Taking a closer look at F.Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby and Willa Cather’s My Ántonia
‘Nostos’, from the Greek, translates as a desire to return. In my opinion, this encapsulates the principal spirit and acts as the fundamental driving motive for the characters’ actions within F.Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby (1926) and Willa Cather’s My Ántonia (1918). As Milan Kundera observes, ‘algos’, the Greek term for suffering, combined with ‘nostos’, forms the familiar notion of ‘nostalgia’ (5). Through the linguistic composition, we can infer how continual reflection is not only unproductive, but distressing, therefore limiting individual progression. This essay explores how nostalgic retrospection, as experienced by Jim Burden for Ántonia, Jay Gatsby for Daisy and Nick Carraway for Gatsby, prevents engagement with the present moment, thus rendering the possibilities of a future both bleak and inconceivable. Perpetual return inevitably instigates subjective or idealistic conceptions of history and the people therein, often romanticising and frequently transforming memories in order to satisfy a particular perception of events.
I will start by looking at Fitzgerald’s infamous image, the green light, with which Gatsby is obsessed and mesmerised. The colourful beam materialises and gives direction to his preoccupation with resurrecting his brief romantic relationship with Daisy. Akin to the ephemeral flashes of green, which fade in and out of perspective, the past is impossible to capture or resurrect because it is forever pulsing on towards the future. History and the green light are subjectively bright depending on where you are stood. Eventually, Gatsby begins to feel disillusionment over Daisy and the light. Yet he is never given the chance to fully disengage from and thus escape his obsession with the past. Moreover, Nick only starts to contemplate Gatsby’s, and in turn his own preoccupation with the green light and the regurgitating of history, in the final section of the novel. Here, we experience a kaleidoscopic pulling back from Nick’s narrative, where he contemplates how smooth ‘sailing’ into the future, literally by old Dutch settlers and metaphorically by future Americans, is often turned into a hopeless beating against the current due to continual retrospection.
I will then move on to analyse Cather’s renowned image of the plough against the steady setting of the sun. I believe it acts as a complex metaphor, embodying Jim’s understanding of Ántonia and conveying how time itself cannot and should not be captured for continuous reminiscence. Jim Burden’s early memories and sense of identity revolve around and are embedded within the simultaneously colourful and harsh Nebraskan landscape, where nature is both sustaining and challenging for the Shimerdas. Particular memories are painted onto Jim’s psyche, as the plough is so powerfully and artistically projected, “a picture writing on the sun” (Cather 245). I argue Cather was expressing how memories and the beauty of the silhouette are not diminished due to the transience of time. Indeed, without the sunset or Jim’s letting go of the past, a new dawn cannot begin nor his future be conceived. Therefore, the final reunion offers closure for Jim, he begins to realise that while memories construct character and should be cherished, obsessive nostalgia is not only futile, but impossible as the past is “incommunicable” (Cather 372) and will inevitably fade into darkness along with the plough. It is my view that Ántonia is the only character across both novels who is genuinely ‘happy’, a state of which many Americans are persistently and doggedly in pursuit. Finding balance, by honouring her Bohemian past and celebrating the possibilities of an American future, she is able to evade the stagnancy of nostalgia and engage fully in the present moment.
I find it significant how both novels end with the word ‘past’. It poignantly communicates how a fixation with what has been, was a recognisably common, degenerative notion in America during the early twentieth century, one that arguably lingers on today. Perpetual regression brings you full circle to the beginning, instead of driving you towards a prosperous future. I believe Fitzgerald and Cather were affirming how an engagement with history or memory is crucial and beneficial, in order to independently grow. However, their novels also illustrate how a reliance on an idealised past leads to warped nostalgia, resulting in unnecessary ‘algos’ or suffering, be that mental or physical, consequently limiting future achievement and contentment.
