Personification & Hyperbole in "The Great Gatsby"
Personification and hyperbole enhance themes in F. Scott Fitzgerald's "The Great Gatsby." Personification -- a type of metaphor in which human characteristics are attributed to nonhuman things -- and hyperbole -- an exaggerated statement that adds emphasis without being literally true -- go beyond mundane descriptions of objects and people to heighten their symbolic importance. Knowing how these concepts work is key to understanding this story about the shattering of the American dream.
The All-Seeing Eyes
The most famous instance of personification in the novel is an advertisement that overlooks ash-heaps: "above the grey land and the spasms of bleak dust ... you perceive ... the eyes of Doctor. T.J. Eckleburg. The eyes ... are blue and gigantic -- their retinas are one yard high. They look out of no face, but, instead, from a pair of enormous yellow spectacles which pass over a nonexistent nose. ... But his eyes ... brood on over the solemn dumping ground." The eyes are described as human eyes would be, exchanging looks with characters and witnessing scenes "with peculiar intensity."
The fake eyes spy on the characters, reinforcing the idea that the characters create their identities to impress others. "The Cambridge Companion to American Novelists" notes that "the brooding eyes of Dr. Eckleburg ... suggest how dependent the sense of an outer world is on the way it is viewed by others." Critic Sophie Bertrand notes that the decrepit state of the eyes also suggests the decay of the American dream, since the seemingly living eyes look out over a desolate waste.
Hyperbole and Gatsby
Many of the descriptions of characters contain hyperbole. For Nick Carraway, a character who is also the narrator in the novel, Jay Gatsby "represented everything for which [he has] an unaffected scorn ... there was something gorgeous about him, some heightened sensitivity to the promises of life, as if he were related to one of those intricate machines that register earthquakes ten thousand miles away," Fitzgerald uses hyperbole to exaggerate how sensitive and self-conscious Gatsby appears to be, which leads Nick to suspect that Gatsby is not what he seems.
Further examples reinforce the theme of reinvention: "Jay Gatsby ... sprang from his Platonic conception of himself. He was a son of God ... he must be about His Father's Business, the service of a vast, vulgar and meretricious beauty." Gatsby did not literally transform, but Carraway describes him in this way to bring attention to his struggle to change.
Hyperbole and Daisy Buchannan
Daisy Buchanan represents the unattainable woman as well as the failed American Dream. She is Gatsby's "grail" that he fails to possess. Hyperbolic descriptions of her focus on her voice, which Carraway describes as "bringing out a meaning in each word that it had never had before and would never have again."
Gatsby simplifies this "meaning" by exclaiming, "Her voice is full of money," which clarifies for Carraway the root of her appeal, which has just as much to do with social status as love.
Both of these are instances of hyperbole because Daisy's voice is not literally connected to wealth or any special meaning, but these descriptions highlight Gatsby's adoration of her.
Jamie Trusty is based in Nashville, Tenn., and has been teaching and writing for more than five years. Her concentrations are non-fiction essays, research-based argumentative writing, literary analyses and film reviews. She holds a Master of Arts in English from Middle Tennessee State University. Although Trusty focuses on publishing more "serious" work, her favorite thing to write is Twin Peaks fan fiction.