I'm immersed in a wonderful book at the moment called "Careless People: Murder, Mayhem and The Invention Of The Great Gatsby" by Sarah Churchwell. Part research, part pleasure, the book examines the real-life events which inspired Fitzgerald's writing.
Those of you who have read/seen a film version of The Great Gatsby will know of the protagonist's pursuit of Daisy Fay Buchanan. Gatsby's blind devotion will eventually lead him down the path of no return. But early on in the story, the audience is introduced to one of the most famous and poignant symbols in literature: the green light.
The scene is set as follows: the narrator, Nick Carraway, is on his way back to his modest home after having dinner with his cousin, who is none other than Daisy. In the distance, at the dock, he sees his infamous neighbour for the first time. Nick goes to call out a greeting, but is stopped in his tracks as he watches Gatsby, trembling, stretching his arm in the night air.
Trying to figure out what Gatsby is reaching for, Nick can distinguish nothing except "a single green light, minute and far away, that might of been the end of a dock."
For years, readers have debated the meaning of the green light. Green for envy? For money? The encouragement to proceed? In my humble opinion, it is all these things and none of these things and so much more.
The flashing green light represents Gatsby's desires and ambition and everything he has spent his adult life working towards. He is self-created myth, a man who rose himself up from poverty to acquire one thing: Daisy.
After meeting her when he was younger, Gatsby fell madly in love with Daisy; with her beauty, her charm, her essence. But despite his army uniform, he was a penniless boy without the money or connections necessary to be worthy of her love. He goes to seek and make his fortune, to build his status in the hopes of one day, having Daisy for his own. Years later, after Daisy has married the cruel and horrible Tom Buchanan, Gatsby buys a home in Long Island - right across the bay from Daisy's.
The green light which Nick sees Gatsby so desperately grasping for is his raison d'être . It's the door to a world he has always been shut out from. It is old money and older families of high society breeding. It's the love of his life - all bound up in a flashing light that, no matter how hard he tries, Gatsby can never reach.
We all have our own green lights. They're different to each one of us, but they exist. They're transient, changing as we get older to match our evolving perspective. But everyone of us can identify with the heavy lust of a desire that is just beyond our reach.
Gatsby is unable and unwilling to see that he will never touch that light. It doesn't matter how rich he becomes or how grand and popular his parties are: he will forever be a shady dealer of indistinguishable origin to people like The Buchanan's.
I wonder how many of us fail to see the futility in our own pursuits. Not every green light is so illusive. Not all the striving to obtain it is bad. But once in a blue moon, you can find yourself in the dock next to Gatsby, reaching for the impossible. Doing so makes you feel weak. It makes you feel worthless. It makes you plead with a God you're not sure you believe in to just grant you this, please.
Yet, we persist. Why? Because we can no more quash our desires than we can control them. By their very nature, they're are unstoppable forces crashing into immovable objects, covering you with sparks and shrapnel.
While you might always want something, it doesn't mean you have to always chase it. Particularly when it hurts you. Especially when you have done everything you can to grasp it in your palm.
Instead, you can choose to whisper to it what could've been, and then walk away from the dock.