First published in 1925, The Great Gatsby is a novel by American author F. Scott Fitzgerald. It is widely considered as one of the greatest works in English literature and along with Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, it is the foremost contender for the title of the “Great American Novel”. Many lines from the book are still analyzed by enthusiasts and several have become legendary. Here are the 10 most famous quotations from The Great Gatsby with their explanation.

 

#10    “I like large parties. They’re so intimate. At small parties there isn’t any privacy.”

Jordan Baker (Chapter 3)

Elizabeth Debicki as Jordan Baker in the The Great Gatsby
Elizabeth Debicki as Jordan Baker in the 2013 film on The Great Gatsby

Baker says these words to Nick Carraway at a party thrown by Jay Gatsby. Though they seem absurd, they actually make sense in a way. At a small gathering, everyone is expected to contribute to the topic being discussed and it is difficult to have a one-on-one conversation with someone without being overheard. Also, everyone is aware of what is happening and what is being said. While a large party provides an opportunity to have intimate discussions in small groups as there are so many people and so much happening. Also, there is no social expectation to talk to all who are present at the party.

 

#9   “There are only the pursued, the pursuing, the busy, and the tired”

– Nick Carraway, as the narrator (Chapter 4)

This phrase echoes in Nick’s ears while he puts his arm around Jordan Baker. It categorizes people into four types according to their state in romance – the ones who are being pursued, the ones who are pursuing someone, the ones who are busy in a relationship and the ones who have grown tired of it all.

 

#8   “Let us learn to show our friendship for a man when he is alive and not after he is dead.”

– Meyer Wolfshiem (Chapter 9)

This famous line is said by Wolfshiem while giving an excuse to Nick Carraway when Nick presses him to attend Jay Gatsby’s funeral. It simply means that one should faithfully honor one’s friendship to a person while he is alive and that it is pointless to remorse and display your love for him when he is no more.

 

#7   “He smiled understandingly-much more than understandingly. It was one of those rare smiles with a quality of eternal reassurance in it, that you may come across four or five times in life. It faced–or seemed to face–the whole eternal world for an instant, and then concentrated on you with an irresistible prejudice in your favor. It understood you just as far as you wanted to be understood, believed in you as you would like to believe in yourself, and assured you that it had precisely the impression of you that, at your best, you hoped to convey.”

– Nick Carraway, as the narrator (Chapter 3)

This famous description of Gatsby’s smile is the first time Nick talks in detail about a trait of Gatsby, giving the reader an insight into his character. He says that the smile is such that you might come across it no more than four or five times in your life. It gave you the feeling that Gatsby had chosen you out of the whole external world and perceived the best impression you could possibly hope to convey. Gatsby’s smile can be linked to his earlier defined quality of having an ‘extraordinary gift for hope’. The trait of optimism can be inferred from this line which would be essential in making his smile as special as it has been described.

Leonardo DiCaprio as Jay Gatsby
Leonardo DiCaprio as Jay Gatsby in the 2013 film adaptation of The Great Gatsby

 

#6    “They’re a rotten crowd… You’re worth the whole damn bunch put together.”

– Nick Carraway (Chapter 8)

Nick shouts these words across the lawn to Gatsby as the novel nears its end. This is his final statement to Gatsby before Gatsby is killed. Nick goes on to say that he is glad he said that as it was the only compliment he ever gave Gatsby. Nick believes and conveys to Gatsby that his virtues would weigh as much as all the virtues combined of the entire rotten lot he is with. The ‘whole damn bunch’ refers to Daisy, Tom and Jordan; and more widely to high society.

Tobey Maguire as Nick Carraway in The Great Gatsby
Tobey Maguire portraying Nick Carraway in the 2013 film The Great Gatsby

 

#5   “The truth was that Jay Gatsby, of West Egg, Long Island, sprang from his Platonic conception of himself. He was a son of God—a phrase which, if it means anything, means just that—and he must be about His Father’s business, the service of a vast, vulgar, and meretricious beauty. So he invented just the sort of Jay Gatsby that a seventeen year old boy would be likely to invent, and to this conception he was faithful to the end.”

