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.
4 thoughts on “Analysis of the Last Line of Fitzgerald’s, The Great Gatsby”
I believe genuine perspective is what was needed. After everything Gatsby had lost a point in his mind where he no longer saw a true reality but only one that had been shaped by his biased perspective. Yet, once you know something you can not unknown it.
Agreed that a genuine perspective is what was needed.
I’d like to add that once you ‘know’ something – how you know it, how you perceive what you know – it can be altered by additional information you receive. So, it is possible for a particular ‘bit or item or part’ of what you ‘know’ to grow and change. An individual may not be able to ‘un-know’ something (short of brain damage or psychological repression) but that doesn’t mean he/she has to be stuck in what they ‘know’. However, as you point out, in this case Gatsby was stuck.
I’ve read the book and seen all the extant previous adaptations, and thought it was superb. The Redford version was far too self-conscious ‘classic adaptation’ and soporific: more Jane Austen-tedious than Jazz-Age. The 1949 film was hampered by the Hays Code, but Alan Ladd was excellent in it, and indeed, DiCaprio conveyed similar qualities in the new version. I also admire the 2000 BBC adaptation (Toby Stephens and Mira Sorvino) but of the cinema versions, this is the best.
thanks, i’ve always wanted to watch one but heard bad things about them.