Like many readers who neglected their summer reading lists growing up, I have found myself with a backlog of perennial literature. The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald is one of a few works leaving that list as of late, and it was there far too long. Having finally read it, though, I cannot say I regret having waited. A book like this, among many classics, has some added value to having read later. Or maybe it was just the end-of-summer timing, the end of a traditionally romantic act among the seasons. many of us spend that particular season in leisure, enjoying life for its immediate rewards while dreaming of chapters to come. We are not unlike Gatsby, trembling in the cool air of dusk and reaching for that distant green light across the water.
Gatsby sought the past in the future, and I think that is partly why he failed. The green light was not only beyond his reach; the green light had come and gone (at least what it could symbolize: his past with Daisy Buchanan). Only Nick Carraway had the sense to recognize this flaw and the virtue to befriend the man regardless of it. Tom Buchanan, Myrtle Wilson, and even Daisy all suffered greater flaws -in this reader’s opinion- of the thrill-seek, one full stomach of life after another. Gatsby stands out as the hero of that crowd; even among all the excessive gala of his West Egg mansion, Gatsby sought a greater prize, one unmatched by material goods.
But Nick may be the real tragic hero. A bondsman, Nick is average in means compared to Gatsby and even the Buchanans, and his grounded nature saves him from his romantic counterparts’ pursuits of heaven on earth. Yet in all his frugality, his straight-and-narrow bondsman’s life, he never anticipates much more than Gatsby’s own green light when his birthday strikes. “Thirty-the promise of a decade of loneliness,” he laments. For Nick, there is no green light ahead of him; only the reality of a stark decade.
Nick survives the romantic idealism of Gatsby and the rest of them, even Jordan, whose mysterious past may allude to other trappings of celebrity status. I wonder, however, if Gatsby, tragic as he was, had it best in the going of it all. His green light was unattainable from the very beginning; but if he had known better about Daisy earlier, a green light would have called again from another shore. Why be content to observe the stars on foot with what could lie beyond?