– Nick Carraway, as the narrator (Chapter 6)

The Great Gatsby book cover of the first edition
Cover of the first edition (1925) of The Great Gatsby

This is perhaps the most insightful description of Jay Gatsby’s character given by Nick Carraway in the novel. He says that Gatsby, as we was, rose from his own ideal concept of himself which he invented when he was seventeen and then faithfully stuck to it till the very end. The lines suggest that Gatsby is a self-made man and has stuck to his idea of himself. Nick also compares Gatsby to Jesus. Fitzgerald perhaps compares the pursuit of Christ to serve the flawed world to Gatsby’s flawed dream which appears beautiful to him but actually has no real value. The comparison may also be in reference to Ernest Renan’s “The Life of Jesus”, where Christ is described as a man who created the illusion for himself that he was divine, and brought himself to ruin by refusing to recognize the reality that denied his self-conception.

 

#4   “Can’t repeat the past? … Why of course you can!”

Jay Gatsby (Chapter 6)

This line is Gatsby’s famous response to Nick when Nick tells him, “You can’t repeat the past”. It underlines Gatsby’s unrealistic desire of recreating the past exactly as it was to attain a perfect future. He not only wants the present to be like the time when he and Daisy were together but also wants to erase the last five years in which they weren’t. In another scene in the novel it is not enough for Gatsby for Daisy to say that she loves him but he wants her to also say that she never loved Tom. The impossibility of Gatsby’s dream to be realized entirely is one of the most important aspects of the novel through which Fitzgerald hints at the impossibility of attaining the American dream.

 

#3   “They were careless people, Tom and Daisy – they smashed up things and creatures and then retreated back into their money or their vast carelessness or whatever it was that kept them together, and let other people clean up the mess they had made.”

– Nick Carraway, as the narrator (Chapter 9)

F. Scott Fitzgerald in 1921
F. Scott Fitzgerald, the author of The Great Gatsby, in 1921

The last passage of Great Gatsby is considered one of the saddest in American literature. It comments on the profound complexity of differentiating between guilt and innocence; and shows us how unfair our society is. This line gives us Nick’s take on Daisy and Tom, who according to him care little about how their actions would impact the lives of others as they have the luxury to go back to the comfort of their money and carelessness; while others are left to suffer the dire consequences of their irresponsible actions. Through these words, Nick not only describes the attitude of two important characters of the novel but also shows how the inability to care for anything can be more monstrous than outright cruelty.

 

#2   “I hope she’ll be a fool—that’s the best thing a girl can be in this world, a beautiful little fool.”

– Daisy Buchanan (Chapter 1)

Daisy says these words in the presence of Nick and Jordan while her husband Tom is probably conversing with his mistress. The line is spoken in context to the situation of females at the time in high society. Daisy is cynical about her child’s future hoping she will be such a fool that she wouldn’t be able to perceive the ills of men in this male dominated society. She believes beauty and lack of intelligence to see through things are the best qualities a woman can possess to lead a comfortable and happy life in this world. The words said by Daisy give an insight to her ability to discern; and about her being unsatisfied and downhearted with her present situation in which her husband is cheating on her.

 

#1   “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—tomorrow we will run faster, stretch out our arms farther. . . . And then one fine morning—
So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.”

– Nick Carraway, as the narrator (Chapter 9)

These are the most famous lines in the novel and the words with which Nick Carraway concludes his story. The green light, which Gatsby stares at, at the beginning of the novel, is one of the most famous symbols ever used in literature. It represents Jay Gatsby’s longing to reunite with Daisy, a ‘foul dusted’ dream he pursues throughout the novel. Here, Fitzgerald directly links Gatsby’s dream to the American dream to attain a fulfilling future, which he believes is moving farther away with their efforts. He adds that despite this, in future, people will try harder to attain more and more till one day it will all be over, like it was for Gatsby. In the last line, Fitzgerald compares the American dream to a boat making an effort to travel against the current. Like the boat, the dream, instead of moving towards realization, is being pushed back into the past. Fitzgerald is neither approving nor cynical about the American dream but reveals, what according to him, is its true melancholy nature.

Gatsby staring at the green light
A depiction of Jay Gatsby staring at the green light

 

A Dream Denied to Fitzgerald

When The Great Gatsby was first released, it sold fewer than 20,000 copies. The reviews were mixed and the novel was considered a failure. However, Fitzgerald did receive praise for his work from several renowned literary figures including T. S. Eliot and Edith Wharton. F. Scott Fitzgerald died on December 21, 1940 believing, what now is considered his magnum opus, to be a forgotten work. There was a surge in interest in the novel during the Second World War and by 1960 it was selling 50,000 copies per year. In 1998, it was voted by the Modern Library as the best American novel of the twentieth century. The Great Gatsby has sold over 25 million copies worldwide as of 2013 and annually sells an additional 500,000 copies.

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