The Great Gatsby

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Themes and Colors
The Roaring Twenties Theme Icon
The American Dream Theme Icon
Class (Old Money, New Money, No Money) Theme Icon
Past and Future Theme Icon
LitCharts assigns a color and icon to each theme in The Great Gatsby, which you can use to track the themes throughout the work.
Past and Future Theme Icon

Nick and Gatsby are continually troubled by time—the past haunts Gatsby and the future weighs down on Nick. When Nick tells Gatsby that you can't repeat the past, Gatsby says "Why of course you can!" Gatsby has dedicated his entire life to recapturing a golden, perfect past with Daisy. Gatsby believes that money can recreate the past. Fitzgerald describes Gatsby as "overwhelmingly aware of the youth and mystery that wealth imprisons and preserves." But Gatsby mixes up "youth and mystery" with history; he thinks a single glorious month of love with Daisy can compete with the years and experiences she has shared with Tom. Just as "new money" is money without social connection, Gatsby's connection to Daisy exists outside of history.

Nick's fear of the future foreshadows the economic bust that plunged the country into depression and ended the Roaring Twenties in 1929. The day Gatsby and Tom argue at the Plaza Hotel, Nick suddenly realizes that it's his thirtieth birthday. He thinks of the new decade before him as a "portentous menacing road," and clearly sees in the struggle between old and new money the end of an era and the destruction of both types of wealth.

Past and Future ThemeTracker

The ThemeTracker below shows where, and to what degree, the theme of Past and Future appears in each chapter of The Great Gatsby. Click or tap on any chapter to read its Summary & Analysis.
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Past and Future Quotes in The Great Gatsby

Below you will find the important quotes in The Great Gatsby related to the theme of Past and Future.
Chapter 1 Quotes
He stretched out his arms toward the dark water in a curious way, and, 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.
Related Characters: Nick Carraway (speaker), Jay Gatsby
Related Symbols: The Green Light and the Color Green
Page Number: 20
Explanation and Analysis:

Nick observes, for the first time, Gatsby’s odd nighttime ritual: He looks out at a green light across the water.

The “green light” is undoubtably the most famous symbol from Fitzgerald’s novel, and it has been interpreted in a vast number of ways—from an indication of his love for Daisy to a model for the roaring-twenties aspirations of Americans. Part of that ambiguity comes from the writing itself: Nick describes the action as “curious” and dilutes its certainty with the phrase “could have sworn”—as opposed to simply saying “he was trembling.” The phrase “that might have been” to describe the location of the light plays a similar mystifying role. Thus the text places several layers of uncertainty between the reader and Gatsby, which mirrors Nick’s experience in the moment.

Despite these uncertainties, however, it is evident that the “green light” represents some kind of aspiration for Gatsby. That it is “single” stresses the directness of the goal, for Gatsby is not gazing at a general area but rather at a fixed and unique point. As it lies “seaward” and at the “end of a dock,” we can infer already that water symbolically separates Gatsby from the goal—and that crossing that water will allow him to access it.

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Chapter 5 Quotes
"It makes me sad because I've never seen such — such beautiful shirts before."
Related Characters: Daisy Buchanan (speaker), Jay Gatsby
Related Symbols: Gatsby's Mansion
Page Number: 92
Explanation and Analysis:

On her tour of Gatsby’s home, Daisy becomes distraught. Though the nature of her response is not entirely clear, it is induced by observing the extent of his new wealth.

The comment speaks first and foremost to Daisy’s superficiality. Her emotional response is not triggered by anything personally significant but rather by “beautiful shirts.” Yet these shirts also represent her newfound ability to be with Gatsby, for his current wealth would have made him acceptable to her overbearing family. Thus Daisy must accept that her choice to be with Tom was not necessary as she had thought it to be—and that she could have had both Gatsby and economic security. The text poses the question, however, of how aware Daisy is of her own attraction to money. Perhaps the breakdown, in fact, represents a personal crisis, in which Daisy confronts her own superficiality: She would become, then, neither a staid example of old money, nor a new money aspirant—but rather someone who reckons with the emptiness of both pursuits.

