The power of potential


A summary of the symbolism of geography in The Great Gatsby

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

The most obvious geographic opposition in modern America is north versus south, but the east-west colonization of the United States also creates interesting symbolism. Just think east coast versus west coast. On the one hand, there is the Old Establishment (New England, the Puritans, Manhattan, Harvard, Yale) and on the other, the Young Guns (the frontier, forty-nine, Las Vegas, California, Los Angeles). Unfortunately for the great swath of intermediate states, the term “Central America” ​​has no associations that are all that exciting.

A great example of how this regional symbolism works can be found in The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald. Set on a 1920s east coast, it uses geography to help establish characters and highlight conflicts. Jay Gatsby, who originally hails from North Dakota (brr!), Makes a fortune, reinvents himself, heads to Long Island, and buys a mansion to reconnect with his lost love, Daisy. (By the way, who has since married an East Coast millionaire with a Yale degree. What’s that like for the symbolic trifecta?) Lots of parties and lots of drunkenness afterward, Jay and Daisy renew their relationship.

Without getting too into a summary of the Great Gatsby, though, let’s just say it doesn’t end well. One of the main red flags that Gatsby throws for the East Coast elite is his incomplete education. Even though he tells Daisy’s husband an unexpected I’m going to see your Yale and raise me up in Oxford, filling his house with books and calling everyone an “old friend”, it turns out that Gatsby only attended college for five years. . months. As established, badass, and eastbound as Oxford may be, Gatsby clearly hasn’t put in enough time to carry out sophisticated speech or demeanor.

The other big obstacle is Gatsby’s illegitimacy to the East Coast throne. Although he is 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 most respectable neighborhood, but it also evokes the East / West, old / new, Manhattan / Hollywood relationship. which makes Gatsby look like a fraudulent newcomer. (Which, to be fair, it is.)

With all of this in mind, it’s no wonder both his character’s introduction and conclusion are based on the symbolism of that “green light” that you probably remember from one of the most famous Great Gatsby quotes: looking over the top. From the water, Gatsby stretches his arms east toward the money-colored light emanating from Daisy’s house. While this is the closest he will get to achieving Manhattan’s social elite status, the real tragedy is that Gatsby is the last to know.


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