Nostalgia in The Great Gatsby: The Green Light and Nick's Struggle with Nostalgia
"You always look so cool!"
"You Can't Repeat the Past"
Although Jay Gatsby is most commonly associated with nostalgia, all the major male characters in The Great Gatsby demonstrate longing for the past. Nick, Tom, Wolfsheim, and Gatsby are characterized by their desire to relive the former glory and excitement of their past days. Each indulges in nostalgia at some level and each is driven at least partly by futile longing for the past. Fitzgerald uses the obsession with the past which these men share to represent the nostalgic culture of America during the 1920s.
Nick Carraway's nostalgia is suppressed but he still displays his own longing for the past. When he explains his reasons for coming to New York, he says that he took part in WWI and “enjoyed the counter-raid so thoroughly that [he] came back restless” (Fitzgerald 3). It is this “restlessness” that leads him to take part in and observe the events of the novel. Nevertheless, Nick has the most clear-eyed view of the futility of desire to retrieve the past. “You can’t repeat the past,” he tells Gatsby (110). It is this realization that helps Nick to keep his own nostalgia in check. Nick’s nostalgia helps him understand nostalgia that he sees in other characters like Tom and Gatsby. He can readily identify expressions of nostalgia because he feels it himself. Like the other major male characters in the novel, he is filled with a restless energy and the urge to drift aimlessly seeking the past. He understands longing for the past because he experiences it. Nick’s struggle to disdain nostalgia and regard the past realistically is reflected in his attitude towards Gatsby. Nick alternately admires and criticizes Gatsby. He describes Gatsby as possessing “an extraordinary gift for hope, a romantic readiness” (2). Gatsby’s nostalgia impresses Nick. Nevertheless, Nick’s better judgment prompts him to say that Gatsby “represented everything for which I have an unaffected scorn” and “I disapproved of him from beginning to end” (2, 154). However, Nick concludes that “Gatsby turned out all right at the end” (2). These seemingly contradictory statements show Nick’s struggle with the idea of nostalgia. Ultimately, Nick realizes that because the past is irretrievable, Gatsby’s struggle, though foolish, is heroic.
Although it is tempting to view Tom Buchanan as nothing more than a dissolute upper-class degenerate, he resembles Nick and Gatsby in that he is motivated by a strong impulse of nostalgia and longing. Tom is described as “one of those men who reach such an acute limited excellence at twenty-one that everything afterward savors of anticlimax” (6). This feeling of “anticlimax” makes Tom discontent and partially drives his repugnant behavior but even stronger is Tom’s desire to recreate the glory of his college days. Nick says that he “felt Tom would drift on forever seeking, a little wistfully, for the dramatic turbulence of some irrecoverable football game” (6). Tom’s search for “dramatic turbulence” mars his life and prevents him from finding happiness. Prior to the novel, Tom has “drifted here and there unrestfully wherever people played polo and where rich together” (6). Tom, like Nick and Gatsby, is restlessly seeking to recover his past. Tom’s nostalgia leads him to pursue activities which resemble those of a college student. He participates in sports (mainly polo), tries to follow intellectual pursuits, and pursues various women. However, rather than recreate the past, Tom simply creates a rather pathetic lifestyle. He hates to be known as “the polo player” or a “hulking” man even though that is the reputation he has cultivated (12, 105). Tom also tries and fails to pose as an intellectual. His pathetic fascination with “‘The Rise of the Colored Empires’” indicates that he realizes he has become increasingly shallow but is incapable of returning to a time when “his complacency” was less “acute” (13). Tom’s affair with Myrtle Wilson also represents his attempt to achieve the excitement of his early days. However, he is repeatedly disappointed by her whims and even breaks her nose in a fit of anger. No matter how hard he tries, Tom “can’t repeat the past” any more than Nick.
The colorful gangster Meyer Wolfsheim is a character that exhibits a distinct longing for the past. During his brief appearance in the novel, he broods over “faces dead and gone” (70). Like Nick, he tries to distance himself from nostalgia. After Gatsby’s death, Wolfsheim tells Nick it is best to “show… friendship for a man when he is alive and not after he is dead” (172). Despite his attempts to avoid falling into the trap of longing for the past, Woflsheim does have his lapses into nostalgia. Gatsby describes Wolfsheim as a man who “becomes sentimental sometimes” (72). Wolfsheim’s nostalgia is also potentially self-destructive since the past he is longing for was dangerous and violent. Like Nick, Wolfsheim sees the danger in longing for the past but he can only partially defy it.
Jay Gatsby is defined by his desire to recover the past, represented by Daisy. It is the object of all his work. However, it remains just as intangible and elusive as the “green light at the end of Daisy’s dock” (180). Gatsby’s dogged pursuit of the past is also a pursuit of his own soul. According to Nick, Gatsby “wanted to recover something, some idea of himself perhaps that had gone into loving Daisy” (110).Gatsby is defined by his longing for the past, and only by recovering the past could he hope to recover himself. Tragically, Gatsby “can’t repeat the past” and “past” and “self” remain lost to him forever.
Gatsby is ultimately destroyed as a result of his longing, but it is also his longing which makes him “Great.” For him, Daisy represents all that is good, honorable, and beautiful in life. Gatsby’s pursuit of these ideals makes him an admirable character but it is “what preyed on Gatsby, what foul dust floated in the wake of his dreams” that ultimately proves his undoing (2). Gatsby’s dreams are wonderful but they blind him to the harsh reality that “you can’t repeat the past” and that Daisy is not the ideal woman and cannot return his love. He cannot see that the past is “just out of reach of his hand” (110). This failure leads to Gatsby’s death. He nobly protects Daisy from the consequences of killing Myrtle Wilson and inadvertently makes himself the target of Wilson’s revenge.
Through The Great Gatsby, Fitzgerald suggests that the spirit of the Jazz Age (the 1920s) is one of reaching back into the past. Although the “Roaring Twenties” is often considered to be a period of joy, discovery, and wonder at a new age, the novel seems to suggest that the wild hedonism of the Jazz Age was actually a vain attempt to recreate the wonder and majesty of bygone days. Nick generalizes the conclusions he made about Gatsby saying: “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 – to-morrow we will run faster, stretch our arms farther…So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past” (180). He begins by describing Gatsby but suddenly shifts to describe people collectively, implying that Gatsby’s personal situation is actually universal. Like Gatsby, the typical wealthy man’s dream of the past appeared “so close that he could hardly fail to grasp it… He did not know that it was already behind him” (180).
Nick, Tom, Wolfsheim, and Gatsby all engage in vain longing for the past and represent the nostalgic trends of the Jazz Age. Their private quests to recover what is now “behind them” are characteristic of the longing of the 20s. Each man struggles with the fact that “you can’t repeat the past.”