Beneath the unrequited love thematically central to Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, a ruminative indictment of American excess and its attendant dream is found, which changes the novel’s narrator, Nick Carraway. America is often defined by the notion that anyone born in any set of circumstances can be anything they desire. Circumnavigating a green light referenced by Jay Gatsby in the beginning and then espied by Nick at novel’s end, Fitzgerald leaves the reader with a powerful symbol of an unobtainable dream.
This dream seduces with indomitable optimism and anticipation throughout the novel’s luxuriant details of affluence and release. Whether this was the dream referenced in the Declaration of Independence is a matter of dispute. Whether the relentless “pursuit of happiness” is equated as an “unalienable” human right (Declaration of Independence) may not have been Gatsby’s concern as much as how his pursuit would finally end, if ever, in a realization of the American Dream.
But Fitzgerald shows that within this pursuit and its intended attainment are corrosive spoils and consequences, which end up in Nick’s newfound awareness and Gatsby’s death. These outcomes are at the heart of the novel, in that longing for the green light causes an obligatory dissolution that’s transformative, leaving Nick with wistful hope. Less retrospective and melancholy was the sonorous motif pregnant within 2008’s American presidential election, in that it emphasized optimistically framed abstractions such as hope, renewal, and change.
Nick feels this when encountering Gatsby’s smile in chapter three, “It understood you just as far as you wanted to be understood, believed in you as you would like to believe in yourself, and assured you that it had precisely the impression of you that, at your best, you hoped to convey” much like many Americans may have felt during that summer and fall of 2008 (Fitzgerald 48). But in Chapter Nine, as he encounters the green light, Nick’s dealt with reality after a slew of romantic imaginings and hopeful attempts, which pushes him to near disillusionment.
Extending the Obama example, Nick’s hopeful realism seems to be the case for the President and his supporters and America at large in 2012, which makes The Great Gatsby a more timely novel than ever in an election year that assesses the lofty promise of four years ago (that is, until the book is all the more poignant in another decade of American life and the attitudes that buoy it). It’s often argued that happiness doesn’t occur within the experiencing of an event, but only during anticipation and recollection. The green light bears the significance of histories.
Individual and collective pasts will always define the present and therefore, the future. In attempting to do anything and “be somebody” in America, one is confronted with an attempt to prove themselves capable of outstripping and reinventing their past. In the introductory example, Presidential candidate Obama utilized his past to become President elect. By reinterpreting his biographical nadirs and uniqueness as distinct narratives on opportunity and cliched American tenacity, he displayed a vigor that pursues dreams and fends off obstacles, presenting a promising and rewarding future.
A critic might contend that President Obama’s past caught up with him (inexperience or hubris), and this is what Nick implies when he mentions at novel’s end, “So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly against the past” (180). In vying for an intense campaign battle, politicians and the constituents who place their hopes in them, are “reaching farther” and “running faster”, much like they might in their day-to-day lives (180). And for the apolitical, the green light’s optimism is still very personal.