Category Archives: Literature

Analysis of the Last Line of Fitzgerald’s, The Great Gatsby

F Scott Fitzgerald 1921.jpg

A few years ago I wrote back to back posts about F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby. (One about the book’s first lines; the other about the its last lines.) An astute reader provided a careful analysis of the book’s famous last line that merits its own post. Here is that analysis with Fitzgerald’s text indented, and the reader’s analysis in [brackets.]

[For me it’s a haunting love story that reverberates with the human condition of…‘We are so smart. We can overcome anything, nature, others, and ourselves.’ And all the while, in the short term, we think we’re making things better. But in the long run, we are only making things worse. And that’s sadder than the love story. Here’s my breakdown:]

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.

[We drift back into the past to see that the island represents Daisy when Gatsby first laid eyes on her.]

Its vanished trees, the trees that had made way for Gatsby’s house,

[The vanished trees demonstrate Gatsby’s toil and preparation over the years in an attempt to recapture that initial magic with Daisy. The vanished trees – like that magic – have been lost. Although Gatsby is too busy ‘doing’ to look up and see the destruction – the waste – the emptiness of his labor.]

had once pandered in whispers to the last and greatest of all human dreams;

[The greatest of all human dreams, to have a soul mate.]

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,

[Love? The unknown? Something you can’t describe or grasp because you can’t fully understand it. That was what Gatsby was feeling when he first encountered Daisy.]

face to face for the last time in history with something commensurate to his capacity for wonder.

[From this first encounter with Daisy on, he would only drift farther and farther from his ‘Daisy island’ – regardless of how hard he paddled against the current (his toil for Daisy) – the current would only carry him farther and farther from his dream.]

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.

[His excitement at seeing the green light after all his paddling over the years with one goal to reclaim Daisy. Green = money. The light = the dream of being with Daisy. The dream now seemed in reach.]

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.

[The dream – the possibility of being with Daisy – had begun receding from the moment Daisy discovered he didn’t have money. Gatsby was set adrift from his ‘Daisy island’. So, years later the possibility of reaching the dream was far away, far out of reach. He could see the point source of the green light in the darkness – but not the land or other perspective cues that would have told him that he was drifting away.]

Gatsby believed in the green light,

[He felt money – the thing that initially set him adrift – would be the thing that could make his dream come true. He believed in the power of money to make his dream come true. Sounds all too familiar in this ‘American Dream’ world in which we live.]

the orgastic future that year by year recedes before us.

[But it was too late – although he worked for and gained the money (the green) – and although he could see a wonderful magical future with Daisy (the light) it had all the while been receding – imperceptibly to him since he was focused on working so hard. He couldn’t see – or didn’t pay attention to the fact that it was receding. The same way we may see vaccines or fracking or pesticides that kill everything but the GMO crops – as seemingly making things better in the short run – an omniscient narrator can see that in the long run, the loss of natural herd immunity, build up of toxins in our bodies, chemical pollution of our water, and the damage to the organisms in the soil are all making things worse in the long run. There is a long term price for the ‘more, faster, bigger’ – American Dream. We too often fail to see the long term price because we’re blinded by staring at the the short term excitement of the gains in the green light. Like Gatsby, we’re cutting down the trees on the island in an effort to reach our dream and in the process destroying the very island that is our dream. We are trying to get what we want – now – without regard to how it affects others and the environment in the future. In the end, we all lose.]

It eluded us then,

[His dream hasn’t yet come true.]

but that’s no matter—tomorrow we will run faster, stretch out our arms farther. . . . And one fine morning—-

[In Gatsby’s perspective, all his plans seem to be working out and he believes that he is getting closer to his dream with Daisy and if he just continues day by day he will make it come true. We’re just like Gatsby. Things seem to be working out with our brilliant plans because we’re not paying attention to their effects along the way. Not acknowledging how they have made things worse so far on our voyage. We’re too busy making it better – to see or acknowledge the fact that we’re improving it into a failure.]

