Like insects, reporters and gossipmongers swarm around Gatsby's mansion after his death. They immediately busy themselves with spreading grotesquely exaggerated stories about his murder, his life, and his relationships. Nick tries to give Gatsby a funeral as grand as his parties, but finds that Gatsby's enormous circle of acquaintances has suddenly evaporated. Many, like Tom and Daisy Buchanan, have simply skipped town, while others, including Meyer Wolfsheim and Kilpspringer, flatly refuse to attend the funeral.
Nick tracks down Gatsby's father, Henry C. Gatz, a solemn old man left helpless and distraught by the death of his son. Gatz shows Nick a book in which the young Gatsby kept a self-improvement schedule; nearly every minute of his day was meticulously planned. The only other attendee at Gatsby's funeral is Owl Eyes, the melancholy drunk who was so astonished by Gatsby's library.
Nick meets with Jordan Baker, who recalls their conversation about how bad drivers are only dangerous when two of them meet. She tells Nick that she and he are both "bad drivers," and are therefore a treacherous combination. When Nick ends their affair, she suddenly claims to be engaged to another man.
Months later, Nick runs into Tom Buchanan on New York's Fifth Avenue. Tom admits that it was he who sent Wilson to Gatsby's; he shows no remorse, however, and says that Gatsby deserved to die. Nick reflects that Tom and Daisy are capable only of cruelty and destruction; they are kept safe from the consequences of their actions by their fortress of wealth and privilege.
Nick, repulsed by the shallow and brutal East, determines to return to the Midwest. He reflects that he, the Buchanans, Gatsby, and Jordan are all Westerners who came east; perhaps they all possess some deficiency which makes them unsuitable to Eastern life. After Gatsby's death, the East is haunted, grotesque; the Midwest, by contrast, now seems as idyllic as a scene on a Christmas card.
Staring at the moon on his last night in West Egg, Nick imagines a primeval America, an America made for dreamers like Gatsby. The green light at the end of Daisy's dock is like the green continent of America, beckoning its legions of dreamers. Gatsby, for all his greatness, failed to realize that the American Dream was already dead when he began to dream it: his goals, the pursuit of wealth and status, had long since become empty and meaningless. Nick muses that contemporary Americans are "boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past"; any attempt to progress, to move forward, is ultimately futile.
The final line of The Great Gatsby is one of the most famous in American literature, and serves as a sort of epitaph for both Gatsby and the novel as a whole.
So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.
Here, Nick reveals Gatsby's lifelong quest to transcend his past as ultimately futile. In comparing this backward-driving force to the current of a river, Fitzgerald presents it as both inexorable and, in some sense, naturally determined. It is the inescapable lot of humanity to move backward. Therefore, any attempt at progress is the result of hubris and outsized ambition.
Nick, in reflecting on America as a whole, links its fate to Gatsby's. America, according to Fitzgerald, was founded on the ideals of progress and equality. The America envisioned by its founders was a land made for men like Gatsby: it was intended as a place where visionary dreamers could thrive. Instead, people like Tom and Daisy Buchanan have recreated the excesses of the European aristocracy in the New World. Gatsby, for all his wealth and greatness, could not become a part of their world; his noble attempt to engineer his own destiny was sabotaged by their cruelty and by the stunted quality of their imaginations. Fitzgerald's America is emphatically not a place where anything is possible: just as America has failed to transcend its European origins, Gatsby, too, cannot overcome the circumstances of his upbringing.
Though Nick worships Gatsby's courage and capacity for self-reinvention, he cannot approve of either his dishonesty or his criminal dealings. Gatsby, both while he is alive and after his death, poses an insoluble challenge to Nick's customary ways of thinking about the world. Nick firmly believes that the past determines who we are: he suggests that he, and all the novel's characters, are fundamentally Westerners, and thus intrinsically unsuited to life in the East. The West, though it was once emblematic of the American desire for progress, is presented in the novel's final pages as the seat of traditional morality, an idyllic heartland, in stark contrast to the greed and depravity of the East.
It is important to note that the Buchanans lived in East Egg, and Gatsby in West Egg; therefore, in gazing at the green light on Daisy's dock, Gatsby was looking East. The green light, like the green land of America itself, was once a symbol of hope; now, the original ideals of the American dream have deteriorated into the crass pursuit of wealth. In committing his extraordinary capacity for dreaming to his love for Daisy, Gatsby, too, devoted himself to nothing more than material gain. In Fitzgerald's grim version of the Roaring Twenties, Gatsby's ruin both mirrors and prefigures the ruin of America itself.