The Significance of Lawns in The Great Gatsby

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While F. Scott Fitzgerald’s novel deals with the cultural and economic boom of the ‘20s, he also captures its impact on morality and instability of wealth, both as a metric of security and social status. However, often overlooked in favor of green lights and glasses is Fitzgerald’s careful inclusion of natural scenery, which comes to contain significant meaning and characterization. In particular, in The Great Gatsby, F. Scott Fitzgerald uses lawns as a metaphor for wealth and class status, positioning them as symbols to communicate information about ideologies, social standing, and relationships, ultimately implying that lawns are as indicative of the superstructure of the American Dream as money is.

Throughout the novel, lawns are emphasized not only as pretty stretches of green but also as ornamentation and indicators of status. That is, lawns don’t only represent beauty but also space to maintain a swath of non-productive earth. The people who own large lawns and have access to them are the ones that can financially sustain such a tremendous waste of resources. Indeed, this connection is highlighted when Jordan Baker, weaving between sidewalk and lawn, notes that she “was happier on the lawns because [she] had on shoes from England with rubber nobs on the soles that bit into the soft ground. [Daisy] had on a new plaid skirt also that blew a little in the wind” (58). Here, Fitzgerald establishes a connection between wealth and lawns beyond the financial indicator of wasted land; a lawn is, for Jordan, intrinsically connected to material opulence. Not only does she have the privilege and access to expensive material objects—imported shoes, stable soles, a new plaid skirt—but also those expensive accouterments solidify the connection between her wealth and lawn, giving her access to the lawn itself. She feels comfort on the lawn, and it is her status that shields her and allows her to enclose herself in a bubble. 

 However, lawns do not merely represent financial privilege but also social access. Jordan’s experience of lawns is not only connected to mercantile opulence but also social aspiration and status. Jordan mentions how flattered, almost star-struck, she felt when Daisy spoke to her that day as Daisy was “the most popular girl in Louisville” and had the “largest of lawns” (58). At this moment, Jordan, especially in all her innocence, aspires to feel admired and glorified like Daisy, specifically connecting the large lawns to both Daisy’s wealth and popularity. Indeed, Jordan’s description of preferring the lawn to the sidewalk is similarly connected to her association between Daisy’s wealth and popularity and “large lawn.” It is when Jordan recounts an early interaction between Daisy and the then nearly impoverished Gatsby that she notes how much she prefers the lawn, connecting the green space to Daisy once again.

This moment also metaphorically represents Daisy’s own swaying privilege; as Jordan goes back and forth between lawn and sidewalk, emphasizing how she and Daisy—unlike Gatsby— have the luxury of “strolling on lawns,” or idealizing the past and reaching for what they long for the most because they are shielded by their old money statuses of any repercussions. Likewise, in times of chaos and strife, both women reach for the lawn, which represents the seeming stability and externalized organization of their familial wealth and status. In an attempt to deviate from the conversation about the woman Tom is having an affair with during dinner, Daisy resorts to a discussion about the house’s exterior: “It’s very romantic outdoors. There’s a bird on the lawn that I think must be a nightingale come over on the Cunard or White Star Line” (15). Daisy uses the allure and simple beauty of the lawn to shift attention away from the disorder and brokenness swirling within her own home. She feels a lack of love and connection with Tom and feeds off of and obtains self-security from the knowledge that everything appears, on the surface, to be orderly and blissful, once again associating the features of modern wealth and the lawn. 

While Daisy and Jordan extract comfort and security from lawns, Gatsby’s relationship with them illustrates his incessant need to conform and his obsession with having all the trappings of the American dream. Chief among these “trappings” are the ideals of recapturing the past and imitating the denizens of old money, whose natural comfort in luxuriously wasteful settings Gatsby aspires to. Nick comes home one evening and finds Gatsby waiting for him, asking if Nick has arranged a tea with Daisy. Gatsby seems terribly nervous and insists that he wants to get the grass cut before Daisy arrives. The disparity between his patch of greenery and the immaculately manicured grounds of Jay Gatsby’s mansion is clear: “We both looked at the grass—there was a sharp line where my ragged lawn ended and the darker, well-kept expanse of his began,” Nick reports. Gatsby is so troubled by this difference that he sends his own gardeners to take care of the strip of grass. Later on, right before the lunch, Nick notes Gatsby’s “pale” complexion and the “dark signs of sleeplessness beneath his eyes” (65). Gatsby’s obsession with lawns causes him physical distress and signifies his great desire to prove his worthiness to Daisy. Continuing to manicure material possessions and property around him, he believes, will reify the illusion he creates, reversing time and allowing him to reclaim control and power in the form of possessing Daisy—notably named for a lawn flower. 

Gatsby makes a total commitment to his dream but doesn’t realize that he’s wasting his energy on a shallow and selfish society. This can be seen in Nick’s differing attitudes toward both Daisy and Gatsby’s lawns. Nick walks “back along the border of” Daisy’s lawn, “traversing the gravel” rather than walking over the grass (111). However, Nick does not extend the same care to Gatsby’s cherished and well-manicured lawn, choosing instead to carelessly cross directly through it. Although both Daisy and Gatsby have colossal, embellished yards, Nick shows respect for Daisy’s lawn, not wanting to ruin the grass. As John Fraser says in his article “Dust and Dreams in The Great Gatsby,” “Nick’s constant romantic self-projection, his own large sense of glamorous possibilities, his ability, even while noting the tawdriness of an actuality, to understand the glamour that it could still legitimately possess for an outsider—these, of course, are so obvious.” Nick repeatedly claims to be naive and unaware of the politics of money and the American Dream—despite his familial ties to Daisy, who embodies the vanguard of old money entitlement and prestige. However, he unwittingly distinguishes between old and new money, as evidenced in his treatment of these two lawns. Gatsby’s is new—ostentatious and potentially acquired through less than legal means—which renders him inferior in the eyes of and incapable of authentically associating with those with inherited wealth. 

Indeed, just as the construction of Gatsby’s persona disintegrates, so too does his lawn upon his death, revealing the natural state below. Nick notes, as he leaves, that “the grass on his lawn had grown as long as mine” (137). Gatsby’s lawn is overgrown and unmanaged, indicating the dangers of wholly living off the unkept promises of the American Dream. The death of the lawn after the death of the man mirrors the truth of his identity, remaining as a relic of the immensity of his wealth while simultaneously reflecting the slow disappearance of his impact. Gatsby’s lawn and persona invite skepticism rather than confirm worth; he is, himself, a construction. Just as the lawn grows, slowly reaching back towards nature and wilderness, obscuring house, man, and wealth, so too is Gatsby’s fatal attempt at reaching the American Dream obscured. Nothing remains but the grass from which he came.