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

[The past is where we started. The dream. We feel we are progressing. But we’re not progressing in the big picture. And here, Nick, with the omniscient view of the narrator – can see what Gatsby could not. Nick can see that Gatsby – despite all his effort and sweat at paddling against the current – was drifting backward away from the island – (from Daisy). Repeating the same mistakes over and over – ignoring the signs from Daisy that she could not commit 100% to him, as he worked toward his dream. Gatsby was continually fooling himself with his dream of Daisy from the past – blinded by the green light – and could not see his forward progress was over powered by the permanence of the past (the current). At the end he feels so close. He’s waiting in the pool for her call. I see his murder as a merciful event. For he feels as close to his dream as he will ever get. He is at the top of the roller coaster. Daisy is too torn to fully commit to him and if he had lived to see this played out – everything would have been downhill from there. His psychological life would not only have been destroyed – he would have had to live through the destruction. And that would be crushing for Gatsby – as well as for the reader. We need a ‘Nick’ to help us see the bird’s eye view of what we’re doing.]

I thank my reader for his efforts.

But man, proud man, Drest in a little brief authority …

(This is my 500th post since beginning this blog in December, 2013)

Watching and listening to so many politicians, clergy, evangelists, television blowhards, and ordinary citizens in my country today reminds me of one of my favorite passages in all of world literature. It is from Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure and it occurs when  the character Isabella begs for the life of her brother, Claudio, who has been condemned to death for impregnating his fiancée before they were married.

But man, proud man,
Drest in a little brief authority,
Most ignorant of what he’s most assur’d;
His glassy essence, like an angry ape,
Plays such fantastic tricks before high heaven,
As make the angels weep.

When I hear those vying for the most important political position in the country court the support of those who advocate death for people with certain sexual orientations, and want to kill thousands of innocent civilians—to say nothing of denying homes for refugees, mass incarceration, solitary confinement, denial of health-care and more—it reminds me that puritanical legal codes, barbaric punishments, and ape-brain ignorance are still with us. It reminds me of how those who know so little—of biology, psychology, history, culture, political philosophy and more—propound on those topics nevertheless.

The ignorant are so self-assured. They know nothing of the the people they despise, of the countries they bomb, and of the people they punish, but they don’t doubt their own infallibility. They know nothing of economics or climatology, of science or technology, of culture or history, but they correct the experts. And why not? They don’t believe in experts.

They are angry apes—as Shakespeare said centuries before Darwin confirmed the fact. They have no knowledge; they have no self-knowledge. We are not angels; we are all modified monkeys. Of course there are no angels, but if there were they would surely weep at the spectacle. Given a little fame, fortune and authority, and apes become so self-assured.

The First Lines of Fitzgerald’s, The Great Gatsby

Yesterday’s post discussed the famous last lines of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby. I recently came across a version of the book for intermediate (high school) level readers by Margaret Tarner. The full text of her edition begins, “My name is Nick Carraway. I was born in a big city in the Middle West.” This is an abbreviation of:

In my younger and more vulnerable years my father gave me some advice that I’ve been turning over in my mind ever since.

“Whenever you feel like criticizing any one,” he told me, “just remember that all the people in this world haven’t had the advantages that you’ve had.”

He didn’t say any more, but we’ve always been unusually communicative in a reserved way, and I understood that he meant a great deal more than that. In consequence, I’m inclined to reserve all judgments, a habit that has opened up many curious natures to me and also made me the victim of not a few veteran bores. The abnormal mind is quick to detect and attach itself to this quality when it appears in a normal person, and so it came about that in college I was unjustly accused of being a politician, because I was privy to the secret griefs of wild, unknown men. Most of the confidences were unsought — frequently I have feigned sleep, preoccupation, or a hostile levity when I realized by some unmistakable sign that an intimate revelation was quivering on the horizon; for the intimate revelations of young men, or at least the terms in which they express them, are usually plagiaristic and marred by obvious suppressions. Reserving judgments is a matter of infinite hope. I am still a little afraid of missing something if I forget that, as my father snobbishly suggested, and I snobbishly repeat, a sense of the fundamental decencies is parcelled out unequally at birth.

And, after boasting this way of my tolerance, I come to the admission that it has a limit. Conduct may be founded on the hard rock or the wet marshes, but after a certain point I don’t care what it’s founded on. When I came back from the East last autumn I felt that I wanted the world to be in uniform and at a sort of moral attention forever; I wanted no more riotous excursions with privileged glimpses into the human heart. Only Gatsby, the man who gives his name to this book, was exempt from my reaction — Gatsby, who represented everything for which I have an unaffected scorn. If personality is an unbroken series of successful gestures, then there was something gorgeous about him, some heightened sensitivity to the promises of life, as if he were related to one of those intricate machines that register earthquakes ten thousand miles away. This responsiveness had nothing to do with that flabby impressionability which is dignified under the name of the “creative temperament.”– it was an extraordinary gift for hope, a romantic readiness such as I have never found in any other person and which it is not likely I shall ever find again. No — Gatsby turned out all right at the end; it is what preyed on Gatsby, what foul dust floated in the wake of his dreams that temporarily closed out my interest in the abortive sorrows and short-winded elations of men.

