The Great Gatsby Essay

The Great Gatsby is almost completely dominated by the themes of time and memory and the inescapable nature of the two. Intertwined in this is the sub-theme of discovery and re-discovery. Throughout the novel, the inescapable nature of the past is brought together with the way man discovers fresh ground and also rediscovers it with the new perspectives of experience. The whole tragedy of Gatsby and his failed lovelies in the hold of his memories over his actions.  The idea that the past is irrevocably bound up in the future and guides the longings and actions of men is very intense in this novel. It is a motif that is also shared by T. S. Eliot in his Four Quartets. In Burnt Norton, he says

“Time present and time past/ Are both perhaps present in time future,/ and time future contained in time past./ if all time is eternally present/All time is unredeemable”

This very vividly brings out time as an amorphous mass with no real future or past. It all seems to exist in one place and seems to suggest that it is also memory he is talking about, for where else in real life does all time exist in one place except in the human mind?

This is also implied in the first and last lines of East Coker.

“In my beginning is my end” and “…In my end is my beginning.”

They say that all things do not stand independently; one’s future depends directly on one’s past and also implies a circularity of time or perhaps events. 

“We shall not cease from exploration/ And the end of all our exploring/ Will be to arrive where we started/ And know the place for the first time.

These lines from Little Gidding, bring a new dimension to the concept of circularity of time. It says quite clearly that one can only truly understand when one has come full circle. This dimension is not evident in The Great Gatsby. In the novel, though past and present are irrevocably entangled, there is a quality that makes one think we are trying to escape from the past but cannot, especially in the last lines. However, Eliot seems to consider the pull of the past on us as something that helps us to understand ourselves and the future more completely. The idea that the past and future are inseparable is brought out clearly in Nick’s comparison of the Dutch sailors and Gatsby’s vision of a new life. Here too, the idea of rediscovering oneself reasserts itself.

The experience of the Dutch sailors on landing on the Long Island beach for the first time clearly seems to be one of wonder and is filled with a sense of incredible adventure. They had discovered a completely new, untouched virgin country; “….fresh, green breast of the new world.”  

The discovery is accompanied by a sense of excitement and the promise of new and undiscovered adventure, as is evidenced by Fitzgerald’s use of subtle but definite language. He describes the moment with tenderness, bringing out the overwhelming sense of wonder in their landing, with terms like “transitory enchanted moment” and his description of the greatness of their dreams for the future.

The experience is unique because of the sheer newness of the discovery. The sailors had come across an entirely unexplored and unknown territory. Everything here was to be discovered and shaped by them, they had a sense of power and the headiness of it is evident in the language. The paragraphs vibrate with it despite the restrained language. This was not simply a new area; it was a new life and world, something of theirs and theirs alone. It was an experience of hope and was forward-looking.

Gatsby’s experience on first identifying the light that swung outside Daisy’s home must have been, according to Nick, a similar experience in terms of the wonder it created in him. He must have felt the same sense of discovery and also one of hope for the future;

“I thought of Gatsby’s wonder when he first picked out the green 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.”

However, this experience is both similar to and widely different from the one of the sailors. It is similar in one sense, as this was not the same Gatsby who had wooed Daisy five years ago. He was now wildly successful and rich (“He had come a long way to this blue lawn”) and he must have imagined the future as rich with promise and discovery, just as the sailors did. This seems to be borne out by the following sentence;

“Gatsby believed in the green light, the orgastic future that year by year recedes before us.”

  Similarly, not being the same Gatsby, this promised to be a fresh start, just as the sailors must have felt about their new country.

