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“The Great Gatsby” and the American Dream

“The Great Gatsby”, as with a number of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s novels, has a central concern with the American Dream. It is a dream of “self-betterment, wealth, and success through hard work and perseverance”1. In its simplest form it is the belief that everybody has the opportunity to accomplish their heart’s desire. It is this desire that helps form our opinions on a character in the novel and can ultimately lead to their downfall. The question then is, does the demise of Fitzgerald’s characters, most notably James Gatz mean that “The Great Gatsby” is a novel showing the failures of the American dream; that it is a dream no longer relevant to modern life and the simple men can’t hope to better themselves. We see this exemplified in a line from Klipspringer’s song; “The rich get richer and the poor get – children”. The answer to that question is a resounding yes, but I believe that Fitzgerald redeems some aspects of the America Dream, a man who at the time of writing was enjoying the short lived, material, positive aspects of this dream.

While Nick admires Jay unequivocally, the first time we hear of Gatsby our narrator writes, “Gatsby, who represented everything for which I have an unaffected scorn”. These opposing emotions can live together in Nick because Gatsby can be seen to represent two differing versions of the American Dream at once, each also apparent in other characters in the book. In James Gatz one version is only there in an attempt to realise the other, more important (for him at least) interpretation. Gatsby’s quest for wealth is simply because he sees money as the way to Daisy, the more important goal for him. Gatsby’s ultimate goal is one of the things that can be used to represent one of the versions of the American Dream. This is the one that can be seen as more wholesome, Gatsby’s perseverance in pursuing Daisy is one of the qualities that we like and admire in Gatsby. This is the idealised American Dream that makes Gatsby “great” and has been evident in his life even before he met Daisy. James Gatz’s attempts to better himself as a person fit in with this idealized version, removed from the corrupt, money-loving version we see represented by Daisy at times. Gatsby’s schedule shows how he was striving to improve himself, his father told Nick, “He always had some resolves like this or something.” This side of the American Dream, shown through admirable characteristics of self-improvement and hard-work and perseverance, is what is missing for Tom and Daisy, who are happy just to be wealthy, and leads Nick to note that Daisy has an “absence of all desire”. They live with a different version of the American Dream than that which I have so far shown in Gatsby, though the materialistic side of the dream is also in him, in fact it is the reason James Gatz became Jay Gatsby. While you can argue whether or not it is the only reason, Jay’s main reason for desiring wealth is because he sees it as a means to win Daisy over. This is why Gatsby deals in the criminal underworld and associates with Meyer Wolfshiem, the mysterious callers from Philadelphia and Chicago and, of course, the infamous “underground pipe-line to Canada”. This is also why Gatsby is so keen to show Daisy his house and his many shirts; they are a sign of his wealth and what he thinks will change her mind from her earlier rejection of his love. This also explains the recklessness Gatsby seems to show with his money in throwing constant huge parties for people he doesn’t even know. He hopes that Daisy will sooner or later walk into one and will see how his status has changed. After one of the parties Nick comments; ” a sudden emptiness seemed to flow now from the windows and the great doors, endowing with complete isolation the figure of the host”. Gatsby keeps throwing the elaborate parties not because he wants to spend time with any of the guests that are there, but that his lost love may eventually wonder into his home. We also have to remember that he only really befriends Nick as he is a link to Daisy, though their friendship grows beyond this.

Nick and the readers have ambiguous feelings towards Gatsby because he is a criminal, yet does it to achieve something so pure with an admirable, eternal hope. We also dismiss a lot of Gatsby’s illegal involvement with the “underground pipe-line to Canada” because prohibition isn’t a part of our life, and the people making the accusations are under the influence of Gatsby’s alcohol. There is also his name; we are so aquatinted with Jay Gatsby that his legal name is irrelevant to us and all the characters except for his father. In short Jay can over come our limited hatred of his illegal actions because we love how he has “an ideal conception of who he [is], which [is] in accord with Plato’s belief that true reality lies in an ideal realm, beyond the material world that we encounter daily through our senses.”2 This link with Plato is born from Nick’s comment on Jay’s “platonic conception of himself”.

As well as Gatsby, we see a number of characters in the novel that are following a dream. Myrtle is similar to Gatsby in that her dream is to escape her reality and join a higher class in society. The difference between her and Jay is that this is the entirety of her dream, for Gatsby it is only the means to attaining his ultimate goal, Daisy. Myrtle can’t be blamed solely for her materialistic nature, she is partly a product of the post-war twenties in America, where the economic boom had made a lot of items available to the masses and advertising had fuelled this desire. Myrtle’s husband George may also be criticised because he persistently asks Tom for the blue coup�. However George needs this car to survive; he is not like Tom who can bring a fleet of horses across the country, a fact that amazes Nick. George could be seen as the traditional American hero. He has worked hard every day of his life at building up his own business to earn money for the wife he loves but the supposed American Dream doesn’t ring true for him. The difference between George and Jay is that jay has a far greater determination; he keeps on working to achieve his goals, no matter how slim his chances of success are. George resigns himself to defeat with his suicide. George doesn’t enjoy the financial rewards that Tom found at birth, and his life seems to be devoid of any happiness. The biggest contributing factor to his downfall is Tom Buchanan, half of the couple that “smashed up things and creatures and then retreated back into their money or their vast carelessness”. He uses George’s wife as a plaything that he would throw away if things ever became inconvenient for him, just like he did with the chambermaid from the Santa Barbara Hotel. He doesn’t understand how important his actions could be to the Wilsons or Daisy. Here is America’s self-centred upper class that has held George back, though become role models for people like Myrtle and the other readers of “Town Tattler”. His life ends in the most tragic way – a suicide. This is after he has killed the novel’s hero and the other symbol of the admirable version of the American Dream, Jay. However the catalyst in this bloodbath, Tom, is unaffected, and we can compare him and his part in the victims’ lives with Nick’s description of the death car, “[it] didn’t stop; it came out of the gathering darkness, wavered tragically for a moment, and then disappeared around the next bend”.

