One of the most memorable images in The Great Gatsby is the green light that Gatsby watches across the water, which simultaneously symbolizes Gatsby’s love for Daisy, money, and the American Dream. We first see the green light at the end of Chapter 1, before Nick has even met Gatsby, and immediately understand it as an elusive and powerful object that has great symbolic meaning for Gatsby. Because the green light hangs at the end of Daisy’s dock, and Gatsby bought his house in order to be able to see it each night, the green light most obviously symbolizes his unwavering love for Daisy. When Gatsby reveals his knowledge of the green light to Daisy after their reunion, Nick observes, “Possibly it had occurred to him that the colossal significance of that light had now vanished forever…His count of enchanted objects had diminished by one.” For Gatsby, the green light proved that he and Daisy existed in the same world and suggested the possibility that they might someday meet again. In a sense, the symbol is more important to Gatsby than what is being symbolized, and Gatsby will struggle, and fail, to reconcile his dream with reality over the rest of the book.
The color green is traditionally associated with money, and the green light also symbolizes the wealth that Gatsby believes will enable him to win Daisy back from Tom. But Gatsby is discounting the important distinction between wealth and class made by other characters in the novel. Through his illegal activities Gatsby has acquired great wealth, but he is still shut out of the upper classes by those born into wealth, like Tom and Daisy. While green is the color of money due to its association with American paper currency, it’s interesting to note that Daisy is associated with gold and silver, more stable, enduring forms of currency. Daisy is described as “the golden girl,” and “gleaming like silver, safe and proud above the hot struggles of the poor.” In this sense, the green light represents the type of money that is available to someone like Gatsby who is willing to do anything to attain it, while the inherited wealth of Daisy and Tom, linked to their class status, remains out of reach.
In its largest sense, then, the green light represents the American Dream. The American Dream is the idea that someone from a lower-class background can work hard and move up the social ladder because American society has historically had more class mobility than other countries. The novel explores whether the promise of the American Dream is actually true. On the surface, Gatsby appears to have achieved the American Dream, because he has managed to move from a lower-class background into the highest echelons of New York society, entirely through his own self-invention. In reality, though,Gatsby illustrates the hollowness of the American Dream, because even once he has accomplished this goal, he still is unable to attain Daisy, who represents a traditional elite background. Tom consistently mocks Gatsby for his humble beginnings, calling him a “common swindler who’d have to steal the ring he put on (Daisy’s) finger.” This not only implies that the American Dream is ultimately unfulfilling, but it also suggests that despite the illusion of social mobility, people from the lower classes will never be fully accepted by those who were born into wealth.
That the American Dream is as unattainable as the green light at the end of the dock is evidenced by the aftermath of the car crash that serves as the climax of the novel. As a result of the crash, the three characters from lower class backgrounds (Gatsby, Myrtle, and George) die, while the upper class characters of Nick, Daisy, Tom, and Jordan survive. Tom and Daisy, who were born into privilege, remain insulated from the negative consequences of their actions. Here, Fitzgerald’s critique of the American Dream reaches its apex, as he implies that although working-class people can circulate with the upper classes, they will ultimately be expendable while the upper classes will carelessly maintain their own dominance. At the end of the novel, Fitzgerald writes, “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—tomorrow we will run faster, stretch out our arms farther.” This description shows that the American Dream’s most important quality is its inaccessibility: a dream is not a reality.