The Meaning of The Great Gatsby Ending

atkins-bookshelf-literatureThe ending of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby is one of literature’s finest and most memorable — rich with symbolism and beautifully lyrical, evoking a profound and complex blend of nostalgia, admiration, ambivalence, wonder, empathy, sadness, and hope. The last paragraph (known as a coda) of the novel — certainly a contender for the Great American Novel — ends with one of the most perfectly written sentences, mesmerizing and meaningful, and through its consonance, rolls trippingly off the tongue:

And as I sat there brooding on the old, unknown world, I thought of Gatsby’s wonder when he first picked out the green light at the end of Daisy’s dock. He had come a long way to this blue lawn, and his dream must have seemed so close that he could hardly fail to grasp it. He did not know that it was already behind him, somewhere back in that vast obscurity beyond the city, where the dark fields of the republic rolled on under the night.

Gatsby believed in the green light, the orgastic future that year by year recedes before us. It eluded us then, but that’s no matter — tomorrow we will run faster, stretch out our arms farther… And one fine morning —

So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.

The brilliance of this coda is that Fitzgerald, speaking through Nick Carraway, packs so much meaning into seven seemingly simple sentences. On his final night in New York, Nick drives out to West Egg (modeled after the Village of Kings Point in Great Neck, NY) to look at Gatsby’s house one last time; sitting on the lake’s shore to reflect. Nick’s insightful reflections serve to summarize Gatsby’s life as well as echo the broad themes of the novel: the theme of transformation of America (from the idyllic, pristine frontier to the corrupt, immoral metropolis); the theme of love and romance (the quest to win over a lost love, the inspiration of love); the theme of chronology (past and present); the theme of reinvention and perseverance (the rags to riches story), and the theme of the quest of the American Dream.

Although Fitzgerald never uses the term “the American Dream,” the concept is central to the novel. The term was originated by historian, James Adams, in his book, The Epic of America, published in 1931. Written in the midst of the Great Depression, America, according to Adams, was like a phoenix rising from the ashes — years of hardship, struggle and poverty would usher in a new era of hope, progress, and prosperity. Adams believed in the “American dream of a better, richer, and happier life for all our citizens of every rank which is the greatest contribution we have as yet made to the thought and welfare of the world. That dream or hope has been present from the start.” In that last sentence, Adams is referring to the foundation of America: the Declaration of Independence that states that “all men are created equal” with inalienable rights: “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” Note the critical inclusion of the words “pursuit of.”

The pursuit of happiness (or the American Dream) is intricately intertwined with the Horatio Alger myth — the quintessential rags to riches story that grew out of the nearly 100 books written by Horatio Alger, Jr. during the late 1860s and became very popular during the Great Depression. Fitzgerald recognized that the American Dream based on the Horatio Alger myth was largely unattainable due to the corruption of America by elitist, materialistic individuals with Old World wealth, aristocratic sensibilities, and who were content on maintaining the status quo — or more precisely their status quo.

And as I sat there brooding on the old, unknown world: It’s a good thing that Nick is in a pensive and reflective mood, otherwise we wouldn’t have this beautiful, eloquent reflection, essentially Nick’s own “aesthetic contemplation”  that reads like a eulogy to Gatsby. Unlike all the other characters in the novels, Nick is the only one with any true self-awareness with the ability for deep introspection. The preceding paragraph sheds some light on the coda: Nicks describes America as an old island that lures dreamers with its promise of hope:

I became aware of the old island here that flowered once for Dutch sailors’ eyes — a fresh green breast of the new world. It’s vanished trees, the trees that made way for Gatsby’s house, had once pandered in whispers to the last and greatest of all human dreams; for a transitory enchanted moment man must have held his breath in the presence of this continent, compelled into an aesthetic contemplation he neither understood or desired, face to face for the last time in history with something commensurate to his capacity for wonder.

America is described as an old island that lures dreamers, like the song of sirens, to its shore with its promise of hope, greener pastures. However, for Fitzgerald, there is a critical distinction between the New World (represented by Gatsby) and the Old World — the European aristocracy (represented by Daisy and Tom Buchanan). One of the novel’s themes is that the New World, the frontier, has been corrupted by the Old World, the metropolis — eviscerating the American Dream.

