In 1940, a New York Times editorial remarked that when the Americans of the turn of the century “spoke of the American Dream, they meant the American hope, the American aspiration, the American ideal. When people wrote of the American Dream after 1930, they meant the American mirage, the American illusion… the American lie.” In less than a decade, the American dream had been so absorbed into the national imagination that America’s paper of record thought it was a phrase that dated back centuries – that only recently had the American dream been revealed as a lie. But it was a recent invention, and as Adams predicted, each generation would need to relearn the lessons of inequality and disappointment, an innocence we keep losing anew. Fitzgerald understood in the midst of the 1920s what most would only see in retrospect: that “the dead dream” will always fight on, as we try to touch the intangible, “struggling unhappily, undespairingly” towards what we keep losing.
These words conclude the novel and find Nick returning to the theme of the significance of the past to dreams of the future, here represented by the green light. He focuses on the struggle of human beings to achieve their goals by both transcending and re-creating the past. Yet humans prove themselves unable to move beyond the past: in the metaphoric language used here, the current draws them backward as they row forward toward the green light. This past functions as the source of their ideas about the future (epitomized by Gatsby’s desire to re-create 1917 in his affair with Daisy) and they cannot escape it as they continue to struggle to transform their dreams into reality. While they never lose their optimism (“tomorrow we will run faster, stretch out our arms farther . .”), they expend all of their energy in pursuit of a goal that moves ever farther away. This apt metaphor characterizes both Gatsby’s struggle and the American dream itself. Nick’s words register neither blind approval nor cynical disillusionment but rather the respectful melancholy that he ultimately brings to his study of Gatsby’s life.