The central conflict in "The Great Gatsby," (announced by Nick in the fourth paragraph of the book), is the conflict between Gatsby's dream and the reality that "the foul dust which floats in the wake of his dreams." Gatsby, Nick tells us, "turned out all right in the end"; the dreamer remains as pure, as inviolable, at bottom, as his dream of a greatness, an attainment "commensurate to man's capacity for wonder." What does not turn out all right at the end is of course the reality: Gatsby is slain, the enchanted universe is exposed as a world of wholesale corruption and predatory violence, and Nick returns to the Midwest in disgust. As we shall see, the color-symbols render, with a close and delicate discrimination, both the dream and the reality "and these both in their separateness and in their tragic intermingling.
Now the most obvious representation, by means of color, of the novel's basic conflict is the pattern of contrasting lights and darks. Gatsby, Nick tells us, is "like an ecstatic patron of recurrent light." His imagination has created a "universe of ineffable gaudiness," of "a vast, vulgar, and meretricious beauty" "a world of such stirring vividness that it may be represented now by all the colors of the rainbow (Gatsby's shirts are appropriately "coral and apple-green and lavender and faint orange, with monograms of Indian blue"), now simply by light itself, by glitter, by flash. In his innocence, Gatsby of course sees only the pure light of the grail which he has "committed himself" to follow. The reader, however, sees a great deal more: sees, for example, the grotesque "valley of ashes," "the gray land and the spasms of bleak dust which drift endlessly over it" the sordid reality lying beneath the fictions of the American dream of limitless Opportunity and Achievement.
If for a time "the whole front" of Gatsby's mansion "catches the light," if the house, "blazing with light" at two o'clock in the morning, "looks like the World's Fair," the reader understands why it comes to be filled with an inexplicable amount of dust everywhere and why "the white steps" are sullied by "an obscene word, scrawled by some boy with a piece of brick.