[H]e stretched out his arms toward the dark water in a curious way, and, far as I was from him, I could have sworn he was trembling. Involuntarily I glanced seaward—and distinguished nothing except a single green light, minute and far away, that might have been at the end of a dock.
Nick relates how, after arriving home from his first dinner with Tom, Daisy, and Jordan, he sees his neighbor, Gatsby, standing on the lawn, reaching toward the green light that Nick eventually learns is situated at the end of Daisy’s dock. Nick has not yet met Gatsby but has noted his opulent house and extravagant parties. Nick also notes that, despite his material possessions and wealth, Gatsby is still yearning for something just beyond his grasp as his trembling arms stretch out toward the green light.
“If it wasn’t for the mist we could see your home across the bay,” said Gatsby. “You always have a green light that burns all night at the end of your dock.”
Gatsby speaks to Daisy during their first meeting as he shows her around his house. This statement is the first time Gatsby explicitly states that the green light belongs to Daisy’s house, revealing why Nick has seen him reaching out for it. Gatsby, believing that Daisy has been in love with him all these years as he has been with her, does not feel self-conscious admitting that he watches her dock all night long. He seems to feel that just by being in her presence, he has won her affection as well.
Possibly it had occurred to him that the colossal significance of that light had now vanished forever. Compared to the great distance that had separated him from Daisy it had seemed very near to her, almost touching her. It had seemed as close as a star to the moon. Now it was again a green light on a dock. His count of enchanted objects had diminished by one.
After Gatsby mentions to Daisy that he can see her green light from his house, Nick notices that Gatsby is absorbed in his own thoughts. Now that Gatsby has Daisy in his company, Nick considers the possibility that the green light has no meaning anymore. It seems that for Gatsby, the yearning for and dreaming of Daisy may be more satisfying than actually being with her in person.
And as I sat there brooding on the old, unknown world, I thought of Gatsby’s wonder when he first picked out the green light at the end of Daisy’s dock.
On Nick’s last night in Long Island, he looks into the sky and contemplates how the early American settlers must have felt when they first saw the same shoreline he is currently on. He compares their wonder at the new world and its infinite possibilities with that of Gatsby’s wonder at having Daisy just out of his reach. The green light is a symbol not only of Gatsby’s desire for Daisy but also of the American dream in general, which is often just out of most people’s grasp.
Gatsby believed in the green light, the orgastic future that year by year recedes before us.
Here, Nick explains what made Gatsby so different from most of the characters in the novel: his sense of hope and belief in the American dream. More than anyone else in the novel, Gatsby attained great social mobility, starting from a modest childhood and becoming an extremely wealthy man. Although he didn’t achieve his ultimate goal in marrying Daisy, his steadfast and almost childlike belief in the green light and the American dream is what made him, in Nick’s words, “[turn] out all right at the end” and “worth the whole damn bunch put together.”