 But at the same time, this discovery of Daisy’s proximity was not a fresh and untrammeled ground; Gatsby knew Daisy intimately. They had a history together which could not be swept aside. In fact, if one looks at the last few paragraphs of chapter 6 we realize that probably, this was Gatsby’s real discovery of Daisy. The sense of wonder there, the feeling of giddy power and at the same time helplessness that must have filled the sailors, is vastly more evident in that meeting with her. It also must seem so to Nick, for he himself says, “He did not know that it was already behind him”. This, the sighting of her light was a mere illusion of the original. The sense of hope is stronger here, but the freshness of the event is not as strong as the incident described in chapter 6. The main distinguishing feature between the sailors and Gatsby though seems to be the aim. This is to say, the sailors appeared to treat their first sighting of Long Island as a new beginning and it heralded a completely new life. Though one can also argue that this precisely describes Gatsby’s situation, there is a more subtle difference in that his sighting of the green light is in many ways a homecoming. It is also not precisely new and fresh as much as a wiping out of several years of the past and a continuation into the future. This is especially clear when one looks at the first few paragraphs of chapter 8 when he denies the fact that she could possibly have ever loved Tom. It is clear that he wishes to imagine everything that has occurred after her rejection of him just as an aberration, as something that can be obliterated completely and unimportant. It is also clear when he begs Daisy to say she never loved Tom and later insists that she was too disturbed to be able to tell him the truth when she is forced to admit that she, in fact, did love her husband.

In Gatsby’s journey, Nick sees what he thinks is the ultimate essence of humans and their struggle in life; a ceaseless hope and reaching out into the unknown, the future, a better and more wonderful life. This is intrinsic in the sailors’ reaction to Long Island and in Gatsby’s sighting of the green light. This is especially clear in the last two paragraphs of the book;

“Gatsby believed in the green light, 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.”

The sentence is filled with a sort of futile hope; we run incessantly towards a future that is forever beyond us. However, the almost childlike nature of that hope is beautifully nuanced in the quick comma that separates the harsh fact that it eludes us from the essentially human “but that’s no matter”.   Fitzgerald has used even punctuation in this sentence as a tool to change the tone from callous fact to anticipation and hope. The hyphens between the sentences add a quick pace to the words and the irrepressibility of the human spirit is brought out in the paragraph with its subtle images of a chase.

Nick obviously sees the human struggle as futile but admires our capacity for continual effort to escape from it, to look forward despite the fact that we cannot. Perhaps there is even a slight weariness; from the tone of the sentence, he seems to consider this outlook as childlike. The novel ends with his own perception of our struggle in life, (as boats), in a sentence that is gloomily adult in contrast to the ideality that he sees as our nature.

What comes out very clearly in the novel is Fitzgerald’s view of time and memory. He seems to share with T. S. Eliot the view that time is not a linear progression of events. Both in The Great Gatsby and Eliot’s Four Quartets, there is the constant theme of time as a fluid melting amorphous mass. We do not seem to actually be able to leave it behind. For example, in chapter 6 of the novel, Nick tries to warn him that the past cannot be repeated and Gatsby replies that he most certainly can; it seems clear that he is talking about memory here. And again in the final words of the book, there is a clear indication of memory.

In Gatsby’s pitiful attempt to recreate the past and at the same time conveniently wipe out parts of it lies the whole theme of time as an entity that can be manipulated. Memory which is certainly manipulated is also brought in, but it is intertwined with time in a mass of tentacles that stretch out and pull you in.

Fitzgerald uses this theme throughout the book. Nick, the narrator, says at the beginning of the book,

“When I came back from the east last autumn I felt that I wanted the world to be in uniform and at a sort of moral attention forever; I wanted no more riotous excursions with privileged glimpses into the human heart.”

Here again, the messy, untidy quality of memory is brought into play. The human heart colors memory and plays with it. It tunes it to suit its purposes. As Gatsby wished to do away with the years of separation he tried desperately to make Daisy admit that she had never loved anyone else.  He could never actually make a fresh start because everything was colored with his memories and his past.

Very subtly, Fitzgerald differs from Eliot in his concept of time. It at first appears to be a mass from which we cannot escape, always pulling us back. But this does not imply the circular nature that Eliot puts forward. It does seem to have a direction or many possible directions which extend from a core of the past and sometimes doubles back on it. 

Nevertheless, both writers create a picture of time and memory as entities that have incredibly strongholds on the human mind and on his actions. Time and memory are things from which we cannot extricate ourselves, they make us who we are, as they made Gatsby, and they can also break us as they did Gatsby. The command of our memories and consequently the intensity of our hopes are what has power over our lives.


  1. F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby, Penguin Modern Classics
  2. T. S. Eliot, Four Quartets, Penguin Classics