Psychologist Michael Howe’s study on memory claims that humans constantly need to remember. He maintains, “it is essential we retain information if we are to draw any sense or meaning from the phenomena we experience” (1). Similarly, Jim engages with the pervasiveness of memory, observing how “everybody thinks about old times, even the happiest people” (Cather 321). Indeed, all people have the capacity and tendency to look to the past when the present proves monotonous or the future appears bleak. As Howe argues, it is vital we learn from our personal history as well as the global or national past, in order to visualise future possibilities. Cather and Fitzgerald place importance on a particular commemoration of the past. Indeed, “if we want to remember something we should be sure we understand it” (Howe 95). Despite the benefits of remembrance, memory is so often prone to romanticism due to a lack of objective perception. Gatsby’s “romantic readiness” (Fitzgerald 8) causes a deluded, sentimentalised vision of Daisy and the green light. Equally, Jim has a “romantic disposition” (Cather 2) along with Nick who immediately sees “something gorgeous” (Fitzgerald 8) in his party host and neighbour. Therefore, an overly idealistic attitude towards the past and an embellishment of individuals and events, leads to a lack of genuine understanding, whereby memories become nostalgic rather than positively productive. Consequently, in terms of Howe’s assertions, Jim, Gatsby and Nick’s inability to properly decode their history or detach themselves from it, limits their capacity to ‘draw meaning’ and look to the future. However, as I will later discuss, Jim and Nick do begin to contemplate their place in history and face up to the futility of continual retrospection in the final sections of each novel.
For me, one of the most fascinating elements within The Great Gatsby is the image of the green light at the end of Daisy’s dock. It provides a tangible focus for Gatsby’s romantic vision of seducing Daisy once again, a vision which he continuously decks “out with every bright feather that drifted his way” (Fitzgerald 92-93). I believe the language employed to describe its quixotic and intermittent glow epitomises how the past can lure us back through its enchanting, idealistic and removed luminescence. Of course it is important to remember that Gatsby’s appreciation and obsession with the green light, as the “vital source of [his] identity and meaning in life” (Stavola 139), is relayed through Nick’s subjective narrative. As Tanner observes, we can never genuinely know how much Nick is “transforming, embellishing, amplifying, rewording” (xxi) and “we should always remember that we are responding to what he made of [Gatsby]” (xxii). Similarly, by prefixing the ‘my’ onto the intended title of Ántonia, Jim informs us in advance that this story is a personal one. We can never be absolutely sure how much the fascination with Daisy or the green light is specific to Gatsby’s actions or Nick’s elaborated, exaggerated or transmuted memory. However, such awareness need not detract from the significance of the green light, as a focal point for Gatsby’s preoccupation and a central motif for the entire novel.
When Nick sees Gatsby for the first time, Gatsby is standing with his arms “stretched out…toward the dark water in a curious way” (Fitzgerald 25). It is only after a few moments that Nick realises where he is looking, towards a solitary and remote “green light…[which is] minute and far away” (Fitzgerald 25). The reader is thus transported to Nick’s lawn through the arrestingly visual and sensual language. The bustling “loud, bright night…[with]wings beating in the trees…[and] frogs full of life…[in the] unquiet darkness” (Fitzgerald 25), contrasts poignantly with the spectral image of Gatsby, staggering like a disorientated zombie in the night, “trembling” (Fitzgerald 25) with his fixed, yet perpetually “vacant eyes” (Fitzgerald 82). Gatsby is so preoccupied with the green light and the endless desire for ‘nostos’, to return to lost origins, that the beams blind him to the vivacity around him. Like a moth attracted to a deceptively inviting glow, he is lured and pulled into a dangerous trap, basing his entire existence on flying towards his vision, only to be murdered for his undying devotion to a vestige. Gatsby’s goal is not true intimacy. Having his muse as a “minute and far away” (Cather 25) light, he bases his devotion in something ethereal, physically untouchable and therefore essential ‘unreal’. By rooting his vision in the insubstantial past, it cannot and should not be made a present and future reality due to its nostalgic foundations.
I agree with Tanner’s assertion that the green light acts as “a suitably inaccessible focus for [Gatsby’s] yearning, something to give definition to his desire while indefinitely deferring consummation, something to stretch his arms towards” (Tanner vii). Indeed, Gatsby enjoys the intention and extension of arms towards Daisy and the light. However, though he pictures lovingly embracing Daisy in the future, when faced with the reality that she is not the doyenne he imagined, the light’s power also begins to dwindle, “now it was again a green light on a dock” (Fitzgerald 90). Gatsby fails to realise that repeating the past does not necessarily mean you understand it or ever will. Yet, what did he expect? The “colossal significance” (Fitzgerald 90) he places on Daisy and the light are bound to fall short of his expectations due to the high standards he consigns to both. Of course, one need not be a particularly astute reader to realise that Gatsby’s pursuit of Daisy is not promising. In fact, having her be superficial, unemotional and egocentric shows how his illusions are unfounded and wasteful, therefore even more prone to collapse. Nevertheless, Gatsby, an evader of reality, prefers the illusions of both the green light and Daisy. Indeed, the “fragile magic of the game depends on keeping the green light at a distance” (Tanner viii) because it is “invariably saddening to look through new eyes at things upon which you have expended your own powers of adjustment” (Fitzgerald 101). Likewise, his historically fixed image of Daisy is “perfect only until the tangible Daisy appears; then he begins to sense disappointment even before his final disillusionment” (Steinbrink 167).