Fitzgerald’s ambiguous presentation of her character speaks to the difficulty of understanding, at this time, how Americans were relating to their roaring twenties culture. Though readers may have a good sense of our protagonist Nick’s shifting perspectives, the other characters are often inscrutable both to readers and to each other. Fitzgerald, then, not only describes an ambivalence toward the culture that many may have felt but been unable to articulate, but also recreates the effect through his narrative construction.

Chapter 6 Quotes
The truth was that Jay Gatsby, of West Egg, Long Island, sprang from his Platonic conception of himself. He was a son of God—a phrase which, if it means anything, means just that—and he must be about His Father's business, the service of a vast, vulgar, and meretricious beauty. So he invented just the sort of Jay Gatsby that a seventeen year old boy would be likely to invent, and to this conception he was faithful to the end.
Related Characters: Nick Carraway (speaker), Jay Gatsby
Page Number: 98
Explanation and Analysis:

As Nick recounts Gatsby’s backstory, he offers both factual information and this more abstract description. He notes how artificially Gatsby has created his personality and identity, but also seems to respect the commitment he shows to that artifice.

To better articulate the fraudulence of Gatsby’s identity, Nick employs several sets of symbols. First he describes him as a “Platonic conception of himself,” implying that Gatsby projected an ideal (“Platonic”) way his life could exist and then avidly pursued that end. Next, Nick swaps in monotheistic religion for Plato’s Greek philosophy, likening Gatsby to a self-imagined Jesus pursuing a holy end (going about "His Father's business"). Recall that Gatsby seeks a green light that lies across the water, implying that he must walk over that water like Jesus to achieve his goal. Yet for all this spiritual talk the goal is still a “vast, vulgar, and meretricious beauty”: it may be meaningful, enormous, and even aesthetically pleasing, but it is fundamentally empty.

These descriptions might seem to belittle Gatsby for entirely lacking substance, but the weight of references to Plato and God also grant him a sense of import. Nick’s tone simultaneously chastises Gatsby for conforming to the childish inventions of a “seventeen year old boy” and respects him for being “faithful to the end.” In contrast to other characters who seem to change from moment-to-moment, there is something worthy in Gatsby’s single-minded pursuit of perfecting an identity. Fitzgerald thus offers both a critical and a sympathetic eye toward the social-climbing and avarice seen in Gatsby and his twenties society. He simultaneously praises commitment and mocks cheap deception.

"I wouldn't ask too much of her," I ventured. "You can't repeat the past."
"Can't repeat the past?" he cried incredulously. "Why of course you can!"
He looked around him wildly, as if the past were lurking here in the shadow of his house, just out of reach of his hand.
Related Characters: Jay Gatsby (speaker), Nick Carraway (speaker), Daisy Buchanan
Related Symbols: Gatsby's Mansion
Page Number: 110
Explanation and Analysis:

Nick and Gatsby have this conversation after a failed party in which Gatsby tries to recreate his romance with Daisy. They disagree, pivotally, on whether it will be possible for Gatsby and Daisy to reignite their relationship.

On a literal level, Nick is simply saying that Gatsby cannot “repeat” his liaisons with Daisy, whereas Gatsby claims that he will in fact be able to do so. Yet their divergent viewpoints speak far more broadly to two ideological positions held by Americans at the time. Gatsby is fundamentally future-oriented as a “new money” person: he believes that anything can be accomplished through an act of will, as in the way he became rich. Whereas Nick, as a representative of “old money,” is more focused on the limits of the past and more sensitive to the flaws in Gatsby’s "nouveau riche" thinking.

We can see this more critical position in his description of Gatsby’s look: it is “wild” and falsely equates time with space—assuming that he can discover “the past” in the physical richness of “his house.” Gatsby thus represents a more narrow-minded viewpoint that energy and money will be able to turn back time and manifest any desire. While Nick has certainly lauded that personal drive, he disagrees here on the feasibility of the project.

