Warning: This is a post about why I have a literary tattoo. It’s not a review of The Great Gatsby (book or movie) nor does it have anything to do with Stieg Larsson.
With the new movie coming out, I’ve been getting more and more questions about a particular tattoo I have on my right forearm. It reads “Gatsby believed in the green light” in a simple, almost-script writing.
Many people who have asked about this tattoo have a vague memory of Gatsby from school. They know they’ve encountered that name somewhere in the past, though they usually struggle for a more specific context. And then there’s the light of realization when the lessons from high school English classes click into place. “Oh yeah, like The Great Gatsby, right?” Right. And lately, of course, there’s been a lot of hype about the movie. (I am on vacation at the moment and haven’t seen it yet. Have you?)
Most people did not have a very good time being forced in a high school American Literature class to read this tale of the doomed Jazz Age generation . And I can’t say that I was overwhelmed with it on my first reading, either. Being a 16-year-old sophomore, I don’t think I was mature enough to understand the love, hate, malaise, and — ultimately — hope that F. Scott Fitzgerald put into his short tale. But as I’ve matured, I’ve re-read the novel many times and I’ve truly come to love it. Really. Enough to get one of the lines permanently tattooed on my arm.
The lines that I chose for the tattoo begin the last passage of the book:
Gatsby believed in the green light, the orgiastic 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.
Our narrator Nick Carraway has returned to Gatsby’s beautiful mansion in the wake of [SPOILER ALERT] Gatsby’s death. Nick sits on the beach behind the house meditating on the story he has just told, one that has changed his own life and, he hopes, will influence us as well. He looks out over the water and sees the green light at the end of Daisy Buchanan’s dock. (Daisy is the woman Gatsby desires to win, the impetus behind all of his striving for wealth and fame.) Nick realizes that, throughout the story, the green light has become synonymous with a desire for something better, a belief that love is waiting for him, and that Gatsby can, in fact, achieve his goal and reach his dreams. The green light, for Gatsby, is hope.
The words at the end of the book, the ones I have tattooed on my forearm, remind me of this hope, this striving for a dream — even when the world, and sometimes your own mind, says that you can’t have or don’t deserve it.
This has become something of a mantra for me in my life, especially lately, when I am writing and I have moments where I think “what the hell am I doing?!” The lines remind me to persevere. Even though Gatsby is, ultimately, a tragedy, for me there’s a kind of infinite hope in the character that draws me in.
In addition to the meaning behind it, I love Fitzgerald’s prose at this moment in the novel. The entire last two pages of the book are beautiful enough to bring me to tears, no matter when I read them. All of the lost love, hope, and life that has been building in the novel is poured out in a few magnificent paragraphs.
So, for me, Gatsby is a symbol of hope and belief and life and love. I got the tattoo to remind me what great literature and writing can do.
And because I’m a total lit nerd.
P.S. If you need a Gatsby refresher, check out these excellent videos from Crash Course. Here’s Part 1 & Part 2.
*This post was adapted from my original blog post here.*
So, what’s your relationship to Gatsby? Or do you have nerdy tattoos to share? If you’ve seen the new movie, what did you think?