Rise and Fall of the American Dream in The Great Gatsby

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The Great Gatsby
The Great Gatsby
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“The Great Gatsby” by Francis Scott Key Fitzgerald brings a picture of the American society during the 1920`s. The 1920`s were a time of parties, drinking and having fun.  Many longed to be rich and to become a member of the upper class. Although this was the dream for many Americans of this time, it seemed almost impossible to become a part of this social elite unless born into it. Fitzgerald criticizes the American Dream by creating characters from new money, old money and the working class, who all fail in gaining life, freedom and happiness. This is a critical period where the view of the American Dream has been transformed from the ideal dream to a materialistic dream.

The old American Dream before corruption allowed you to gain wealth, power and high status through hard work and dedication. However, times have changed, so do values. The American Dream transformed into the materialistic aspects. Materialistic possessions determine success which shows corruption has taken root in society. Fitzgerald creates the tumultuous twenties by showing the division of classes.

He does this by showing to the readers where the new money lives and where the old money lives. West Egg is home to “new money,” those who have acquired their wealth recently and lack an established social position. East Egg is home to “old money,” those who possess wealth that has been inherited through several generations. Fitzgerald talks about how people from the more wealthy side of town, East Egg, have more rights and are treated with more respect than those from West Egg.

The main character Jay Gatsby lives in West Egg implying that he has not been able to complete his transformation into a member of the social elite. He tries to fulfill his American Dream by trying to fit in with socialites. Gatsby`s pursuit of the American Dream is in vain because he tries to buy his way into a society that will never accept him. Gatsby`s only goal for gaining wealth is to win back his old love Daisy Fay. Gatsby first met Daisy in Louisville in 1917; Gatsby was immediately taken with her because of her wealth, beauty, and charm. Realizing that Daisy would reject him if she knew of his poverty, he decided to lie about his past and his circumstances.

Before Gatsby went off to fight in the war, Daisy had promised that she would wait for him. But she broke her promise, she got married to Tom Buchanan, who was her social equal and the choice of her parents. Gatsby was devastated when he found out that Daisy was now a married woman so he decided to become a bootlegger. He started making a lot of money because prohibition was started. Then he decided that he was going to move right across the bay from Daisy and Tom. When Gatsby moved to West Egg, he became very close with his neighbor Nick Carraway because he was Daisy`s cousin. He realized that the only way to see Daisy is to ask Nick to arrange a meeting between himself and Daisy at Nick`s house.

When Daisy saw Gatsby again she had realized that she still had feelings for him. Gatsby showed her his grand house and she was impressed by it. The two ex-lovers began to re-establish their old feelings for each other and Gatsby began to plan their future. However Gatsby`s dream was crashed down when he failed to win back Daisy and was not accepted by the upper class. Gatsby saw himself as a failure when Daisy had chosen Tom over him. He achieved his materialistic dream but his idealistic belief in money and life`s opportunity turn his dreams and life into meaningless existences based on lies.

Throughout the novel, Fitzgerald shows how dreams are ruined, no matter what the dreams consist of, money, social status or just simply to be happy or loved. Fitzgerald also shows that the failure of the American Dream is inevitable in a sense that nothing can be as perfect as one could imagine. In “The Great Gatsby” all the characters attempt to become happier and more satisfied with their lives. Tom and Daisy Buchanan, the wealthy couple, seems to have everything they could possibly want. However, they are still unhappy because their lives are empty and without purpose. Gatsby`s American Dream to become wealthy comes true but he ends up alone and empty.

Despite the fact that human beings will inevitably fail, we are still full of hope and optimism. Throughout the whole novel Gatsby hopes that he will be reunited with Daisy one day. That hope keeps him going and gives him a purpose to achieve his American Dream. Fitzgerald uses the green light at end of Daisy`s dock as a symbol of Gatsby`s hope and dreams for the future."Gatsby believed in the green light, the orgastic future that year by year recedes before us. It eluded us then, but that`s no matter- tomorrow we will run faster, stretch out our arms farther …And one fine morning- So we beat  on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past." (Fitzgerald, 19986: 80, 81).

Nick stated this as a conclusion to the novel The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald and I believe that it still today represents a great summary of how we treat our hopes and dreams and how we find our own ways to follow them and pursue them. Daisy is Gatsby`s version of the American dream, and the green light also symbolizes that more generalized ideal.

Fitzgerald`s “The Great Gatsby” is aware both of the power of American dreams and the problems of materializing them in real life. The novel concerns itself with issues of identity and especially with the temptation to believe in a dream which is illustrated in Gatsby`s craving for Daisy, who compasses the endless desire to go back to how things were when him and Daisy were together and yet proves to be beyond his reach and unattainable as all such dream are. Some authors point out that:

In Nick Carraway`s story of Jay Gatsby one can uncover much about the contradictions of identity and how these are central to any conception of America. In the same way that Nick constructs a history of Gatsby through the telling of his narrative, so too has America been invented and reinvented by each generation. On one level, Nick`s story amplifies one of the founding myths of American culture, the belief in the fresh start, the new beginning In the case of Gatsby, Nick tells us, he sprang from his Platonic conception of himself that is a self-making process in which he invented just the sort of Jay Gatsby a seventeen-year old boy would be likely to invent full of hope and romantic readiness. (Campbell and Kean, 1997:23).