Moreover, I argue his initial feelings of disenchantment are not a result of sincere heartbreak. “They are the effects of his incapacity to compromise with the enormous demands of his inner vision that are bound to suffer from any contact with reality” (Stavola 140). “He has been full of the idea” (Fitzgerald 89) of Daisy for so long that after seeing the actual Daisy, “his count of enchanted objects had diminished by one” (Fitzgerald 90). Genuine disenchantment only begins immediately before Gatsby’s death. Nick assumes he “must have looked up at an unfamiliar sky through frightening leaves and shivered as he found what a grotesque thing a rose is and how raw the sunlight was” (Fitzgerald 153). No longer peering into the dark, searching for the mystical green light or the irreversible past, Gatsby is faced with ‘frightening’ and ‘unfamiliar’ reality, with the ‘raw’ light of the day. However, it is too late for meditation or redemption.
Nick tells Gatsby, “you can’t repeat the past” (Fitzgerald 106), to which Gatsby replies, “why of course you can” (Fitzgerald 106). Gatsby wants to “fix everything just the way it was before” (Fitzgerald 106), but even Daisy knows that you “can’t help what’s past” (Fitzgerald 126). Such words “seemed to bite physically into Gataby” (Fitzgerald 126) because he wants to fix time, as Wolfsheim fixed the 1919 World Series, by directing people and situations to suit his own requirements. He achieves a certain level of mastery through his hosting of awe-inspiring parties. Yet “men and girls came and went like moths among the whisperings and the champagne and the stars” (Fitzgerald 41), emphasizing how even the guests are transitory and insubstantial, entities Gatsby cannot control. They are mere cogs in the wheel of Gatsby’s greater plan to win back his old flame. Indeed, “his dream founders on his impossible insistence that time can not only be reversed but erased” (Tanner xlvii). He attempts to live in a world where past, present and future are interchangeable, an impossible cosmic manipulation. For example, he wants Daisy to tell Tom she never loved him, then “it’s all wiped out forever” (Fitzgerald 125), and only after she had “obliterated four years with that sentence they could decide upon the more practical measures to be taken” (Fitzgerald 106). Though Gatsby’s feelings for Daisy are sincere, they are not ‘practical’ and are based on idealised, nostalgic memories rather than present or future realities. Rushdie wrote that “memory has its own special kind. It selects, eliminates, alters, exaggerates, minimises, glorifies and vilifies also; but in the end it creates its own reality” (292), a process with which Gatsby certainly hopes to engage, transporting his specific and old image of Daisy and superimposing it onto his perception of reality. Thus, not only is Gatsby’s preoccupation with the past limiting for the future due to its reflective stagnancy, his fixation with meaningless pomp and material excess to demonstrate his love is futile because it entails no genuine sentimentality or emotional connectedness. His superficiality is reflected in Daisy, who in turn becomes a commodity, an object in demand.
Lewis maintains that “no reader of The Great Gatsby could ever mistake it for a didactic work” (52). While I agree that the lavish parties and decadent houses provide visual entertainment and therefore a certain level of imaginative pleasure for the reader, I argue Fitzgerald’s overriding motive is more complex. He exposes the tragic consequence of obsessing over the past and urges us to take the literary lesson into our future. Moreover, Lewis argues that “we share Gatsby’s dream…[his] pleasures…the fantasies” (52), a statement with which I strongly disagree. Not only do we find his displays of affection to be garish and kitsch, I believe we never succumb to the vision of Daisy or the green light. Both are captivating, but they are deceiving and despite the appearance of constancy, ultimately lead Gatsby into the realms of darkness and destruction. Despite Nick’s tendency to find pleasure in the gaudy parties and romanticise Gatsby, ultimately regarding him as ‘great’, the subtext of his observations slowly prepare us for the dangers of his neighbour’s fixations.
