What role do automobiles play in the Great Gatsby ?

For many of Fitzgerald's characters, the automobile represents American progress. Flashy cars and references to car trips are mentioned again and again throughout the novel. However, the author does not always present them as a positive force, but seems to imply tat they can also be a tool of destruction. So what role do automobiles really play in The Great Gatsby ?

On the one hand, several of Gatsby's key characters regard automobiles as signs of brilliance and power. Nick marvels at the shiny Rolls Royce that drives guests to Gatsby's opulent parties. Wilson admires Tom's car because it would give him the opportunity to expand his business and improve his social status. Speeding towards New York in Gatsby's car, Nick feels like an explorer setting eyes on the city for the first time. Again and again, automobiles give Fitzgerald's characters a sense of excitement, power and possibility.

On the other hand, however, Fitzgerald repeatedly shows that these awe-inspiring cars are dangerous, misleading and destructive. Soon after his wedding, Tom endangers his life by getting into a compromising car accident with a hotel chambermaid. Then, leaving Gatsby's party, a drunken guest crashes his car and loses a wheel : the man's status symbol exposes him as a weak fool. Most importantly, a speeding car is responsible for Myrtle's death and a misunderstanding concerning the actual driver of Gatsby's car who is responsible for the accident, finally leads to Gatsby's tragic death.

To conclude, we can say that Fitzgerald seems to imply that fancy cars lead people astray in almost every chapter. Among many other symbols, he uses the automobile as a symbol of the perversion of the American Dream in The Great Gatsby. Rather than allowing his characters to achieve their goals of success and happiness, the automobile becomes a destructive force that injures and kills them.

(Adapted from spark notes The Great Gatsby)