The American Dream Explored in the Great Gatsby Essay
F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby is a novel drawn upon the vision of the 1920s American Dream. On a social level, the novel employs a sense of division where characters are differentiated by their class; however, it also extends to a geographical level that aims to parallel such distinction; the Buchanan’s live on the Westside and Jay Gatsby lives on the East. Fitzgerald attempts to extract both a sense of imprisonment and preservation as a direct result of prosperity. Nevertheless, through evoking the historical sense of the roaring twenties, which included organized crime as a channel to disobey the laws and a rapid economic growth generating widespread wealth, Fitzgerald reveals various themes that stem from the decay of morals and values in a period of corruption. Through an analysis of the development of such themes and their manifestations within the novel, the influence of money, crime, and corruption will be established in relation to the genuine death of an American Dream.
Fitzgerald’s narrator, Nick Carraway, is a young Princeton man who works as a bond broker in Manhattan. His neighbor at West Egg, Long Island, is Jay Gatsby. Gatsby is a self-made wealthy individual who is betrayed by his own dreams, which have been nurtured by a corrupt society. (Merriam-Webster, 488) The central focus on how Gatsby received his fortune can be explained by his dealings with organized crime, which does not at all adhere to the ‘guidelines’ of attaining the American Dream.
(Web/Online1) Nick also implies that immortality is the prevailing source of achieving wealth in society. (Fitzgerald, 1) To have a dream is to idealize success as a value crucial to survival, which is evident in the characters of Nick and Gatsby. Ronald Berman suggests that “the components of such a vision are a wonder on the encounter with a new reality; love greater than eros, but expressed by it; the annihilation of the mere self”. (Berman, 51) Nick addresses many things in the novel, for example, honor, and faith. He believes in: “the promises of life”. (Fitzgerald, 6) W.M. Verhoeven wrote specifically in his book, Rewriting the Dream, that “Gatsby is, above all, about the tragedy of the American Dream. Gatsby’s obsession with changing the past and returning to the time in which he and Daisy loved each other and he had the feeling that anything was possible to him”, which demonstrates a central irony within the novel—that our vast feelings of love and faith can only be directed at objects unable to contain them. (Berman, 50) Through the trivial lives of Tom and Daisy Buchanan, it can be seen that a failure exists even within the midst of wealth, as on an “individual-level” it illustrates the “tragic failure of America itself”. (Verhoeven, 15) Through this, Fitzgerald is demonstrating the conflict between both Tom and Gatsby, as Gatsby is the nouveau riche and Tom is the embodiment of the upper class.
In the first chapter, when Nick quotes his father as having said: “Whenever you feel like criticizing anyone, just remember that all the people in this world haven’t had the advantages that you’ve had” (Fitzgerald, 3), it does not represent a monetary ideal, but one of birth, which exemplifies equality and decency as a human being. The first chapter guides the readers’ understanding towards Nick’s views on all the rich people in
east side of society and also his views on Gatsby’s “vulgar materialism”. [Web/Online] Nick suggests in the novel:
“Only, Gatsby, the man who gives his name to this book,
was exempt to my reaction—Gatsby, who represented
everything for which I have unaffected scorn…there was
something gorgeous about him, some heightened sensitivity
to the promises of life…it was an extraordinary gift for hope,
a romantic readiness such as I have never found in any other
person and which is likely I shall never find again.” (Fitzgerald, 3-4)
The ‘extraordinary’ hope that Nick reveals is the hope for success, as is what the American Dream is all about. Moreover, when Nick visits the Buchanan’s, he describes their house as a “cheerful red-and-white Georgian Colonial Mansion”. (Fitzgerald, 9) The first perception of Tom Buchanan is that he is a very powerful and elite individual who expects “obedience from his subjects”. (Web/Online2) Fitzgerald communicates an almost fairytale vision of Tom’s house, his wife Daisy and Jordan Baker, as “we are ushered into the living room with its ‘frosted wedding cake’ ceiling (Fitzgerald, 10), its wine-colored rug, and its enormous couch on which are seated two princesses in white: Jordan Baker and Tom’s wife, Daisy Buchanan. Fitzgerald controls the whole scene through his use of colors–white and gold mainly–that suggest a combination of beauty and wealth.” (Web/Online2) However, apart from the rich colors, magnificent architecture and sense of power, there airs a discontent, in which is noticeable when
Jordan Baker yawns more than once in this very first scene. There is seemingly something cool and slightly “unpleasant about the atmosphere–something basically disturbing”. (Web/Online2) Moreover, Fitzgerald seems to underlie the idea of imprisonment, as his character Daisy says about her daughter’s birth: “’I’m glad it’s a girl. And I hope she’ll be a fool–that’s the best thing a girl can be in this world, a
beautiful little fool.’” (Fitzgerald, 13) To make such a distinct comment about the nature of her daughter and women in general illustrates her mere feelings of entrapment within her own lifestyle. Fitzgerald attempts to show that there is a foul and corrupt nature about Tom and Daisy even under the veneer of the white world; there is hollowness. Nick pointed out at the very beginning of the novel that: “Gatsby turned out all right at the end; it is what preyed on Gatsby, what foul dust floated in the wake of his dreams that temporarily closed out my interest in the abortive sorrows and short-winded elations of men.” (Fitzgerald, 6) Even in this opening chapter, we are getting hints that Tom and Daisy are part of this tainted aura. Similarly, it can be seen that Nick finds them quite insincere.
