GREEN, BLUE AND YELLOW:
the use of colours as adjectives in The Great Gatsby
Perhaps surprisingly, given the 'gaudy' party scenes at Jay Gatsby's West Egg mansion, and the frequent mention of finance: money, bonds, stocks and securities, Gold as an adjective is only mentioned three times in the novel, and two of those in the epigraph
'Then wear the gold hat, if that will move her;
if you can bounce high, bounce for her two,
Till she cry "Lover, gold-hatted, high-bouncing lover,
I must have you"'
- Thomas Parke d'Invilliers
and once to describe Gatsby wearing 'a gold-coloured tie'.
Used wistfully to describe Gatsby 'standing with his hands in his pockets regarding the silver pepper of the stars' and once to describe his 'silver shirt'.
The Great Gatsby is a claustrophobic novel. Perhaps this little sprinkle of silver dilutes the more cocksure display of bolder colours. Gatsby looking at the stars allows brief respite from the noisy, stifling drama of the novel.
The fly cover to my Penguin Classics edition (2006) of The Great Gatsby is a soft pink, but the colour is used only three times, twice in adjacent chapters, albeit movingly and pertinently, where pink links Jay Gatsby and Daisy Buchanan. In the chapters following Myrtle Wilson's death, Nick Carraway describes Gatsby as wearing a 'gorgeous pink rag of a suit' and notices 'the pink glow from Daisy's room' at her mansion in East Egg. Pink is silence. Pink is loneliness. Both Daisy and Gatsby are alone and silent at the moment of the narrator's description. Famously, in chapter five, Daisy says to Gatsby she would "like to just get one of those pink clouds and put you in it and push you around." Pink is wishing, wistful, pink is possibility.
Grey is linked to yellow and yellow leads to grey. Jordan Baker is described by Nick Carraway as washed-out: 'Her grey sun-streaked eyes looked back at me'. On his first meeting with Gatsby: 'We talk about some wet, grey little village in France'. Clouds are 'small, grey clouds'. 'Grey cars crawl' along the 'grey land' between West Egg and New York. In a City ensemble piece there is 'a grey (scrawny) Italian child' and an 'old grey man' sells the puppy dog to Tom Buchanan. 'Grey windows' give way to illuminated light at Gatsby's extravagant parties. If the aftermath of the first world war is grey, then it is perhaps foretold that grey will also follow the yellowing drama of the Roaring Twenties, the 1928 stock market crash happened three years after the publication of Fitzgerald's novel. Eight greys.
Red is versatile. Red (including Crimson) stands out at a distance. No more so than in the beautiful and deceptively simple description of the landscape between Long Island and New York: 'where new red petrol pumps sat out in pools of light'. This image prefigures the America represented in the paintings of Edward Hopper. Red is used effectively in description of character: Catherine, Myrtle Wilson's sister, is portrayed as 'a slender working girl of about thirty with a solid sticky bob of red hair...' and place: 'the crimson room bloomed with light'. Red is used for the fourth time (dramatically) as the outline of the mattress Gatsby was lounging on before he was murdered: 'a thin red circle in the water'.
A colour of omniscient significance for the author. In one of the most revealing statements about his hero Fitzgerald utilises green thus: 'Gatsby believed in the green light, the orgiastic future that year by year recedes before us'. This quote is a leitmotif for the novel. The use of green striking and, yet, difficult to comprehend. Not green manifesting as envy, or naivety; nothing to do with the environment or protean growth. But green used in the same sentence to suggest sex and recrudescence? Today the Green Card suggests a future in the United States for the recipient; for Fitzgerald green is something of an oxymoron...the receding future. Placed at the end of the book, this quote reminds us of the two occasions where the word was used previously. Nick Carraway tells us: 'I thought of Gatsby's wonder when he first picked out the green light at the end of Daisy's dock'. And Gatsby to Daisy: 'You always have a green light that burns all night at the end of your dock'. Daisy tells Nick to present 'a green card' if he wants to kiss her. Daisy 'giving out green...'. Gatsby's car has a 'green leather seat' and the stretch of water between East and West Egg is 'the green sound'. Green is magma, undercurrent, centrifugal momentum, the mysterious life and death force running with subtle menace through the novel. Used six times.