Chapter 9 Quotes
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.... And as I sat there, brooding on the old, unknown world, I thought of Gatsby's wonder when he first picked out Daisy's light at the end of his dock. He had come such a long way to this blue lawn, and his dream must have seemed so close he could hardly fail to grasp it. But what he did not know was that it was already behind him, somewhere in the vast obscurity beyond the city, where the dark fields of the republic rolled on under the night.
Related Characters: Nick Carraway (speaker), Jay Gatsby, Daisy Buchanan
Related Symbols: The Green Light and the Color Green
Page Number: 180
Explanation and Analysis:

In the novel’s closing passage, Nick reflects on how Gatsby’s dogged pursuit of Daisy is similar to the dreams of early settlers landing on the American continent. He uses the comparison to both elevate and belittle Gatsby’s character.

To introduce this idea, Nick first describes dissociating from the immediate surroundings: “the inessential houses began to melt away,” distancing him from the environment of wealth and commodities. This is a startling narrative technique, considering how Nick had earlier denied to Gatsby the potential of returning to the past: here he seems to do just that, indicating that storytelling and reflection may achieve this end far more effectively than Gatsby’s purchase of a mansion on West Egg. Next, he uses this trick of time to equate the “green breast of the new world” seen by settlers in America to “Daisy’s light” seen by Gatsby. In different ways, they represent an almost-reached, yet still-differed goal.

This parallel elevates Gatsby’s dreams to an epic stature—for they are deemed equal in aspiration to those who have "discovered" this very land. Yet the passage also renders Gatsby less unique by pointing out how traditional and ancient his aspirations are. Nick stresses this second perspective when he observes that Gatsby’s dream was “already behind him,” indicating that the destination has already been reached. This “behind” could refer to Gatsby’s previous relationship with Daisy, or his hometown to the West—but also the symbolic “behind” of those Dutch sailors. Fitzgerald seems to imply that America as “the republic” already holds the aspiration that Gatsby so desperately seeks—and that his attempts to search for fulfillment in new domains is pointless.

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 then one fine morning—So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.
Related Characters: Nick Carraway (speaker), Jay Gatsby
Related Symbols: The Green Light and the Color Green
Page Number: 180
Explanation and Analysis:

In these last lines of the novel, Nick continues to offer an equivocal set of comments on his perception of Gatsby. Once more, he points out the flaws in his characteristic commitment, while simultaneously praising the way he so doggedly pursues an ideal.

To articulate this ambiguity, Nick once more summons the symbol of the “green light”—here defining it as something that can fundamentally never be obtained. Its vital quality is not actually the “orgastic future” but rather the perception of such a future that “recedes” and is “eluded.” Indeed, this is how it has symbolically functioned in the novel: never allowing the reader to pin down a singular meaning, promising to unlock the text but actually standing for a variety of conflicting allegorical ideas.

Yet it is in that very process of deferral that Nick locates the light’s significance. The light is significant because it motivates those who perceive it to “run faster, stretch out our arms farther”—whether that means to perform well at one’s job, or to more closely examine the symbolism of a green light. It is telling that the phrase “then one fine morning” does not end in an actual action, for it represents another of those "orgastic futures" that recedes rather than being caught. For Nick, this pursuit ends in the odd (but extremely famous) image of a set of boats futilely beating on against the current: a symbol which reiterates the wish to cross a body of water and reach the green light.

For although the boats “beat on,” they actually move “ceaselessly into the past,” indicating not only stagnancy but also a gravitational pull toward personal, social, and cultural history. Fitzgerald thus ends the novel by reversing Nick’s earlier claim that one does not repeat the past, instead asserting that though the pursuit of new dreams may indeed be worthwhile, these efforts are essentially minute compared to the natural inertia that the characters in the novel (as well as the United States itself) would experience as the roaring twenties came to a close.