'The Great Gatsby' Quotes Explained

The following quotes from The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald are some of the most recognizable lines in American literature. The novel, which follows the pursuit of pleasure by the wealthy elites of the New York Jazz Age, deals with themes of love, idealism, nostalgia, and illusion. In the quotes that follow, we'll analyze how Fitzgerald conveys these themes.

"A Beautiful Little Fool..."

“I hope she'll be a fool – that's the best thing a girl can be in this world, a beautiful little fool.” (Chapter 1)

Daisy Buchanan is talking about her young daughter when she makes this seemingly-unfeeling statement. In reality, this quote demonstrates a rare moment of sensitivity and self-awareness for Daisy. Her words show a deep understanding of the world around her, particularly the idea that society rewards women for being foolish rather than smart and ambitious. This statement adds greater depth to Daisy's character, suggesting that perhaps her lifestyle is an active choice rather than the result of a frivolous mindset.

Nick Describes Gatsby

“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.” (Chapter 3)

The novel’s narrator, young salesman Nick Carraway, describes Jay Gatsby thusly when he first encounters the man in person. In this description, focused on Gatsby’s particular manner of smiling, he captures Gatsby’s easy, assured, almost magnetic charisma. A huge part of Gatsby’s appeal is his ability to make anyone feel like the most important person in the room. This quality mirrors Nick’s own early perceptions of Gatsby: feeling unusually lucky to be his friend, when so many others never even meet him in person. However, this passage also foreshadows Gatsby’s showmanship and ability to put on whatever mask someone wants to see.

"Moths Among the Whisperings..."

"In his blue gardens men and girls came and went like moths among the whisperings and the champagne and the stars." (Chapter 3)

Although The Great Gatsby is often held up as a celebration of Jazz Age culture, it’s actually the opposite, often critiquing the era’s carefree hedonism. Fitzgerald’s language here captures the beautiful but impermanent nature of the wealthy’s lifestyle. Like moths, they’re always attracted to whatever the brightest light happens to be, flitting away when something else grabs their attention. Stars, champagne, and whisperings are all romantic but temporary and, ultimately, useless. Everything about their lives is very beautiful and full of sparkle and shine, but disappears when the harsh light of day—or reality—appears.

Gatsby's Perception of Daisy

 “No amount of fire or freshness can challenge what a man will store up in his ghostly heart.” (Chapter 5)

As Nick reflects on Gatsby’s opinion of Daisy, he realizes how much Gatsby has built her up in his mind, so much so that no real person could ever live up to the fantasy. After meeting and being separated from Daisy, Gatsby spent years idealizing and romanticizing his memory of her, turning her into more illusion than woman. By the time they meet again, Daisy has grown and changed; she is a real and flawed human who could never measure up to Gatsby’s image of her. Gatsby continues to love Daisy, but whether he loves the real Daisy or simply the fantasy he believes her to be remains unclear.

"Can't Repeat the Past?"

“Can’t repeat the past?…Why of course you can!” (Chapter 6)

If there’s one statement that sums up Gatsby’s entire philosophy, this is it. Throughout his adult life, Gatsby’s goal has been to recapture the past. Specifically, he longs to recapture the past romance he had with Daisy. Nick, the realist, tries to point out that recapturing the past is impossible, but Gatsby utterly rejects that idea. Instead, he believes that money is the key to happiness, reasoning that if you have enough money, you can make even the wildest dreams come true. We see this belief in action with Gatsby's wild parties, thrown just to attract Daisy’s attention, and his insistence on rekindling his affair with her.

Notably, however, Gatsby's entire identity stemmed from his initial attempt to escape his poor background, which is what motivated him to create the persona of "Jay Gatsby."

The Final Line

“So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.” (Chapter 9)

This sentence is the final line of the novel, and one of the most famous lines in all of literature. By this point, Nick, the narrator, has become disillusioned with Gatsby's hedonistic displays of wealth. He has seen how Gatsby’s fruitless, desperate quest—to escape his past identity and recapture his past romance with Daisy—destroyed him. Ultimately, no amount of money or time was enough to win Daisy, and none of the novel's characters were able to escape the limitations imposed by their own pasts. This final statement serves as a commentary on the very concept of the American dream, which claims that anyone can be anything, if only they work hard enough. With this sentence, the novel seems to suggest that such hard work will prove futile, because the “currents” of nature or society will always push one back towards the past. 

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Prahl, Amanda. "'The Great Gatsby' Quotes Explained." ThoughtCo, Sep. 8, 2021, thoughtco.com/the-great-gatsby-quotes-739952. Prahl, Amanda. (2021, September 8). 'The Great Gatsby' Quotes Explained. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/the-great-gatsby-quotes-739952 Prahl, Amanda. "'The Great Gatsby' Quotes Explained." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/the-great-gatsby-quotes-739952 (accessed March 21, 2023).