Alternatively, the geographical context of the novel, specifically illustrated by “the valley of the ashes” (Fitzgerald, 16), which is located halfway between West Egg and New York City, is a place in which morals are associated. A couple, George and Myrtle Wilson live in this area, and they are quite poor. Fitzgerald describes the people who live here as “ash-gray” and “dimly and already crumbling through the powdery air”. (Fitzgerald, 21) Many jobs in this area include the shoveling of the city’s ashes into the dump. The significance of this idea rests in Fitzgerald’s notion of the division in society and how there are victims from its corruption. Moreover, the inspiration of God is more widely viewed in this geographical area of the book, as can be clearly seen when Myrtle Wilson says to the giant: “God sees everything.” (Fitzgerald, 127) The American Dream is obviously not achieved in this sector of the social chain. Without wealth or material goods, these people are shunned and divided from the rest.
Additionally, Gatsby does not enter the novel until Chapter IV. Fitzgerald portrays Gatsby through the eyes of others prior to this, as Gatsby’s parties are described in various ways. Gatsby was extremely wealthy and he shared his wealth with others who came over to use his material belongings. He had a swimming pool, a station wagon, a Rolls, two motorboats, and a bar filled with liquor, which is described in the novel as including: “cordials so long forgotten that most of his female guests were too young to know one from another.” (Fitzgerald, 26) However, there is a corrupt side of Gatsby that is viewed as his business side. Meyer Wolfsheim is “a small flat-nosed Jew” (Fitzgerald, 44), who the reader learns about Gatsby’s connections “with a shady underworld”. (Web/Online2) The reader is able to gain a sense of understanding of how Gatsby receives his money. “Wolfsheim is modeled on the real-life figure of Arnold Rothstein, the man who helped fix the 1919 World Series.” (Web/Online2)
The breakthrough of Gatsby’s sleazy business transactions may infect his dreams for the readers and makes them question his greatness. When Wolfsheim mistakes Nick for one of Gatsby’s business friends, he asks him if he’s looking for a “connection”. (Fitzgerald, 45) However, he quickly changes subject once he realizes Nick is not a business associate.
Furthermore, Gatsby’s affection for Daisy reawakens when Gatsby tells Daisy about how he has watched the green light that burns at the end of her dock, this symbolizes his dream of wanting something more than life. (Fitzgerald, 60) In a way, this is what the American Dream offers to us all and to a metaphorical sense; the green
light can be seen as money also. Ironically, green is also the color of envy, which is why clearly it is a ‘dream’ to want what others may have. Gatsby likely believed that if he had Daisy then he would be truly happy forever. Once he does in fact ‘get’ her, the reader is able to notice the light as still being the light, which grows also with Nick’s wonder if Daisy is really as wonderful and magical as the idea of her. For Fitzgerald, it can be seen that his attempts to identify the American Dream in his novel, similarly identify the ideal that no matter what we think of a dream, we are drawn sadly to the fact that dreams themselves are often, perhaps more beautiful than dreams fulfilled. The past reflection of this leads to the present reality that Daisy has found Tom Buchanan, which shows her broken promise to Gatsby, telling him she will wait for him until the war ends. (Web/Online2)
Towards the end of the novel, Fitzgerald uses his character, Nick, to really identify Gatsby as a person. Although Nick disapproves of Gatsby from the beginning because of his vulgar materialism, his tasteless outfits, his “connection” with Meyer Wolfsheim, his love of a shallow woman, and his pathetic efforts to win her back—he is still not part of the corruption that the others are guilty of. Tom, Daisy, and Jordan are tainted socialites because they are selfish, cruel, and without morals. However, Gatsby only demonstrates such qualities on the surface, yet he is dedicated to his dream. It is this ‘dream’, the American Dream—his “incorruptible dream” (Fitzgerald, 98), that shows his will to survive. Janet Richards book, Human Nature After Darwin: A Philosophical
Introduction, suggests that at the end of the novel, Fitzgerald’s narrator reminds the reader that:
“carelessness that results in the destruction or diminution of human life is unforgivable. There is no guarantee that our beliefs about ourselves will be correct, no matter how carefully we weigh the evidence. But the more extensive our inquiry, the more secure we are against error. That, at least, is the hope of human rationality.” (Richards, 215)
- Berman, Ronald. The Great Gatsby: Modern Times. United States: Illinois Books
- Dillard, Mary., & Fitzgerald, F. Scott., Max Notes: F. Scott Fitzgerlad’s The Great
- Gatsby. Dallas: Research & Education Association, 2002.
- Fitzgerald, F. Scott. The Great Gatsby. Britain: Woodsworth Editions Limited, 1999.
- Verhoeven, W.M., ed. Rewriting the Dream: Reflections on the Changing American
Literary Canon. Amserdam: Editions Rudopi, 1992.
- Online Resources:
- Merriam-Webster’s Encyclopedia of Literature. Encyclopedia Brittanica. Merriam-
- Webster, April 1995. [Online] Available: http://books.google.ca/books?ie=UTF-8&hl=en&id=eKNK1YwHcQ4C&pg=PA488&lpg=PA488&dq=important+themes+in+the+great+gatsby&prev=http://books.google.ca/books%3Flr%3D%26q%3Dimportant%2Bthemes%2Bin%2Bthe%2Bgreat%2Bgatsby&sig=2FnRJuD6XO8jjrIsJbb6FeCiuL8 [Accessed December 12]
- http://web.syr.edu/~dwheeler/gatsby4themes.htm [Accessed December 13]