The main theme of this novel is “dreams”, the achievement of dreams and what effect that has on the characters. All the characters in “The Great Gatsby” have a dream – some have achieved their dream and accepted this, some have achieved their dream and “like boats against the current” try to recapture their dream. However, this is unrealistic as explored throughout the novel is the fact that once dreams are achieved, they are corrupted and can never be achieved again. The first example of this we see is Tom who reached “acute excellence at twenty-one”.
Everything after is described as an “anti-climax” and that he would “drift on forever seeking… some irrecoverable football game”. Tom has no dreams left and the image of Tom’s character we get is due to this lost hope, his controlling nature and violence is because of this vanished aspiration. Tom and Daisy are linked with broken things and phrases such as “broken fragments” often appear about situations Daisy and Tom find themselves in. Speech from Tom and Daisy often breaks out from them; “civilisation is going to pieces” broke out Tom violently”, and Tom’s affair with Myrtle is breaking Tom and Daisy’s marriage.
This violent, broken, careless imagery coupled with movement imagery surrounding Tom and Daisy gives us the effect that ‘lost dreams’ have on characters. Tom and Daisy seem to “drift on” breaking things in their wake. There is a clear contrast with other characters such as Gatsby. Gatsby’s dream is Daisy, and he builds up his life around her – the parties, the large house, the extravagant car are all to attract her – but when he achieves her, the dream is corrupted. The first time he sleeps with Daisy is five years earlier, and it is after that point that she is corrupted.
Like a boat beating against the current he tries to recapture her, and builds up his life around her. When he achieves her the second time, he realises how much he had lost. When Gatsby has made his money from crime and it is this crime that Fitzgerald chooses to define the era. Attention is paid to the music and the dress of the era, but crime – bootlegging during time of the prohibition – becomes the focus socially. It highlights the “moral failure of a society obsessed with wealth and status. ” .
Boats beating against the current could also be used to describe moralistic people trying to avoid this crime and the attraction of money that this crime brings. Nick sees himself as moral and a “good driver” – a metaphor used to describe somebody on the ‘straight and narrow road’ – and when asked by Gatsby if he’ll work with himself and Mr Wolfshiem – in the suggestion of crime related business – Nick turns it down and returns to his ultimately unsuccessful but legitimate business. The idea of boats against the current seems a failing task.
The idea of trying to go against natural law is also mirrored in the idea of the new American dream compared to the old original dream, and can therefore be seen to ultimately fail. At the end of the novel, Fitzgerald explains how Dutch sailors first came to American, and by using words such as ‘fresh’, ‘green’, we get a complete contrast to the American today – the 1920s – of the ‘valley of ashes’ and language such as ‘dust’. The original American dream was to travel from East to West in search of prosperous land.
However, like all the other dreams of the characters in the novel, once this dream is achieved it is corrupted. The corrupted version of this dream becomes the modern American dream, which is travelled west to east – as Tom, Daisy and Nick have, in search of no longer land, but money and material goods. The modern dream is going against natural law, as the boat against the current, and therefore is bound to fail. The reversal of this dream is reversing itself against the current.
Another significance the sentence “so we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past” holds for our understanding can be in relation to Nick’s romanticised idea of Gatsby. Nick holds Gatsby, perhaps unrealistically, perfect. “Gatsby turned out alright the end; it is what preyed on Gatbsy, what foul dust floated in the wake of his dreams that temporarily closed out my interest in the abortive sorrows and shortwinded elations of men”. He hangs on to his original idea of Gatsby being influenced by the corruption, and not Gatsby adding to the corruption already in place.
Nick even goes as far to run out graffiti written about Gatsby after his death. Nick can be seen as the boat, beating back against time and Gatsby’s reputation. In conclusion, the significance of the last line of the novel can relate to many aspects, and helps us understand the theme of the recapturing a dream already corrupted. It suggests that even if you realise your dream has gone it is better to try and strive for your dream, otherwise you end up as Tom and Daisy drifting and smashing until there is nothing left.