cave, Plato contrasts the cave's darkness and the campfire's shadows with the sunlight outside the cave. In Plato's Cave, prisoners stare at a repeated pattern of shadows displayed on the wall. The prisoners are chained to a wall with their only perspective of this cave right before them. Surrounded by darkness, the campfire light is the only light that can be seen in the cave, and this dark cave represents a puzzling false version of reality. Plato uses dark imagery to give a negative connotation to emphasize the prisoner's unknowingness of the world around them and their lack of awareness to see past the repeated patterns of shadows on the wall. Fitzgerald also gives darkness a negative connotation as the darkness in the night represents the lack of awareness Gatsby has for what is true and false about his dream for Daisy. Gatsby's dream of a fulfilled desire is represented in the light imagery of the moment right before his death. This moment is when Gatsby "looked up at an unfamiliar sky through frightening leaves… and how raw the sunlight was upon the scarcely created grass" (161). Fitzgerald uses this light imagery of the sunlight to represent Gatsby's recollection of the truth of his reality. This sunlight in Gatsby's last moment also allows him to realize that Daisy would not call back or choose him over her husband. As Fitzgerald writes about how the sun and light imagery represents the understanding of the natural world, Plato follows a nearly identical path and writes about how the sunlight outside the cave shares a whole new perspective of the world. An escaped prisoner led out of the cave sees the light from the sun and is enlightened to the real world around him. In both Plato's cave and The Great Gatsby, the antithesis between dark and light imagery describes how Gatsby and the escaped prisoner recognize their authentic reality instead of their erroneous reality.
In Plato's The Allegory of the Cave, the prisoners believe in a false reality represented by the shadows and dark cave. Likewise, in Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby, Gatsby believes in an impossible reality represented by the green light at the end of Daisy's dock. Plato and Fitzgerald use symbolism and imagery as they contrast the sun's light with the darkness of the cave and night. The light from the sun that represents an authentic reality, and the darkness from the night and cave that represents a misleading reality are similarities between Plato's and Fitzgerald's work. The literary devices used in The Great Gatsby and The Allegory of the Cave show the parallels and misleading realities that both works have in common. Plato and Fitzgerald do not have these similarities due to a coincidence but maybe to try and get the reader to wake up and understand that the world they live in may not be all that it seems.