My previous two posts, “Roger Ebert Life Itself,” and “Essays of the Dying: Film Critic Roger Ebert” considered the thoughts about life of death of the late, great film critic Roger Ebert. While researching that material I came across Ebert’s blog post about his favorite novel, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby. It is clear that he loved the novel, and its final lines were his favorites in all literature. Ebert said that his lifelong friend, the journalist Bill Nack, recited those last lines every time they saw each other. Here is a video shot by Ebert himself of his lifelong friend reciting those final lines.
These final lines capture both the hope that the future can be better than the past, (“tomorrow we will run faster, stretch out our arms farther . . .”), and the difficulty of ever moving beyond the past. The characters of Gatsby, Nick and Daisy all experienced these hopes and difficulties. As do all of us. (A thoughtful reader’s comment below has a different interpretation.)
The lines make little sense unless you know a bit about the story, so I’ll give you a brief sketch as long as you remember Ebert’s cautionary note:
Fitzgerald’s novel is not about a story. It is about how the story is told. Its poetry, its message, its evocation of Gatsby’s lost American dream, is expressed in Fitzgerald’s style—in the precise words he chose to write what some consider the great American novel. Unless you have read them, you have not read the book at all.
In the book Nick Carraway, the novel’s narrator, is a young man from Minnesota who moves to New York in the summer of 1922 to learn the bond business. He rents a house on Long Island, and his next-door neighbor is a mysterious man named Jay Gatsby, who lives in a large Gothic mansion and throws extravagant parties every Saturday night.
Nick’s cousin Daisy and her husband Tom Buchanan also live on Long Island. Daisy and Tom introduce Nick to Jordan Baker with whom Nick begins a romantic relationship. Nick also learns that Tom is having an affair with a woman named Myrtle who is married to a man named George Wilson.
Nick eventually garners an invitation to one of Gatsby’s legendary parties. He slowly learns that Gatsby knew Daisy in Louisville in 1917, and is deeply in love with her. Gatsby spends many nights staring at the green light at the end of her dock, across the bay from his mansion. After Nick arranges a reunion between Gatsby and Daisy, they begin an affair.
One evening while Daisy is driving Gatsby’s car, it strikes and kills Tom’s lover Myrtle Wilson, but Gatsby takes the blame. When Tom tells Myrtle’s husband, George, that Gatsby was the driver of the car, George concludes that the driver of the car that killed Myrtle must have been her lover. George then finds Gatsby in the pool at his mansion and shoots him dead. He also fatally shoots himself.
Nick stages a small funeral for Gatsby, ends his relationship with Jordan, and moves back to the Midwest. Nick reflects that just as Gatsby’s dream of Daisy was corrupted by money and dishonesty, the American dream of happiness and individualism has disintegrated into the mere pursuit of wealth. With this brief sketch in place, here again are the famous final lines:
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 æsthetic 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—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.