By Frances Hornbostel, V Form
The Essence of Luminescence: Light in The Great Gatsby
In The Great Gatsby, light is emblematic of the uncanny attraction to Jay Gatsby’s wealth and power, illuminating the warmth and clarity it brings as well as its isolation and superficiality. Light is ever-present throughout the novel, reflecting changes from dark, tempestuous times to brighter, more jubilant ones. These lighting shifts can be controlled by natural forces, immune to man’s intervention, or manipulated through artificial lighting, bought and directed by the buyer. Gatsby’s life, a whirlpool of bright lights ornamenting his extravagant wealth, is overwhelmingly attractive to those around him. He draws them in like moths to a flame as Nick notes early on, witnessing one of Gatsby’s ostentatious parties. Gatsby’s manipulation of light to highlight positive aspects of himself shows his attempts to control how people perceive him, further revealing the powers of isolation and superficiality light can have. Light is particularly revelatory in chapter five, where Gatsby’s manipulation is paramount in fabricating a perfect meeting with Daisy, the woman he has loved for the five years they have been apart.
After Gatsby invites Daisy over to his house, she excitedly brings him over to the window to show him that “the rain was still falling, but the darkness had parted in the west, and there was a pink and golden billow of foamy clouds above the sea” (Fitzgerald 94). Chapter five is set in isolation, away from mistresses, husbands, and reality, allowing Daisy and Gatsby to exist, for this chapter, at least, in a timeless state of idyllic bliss. However, the storm still raged, Tom was still a man bursting out in bouts of anger while was cheating with Myrtle, and their marriage still constricted Daisy at the ring finger. Daisy refuses to face these realities in chapter five as she lets herself float in the almost tangible softness of the pastel-painted clouds above the horizon, existing precariously between a storm and the raging force of the sea. Yet, rain is still falling around them, illustrating gravity’s heavy push on the dark elements outside of the floating oasis of billowing clouds that Daisy envisions, seemingly untouchable by gravity. The fragility of this state that is too perfect to be true alludes to its disintegration as reality hits after chapter five.
Light in this instance is being manipulated, being parted, for Daisy and Gatsby. Personifying light renders it susceptible to human control, and Gatsby seizes this idea in his interactions with light. He has an incessant need to be in control of everything he can, even that which is far beyond his scope as a human being. The darkness being parted and moved out of the way for Daisy and Gatsby to exist in a bright, sunlit state, even temporarily, reflects the warmth and contentedness that isolation from darkness can bring.
The oasis of romance between Gatsby and Daisy continues as “twinkle-bells of sunshine” fill the room and Gatsby “smiled like a weatherman, like an ecstatic patron of recurrent light, and repeated the news to Daisy” (89). The description of sunlight as bells elicits imagery of celebration so vivid the ringing of the bells seems to echo throughout Gatsby’s living room, filling the room and the two lovebirds in it. Light has the power to fill an entire room, so its comparison to bells of joy further expresses this power and grandeur.
Gatsby strives to take credit for the capacity of light when he reports the news of sunshine to Daisy like a weatherman. Weathermen perform in front of millions to report weather patterns, essentially notifying viewers of the weather that is currently surrounding them and perhaps predicting what may come. Daisy is probably well aware of the sunshine, and Gatsby’s leap to inform her about the quite obvious juxtaposition in weather shows his need for control and power. In fact, the whole ideology behind weathermen is illustrative of the patriarchal ideas recurrent in The Great Gatsby and evident in Gatsby’s character. He harnesses this opportunity for power and praise as he relays the good news to Daisy. He wants to be noticed for the warmth and happiness light brings, and he wants the twinkle-bells of sunshine to ring “Gatsby” throughout the room, as he does with his wealth. Through his extravaganzas, Gatsby wants to be associated with the happiness and warmth that wealth brings with the ultimate goal of attracting Daisy. He wants to control light as he does everything else: with money. Referencing Gatsby as a patron of light suggests he has the money to manipulate it and that it is subservient to him. This bold claim of dominance over sunlight is a larger scale version of Gatsby’s more subtle way of controlling light which shows its powers of isolation and superficiality.
As Gatsby returns home late at night, he was “afraid for a moment that [his] house was on fire (81). Gatsby’s parties are recurrently described as luminescent and loud, but the imagery of fire and the initial fear it evokes from Nick contrasts the attractive bright lights of Gatsby’s parties. Fire has the power to keep people warm, to heat food, to guide in darkness and to send signals, but it also burns and spreads and ruins. The fire of Gatsby’s parties reflects the fire within the man himself. Gatsby’s fire is his power. The attraction from afar is so powerful, and it brings warmth and happiness, at least temporarily, but it also spreads dangerously and burns. These parties, while attractive from afar and for the first part of the night, usually end in car crashes and tears. The attraction to Gatsby’s wealth exists in the same sense as attraction to fire does–in a precarious dance between pleasure and pain.
The powers of light are further exposed in Gatsby’s music room when he:
“turned on a solitary lamp beside the piano. He lit Daisy’s cigarette from a trembling match, and sat down with her on a couch far across the room, where there was no light save what the gleaming floor bounced in from the hall.” (94)
Gatsby isolates himself and Daisy so they can exist in their finite perfection more deeply by lighting that lamp. He fabricates a space filled with light in which they can exist separate from the darkness, the realities of their lives outside that room. This manipulation of light shows its power of isolation, much like that of Gatsby’s wealth. His flamboyance through his parties is isolating, as is the superficiality of the wealth he displays which is distinctly separate from the man behind it all.
The notion of fire is brought up again in this scene, reflecting Gatsby’s manipulation of light to satisfy Daisy. Gatsby, hands trembling from nerves, lights Daisy’s cigarette to make her happy. Fire has the power to burn, and the feelings that come from the initial spark of a cigarette are overwhelmingly positive. Fire, when burning the contents of cigarettes for a long time, however, has fatal effects. A similar phenomenon happens to Gatsby. His wealth, his power, his fire, brought short-lived pleasure for party-goers and for Gatsby. After time, however, this fire reaps its consequences for Gatsby when he loses Daisy and is ultimately killed.
The superficiality of light is evident in the recurring theme of Daisy’s green light at the end of her dock. This light is bright in Gatsby’s mind throughout the novel, an emblem of their idyllic relationship, and shines bright even in darkness and even across the barrier of Long Island Sound. Light can be superficial, though, sending false signals across large distances, as Daisy’s green light does for Gatsby. His unrealistic expectations for their relationship are reflected in this light that he is attracted to because it represents Daisy and the warmth and clarity that light brings him. He hopes that the lights that blaze from his house will have a similar effect and attract Daisy to him but the attraction to Gatsby’s wealth and power is nuanced in complexity, as light throughout the novel, specifically in chapter five, shows its power to elicit happiness and clarity but also isolation and superficiality.
Frances Hornbostel is a V form boarding student from New York City. She loves to play field hockey, squash, and tennis, and she enjoys writing songs, skiing, and sailing.