The Great Gatsby

June 19, 2011

People can do awful things to get what they want, and they may still turn out worse for getting it.

If The Great Gatsby has a moral, it’s that things are complicated. On first glance it seems like a tragedy, but not too tragic because Gatsby, the would-be tragic hero, is sort of a homewrecking criminal (though the home he’s wrecking is a rotten one). And Myrtle, who gets hit by a car, is herself a pretty ugly person, especially with how she treats her husband. Perhaps the greatest tragedy is that Tom and Daisy, the nastiest people in the book, live happily ever after, except that they probably don’t. And then there’s Nick, our narrator, who claims to be “one of the few honest people that I have ever known,” but who nonetheless keeps his silence about a great injustice, and even shakes hands with a man who we knows bears some responsibility for it. But Nick is a fundamentally decent person, and redeems himself somewhat by stepping up and organizing a memorial service for Gatsby when his other “friends” seemed content to just forget about him.

Or perhaps Gatsby’s story has a darker moral. More than any other character, Gatsby strives. And he’s quite remarkable: upon returning home from the Great War with nothing but his name, he amasses a small fortune, works his way into Daisy’s society, and wins her affection once more. With his sights set on Daisy, his life’s trajectory is stellar until he actually gets her, at which point he goes into a death spiral. Now, maybe it’s just that Daisy is a terrible person, but maybe it’s about more than that. Maybe it’s that getting what we want is the worst thing than can happen to us. On the fateful night when Gatsby is finally together with the object of his striving, as he looks, arm-in-arm with Daisy, at her house across the Sound, the green light on her dock which symbolizes his longing “was again a green light on a dock. His count of enchanted objects had diminished by one.” In this moment, he trades the enchanted object of his obsession for the real thing. And the real thing, for which he (blinded by his obsession) is wholly unprepared, ends up killing him.

The book ends:

Gatsby believed in the green light, the orgastic future that year by year recedes from 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. (180)

“And one fine morning” has a double-meaning here. In the context of the sentence, Fitzgerald is suggesting that one day, for all our striving, we may finally get what we want. But in the context of the story, Gatsby was murdered in his pool one fine morning. For all our striving, we may get what we strive for, or we may catch a bullet. But of course that’s no reason not to keep striving.