F. Scott Fitzgerald’s landmark novel tells the story of James Gatz cum Jay Gatsby—a bootlegger in the days of Prohibition who made a fortune in search of a girl. The girl, Daisy Fay Buchanan, is a former lover and a fantasy. Fitzgerald’s narrator, in perhaps the most famous metaphor in American literature, describes Gatsby as
he stretched out his arms toward the dark water in a curious way, and as far as I was from him I could have sworn he was trembling. Involuntarily I glanced seaward—and distinguished nothing except a single green light, minute and far away, that might have been the end of a dock.
The dock across the water belongs, of course, to Daisy and her husband Tom. It is as unattainable for Gatsby as she is. Still—he longs for it. The entirety of his new wealth is dedicated to her pursuit.
As a symbol, the ambiguous green light stands for much. —Money. —Greed. —The future. —The past. —Envy. —Redemption. —The American Dream. In the end, they all elude Gatsby.
At the novel’s conclusion, Daisy accidentally kills her husband’s feckless lover, and Gatsby takes the blame. The next day, he is found floating in his swimming pool, murdered by the cuckolded husband. As the narrator Nick Carraway reflects on Gatsby’s death—his life and hope, his dream and failure—, he adds another dimension to this metaphor, looking across the dark water:
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 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 dark fields of the republic rolled on under the night.
Gatsby believed in that green light, in 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.
Carraway imagines Long Island as it was in the days of European imperial expansion. —A great wealth of wonder and beauty, as well as fuel for empires and industry. The greenness of the trees is cleared to make room for Gatsby’s vision, his search for the green light across the dark water.
The narrative of the life and death of Jay Gatsby is a parable of American existence. Written during the heady days of the Roaring Twenties—in which the wealth in the U.S. exploded and the finance industry was king—James Gatz is the life that is left behind in pursuit of a dream. Jay Gatsby represents the beauty of the New World, resurrection, rebirth, the mythic narrative of a rugged individual pulling himself up by his bootstraps to recapture his lost youth. That Gatsby ultimately fails in this attempt at eternal life makes him an ironic Christ.
But there is also something very American about Gatsby. His failure is ennobled by his pursuit. His quest sanctifies his suffering. In Gatsby’s death Fitzgerald prophesied the crash of October 1929 and the Great Depression. Gatsby’s moral bankruptcy becomes America’s financial bankruptcy. Yet even so, he remains a hero for what he pursued was more than wealth. Where he failed, we still strive to achieve.
In the twenty-first century, this narrative has become an inversion of itself. The 1980s saw the repeal of many of the protections instituted during the Great Depression to prevent the Twenties from roaring back to life, only to consume themselves into ruin. The 1990s and the 2000s profited from the dissolution of Glass-Steagall and the provisions of the Banking Act of 1933. In 2008, the pursuit of wealth bankrupted the world again.
Only this time, there was no age-old quest for the beautiful woman and the perfection of a bygone era. The green light on the dock across the water has been reified—emptied—into the dollar bill.
The news this week of the LIBOR scandal at Barclays makes this all too clear. The perpetrators, based primarily in New York and London, manipulated for their own profit the base-line interest rate that forms the basis of nearly every loan in the global marketplace—from interest rates for cars to housing to credit cards. And as the details of the latest scandal come to light, it is difficult to see a light at the end of the dock for the financial industry. After the sub-prime mortgage crisis and the intentional bundling of bad loans for short-term profit, the ever-growing income disparity between the rich and quite literally everyone else, and vast millions funneled into Super-PACs purposefully set on dismantling the last protections of the many against the few, what quest can be surmised other than the love of money itself?
In the words of Emily Dickinson, in poem No. 870:
Finding is the first Act,
The second, loss,
Third, Expedition for
“The Golden Fleece.”
Fourth, no Discovery—
Fifth, no Crew—
Finally, no Golden Fleece—
✴ ✴ ✴
Like Gatsby, Daisy too has passed. The light at the end of her dock has gone out. We no longer seek to wonder at the beauty of the world before we knew it. We no longer stretch our arms across the water, reaching both backward and forward at once to distant times. Our past is as meaningless as our future—only the present matters now. The dream has diminished to mere money, yet it is attainable only for a lucky few.
And we mourn the death of Jay Gatsby—the criminal murdered for a crime he did not commit. For we understand Gatsby. We are him, and he is us. Dreams, hopes, failures, successes, rich and poor, redemption and betrayal. We seek a world commensurate to our capacity to wonder and to strive, but no light shines in the darkness upon the waters.