Two previous posts, “Roger Ebert Life Itself,” and “Essays of the Dying: Film Critic Roger Ebert” considered the late film critic Roger Ebert’s thoughts about life and death. 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.
The lines make little sense unless you know a bit about the story, so I’ll give you a brief sketch, provided that 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.
A reader of this post provided a thoughtful analysis of the book’s famous last lines. 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 aesthetic 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 with 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 within 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 … We too often fail to see the long-term price because we’re blinded by staring at 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 overpowered 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 this interpretation.