The Great Gatsby Explained: How F. Scott Fitzgerald Indicted & Endorsed the American Dream (1925)

When The Great Gats­by was first pub­lished, it flopped; near­ly a cen­tu­ry lat­er, its place at the pin­na­cle of Amer­i­can lit­er­a­ture is almost uni­ver­sal­ly agreed upon. Of the objec­tors, many no doubt remem­ber too vivid­ly hav­ing to answer essay ques­tions about the mean­ing of the green light on the Buchanans’ dock. Per­haps “the most debat­ed sym­bol in the his­to­ry of Amer­i­can lit­er­a­ture,” it tends to be inter­pret­ed simul­ta­ne­ous­ly as “Gats­by’s love for Daisy, mon­ey, and the Amer­i­can dream,” as James Payne puts it in his new Great Books Explained video above. Exam­ined more close­ly, “what it may sug­gest is that the Amer­i­can dream’s most un-dis­cussed qual­i­ty is its inac­ces­si­bil­i­ty.”

“Fitzger­ald felt that the Amer­i­can dream has lost its way,” Payne says. “Base­ball, Amer­i­ca’s pas­time and the purest of games, had been cor­rupt­ed by the Black Sox game fix­ing of 1919, a real-life scan­dal men­tioned in The Great Gats­by. Fitzger­ald used it as an alle­go­ry of Amer­i­ca: if base­ball is cor­rupt, then we are real­ly in trou­ble.”

Hence Gats­by’s ulti­mate dis­cov­ery that Daisy, the woman for whom he had whol­ly rein­vent­ed him­self (in that quin­tes­sen­tial­ly Amer­i­can way), falls so far short of what he’d imag­ined; hence how Gats­by’s own “clas­sic rags-to-rich­es sto­ry” is “com­pli­cat­ed by the fact that he made his mon­ey in boot­leg­ging.” In the end, “the Amer­i­can dream only belongs to estab­lish­ment fig­ures,” those “who were born into it. Every­one’s class is fixed, just like the World Series.”

Though not well-received in its day, The Great Gats­by offered a pre­mo­ni­tion of dis­as­ter ahead that sub­se­quent­ly came true in both the Amer­i­can econ­o­my and Fitzger­ald’s per­son­al life. But even in the book, “despite his fear that Amer­i­ca is lost, he still offers hope.” Hence the vivid qua­si-opti­mism of the clos­ing lines about how “Gats­by believed in the green light, the orgas­tic future that year by year recedes before us,” which frames Amer­i­cans as “boats against the cur­rent, borne back cease­less­ly into the past” — a pas­sage whose inter­pre­ta­tion teach­ers are always liable to demand. If you hap­pen to be a stu­dent your­self, sav­ing Payne’s video in hopes of a quick and easy A on your Eng­lish lit exam, know that there are few more time-hon­ored tech­niques in pur­suit of the Amer­i­can dream than look­ing for short­cuts.

Relat­ed con­tent:

Free: The Great Gats­by & Oth­er Major Works by F. Scott Fitzger­ald

T. S. Eliot, Edith Whar­ton & Gertrude Stein Tell F. Scott Fitzger­ald That Gats­by is Great, While Crit­ics Called It a Dud (1925)

The Great Gats­by Is Now in the Pub­lic Domain and There’s a New Graph­ic Nov­el

83 Years of Great Gats­by Book Cov­er Designs: A Pho­to Gallery

Haru­ki Muraka­mi Trans­lates The Great Gats­by, the Nov­el That Influ­enced Him Most

The Wire Breaks Down The Great Gats­by, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Clas­sic Crit­i­cism of Amer­i­ca (NSFW)

Based in Seoul, Col­in Marshall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, and cul­ture. His projects include the Sub­stack newslet­ter Books on Cities, the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

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  • Andy Goss says:

    That fuzzy green light imme­di­ate­ly brings to mind the Absinthe Green Fairy, with which Fitzger­ald would have been famil­iar from his time in France, if not before. The light is com­mon­ly tak­en to stand for, var­i­ous­ly, the lure of future delights, greed, sickness,corruption, and death. The Green Fairy will bring these, in turn, if you fol­low her.

    The green light itself, if the maps in the video are cor­rect, will be a nor­mal nav­i­ga­tion­al chan­nel mark­er, giv­en that the Amer­i­c­as and some oth­er US influ­enced coun­tries use the oppo­site direc­tion of buoy­age to the rest of the world.

    It is pos­si­bly sig­nif­i­cant that nobody in the book ever notices the cor­re­spond­ing red light that would have been on Nick­’s side of the chan­nel, offer­ing fur­ther sym­bol­ic pos­si­bil­i­ties. Fitzger­ald had been a guest on yachts, but does not seem to have been a sailor, so may not have known about the sys­tem of chan­nel mark­ers.

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