Jay Gatsby spent his entire life creating an elaborate façade to enable himself to climb the social ladder to “greatness”. Climbing the social ladder to greatness is an American dream that so many adhere to but what is the greatness that we seek, is it for us all to equally enjoy, and can it ever be truly obtained? The title of the book suggests that Gatsby had in the end realized his dream of greatness but what is this greatness that Gatsby pursued and arguably achieved? The use of color as metaphor runs throughout this book and can be used to decipher the greatness that Gatsby yearned for.
From the very beginning Gatsby is depicted as yearning for a small green light in the distance. This light is far off and while we learn throughout the book that Gatsby equates the light with Daisy it is interesting that the light is described as green and small. There is an inherent duality in the meaning associated with the color green. Green evokes thoughts of money and greed but also thoughts of life and growth. Often people subconsciously equate the two meanings as one and therefore believe that through money there is new life. We discover as the story progresses that Jay Gatsby fell into this line of thought.
Gatsby gave up his past to recreate himself as one who is socially deserving of wealth and indirectly then of the honor of being known as great and powerful. The green light is constant but only a small part of the landscape surrounding Gatsby. This light consumes Gatsby’s vision and yet Fitzgerald describes it as small. Not everyone had a green light at the end of their dock and that green light, although seen by many, was only meant for a few. It was not an all-encompassing light or even a light that was all that useful. Perhaps that little green light represented only 1% of all the light of the night sky.
The majority of America’s wealth, some argue, is held by only 1% of the total population. Power as gained through wealth can affect many things socially and politically and when that extreme power is held by the very few, the interests of the majority are easily lost. The Occupy Wall Street Movement is a social movement of this era that aims to fight the power that comes through wealth in our society. Like this movement of today, Fitzgerald highlights to ultimately critique the social power through wealth model for society. Fitzgerald points out existing class distinctions and how they can be traversed, but in the end he demonstrates that the system was not broken. In the end the only people who were born to money were the only people who came away from the series of events completely untouched physically and socially. There is a strong tradition of power derived through money in America and I can not help but wonder if Fitzgerald was pessimistic or optimistic about this dynamic changing over time.
An object’s described color was not always stagnant throughout the book. The color of Gatsby’s lawn changes depending on what it is being compared to. When Nick Compares his own lawn to Gatsby’s he calls it lush and green but when Gatsby’s lawn is compared to the small green light in the distance, Nick describes Gatsby as being firmly planted on his blue lawn. This brings up the idea that everything is relative, that wealth to one or in one situation is blue or blue-collar in another.
Often there is a desire to continually strive for what one perceives as “up” socially. Fitzgerald seems to present to his readers that seeing “green” as the way to life can only result in “green” as the way of life and that this way of life is all consuming, individualistic, and the end potentially hollow. The title of the book says that Gatsby obtained greatness, but that “greatness” left him buried by a friend of three months, a man he never met, and his Father whom he physically abandoned on his quest for social greatness. I see The Great Gatsby as a warning to not allow society define what “greatness” means for you personally. The issue of class lines and class structure are still alive and relevant today, as illustrated by the Occupy Movement. The issue may seem overwhelming and all too ingrained in our society but does that make it not worth fighting to change? Perhaps the change should start with each person redefining their own concept of “climbing the social ladder to greatness”.
 Fitzgerald, F. Scott, The Great Gatsby (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons 1925).