However, the ultimate reason for Gatsby’s demise is not Daisy’s crime or even her alluring nature; it is the importance Gatsby places on the vision of Daisy and his misconstrued reliance on her love as essential to his identity. Only through death can Gatsby escape the persistent desire to recreate and reshape the past and thus be reborn through the ‘amniotic fluid’ of the pool. Even the language used to describe his death suggests the end of an old cycle and the beginning of a new. He is on the last “leg of transit” (Fitzgerald 154) as he sinks deeper into the water, suggesting the end of one journey and the commencement of another, towards a future destination, free from the claws of nostalgia. The mattress “moved irregularly down the pool” (Fitzgerald 154) due to “little ripples” (Fitzgerald 154), illustrating how, ironically death has allowed Gatsby to begin moving forward, not “against the current” (Fitzgerald 172) but along with its unpredictable flow.
Whilst meditating on Gatsby’s life and death at the end of the novel, Nick reconsiders American history, dating back to “the old island here that flowered once for the Dutch sailors’ eyes” (Fitzgerald 171), who first ‘discovered’ the land and held their breath in the presence of the continent. Similar to these initial explorers who lacked an understanding of the Native American past and felt it was their right to ‘invent’ a new history and culture, Gatsby has ignored the truth of his past, “seeking it only as an explanation for limits he would inevitably overcome” (Cullen 184). I argue Gatsby’s obsession with the past is symbolic of all the Americans who paradoxically retreat into the prototype of history while endeavoring to maintain the possibilities of the future. Indeed, as Berman notes, the characters of Fitzgerald’s novel are “more than the sum of their own experiences” (83), the novel is about American issues, it is “a world of broken relationships and false relationships; a world of money and success rather than social responsibility; a world in which individuals are all too free to determine their moral destinies” (83). Gatsby, who “sprang from his own Platonic conception of himself” (Fitzgerald 95), is representative of the rootlessness of all Americans who sprung from the new society of people who adopted the land and “invented” (Fitzgerald 95) their identities. As Lewis declares, “when one’s self is self-created, when one is present at one’s own creation…one is in a paradoxical position. One knows everything about oneself…no outside contexts exist to create meaning” (47). Similarly, “each night [Gatsby] added to the pattern of his fancies” (Fitzgerald 95), suggesting his continual self-creation, evocative of the collective American belief of perpetual renewal, regeneration and reinvention.
In some ways, “Nick resurrects his hero’s fallen reputation by transforming Gatsby’s glimpse at Daisy’s green light into the desire in the Dutch sailor’s eyes” (Decker 53). However, he realises in this end section the predicament within Gatsby and the sailors’ dreams is that they were “already behind [them]” (Fitzgerald 171). Furthermore, although I agree with Callahan’s claim that Gatsby lacks any sense of history’s paradox, I disagree with his assertion that Nick is unable to grasp that “history is both final and on-going” (22). Nick evokes the paradoxical logic of American nationalism, which promises a bright, progressive future, based on mythical and insubstantial origins. “Tomorrow we will run faster, stretch out our arms further” (Fitzgerald 172), yet we continue to “beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past” (Fitzgerald 172). I argue Fitzgerald asserts how we need to find positive equilibrium between moving forwards and looking backwards, in order to avoid nostalgic stasis. In the same way, Steinbrink believes the novel shows how one is drawn almost simultaneously in two directions, “toward the naïve hope that the best of life is yet to come and toward the realization that such circumstances as give life meaning lie buried in an irrecoverable past” (157). Initially, Nick has not fully grasped Gatsby’s dilemma of preoccupation, asserting at the beginning of the novel he “turned out all right in the end” (Fitzgerald 8), and that it was “what preyed on Gatsby, what foul dust” (Fitzgerald 8), that caused his demise. However, I believe he eventually realises that Gatsby’s problem was not the predatory ‘foul dust’ of memory, it was an obsession with his ‘prey’ – Daisy and the nostalgic hunt for a past which cannot be refabricated. Indeed, by the final pages of the novel, Nick realises he must “accommodate the lessons of his past to his visions of the future, giving into neither, in order to stand poised for happiness or disappointment in the present” (Steinbrink 168).