My family have been prominent, well-to-do people in this Middle Western city for three generations. The Carraways are something of a clan, and we have a tradition that we’re descended from the Dukes of Buccleuch, but the actual founder of my line was my grandfather’s brother, who came here in fifty-one, sent a substitute to the Civil War, and started the wholesale hardware business that my father carries on to-day.

Needless to say something has been lost in translation between the Tarner version and Fitzgerald’s prose. I can only reiterate what the film critic Roger Ebert said about the novel:

There is no purpose in “reading” The Great Gatsby unless you actually read it. 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.

Perhaps one lesson we might learn regarding the difference between the much abridged version and the unabridged one is that—to really suck the marrow from life as Thoreau put it—you have to do some work.

The Last Lines of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s, The Great Gatsby

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.

George Orwell’s 1984

Books of My Youth

The first books I remember reading as a child were baseball biographies. Stories of baseball legends like Babe Ruth, Ted Williams and Stan Musial. I also have a fond memory of reading a book about the favorite baseball player of my youth titled: Ken Boyer: Guardian of the Hot Corner. (Why do such trivial things makes such impressions?) The first novel I remember reading was Across the Five Aprils by Irene Hunt. It was a short novel about the American civil war that I read when I was about ten years old. Amazingly, it is still on my bookshelf! In high school I read Charles Dicken’s Great Expectations Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry FinnErnest Hemingway’s The Old Man and The Sea, George Orwell’s Animal Farm, and many others.

In college I remember reading Robert Pirsig’s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: An Inquiry into Values, and I was particularly moved by Herman Hesse’s Siddhartha.
No doubt the memory of reading many other books has long since evaporated from my mind, and there are thousands of wonderful books that I’ve never read.

The Party seeks power entirely for its own sake. We are not interested in the good of others; we are interested solely in power, pure power. … Power is not a means; it is an end … The object of persecution is persecution. The object of torture is torture. The object of power is power. ~ George Orwell 1984

But the novel that influenced me the most was George Orwell’s masterpiece, 1984. ( It was the Boston Public Library’s choice as the most influential book of the twentieth-century.) It is the most personally transformative novel that I’ve ever read. No one who reads and understands the book remains the same. Orwell removes a curtain that hides reality behind it—a reality so different from its portrayal by the voices and images that proceed daily in front of us, voices which mislead and control rather than inform, thereby making a mockery of truth. In Orwell’s world The Ministry of Truth lies; The Ministry of Peace wages war; The Ministry of Love tortures. In our own society, politicians lie with impunity; the Department of Defense wages war, and the CIA and penal system torture. We live in an authoritarian and nationalistic right-wing system of government—a fascist state.

It is as if Orwell allows us peer past Kant’s phenomenal world to the neumonal world—to the way things really are. To a social and political reality so bleak and barren that even love cannot thrive. In the end Winston and Julia betray each other because, contrary to what I’ve written in previous posts, love is not stronger than death, at least it is very hard for it to be in this world. (Just as it is hard to love in a society which pits each person against others.) Here is Winston and Julia’s conversation after both have been emptied of their most noble inclination—the inclination to love another.

“I betrayed you,” she said baldly.
“I betrayed you,” he said.
She gave him another quick look of dislike.
“Sometimes,” she said, “they threaten you with something—something you can’t stand up to, can’t even think about. And then you say, ‘Don’t do it to me, do it to somebody else, do it to so-and-so.’ And perhaps you might pretend, afterwards, that it was only a trick and that you just said it to make them stop and didn’t really mean it. But that isn’t true. At the time when it happens you do mean it. You think there’s no other way of saving yourself and you’re quite ready to save yourself that way. You want it to happen to the other person. You don’t give a damn what they suffer. All you care about is yourself.”
“All you care about is yourself,” he echoed.
“And after that, you don’t feel the same toward the other person any longer.”
“No,” he said, “you don’t feel the same.”

If Orwell is right, life is bleaker than we usually let ourselves imagine. If Orwell is right, life may be even bleaker than we can imagine. Power and the lust for it largely remove the color, beauty and love from the world. Orwell taught me how the world really is. Let’s hope that is not how it has to be.