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A Summary of the Symbolism of Geography in The Great Gatsby

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A Summary of the Symbolism of Geography in The Great Gatsby

Political scientists will tell you that there’s immense symbolic power in geographical opposition. Sometimes it’s for obvious historical reasons, like East versus West Germany. Other times, the naming mechanism itself is what carries the symbolic weight. For example, because North Dakota gets disproportionately fewer tourists every year than South Dakota, it has attempted to drop the word “North” from its name to sound like a warmer, more pleasant place. (It might also want to have a chat with the Coen brothers about that whole “Fargo” thing.)

The most obvious geographical opposition existing in the modern United States is the North versus the South, but America’s east-to-west colonization makes for some interesting symbolism as well. Just think East versus West Coast. On the one side, you have the Old Establishment (New England, the puritans, Manhattan, Harvard, Yale) and on the other, you have the Young Guns (the frontier, forty-niners, Las Vegas, California, Los Angeles). Unfortunately for the huge swath of states in between, the term “Middle America” doesn’t have any associations that are nearly this exciting.

A great example of how this regional symbolism works can be found in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby. Set on an upper-crusty, 1920’s East Coast, it uses geography to help establish characters and highlight conflicts. Jay Gatsby, who originally comes from North Dakota (brr!), makes a fortune, reinvents himself, heads to Long Island, and buys a mansion to reconnect with his lost love, Daisy. (Who, by the way, has since married an East-Coast millionaire with a degree from Yale. How is that for the symbolic trifecta?) Many parties and much drunkenness later, Jay and Daisy renew their relationship.

However, without getting into too much of a Great Gatsby summary, let’s just say it doesn’t end well. One of the major red flags Gatsby sets off for the East Coast elite is his sketchy education. Although he pulls an unexpected I’ll-see-your-Yale-and-raise-you-Oxford on Daisy’s husband, filling his house with books and calling everyone “old sport,” it turns out that Gatsby only attended the university for five months. As established, upper-crusty, and eastward as Oxford may be, Gatsby clearly hasn’t spent enough time to pull off sophisticated speech or behavior.

The other big obstacle is Gatsby’s illegitimacy to the East Coast throne. Although he’s absurdly rich, his wealth is “new” and therefore inferior to that of Daisy’s husband. This is reflected in the fact that Gatsby lives in West Egg and not East Egg, where Daisy lives: not only is East Egg the more respectable neighborhood, but it also conjures up the East/West, old/new, Manhattan/Hollywood relationship that makes Gatsby seem like a fraudulent newcomer. (Which, to be fair, he is.)

With all this in mind, it’s no wonder his character’s intro and outro both rely on the symbolism of that “green light” you probably remember from one of the most famous Great Gatsby quotes: looking longingly over the water, Gatsby stretches his arms eastward toward the money-colored light that emanates from Daisy’s house. Although this is as close as he’ll ever get to reaching the status of a Manhattan social elite, the real tragedy is that Gatsby is the last one to know it.

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