Master of Arts (MA)
Semester of Degree Completion
James R. Quivey
A great deal has been written about the conscientious effort that went into the design of F. Scott Fitzgerald's popular novel, The Great Gatsby, with its various allusions and numerous symbols. A careful reading of this novel will unveil the author's preoccupation with numerous metaphysical images, particularly the four elements--air, earth, water, and fire--which are considered to be the essential components of all matter.
Fitzgerald uses the four elements in The Great Gatsby to coordinate mood and physical settings, to give dimension to the settings, and to bring characters into sharper focus. The novel employs four settings, each one directly corresponding to a particular element: East Egg--air, the valley of ashes--earth, West Egg--water, and New York City--fire. Most of the characters in the novel are directly related to the symbolic qualities of three of the elements, air, earth, and water. Characters metaphorically defined by the elements include Daisy Buchanan, Jordan Baker, and George Wilson who are characterized through air imagery, Tom Buchanan and Myrtle Wilson who are associated with earth, and Jay Gatsby who is presented in water imagery. Fire serves primarily as a force that metaphorically burns away obscurities and reveals the true motives and personalities of each character. Even Nick Carraway, the narrator of the novel, who seems to have a balance of the elements and gets along equally well with all the characters, is forced to re-evaluate the people in the heat of the Plaza Hotel showdown in New York City between Tom Buchanan and Jay Gatsby. Nick remains objective throughout the novel until the last chapter when he becomes impressed by Gatsby's intense faith, loyalty, and determination toward his dream of reliving the past. Nick finds that Gatsby indeed is an admirable person in comparison to the reckless society of the East represented by Tom and Daisy Buchanan and Jordan Baker.
The valley of ashes, symbolic of the moral wasteland of the East and representative of the element earth, becomes the tragic backdrop of The Great Gatsby. Earth triumphs in the metaphorical dimensions of the elemental structure of the story. It is within this setting that the wealthy Buchanans and Jordan Baker most obviously display their indifference to human morality, leaving three innocent victims in the path of their destruction. Earth's most representative character, Tom Buchanan, emerges relatively unscathed: his selfishness and insensitivity make it possible for him to accept the loss of Myrtle Wilson without lasting pain.
Hawkins, John Philip, "Fitzgerald's Use of the Four Elements in The Great Gatsby" (1979). Masters Theses. 3151.