Is used to describe minor characters, some introduced by name only. Mr Mckee (from the flat below but attending the infamous party hosted by Myrtle Wilson in New York) is described as having a 'white spot of lather on his cheekbone' and never mentioned again. Nick Carraway describes himself and Gatsby matter-of-factly as 'wearing a white flannel suit', there is a 'white plum tree' and Myrtle Wilson wears 'a cream-coloured chiffon'. Catherine's face in the same description of her detailed in Red is powdery 'white'. There are 'white steps' up to Gatsby's mansion, we see 'white moonlight' and 'white banners'. Like the colour itself, these usages fade into the background. Perhaps this is why white is often thought of as a non-colour. But white is used to suggest innocence and purity when Daisy reminisces about her (and Jordan Baker's) adolescence: our 'beautiful white', 'our white girlhood', 'our beautiful white...' There is also a sepulchral description of George Wilson. In shock at Myrtle's death and the seeds of revenge sown...'a white ashen dust veiled his dark suit'. Thirteen whites.
BLACK appears once in the novel, perhaps anti semitically to describe a 'Jewess with black hostile eyes'.
Blue is used as an adjective ten times. This colour creates and casts a series of atmospheric shadows throughout the book. Without this use of blue The Great Gatsby would be an inferior novel. Blue gives the book a blue tone, blue moods, blue atmosphere, blue delights. Blue tends to permeate more than any other colour. It seeps through the surrounding pages. Blue is a long term investment for the author's ambition in this novel. If yellow is the plotting and characterisation, then blue is its structure and style. Cast in a blue light the novel resembles something like a fable or a fairy tale. Describing the grounds of Gatsby's mansion and the people coming and going Fitzgerald writes this humdinger of perfect prose: 'In his blue gardens men and girls came and went like moths among the whisperings and the champagne and the stars'. Blue is the colour that Nick Carraway associates with Gatsby as a self-made man: 'He had come a long way to this blue lawn'. The novel moves through the 'blue smoke of brittle leaves'. The dress of Lucille, an uninvited guest at one of Gatsby's nightly parties, is 'gas-blue', a chauffeur's uniform is 'robin's egg blue'. About Myrtle: 'a streak of hair lay like a dash of blue paint across her cheek', Gatsby has an '(Indian) blue shirt', a character has 'a blue nose', George Wilson has 'light-blue eyes'. The pivotal part of the plot line before the climax of the novel revolves around misunderstanding about the colour of two cars. Tom Buchanan's is a 'blue coupe'.
Gatsby's car is yellow. Yellow is not symbolic of gold or wealth but the color of the dark side of the American dream, and also the colour of locomotives! Delving into the past of the narrator, Fitzgerald writes of 'murky yellow cars of the Chicago, Milwaukee and St Paul's Railroad'. The approach to George Wilson's garage where 'the only building in sight was a small block of yellow brick'. Yellow is the end of summer. Jordan Baker has 'autumn-leaf yellow in her hair'. The soulless and decadent picture of a city that never sleeps at Tom and Myrtle's party in New York. Nick Carraway mentions that 'big over the city is our line of yellow windows'. At Gatsby's parties, symbolising an increasing level of decadence and meaninglessness, 'the orchestra is playing yellow cocktail music'. Two girls are wearing 'twin yellow dresses'. Decay and shallowness are suggested by the easy preponderance of yellow. The fetishising of the (yellow) automobile. The motor car as a status symbol. Why is Jay Gatsby's car yellow? Because in the way that F.Scott Fitzgerald appropriates yellow elsewhere it is the perfect and logical colour in which to tempt fate through accidental slaughter. Yellow had been increasing in speed and intensity throughout the novel. After Myrtle is killed by Gatsby's yellow car (with Daisy at the wheel - intoned by Gatsby but never corroborated), the police are investigating the local protagonists and the colour yellow is on the lips of characters and in the ears of readers.
'It was a yellow car'
'Big yellow car'
The negro 'began to talk about a yellow car'
And again...'it was a yellow car'
George Wilson 'has a way of finding out who owns the yellow car'...
Providence abounds in yellow. Fitzgerald could have chosen a dozen other colours for Jay Gatsby's car. As author, Fitzgerald knew of Gatsby's fate, and allowed us to believe, with the solemn rituals of his preparation for bathing in his swimming pool, that Gatsby himself knew. Nick Carraway's last description of Gatsby is 'and in a moment disappeared among the yellowing trees'. Ten yellows.
Green, Blue and Yellow are the novel's primary colours. Blue and yellow interplay throughout. Blue sets the tone and yellow forces the action. Yellow foretells death and is symbolic of decay, blue gives a sense of lustrous security in the myth of its own promise. If yellow is ugly, blue is (often) beautiful, if blue is mysterious, yellow is honest. Blue and yellow are not opposites. They complement each other like they do on the colour wheel. The magic is that ten yellows and ten blues in the hands of Fitzgerald stretch across the novel like an illuminated modern manuscript. The strange use of adjectival green, the meaning of green, underpinning everything.
Lavender, apple-green and orange are the other colours used to describe Gatsby’s shirts.
* This article was published in The Great Gatsby Anthology (Silver Birch Press, 2015)