Similar to the green light which emits its fleeting blaze, Cather’s plough, “the great black figure [which] suddenly appeared on the face of the sun” (Cather 245), is an image which conveys the futility of holding onto the unchangeable, elusive past. A past which, in Jim’s case is embodied through his memories of Ántonia. It is the memory of the past, “safely enshrined in those peaceful and protected moments with Ántonia, that most moves Jim” (Orvell 44), and motivates his personal narrative. Moreover, his entire sense of self is rooted in his experience of the landscape Ántonia inhabits, of “wheat and corn…extremes of climate…burning summers…heavy harvests; blustery winters with little snow” (Cather 1) and his friendship with her – the “central figure” (Cather 2) in his early life. The pathetic fallacy we experience in the introduction, of the “stormy winter afternoon” (Cather 3) in New York, contrasts poignantly with Jim’s memories of his childhood, defined by heat and splashes of colour. He relays to us how “the earth was warm” (Cather 18) under him, there were “queer little red bugs…[and] tall grass” (Cather 18) and “the whole prairie was like the bush that burned with fire and was not consumed” (Cather 40). Therefore we engage with his sensitive awareness to the natural world and how vivid the memories are within that world. Losing both parents at a young age, forced to move to the unknown, from Virginia to Nebraska, Jim lacks an understanding of his personal history within the larger American past and subsequently finds it difficult to define his identity when the story opens. He finds roots in Ántonia, admitting “this girl seemed to mean to us the country, the conditions, the whole adventure of our childhood” (Cather 2). Consequently, the overwhelming power Ántonia has over Jim’s personal history and his conception of greater phenomena, means he constantly returns to her image in order to find meaning in the present and look to the future, emphasizing how responsible she is for his sense of identity and place in history.
Harvey believes the image of the plough conveys “the rapidly disappearing opportunities that a vast frontier had provided” (58). Indeed, it is true that the determined pioneer, who could envision a future with the help of some land and a plough, was becoming a figure of a rapidly disappearing past. I agree with his assertion but feel the image is richer in meaning and has additional, more personal significance for Jim. Indeed, I argue Ántonia, like the plough, is immersed, silhouetted and magnified against the landscape and nature, a terrain to which Jim continually returns in his dreams and imaginations, as a place of community and contentment, a place he feels at home.
While the green light is a perpetual presence within The Great Gatsby and is a central concept to Gatsby’s vision, the image of the plough against the blazing sun only appears two thirds of the way into Cather’s novel and is a singular transitory impression. Yet despite its temporality, I believe it acts as a culmination and climactic exposé of Jim’s conception of Ántonia. In the same way that the green light materialises Gatsby’s focus on Daisy, the plough concentrates Jim’s attentions on Ántonia and the landscape. Through its transitory nature, Cather conveys the fruitlessness of planning a future rooted in an idealised past which, like the green light, exists only in flashes of romanticised memory. Also, like Nick, who invests everything in Gatsby, and Gatsby who wants to “recover something, some idea of himself perhaps, that had gone into loving Daisy” (Fitzgerald 106), Jim says to Ántonia, “the idea of you is a part of my mind; you influence my likes and dislikes, all my tastes, hundreds of times when I don’t realize it. You really are a part of me” (Cather 321). Jim’s attachment to Ántonia defines his character, but having her be a ‘part’ of him, means he has been unable to let go of her memory, thus limiting his ‘happiness’ in New York .
The plough “stood out against the sun, was exactly contained within the circle of the disk…the black against the molten red. There it was, heroic in size, a picture writing on the sun” (Cather 245). Having the plough within the disk of the sun but standing out against the horizon is, I believe, symbolic of Ántonia, who is contained within her new Nebraskan lifestyle, but she is eventually ‘heroic’, ‘standing out’ from the other ‘hired girls’ by staying true to the roots of her Bohemian traditions from “across the water” (Cather 4), while adapting to the American landscape. Ántonia looks positively towards the future by returning to cultivate the land. She is “involved in an intense project of self-development; she is shaped by the positive as well as the negative pull of her family, her Bohemian traditions and the community of Black Hawk” (Harvey 52). Thus, Ántonia maintains a balanced set of values. She is part of a community, unlike Jim who is “in search of the American past” (Miller 101), and while Gatsby is part of a large social group, his connections are not genuine and lack integrity. Jim even declares he will go to Ántonia’s home country (Cather 237), to understand her history and consequently his own, which is rooted in her sense of kinship and tradition.
Ántonia’s journey has been one of self-discovery because she has not relied on the past, has established control over her destiny and is not unreasonable about her aspirations. She is a realist, unlike Gatsby or Jim. Despite having a child out of wedlock, she puts a photo of her baby on display at the town photographers illustrating how she is not embarrassed by her past and embraces its challenges. Despite the “sad spells” (Cather 343) Ántonia used to have in Black Hawk, she still grows from the experience, saying “I’d never have known anything about housekeeping or cooking if I hadn’t gone” (Cather 343) and that she is “glad [she] had the chance to learn” (Cather 344). By contrast, Jim’s failure to learn, to separate himself from his idealistic memories of Ántonia and the Nebraskan landscape, limits satisfaction in his career and marriage. “Ántonia’s strong sense of self contrasts sharply with Jim’s passivity and indecision, his inability to define self” (Harvey 54).
