Literary Devices in Gatsby

As I write the module on The Great Gatsby, one of my concerns is how to deal with the issue of literary devices.  I don’t want the students to be intimidated by “hidden meanings.”  I don’t want them to go figure hunting as if they are bird watchers logging sightings of rare specimens.  However, I do want them to be able to interpret the novel, to appreciate the language, and not to be put off by Fitzgerald’s indirect ways.  My first move in this direction was the introduction for students which I posted earlier.

In the section below I am trying to explain how symbols, metaphors, similes, and irony work.  Many of the definitions I found on the web were too complex or confusing, even contradictory.  Others went too deep into semiotics or linguistics, attempting to describe cognitive processes or to create a host of types and sub-types.  I just want students to have a basic working understanding of figurative language so that they can read the novel with pleasure and understanding.  I want to empower them rather than intimidate them.

Please give feedback in the comments.


Although reading literature is not like an Easter egg hunt in which the reader is looking for hidden meanings buried behind symbols and metaphors, such devices are part of the novel and do have meaning. For example, automobiles are common in this novel. At this time, the automobile is a fairly recent introduction into American culture. Traffic lights to control intersections were introduced around the time the novel was written. In the novel, automobiles are meticulously described. Characters drive them, buy them, sell them, repair them, crash them, and sometimes the wheels fall off. People are killed by them. Is the automobile a symbol of some aspect of American culture? Is steering a car a metaphor for a new kind of American life? It is up to you, the reader, to decide. Maybe a car is just a car. Maybe it is more. Symbols take on their meaning from context and from the evolving value that they have for the characters and the reader. It is never a simple matter of “Symbol X equals Meaning Y.”

Let’s say that the automobile is a symbol of American technological progress. What is implied if the wheels fall off? What is implied if the automobile kills someone?

Some definitions:

A symbol is something concrete (like the automobile) that represents or stands for an abstract idea (such as progress). Symbols are usually related to major themes in the work and may reoccur several times. The symbol does not necessarily resemble the symbolized idea or share any of its qualities. For example, the American flag is a symbol of the United States, but it does not look like the country. The stars on the flag may symbolize the individual states that are the current components of the union and the stripes may symbolize the original states that joined at the beginning, but the states are not like stars or stripes in any way.

A metaphor causes us to see one thing in terms of something else. On page 2, Nick Carraway talks about “the foul dust” that “floated in the wake of Gatsby’s dreams.” There are two metaphors here. First, the dust is not literally dust, but at this point we don’t know exactly what it is. We will find out what dreams Gatsby has and what the foul consequences are as we continue reading. Second, the dust floats in the “wake” of Gatsby’s dreams. As a boat travels through the water it creates a turbulent track behind it which is called the “wake.” So Gatsby’s dreams are being compared to a boat that leaves foul dust floating behind it. But wait a minute! “Wake” is also another word for funeral. Could that be what it means here? It seems unlikely because the word “floating” is associated with water, which triggers the association with a boat. Note that these are not “hidden meanings.” The metaphors are just part of the way that the sentence creates meaning.

A simile is a type of metaphor that uses “like” or “as” or other comparison words to connect the ideas. The most famous simile ever is probably by the poet, Robert Burns, who wrote, “My love is like a red, red rose,” comparing a woman to a flower. In The Great Gatsby, when Nick is criticizing Jordan’s driving he says, to the reader, not to Jordan, “I am slow thinking and full of interior rules that act as brakes on my desires” (58). This statement compares his “interior rules” to the “brakes” on an automobile. Similes such as this are very common in fiction.

Irony is also common in this novel. The word “irony” comes from a Greek word that means to pretend. There are many types of irony, but in all types the surface meaning is different, often the opposite, of what is intended, creating a humorous effect. For example, if a person walking in pouring rain meets another person and says, “Beautiful day, isn’t it?” that would be an ironic statement. Another common form of irony is understatement. Say a woman who is very afraid of spiders finds a spider in her sink, rolls up a magazine and in a panic hits the spider 20 times. Her roommate says, “Do you think that’s enough?” In Gatsby, irony often takes the form of exaggeration, such as when Nick arrives at Daisy’s house and she says, “I’m paralyzed with happiness” (8).

You will find many examples of these and other literary devices in the novel. Take note of these, discuss them with your classmates, and think about how they influence your reading of the novel.

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