For Gatsby there was a belief that the past could be repeated and recovered. He can`t forget the past and move on with his life. He tried so hard to get Daisy back that he lied, stole and did many illegal things to get a house across the bay. On the other hand, Nick dreams to return to another age when mankind settled in the New World hoping to find a better life there. This dream, for Nick, connects Gatsby with Columbus and represents the moment in which mankind arrives at a place full of opportunities and new beginnings. The new continent offers the last great hope for mankind to make a fresh start and correct the mistakes of the Old World. “The Great Gatsby” enchantment with the multiple identities of America, personified in the character of Jay Gatsby revolves around the idea of the dream and the new beginning.

Like the New World, “The Great Gatsby” also presents a world that promises but at the same time threatens to destroy everything people have, everything they know, everything they are. It is a world of glamour and corruption, of struggle and contradiction. The world in which Gatsby lives is corrupted but it is also glamorous. Gatsby`s world can be seen as corrupt as the people who he is surrounded with appear to be phony. Gatsby`s dream is that he will one day win back his love Daisy Buchanan and that she will return his feelings in love. However the people around Gatsby have no purpose and dreams in their lives, this is shown when Daisy tells Nick that she wants her daughter to become a “beautiful little fool,” because that is the “best thing girl can be in this world.” (Fitzgerald, 1986: 9). Gatsby`s glamorous world can be seen through his glamour lifestyle. He holds big parties, wears fancy clothes and flaunts his wealth. Gatsby does this to create an illusion of social standing.

Even though Gatsby is involved in illegal activities he is still pure. He is involved in bootlegging because he knows that Daisy will only notice him if he gets rich and powerful. Although he has acquired his fortune through bootlegging and conducting suspicious business deals, his heart seems pure and untouched by the moral evil that surrounds him.

The main theme of “The Great Gatsby” is the death and fall of the American Dream. By analyzing high society during the 1920s through the eyes of Nick Carraway, Fitzgerald argues that American dream no longer means noble pursuit of progress; instead it has become largely materialistic and corrupt. This is shown through Gatsby`s involvement in bootlegging and underworld connections to make money. His extravagant parties, huge mansion and expensive clothes all represent his corruption.

But the worst qualities of the modern American Dream are represented in Tom and Daisy Buchanan. They live without any hopes or regrets because the foundation of their character is money and prosperity. Nick describes Buchanan`s as such: “They were careless people, Tom and Daisy- They smashed up things and creatures and then retreated back into their money or their vast carelessness, or whatever it was that kept them together, and let other people clean up the mess they had made…” (Fitzgerald, 1986:80). 

Daisy cares only about herself and her reputation. When she accidentally runs over Myrtle Wilson, Tom`s mistress, Gatsby takes the blame for her, which in turn, he dies for her mistake. She doesn`t do anything to protect Gatsby because her reputation is more important than he is. When Gatsby dies, any chance of the old American Dream of surviving in the immoral and corrupted modern world is destroyed with him. All of the hopes and dreams that gave him strength and motivation to pursue his American Dream are shattered as he lies in swimming pool, stunned and confused about the world he is living in and about to leave. After shooting Gatsby, Myrtle`s husband George Wilson, the symbol of the ordinary man who is trying to achieve his own American Dream, commits suicide.

The death of both the rich and poor man who try to achieve their goals symbolize the death of the old American Dream. Through the tragic story of Jay Gatsby and his failed attempt to achieve his dream, Fitzgerald also describes the tragic death of American values. The upper class in “The Great Gatsby” are examples of Fitzgerald`s message- the original American Dream and all of its pure and moral values have been replaced with money, greed and materialism. Fitzgerald deliberately makes all characters with money appear to be unhappy, corrupted and arrogant thus contradicting standard idea of the American Dream.

The perception of the American Dream changed, and the idea that money leads to happiness obviously was not the case for Tom and Daisy. The same is true for Gatsby. Gatsby truly believed that he can buy Daisy`s love with wealth. His illegal business was all an excuse to earn money and impress Daisy, however once again, money could not bring Gatsby happiness. This wrong perception was what led to most of the destroyed dreams in the novel.

The collapse of American Dream in Gatsby`s life is mainly due to his moral downfall throughout the novel. Instead of becoming a honorable man after acquiring his wealth, he becomes a fake member of Tom and Daisy`s crowd through, trying to live up to the material culture of that decade. Daisy becomes the only important person in Gatsby`s life, and in his efforts to get her back he turns into a careless person just the way she is.

When Gatsby and Daisy hit Myrtle with his car, he doesn’t even care whether Myrtle is dead or alive; he is only worried about whether this will cause problems for Daisy. Gatsby`s pursuit of happiness through illegal and shallow means ultimately is the cause of his death and therefore the collapse of his American Dream.

1. Fitzgerald, Francis Scott. (1986). The Great Gatsby. UK: Penguin Books.
2. Campbell, Neil and Kean, Alasdair. (1997). American Cultural Studies: An Introduction to American Culture. USA: Routledge.

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