Daisy’s can be seen as a destructive character like her husband Tom, but we shy away from this because we feel pity for her. What is sad about her dream is that her materialistic desires are born from a longing for security. She didn’t want to take a chance with Jay when he was in the army, and she doesn’t want to risk her future on the precarious wealth that Gatsby has earned from crime. This is even though she knows Tom is having an affair and isn’t really too sure about Goddard’s books at all. No, Daisy is happy with Tom because she is safe; she needs to secure her world on more than a fairy’s wing. Unlike Gatsby, she doesn’t have a schedule and is left wondering what she will do “this afternoon…and the day after that, and the next thirty years?” In the end it is her lack of desire that should end Gatsby’s, but he dies still waiting for her to call. Daisy and Tom will continue “smash[ing] up things and creatures and then retreat[ing] back into their money or their vast carelessness”.

It is therefore not as simple as saying that the novel either illustrates the failure of the American Dream or proves it still to be relevant. It fails the novel’s characters, but we are still attracted to Jay Gatsby and impressed that his dream has inspired Nick to narrate a story about a man whom he only knew for a few weeks. This makes us want the dream of self-betterment against the odds and that anything is possible if you do the work to be still realistic. The whole crux of the American Dream is that people can transcend the class divide, democracy rules and racism doesn’t exist. The problem is that while these ideals were all well and good for the Dutch sailors, the 1920s America doesn’t have any of the qualities needed to fulfil the Dream. They don’t have the drive and desire to make an effort at improving themselves and would never dream that they could become a part of the upper class society that they are obsessed by, which in turn tries to keep the lower classes in their place. Hence, the divides between people are clearly defined and untrancendable. Tom’s comments about how Jay is a “nobody from no where” and annoyance at being associated with the “lower” classes through Daisy’s term “hulking” prove that modern America is like Plato’s republic, where the aristocracy had souls of gold and the bronze soled working classes could never overcome this difference2. Even Jay’s new name can’t change his roots. The hardworking George fails because of big business and his simple desire to love his wife is ripped apart by Tom. The demonic influence of advertising is also shown through George, who takes an oculist’s advertisement as a God. Even this generation’s children lack James Gatz’s desires, they are happy scrawling obscene words on the dead man’s wall instead of following some self-improving schedule. While Gatsby can be criticised for being “na�ve, impractical and oversentimental”3, his readiness to attempt the impossible is what the rest of his generation lack, and are worse off for it. This is why Gatsby is “worth the whole damn bunch put together.”

The American Dream is unable to survive in the eastern America shown in Fitzgerald’s book. The west may hold some hope, but men in the Gatsby mould are seen as a dying breed and the Georges and Toms are becoming more common, with the clear class divide that accompanies them. However, this novel’s rich couple isn’t destroyed like that in “The Beautiful and the Damned” because here they do worse, they destroy other people. However, we do sometimes see the Dream in a nostalgic light, partly because the author is an example of a life pursuing the American Dream. F. Scott Fitzgerald’s success meant that he got his Daisy (his wife, Zelda)4, but Jay fails because of external influences. The American Dream is now common among the “flappers” but it is the one obsessed with material items, not the self-betterment dream we see in Gatsby. It’s Jay’s quest for love, not money that draws us to him and lets us virtually ignore his criminal connections. Jay dies still waiting for Daisy’s call even though it is clear for all to see that hope should be lost. It is for his “extraordinary gift for hope” that we admire him and want to believe that the American Dream of anything being possible for anyone who works for it can still live, but society will not allow this to happen. Nick’s final romantic vision of the original Dutch settlers, full of optimism for their new home, holds hope for the Dream, though America isn’t a utopia anymore and men like Gatsby will fail because of the society they live in, not the dreams they have.

Bibliography

* 1 “Fitzgerald, Francis Scott Key” – David Marc’s contribution to “Encarta Online Deluxe”

* 2 “The Great Gatsby – York Notes Advanced” – Dr Julian Cowley

* 3 Essay entitled “The Great Gatsby’s Theme” – Author anonymous

* 4 “F. Scott Fitzgerald and the American Dream” – Erika Willett