What does the ending of The Great Gatsby mean?

The ending of The Great Gatsby centers around Nick's reflections on the impossibility of turning back the hands of time to return to the past.

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In the final paragraphs of The Great Gatsby, Nick ponders the way the land upon which he stands must have looked to the Dutch explorers who landed there for the first time. They must have seen the possibilities of righting the mistakes of the past as they stepped onto...

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In the final paragraphs of The Great Gatsby, Nick ponders the way the land upon which he stands must have looked to the Dutch explorers who landed there for the first time. They must have seen the possibilities of righting the mistakes of the past as they stepped onto its shores. However, that beautiful land was eventually corrupted as mankind tore into it to create things they wanted and needed.

Like these men, Gatsby had looked to the past, risking everything to try to correct the mistakes that had separated him from Daisy. He had stood looking over this same expanse of water, finally closer than ever to his dream.

Yet it was all futile. Nick reflects,

So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.

By this, Nick means that though we are compelled to revisit the past, it is a hopeless feat. Nevertheless, we "beat on," getting into our metaphorical boats and facing a hopeless current while we chase an unattainable dream in the past.

Gatsby's experience showed Nick that we "can't repeat the past." Yet it is the possibility of doing so—of returning to some ideal state in the past—that causes us to wake up again tomorrow, stretching ourselves just a little bit more as we try to lay claim to our dreams, just as the Dutch sailors and Gatsby attempted to do.

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