The green light: Color is a very important symbol in the novel and this particular green light, at the end of Daisy’s dock, is loaded with symbolism. For Fitzgerald it represents hope, the promise of the  future, the fertile green pastures of an undiscovered America; on another level it represents money, wealth, and the achievement of the American Dream. The green light also represents an idealized Daisy — not the Daisy of the present but the one Daisy of the past, a snapshot frozen in time. The green light, therefore, represents a love that is lost. This symbolism is explained in an earlier passage, at the reunion of Gatsby and Daisy:

You always have a green light that burns all night at the end of your dock… Possibly it had occurred to him that the colossal significance of that light had now vanished forever. Compared to the great distance that had separated him from Daisy it had seemed very near to her, almost touching her. It had seemed as close as a star to the moon. Now it was again a green light on a dock. His count of enchanted objects has diminished by one.

An another level the green light is like a siren’s song, beckoning dreamers to the promised land, a pristine America, full of promise and hope. On another level, the green light represents every man’s lifelong dream that seems attainable, suggesting the myth of the quest for the Holy Grail. And finally, the color green represents spring and renewal or rebirth.

He had come a long way: Nick admires Gatsby’s courage, determination, reinvention, and perseverance in his attempt to achieve his dreams to be with Daisy, to be wealthy, and have status in society.

To this blue lawn: This is a subtle reference to Kentucky Bluegrass that is expensive because it is one of the few species that tolerates shade. The implication is that Gatsby spent lavishly on his property — an expensive and extensive lawn surrounded by trees.

His dream must have seemed so close that he could hardly fail to grasp it: Gatsby’s dream — reconnecting with Daisy, the love of his life — is elusive; it evokes the story of Tantalus from Greek mythology. Tantalus horrified the gods with his evil behavior (stealing, cannibalism, human sacrifice, and infanticide) and was punished for all eternity by standing in a pool of water beneath a fruit tree with low branches. As he grew hungry, he was unable to reach the fruit; and as he grew thirsty, the water receded so he could not drink. This sentence also echoes an earlier passage already cited: “Compared to the great distance that had separated him from Daisy it had seemed very near to her, almost touching her. It had seemed as close as a star to the moon.” Gatsby’s purchase of the house in West Egg, located across the lake from Daisy’s house in East Egg, mirrors Tantalus’s predicament: he can see the fruit (Daisy) but he cannot eat it (win her love).

He did not know that it was already behind him: Nick correctly assesses that Gatsby dream is unattainable because what he seeks (to win back Daisy’s love) is in the past, not in the present or future. Gatsby remains a prisoner of his own past —  unable to recognize or accept that people and the times have changed and unable to transcend the limitations or circumstances of his past. In the end, the accumulation of wealth and the pursuit of long lost love is empty. In a sense, Nick recognizes that Gatsby failed to accomplish his dreams even before he began the attempt — Gatsby had lost Daisy long ago.

Somewhere back in that vast obscurity beyond the city: The wisdom that Gatsby should have had was lost to the darkness, to the void, beyond the sophistication, machinations and the light of city life.

Where the dark fields of the republic rolled on under the night: This is a subtle allusion to America the Beautiful, written by Katherine Bates (published in 1910). Bates’ vision of America is the idyllic land of opportunity, with spacious skies, amber waves of grain, and shining seas. Fitzgerald’s America, in contrast, has been corrupted by greed, selfishness, and elitism — these fields are dark, under the cover of night. The last part of the sentence evokes the pioneers of the 1920s who pushed toward the western frontier, lured by the myth of the West — a new life and prosperity. The catalyst for settling the West was the newly -built Pacific Railroad and the Homestead Act allowing pioneers to claim their own property.

Gatsby believed in the green light, the orgastic future that year by year recedes before us. In the original written manuscript, Fitzgerald wrote “orgastic.” At some point an editor added an “i” making the word “orgiastic.” Fitzgerald, writing to his editor Maxwell Perkins, explained that he meant “orgastic”: “it expresses exactly the intended ecstasy.” Orgastic is the adjectival form of orgasm, meaning “intense excitement.” Orgiastic, the word as mistakenly corrected by editor Edmund Wilson in a second edition, pertains to orgies and means “wild, riotous, depraved” — not what Fitzgerald intended. The issue of spelling aside, Gatsby is the embodiment of the American Dream — lunging forward toward the future, toward our dreams, toward the eternal green light. The line echoes a theme, an everchanging horizon, found in Alfred Lord Tennyson’s poem Ulysses (written in 1833 and published in 1842):

Yet all experience is an arch wherethro’
Gleams that untravell’d world whose margin fades
For ever and forever when I move.

