The elements



Gatsby is frequently associated in some way with water. He is introduced by Nick as stretching out his arms ‘towards the dark water in a curious way’ and he goes on to invite Nick to try out a hydroplane he has just bought. This invitation is repeated at the end of Chapter 3 and then Nick comments that he had ‘mounted in his hydroplane’ in Chapter 4, as well as observing in Chapter 3 that Gatsby’s two motorboats

slit the waters of the Sound, drawing aquaplanes over cataracts of foam.

Gatsby’s own account of his early life is strongly connected with boating. We hear that he ‘borrowed a rowboat’ and rowed out to Dan Cody’s yacht in order to warn him of an ‘insidious flat’ on Lake Superior. This encounter is presented as a moment of transformation for Gatsby, when he changes his name and his destiny by becoming Cody’s ‘steward, mate, skipper, secretary and even jailor’, travelling around the Continent three times with him in five years. 

The idea of sailing and the sea offering the chance of a fresh start is also conveyed by the image in Chapter 7 of:

the white wings of the boat [which] moved against the cool blue limit of the sky. Ahead lay the scalloped ocean and the abounding blessed isles.


Gatsby ends his life on an inflatable, in his swimming pool, in a very understated way. The language used to describe his death is euphemistic or perhaps deliberately anticlimactic:

  • ‘faint, barely perceptible’
  • ‘little ripples that were hardly the shadows of waves’
  • ‘small gust of wind that scarcely corrugated the surface’
  • ‘touch of a cluster of leaves’
  • ‘a thin red circle in the water’

The reference to a ‘leg of transit’ may also suggest a journey on water, although this is a very enigmatic phrase. 


Before Gatsby is reunited with Daisy, he is drenched in rain. This occurs in Chapter 5 where Nick notes that his friend was

pale as death, with his hands plunged like weights in his coat pockets … standing in a puddle of water glaring tragically into my eyes.

Several phrases in this passage prefigure Gatsby’s death, and there is a tension between the emotionally-charged atmosphere and the sense of impending doom in the whole chapter. 

The funeral too is rain-soaked, and Nick highlights the ‘motor hearse, horribly black and wet’ and the phrase, ‘Blessed are the dead that the rain falls on’ which derives from a proverb linking the rain negatively to marriage and positively to death. This might reinforce the effects of presenting the reunion as taking place against a backdrop of rain.

Fighting the current

Finally, Nick compares Gatsby’s efforts to attain his dream with ‘boats against the current’, having also just commented on the ‘moving glow of a ferryboat’ and the arrival of Dutch sailors to ‘this continent’. Nick moves from the particular case of Gatsby, to a more general reference to ‘us’, within the same sentence:

Gatsby believed in the green light, the orgastic future that year by year recedes before us. It eluded us then, but … we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.

From this, it seems that Nick sees the essence of humanity as the determination to ‘beat on’, echoing the language of the first glimpse of Gatsby. This image of a determined effort to counteract a natural tendency or something inevitable, maintaining the expectation of success, brings together all the significant water-related images of Gatsby’s life as representing both an energetic commitment to a goal and a sense of hope against all odds.


When Nick returns home at the start of Chapter 5, he mistakes the excessive illumination of Gatsby’s house as his own house being on fire, and then realises his mistake. This catastrophic image foreshadows the ‘holocaust’ image of the end of Gatsby’s life. Note that ‘holocaust’ at this time had the meaning ‘wholly burnt’, as associated with sacrificial victims, rather than the more recent meaning of Nazi genocide of the Jews (which occurred after this book was written). 

Fire imagery in the novel may be connected with the image of ashes, which is found in relation to the poorer characters of George, Myrtle and the unnamed inhabitants of the valley of the ashes. The valley and its inhabitants represent the burnt out detritus of America’s economic progress, both physically and spiritually.

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