The problem of American dreams is closely related to the problem of how to deal with the past. America was founded through a dramatic declaration of independence from its own past—its European roots—and it promises its citizens the potential for unlimited advancement, regardless of where they come from or how poor their backgrounds are. Gatsby’s failure suggests that it may be impossible for one to disown one’s past so completely. There seems to be an impossible divide separating Gatsby and Daisy, which is certainly part of her allure for him. This divide clearly comes from their different backgrounds and social contexts.
Throughout the novel, Nick’s judgments of the other characters are based in the values that he inherited from his father, the moral “privileges” that he refers to in the opening pages. Nick’s values, so strongly rooted in the past, give him the ability to make sense out of everything in the novel except for Gatsby. In Nick’s eyes, Gatsby embodies an ability to dream and to escape the past that may ultimately be impossible, but that Nick cherishes and values nonetheless. The Great Gatsby represents Nick’s struggle to integrate his own sense of the importance of the past with the freedom from the past envisioned by Gatsby.