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.
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.