Symbolic significance

Cars in The Great Gatsby are status symbols for various characters, but also function as symbols of American society in general, so that car crashes are ominous signs of socio-economic and moral collapse.

Gatsby’s car 

We are told, in Chapter 3, that Gatsby has a ‘station wagon’ and a Rolls Royce. Both cars are used to help guests arrive at the house for Gatsby’s parties, and although the station wagon is described as a ‘brisk yellow bug’, it is more likely that the Rolls Royce is the car written about in the rest of the novel, since the elaborate description would be more fitting for a Rolls Royce than a station wagon.

A spectacular automobile

Great Gatsby Car from Warner Bros film, image available through Creative CommonsThe car driven by Gatsby, like his house, is a spectacle, which Nick acknowledges in Chapter 4 as he notes, ‘I’d seen it. Everybody had seen it.’ His description is detailed, listing the many kinds of boxes attached to the car. It is also rich with imagery, such as the idea of a ‘labyrinth’ or a ‘green leather conservatory’ to depict the system of windscreens. The modifiers are impressive but also disturbing: ‘rich’, ‘bright’, ‘swollen’, ‘monstrous’, ‘triumphant’, while the choice of ‘rich cream’, ‘green leather’ and ‘nickel’ combine to connote luxury. Furthermore, the horn is ‘three-noted’, demanding attention with its ‘burst of melody’.

Vehicle of potential and status

When they drive through the valley of ashes in this chapter, Nick comments that:

With fenders spread like wings, we scattered light through half Astoria

(Astoria is a neighbourhood of New York). This suggests that the car is a powerful and magical force in America at this time. It is on this journey that Gatsby begins to involve Nick in his plans to become reunited with Daisy, and there is a sense of potential, associated with the excitement of a car journey.

Two cars pass Gatsby’s car in Chapter 4: a hearse and a limousine, directly drawing a link between wealth and death. Still dazzled by the sumptuousness wealth commands at this point in the novel, Nick says of the mourners that he is:

glad that the sight of Gatsby’s splendid car was included in their sombre holiday

He imagines that the limousine occupants, ‘three modish negroes’, feel a sense of rivalry with Gatsby, indicating the extent to which social status was expressed in car ownership.

The drive to death

Gatsby’s car becomes the ‘death car’ in Chapter 7, as it strikes Myrtle on the road outside the garage, and it is also the means by which Gatsby is tracked down and murdered by George Wilson. Because the car is so completely identified with the driver, chaos ensues when others drive it:

  • Tom drives the yellow automobile on the way to New York, leading Myrtle to associate the car with him and to believe that Jordan, his passenger, is his wife
  • Gatsby and Daisy drive it back again, and Myrtle runs into the path of the car
  • Although Daisy is the driver, George Wilson assumes that Gatsby would be driving his own car. 

This complex set of events is the source of the mistaken identity that leads to Gatsby’s death. The colour of the car is now repeatedly cited as ‘yellow’ reducing the elaborate detail given in Chapter 4 to just one word, and indicating that the complexity of Gatsby himself is being diminished to just the single idea of a tragic victim.

Other cars

Tom’s car

Tom has a blue coupé, which appears in Chapter 7, alongside Gatsby’s car, as Daisy, Tom, Nick, Jordan and Gatsby drive into New York. Wilson wants to buy Tom’s car, as he can re-sell it and make a profit. He asks several times about this, seeming desperate, and Tom threatens to call the deal off when Wilson expresses his impatience. This car has less impact than Gatsby’s car, judging from Wilson’s reaction to Tom offering to sell Gatsby’s to him instead:

‘Like to buy it?’
‘Big chance,’ Wilson smiled faintly. ‘No, but I could make some money on the other.’

Nick’s car

Nick drives an ‘old Dodge’, he says in Chapter 1, and only refers to his car once again, as he is about to leave West Egg: he has his trunk packed ‘and my car sold to the grocer’, which confirms his abandonment of life in the East. 

Daisy’s car

Daisy has a ‘little white roadster’ when she is a young debutante in 1917, although we don’t see her driving in the present day of the novel. Her car is open-top and two-seater, implying a car designed for carefree couples, and would have cost more than a standard car at the time. 

When she arrives at Nick’s house in Chapter 5, she is chauffeured by ‘Ferdie’ but there is no detailed description of her car except that it is a ‘large, open car’.

Car accidents


On numerous occasions, cars are associated with collisions:

  • At the first of Gatsby’s parties attended by Nick, a driver is drunk and crashes into a ditch. People first assume that Owl Eyes is the driver, but in fact another man, also drunk, is revealed as the culprit. This man never accepts responsibility or even acknowledges that a crash has occurred, which foreshadows the irresponsibility of Daisy, whose culpability is concealed by Gatsby (and Tom), leaving Gatsby to be blamed for Myrtle’s death
  • At another party, a drunk man lies in the road and his hand is run over by the car of another guest.
  • Jordan in Chapter 3 has a slight collision with a workman and Nick observes that she is a ‘rotten driver’
  • Tom also crashes his car, and this incident (related by Jordan in Chapter 4) reveals his infidelity (the injured passenger was a chambermaid at the hotel where he and Daisy were staying). 

The crashes clearly suggest that the people driving are irresponsible and ‘careless’, leading to the expansion of this idea to refer also to relationships between people, as the conversation between Nick and Jordan at the end of Chapter 9 demonstrates.

Myrtle’s death by careless driving

This accident is born out of mistaken identity, largely due to the swapping of vehicles between Tom and Gatsby. Myrtle misinterprets Jordan as Tom’s wife, as she is the only female in Gatsby’s car with Nick and Tom. She then runs into the road when the yellow car returns, assuming that Tom and Jordan will be in it. Daisy, who is driving to ‘steady’ her nerves after the scene between her husband and her lover, has to choose between a collision with an oncoming vehicle or one with a pedestrian. Although she swerves in turn to avoid both, she fails to avoid Myrtle. Gatsby says he had his hand on the wheel in order to help Daisy, but she speeds away in a panic, refusing to stop. 

Gatsby’s action of taking over the driving does not resolve the issue of abandoning Myrtle. He says he ‘drove on’ perhaps demonstrating that his priority was protecting Daisy at all costs. Myrtle is the first fatality due to a car accident, but there have been several near-misses before this point in the novel. To have Myrtle as the victim of such an accident is highly ironic, since she is killed by a product of the economic growth of the 1920s which is the source of her husband’s income, possibly suggesting that the progress of some requires the sacrifice of others.

      Read on to discover the use of the imagery of light in The Great Gatsby, or dig deeper using the synopses and commentary.      
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