This novel is much more of a critique of American ideals than a work that embraces those ideals. It was written during an era in which belief in the American Dream— the idea that someone can come from nothing and achieve success and wealth and happiness with simple hard work and perseverance—was high. However, the novel shows that the American Dream is not realistic, that it is only a fantasy. George Wilson, for example, works very hard, honestly toiling away in order to improve life for himself and his wife, and yet he never makes any headway. Jay Gatsby, on the other hand, appears to have achieved the Dream, until we realize that all of his money has been made illegally, and the American Dream cannot be achieved through criminal endeavors. In the end, Nick Carraway, the narrator, says,
"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—to-morrow we will run faster, stretch out our arms farther . . . . And one fine morning—
So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past."
That green light functions as a symbol for the American Dream itself, the promise of possibility that characters in the novel can never quite reach. They, and we, might continue to believe that if we just work harder, for one more day, we will get there, but we never do, and—for Fitzgerald, it seems —we never can. The current keeps pushing us further and further from our goal.