It eluded us then, but that’s no matter — tomorrow we will run faster, stretch out our arms farther: Nick describes eternal optimism in the face of attempting to achieve elusive dreams or challenging goals. With each day, we simply try harder; like Tantalus we stretch out our arms trying to reach the fruit.

And one fine morning: The promise of the New World, another day, another opportunity comes along. The morning represents renewal and rebirth. Writing in Modern Man in Search of a Soul, psychologist Carl Jung describes how the sun symbolizes the consciousness of man:  “In the morning, the sun rises from the nocturnal sea of consciousness and looks upon the wide, bright world which lies before it in an expanse that steadily widens the higher it climbs in the firmament. In this extension of its field of action caused by its own rising, the sun will discover its significance; it will see the attainment of the greatest possible height — the widest possible dissemination of its blessings — as its goal. In this conviction the sun pursues its unforeseen course to the zenith; unforeseen, because its career is unique and individual, and its culminating point could not be calculated in advance. At the stroke of noon, the descent begins. And the descent means the reversal of all the ideals and values that were cherished in the morning, The sun falls into contradiction with itself. It is as though it should draw in its rays instead of emitting them. Light and warmth decline and are at last extinguished.”

So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past: This is arguably one of the most famous closing lines in literature. Fitzgerald brilliantly expresses the paradox of personal growth through a compelling boat metaphor (rowing against the current) using beautiful alliterative language: as we attempt to move forward to realize our dreams, we have to overcome the forces of existence that constantly transport us to our past — wherein we are defined by the past as well as hindered by it. In other words, we struggle to move forward in life — no matter how far and how fast we run — we struggle to escape the firm grip of the past. With this poetic sentence, Carraway evokes the perfect blend of empathy and understanding: for in Gatsby, we too see ourselves —trapped in the past, unable to escape it; but despite that, we soldier on.

On another level, this final sentence echoes the contrasting themes of the maxims of the Greek philosopher, Heraclitus of Ephesus (535 – 475 BC) that contrasts movement vs. immobility: “Everything flows, nothing stands still” [movement] and “Character is destiny” [immobility]; that is to say: as we move forward through time who we are remains unchanged because we are largely defined by our past. Recall in Chapter 6, that Nick tells Gatsby “you can’t repeat the past” but Gatsby believes he can repeat the past because he cannot let go of his past. He does not realize that people and times have changed, and although people are defined by their past, that does not mean that they can recapture the events of the past exactly as they occurred. Got it, old sport?

And finally, on a prima facie level, the sentence describes the paradox of the human condition: that as we strive to move forward, we will face challenges that not only push us backwards, but force us to confront our past, facing critical issues which, if left unresolved, compel us to repeat the past — a variation perhaps of George Santayana’s well-known observation: “Those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”

ENJOY THE BOOK. If you love reading Atkins Bookshelf, you will love reading the book — Serendipitous Discoveries from the Bookshelf. The beautifully-designed book (416 pages) is a celebration of literature, books, fascinating English words and phrases, inspiring quotations, literary trivia, and valuable life lessons. It’s the perfect gift for book lovers and word lovers.

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Read related posts:
For further reading: The Cambridge Edition of the Works of F. Scott Fitzgerald: The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald, edited by Matthew Bruccoli, Cambridge University Press (1991).
The Great Gatsby: A Facsimile of the Manuscript edited by Matthew Bruccoli, Microcard Edition Books (1973).
F. Scott Fitzgerald: A to Z by Mary Jo Tate, Facts on File (1998).
The History of the American Dream by Jon Meacham, Time Magazine, July 2, 2012.
The Great Gatsby, Volume 3 of the 18 volumes of F. Scott Fitzgerald Manuscripts edited by Matthew Bruccoli (1990-1)
A Concordance to F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby by Andrew Crosland (1975)

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