According to the definition of symbolism in Holman’s A Handbook to Literature, “On the most literal level, a symbol is something which is itself and yet stands for or suggests or means something else.” In the The Great Gatsby, author F. Scott Fitzgerald uses colour symbolism to develop certain themes of the story. The colours white, yellow and blue are used to symbolize innocence, social corruption and the American dream. Once the significance of each of these symbols is established, their appearance in the story draws attention to the theme that they represent and helps to guide the reader’s understanding of the story.
One of the most prominent symbols Fitzgerald uses in the novel is the colour white to represent innocence. At a basic level, the author uses the symbol white to show that a character has done no wrong and is not guilty of any crime. When Gatsby and Nick are going to New York and are approached by a police officer because they are driving too fast, Gatsby takes “a white card from his wallet”(74) and shows it to the police officer. When he sees the card, the officer immediately pardons himself and decides that Gatsby isn’t guilty of speeding, giving him a free pass to innocence. Daisy Buchanan and Jordan Baker first appear in the story, “both in white”, “their dresses were rippling and fluttering.”(10) At this point in the novel they have yet to do anything wrong and are innocent and harmless characters. Later in the novel, Daisy reminisces about her “white girlhood”(22) spent in Louisville with Jordan. Still later, Jordan remembers when Daisy “was just eighteen”, a “young girl”, “she dressed in white, and had a little roadster”(80). Ironically, the two women wear white dresses again towards the end of the book as they pretend to act as though they are still the innocent characters they once were.
When Tom angrily accuses Daisy and Gatsby of having an affair, Jordan calmly says, “we’re all white here.”(139) Although this might be referring to the racial comment Tom had just made, the way the line is delivered makes it seem as if Jordan is trying to calm down Tom by saying that no one in the room is guilty of any sort of infidelity.
White is also used when a character is innocent and unaware of what is happening around them or what is about to happen. This can be seen when Tom and Nick go to the valley of ashes to pickup Myrtle, Tom’s mistress, and end up meeting Wilson her husband. Nick notes that “a white ashen dust veiled his dark suit and his pale hair as it veiled everything in the vicinity—except his wife.”(29) Wilson is completely oblivious to what is really going on and is an innocent victim of his wife’s infidelity. By contrast, Myrtle is the only person or thing that isn’t covered in white ash, to show that she is guilty and not white with innocence.
The author dresses his characters in white flannels when they are - or at least pretend to be - innocent and are unknowing of the repercussions their actions may have....