Foreshadowing is a significant technique in The Great Gatsby. From the book’s opening pages, Fitzgerald hints at the book’s tragic end, with the mysterious reference to the “foul dust that floated in the wake of (Gatsby’s) dreams.” Fitzgerald also employs false foreshadowing, setting up expectations for one thing to happen, such as saying “Gatsby turned out all right at the end,” then reversing it. Throughout the novel, foreshadowing enforces the sense of tragic inevitability to events, as though all the characters are doomed to play out their fates. The use of foreshadowing heightens the sense that no character can escape his or her predetermined role in life.
The first time we (and Nick) see Gatsby, he is standing with his arms outstretched, “trembling,” reaching for the green light, which Fitzgerald describes as insubstantial – it is “minute and far away,” and “might have been the end of a dock.” In this way he suggests that Gatsby’s quest is toward something ephemeral. When Nick looks again, Gatsby has disappeared into the “unquiet darkness” – foreshadowing his disappearance into death at the end of the book. The inaccessibility of the green light tells us to expect a narrative in which the object of desire will never be obtained. Despite being reunited with Daisy, Gatsby is unable to fully attain her, just as the green light will never come closer to his grasp.
Tom’s relationship with Myrtle
Another subtle instance of foreshadowing comes when Tom takes Nick to Myrtle’s apartment and the reader comes to understand Tom’s attachment to Daisy. After Myrtle enrages Tom by repeating Daisy’s name, Tom hits her and breaks her nose. This attack reveals Tom’s brutal nature and pinpoints the relationship between Myrtle and Tom as a stressor for the story. When Myrtle’s sister tells Nick that Daisy won’t divorce Tom because she’s Catholic, Nick is “shocked at the elaborateness of the lie,” suggesting Daisy and Tom are more enmeshed than Myrtle knows. This revelation foreshadows Daisy’s later refusal to say she never loved Tom. The passage also sets up the scene after Myrtle is killed, when Nick sees Daisy and Tom together and remarks on the “unmistakable air of natural intimacy about the couple.” Daisy’s manslaughter of Myrtle is the resolution of the foreshadowing of both violence and the strength of the bond between Tom and Daisy in the party scene. The surprising element is that Daisy, not Tom, kills Myrtle, which reverses our expectations. In this way, Fitzgerald manipulates foreshadowing in order to surprise the reader.
In a more misleading instance of foreshadowing, Nick implies that Gatsby will have a happy ending; only after the reader has finished the book does the true meaning of Nick’s words become clear. In the opening pages Nick says that “Gatsby turned out all right at the end; it is what preyed on Gatsby, what foul dust floated in the wake of his dreams that temporarily closed out my interest in the abortive sorrows and short-winded elations of men.” The reader may take the first proclamation as proof that Gatsby survives the story or ends up with Daisy, but in fact Gatsby dies at the end of the novel. The red herring increases the reader’s surprise when this occurs. Upon re-reading the passage, we understand another meaning of the phrase, which is that Gatsby turns out to be a hero rather than a villain of the story. In the second part of the quotation Nick tells us that the story will end sorrowfully and will have a lasting negative impact on him; this also turns out to be true.
Myrtle killed by a car
Myrtle’s death in a hit-and-run car accident is both directly and indirectly foreshadowed. Automobiles are a preoccupation of the novel, with many references to cars and driving. Early in the book, Nick leaves Gatsby’s party and sees a car in a ditch, “violently shorn of one wheel,” an image echoed later by the sight of Mytle’s “left breast swinging loose like a flap” after she is hit by the car. Next, Jordan nearly runs over a workman with her car, then tells Nick she’s not concerned about being a careless driver because, “it takes two to make an accident.” These scenes foreshadow the scene when Daisy hits Myrtle, who has run out into the road – an accident caused by both Daisy and Myrtle’s carelessness. Direct foreshadowing appears near the end of the book, when Nick and Tom and Jordan leave New York. Nick has just realized it’s his birthday; he is thirty, and the years ahead of him promise only “a thinning briefcase of enthusiasm, thinning hair.” Nick is suddenly aware of his own mortality, so when he says, “we drove on toward death through the cooling twilight,” the sentence can be read as a general reference to mortality. But in fact the line is a specific foreshadowing of Myrtle’s death, which will happen soon down the road.