The Great Gatsby and the American dream

The Writer’s Almanac reminded me that yesterday was the birth anniversary of F. Scott Fitzgerald (September 24, 1896 – December 21, 1940). So, of course, I had to dip into The Great Gatsby. Fortunately, you can read The Great Gatsby online for free.

Now what’s the first thing that comes to mind when someone mentions The Great Gatsby? The Roaring Twenties? The Jazz Age? Romance? Rich and fashionable young men and women?

The concluding lines of the novel explicitly tie it to the American dream.

Here is the narrator, Nick Carraway, reminiscing about his last days in New York before moving back to the Midwest after the death of Gatsby.

Gatsby is not the perfect exemplar of the American dream. His success is far from perfect: his riches are ill-gotten; Daisy, the woman he loved, has married another man, Tom. But there’s something both heroic and romantic about the way he made himself over into a rich man and his abiding love for Daisy.

There’s both romance and sadness in the last lines of the narrative where Nick recalls his last night in West Egg, down at the beach near Gatsby’s house, thinking about Gatsby, Daisy, and others who had come there – to Long Island – before them.  He thinks about their dreams and yearnings. There is an elegiac quality in his reflections which makes these lines a romantic celebration of the American dream. The writing is pure magic.

On the last night, with my trunk packed and my car sold to the grocer, I went over and looked at that huge incoherent failure of a house once more. On the white steps an obscene word, scrawled by some boy with a piece of brick, stood out clearly in the moonlight, and I erased it, drawing my shoe raspingly along the stone. Then I wandered down to the beach and sprawled out on the sand.

Most of the big shore places were closed now and there were hardly any lights except the shadowy, moving glow of a ferryboat across the Sound. And as the moon rose higher the inessential houses began to melt away until gradually I became aware of the old island here that flowered once for Dutch sailors’ eyes — a fresh, green breast of the new world. Its vanished trees, the trees that had 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 nor desired, face to face for the last time in history with something commensurate to his capacity for wonder.

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 — to-morrow 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.

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