When Jim and Ántonia watch the plough gradually disappear, the “vision disappeared…dropped and dropped until the red tip went beneath the earth… that forgotten plough had shrunk back to its own littleness somewhere on the prairie” (Cather 245). Indeed, the rhythm of time will not wait for romanticised ‘vision’ regardless of how much that “picture” (Cather 245) is written onto the mind. However, while the plough is momentarily heroic before sinking back into oblivion, Jim asserts that Ántonia is not “forgotten” (Cather 245). She “had always been one to leave images in the mind that did not fade – that grew stronger with time” (Cather 352). Therefore, we can recognise how, rather than gradually lingering or diminishing, Jim’s nostalgia intensifies over time. His psyche is steadily overshadowed by the past as the plough is equally engulfed by the impending night.
Nevertheless, by the final pages of the novel, I believe Jim begins to realise that the past cannot live forever, idealistic visions of history will adapt and change over time. Initially, Jim says he was afraid to visit Ántonia after so many years because he “did not want to find her aged and broken… some memories are realities, and are better than anything that can ever happen to one again” (Cather 328). He does not want to tarnish his idealised image and cannot tolerate the effects of time and change. In this context, Margaret Atwood observed how farewells can be shattering, but returns are surely worse, “solid flesh can never live up to the bright shadow cast by its absence. Time and distance blur the edges; then suddenly the beloved has arrived and its noon with its merciless light” (76). Indeed, Jim is forced to view Ántonia in a new light and after twenty years, accept that his specific, nostalgic memories may not correlate with reality. She has aged physically and Jim cannot escape the progression of the seasons, life, death, growth and emotion.
Yet, despite Jim’s anxieties leading up to the reunion, he eventually feels “the changes grew less apparent to [him]” (Cather 331) and her identity becomes clearer despite the effects of time. Therefore, however strong the magnetism of the past, Cather urges Jim to realize how important it is to transgress from a reliance on nostalgia into an acceptable embracing of transformation. Despite having “the sense of coming home” (Cather 371), he “finds the whole face of the country changing” (Cather 306), and sees these transformations as “beautiful and harmonious” (Cather 306), emphasizing his increasingly positive attitude towards the future. I argue the last section of Cather’s novel places Jim, as Fitzgerald’s does Nick, in a liminal waiting space, deciding whether to move forward or fall backwards once again. He contemplates how he and Ántonia, “possessed together the precious, the incommunicable past” (Cather 372). Consequently, he is beginning to comprehend how some memories are forgotten and others cannot be described through language alone, how the past is always subjective and essentially indescribable due to distance.
In conclusion, while the love of memory drives Jim, Gatsby and Nick, it is their destructive nostalgia which ensnares them within a continual state of ‘nostos’ or return. As Vladimir Nabokov observed “it is all a matter of love: the more you love a memory, the stronger and stranger it is” (‘Nabokov Interviews’). Indeed, it is their devotion to and preoccupation with their memory which makes the past simultaneously illusory and compelling. I argue Fitzgerald and Cather illustrate why it is important to use memories to visualise the possibilities of a future. A failure to do so results in personal implosion. To remain in the past, be that attempting to recreate it or base an entire sense of self on it, is to exist in a reality that can never live up to memory. For memory changes truth and ‘truth’ is often subjective.
I believe Jim, unlike Gatsby, who never relinquishes his commitment to regeneration, eventually realises that the past is untouchable. Though he has spent several hundred pages campaigning otherwise, his conclusions are that the past is fundamentally “incommunicable” (Cather 372), inexpressive and therefore unrepeatable. Nick also starts to recognise how a preoccupation with the past limits the possibilities of a future. It traps us, beating against a strong current, where we are eventually bound to drown due to static fixation. History cannot be changed, it simply ‘is’, it exists, forever unreachable. All we can do is engage and learn, face forwards and walk confidently in the direction of the future. It is crucial we accept and “understand” (Howe 95) that the past, like the image of the green light and the plough, is transient, forever fading in and out of perspective, and should not be romanticised or reincarnated. Fixation on an individual, setting or period is futile because time, place, space, and the people inhabiting those spheres, are not static; they are prone to inevitable change.
It is my belief that Fitzgerald and Cather ask each reader, what of our own tendency to look to the past, our fondness for nostalgia, our predisposition to scavenge the memory boxes of our imagination when picturing our future?
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