What diction, tone, and literary devices are used in the following passage from The Great Gatsby? How does it contribute to the book's development?

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 one fine morning——

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

Quick answer:

These are the last words in The Great Gatsby, and they continue the metaphor of the green light as a representation of hope, especially for the future. Nick Carraway likens the pursuit of a better future to taking a boat upstream, which emphasizes the difficulty in achieving a dream. He concludes by implying that the past is impossible to escape.

Expert Answers

An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

Fitzgerald uses the metaphor of the "green light" to signify the hoped-for future that we continue to believe is a possibility but that actually gets further and further away from us.  We think to ourselves, we didn't reach it yesterday, but tomorrow we will be sure to try harder, and so we convince ourselves that we cannot fail to achieve success.  We continue to believe that "one fine morning," our dreams will, in fact, be within our grasp and not somewhere in that distant future anymore.  However, despite our belief, we are actually pushed backward, further from our dream the more we try to achieve it.  Another metaphor compares us to boats that are "ceaselessly" pushed back by the current, a metaphor for reality that would prevent our hopes from coming true, for the failure of the American Dream.  

The level of diction here is standard: it exists above conversational/neutral (our everyday speech) and below elevated (language that is often considered sacred and so is rarely changed).  It is the kind of language that we often use in formal writing and the like.  Words such as orgiastic (instead of emotional or even frenzied, for example), eluded (instead of escaped or outran), and ceaselessly (instead of never stopping) help to indicate the diction level.  

Tone, in literature, refers to the author's feelings about the subject.  In this case, it does seem as though the author is in agreement with Nick Carraway, the narrator, as we have seen this description play out throughout the text.  Therefore, we might describe the tone as knowing or cynical.  

This passage essentially describes what Carraway (and, likely, Fitzgerald) believe to be the human condition, at least for Americans living during the 1920s.  There's this glitz and glamour about the age that comes from the clothing, the music, the dancing and entertainment industry.  However, there's a tragedy about it too: the idea that the American Dream is a fiction that everyone wanted to believe in but that people really were not able to achieve.  It was, simply, a "dream" in a true sense of the word.  And there is something quite tragic, if naively innocent, about people's commitment to their belief in the possibility that this dream could be made reality when, in reality, we cannot reach it.

Approved by eNotes Editorial
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

In this quote, Fitzgerald uses a metaphor to compare the future (and the fulfilment of one's personal goals) to the green light outside Daisy's house. He also uses personification to describe the future as a living thing which can be chased and caught by the likes of Jay Gatsby.

Initially, the tone of this quote is hopeful and optimistic.  It is based on the idea that we must overcome failure by continually striving for success. In other words, we must never give up, just as Gatsby never stopped trying to be with Daisy.

But the tone changes towards the end of the quote, becoming more pessimistic. The idea of the boat being "borne back," for example, highlights the idea that no matter how hard Gatsby tried to win back Daisy, he was never successful. Moreover, he paid the ultimate price since he lost his life in his pursuit of Daisy.

In the wider context, then, this quote describes the failure of the American Dream because it negates the idea that if we keep trying, we will eventually achieve our goals. While this is best applicable to Gatsby, remember that none of the characters in this book achieve the life they truly want. Nick, for instance, returns disheartened to the Midwest while Daisy is destined to spend her life in a loveless marriage to Tom.

Approved by eNotes Editorial
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

The literary device used in this passage is an extended metaphor in which all of humanity, Gatsby included, is heading towards the green light at the end of Daisy's dock. This light is a symbol not only of Gatsby's love for Daisy but also Americans' quest to achieve the proverbial American Dream of greater wealth and higher status. Later, in another metaphor, humanity is compared to boats that are constantly beaten back by the tides so that they never make any progress. 

The diction in this passage is elevated, in that it does not use much informal language. The syntax is fragmented, as there are parts of sentences such as "And one fine morning..." These thoughts are not completed, much as people's wishes are not completed and these syntactical choices contribute to the overall cynical tone of the passage. 

The significance of this passage is that it expresses our collective hopes for a better future, as well as expressing Gatsby's hopes to achieve the American Dream of climbing the social ladder and earning great wealth. Gatsby does not achieve these hopes by the end of the novel, and Fitzgerald expresses that we won't either, though we will keep trying. 

See eNotes Ad-Free

Start your 48-hour free trial to get access to more than 30,000 additional guides and more than 350,000 Homework Help questions answered by our experts.

Get 48 Hours Free Access
Approved by eNotes Editorial