How Is the Concept of “American Dream” Presented in “The Great Gatsby”?
With its depiction of a man rising from poverty to a luxurious life, The Great Gatsby of F. Scott Fitzgerald is a truly American novel. In this book, Fitzgerald seems to glorify the Jazz Age and splendid life of the upper classes, with its parties, cocktails, and dances. Nonetheless, the author’s fascination by the Jazz Age glamour can be deceptive. In fact, as many literary scholars have argued, The Great Gatsby is not at all an ode to the carefree life of those on top: on the contrary, the novel is a statement of illusiveness of the American dream, which can never bring one the happiness and fulfillment it promises.
According to Marius Bewey, the key topic of The Great Gatsby is the withering of the American dream. As Bewley states, “it can be shown that The Great Gatsby offers some of the severest and closest criticism of the American dream that our literature affords.” The novel is not a “pastoral documentary of the Jazz Age,” as Bewly puts it, but a text which analyses the particular features of the American experience in a highly artistic form. In this sense, with its acute social critic and depth, the novel can be seen as one of the greatest masterpieces of the American literature.
Nevertheless, to understand how exactly Fitzgerald refutes the concept of the American Dream in his novel, one should define the term more clearly. The capturing account of the American Dream from the Marxist perspective can be found in the book of Lois Tyson Critical Theory Today. According to Tyson, even though American dream can seem like something natural and typical for all human beings, it is only an ideology which is imposed on us by society. The ideology of the American dream values competition, not cooperation as a way of achieving personal goals. It admires free markets exactly because they give space for competition between the entrepreneurs. Therefore, the American dream sees the society as a battlefield, wherein only the fittest will survive. What is more, the American dream is a deeply individualist perspective, which promotes personal self-fulfillment and does not prescribe to care for the common good a lot. Another crucial aspect of the American dream is that it implies that financial success is a result of the hard work and nothing else. From this perspective, if one works hard enough, one will achieve the high socioeconomic status; the poor simply do not work hard enough. Such doctrine justifies the inequality in society and the huge gap between the rich and the poor. From the standpoint of the American dream, the poor are the only ones to blame for their poverty. In his article “Rethinking the American Dream,” David Kamp also states that even though initially the American dream meant an opportunity for everyone, today it is more about the fame and fortune for the upper classes.
In The Great Gatsby, Fitzgerald manages to grasp how the ideology of the American dream operated in the American society in the 1920s; at the same time, the book tells a universal story of human quest and desire. According to Edwin Fussel, reason why Fitzgerald’s novel is a masterpiece is “an uncanny ability to juxtapose the sensibilities implied by the phrase ‘romantic wonder’ with the most conspicuous, as well as the most deeply significant, phenomena of American civilization, and to derive from that juxtaposition a moral critique of human nature.” Therefore, The Great Gatsby can be understood as the story of the protagonist’s quest for such a romantic wonder. According to Fussel, the basic plot of the writer is always a story of quest and seduction. The quest of the protagonists is at the same time a flight—flight from reality, time, death, and normality. As Fitzgerald’s writing is deeply concerned with the current problems of the American society, such romantic wonder is equated to the American dream. Hence, the diffuse desire of Fitzgerald’s characters is concentrated and focused; they strive for the American dream and believe that the accomplishment of their goal will make them happy. Nonetheless, the typical Fitzgerald’s characters discover that their aim cannot be achieved because of the corrupt nature of the American dream. Therefore, their pursuit of happiness is “perpetually damned” (Fussel).
American dream becomes the object of desire to Gatsby because it seems to him that the upper classes live the world of leisure and carelessness, and they are surrounded by youth and grace. Their “high life” promises to satisfy the aesthetic needs of the young boy from the unprivileged backgrounds. The belief that the life of the upper classes is nothing but joy and idyl is reflected in Gatsby’s vision of Daisy and Jordan’s past. Fitzgerald writes about the “clean, crisp mornings,” when Jordan walked on the soft grounds in her new plaid skirt (2000). Daisy dressed in white enjoyed the popularity among men, with the officers ringing her all the day long. All these details create the atmosphere of romance; they promise that Gatsby also will find such a perfect, heavenly life when he makes it to the top.
Another reason for Gatsby’s wish to achieve the American dream is that it implies possessing significant wealth, the goal which is deeply rooted in the Protestant ideal of the material success. As it was observed by Max Weber, the spirit of capitalism is closely related to the ethical code of the Protestants. As in Protestantism, work and activity are among the highest virtues, profit is seen as the merit of such work and something that has an end in itself. For Calvinists, which believed in predestination, success in business was a sign that one is chosen and saved by God. As the American culture is profoundly influenced by Protestant ideals, it also characterized by a belief that the acquisition of wealth has no other goal than simply acquisition of wealth. For Gatsby, just as for many other Americans, money becomes something that can buy the happiness and the “romantic wonder” they strive for. Hence, as Fussel points out, the beauty and love in Fitzgerald’s texts are commercialized and commodified. They become the characteristics of the certain social class, who own large amounts of money.
The mean that helps to achieve the high degree of the social criticism in The Great Gatsby is an unsympathetic portrayal of the majority of the characters. Tom Buchanan personifies narrow-minded, racist, and conservative American aristocracy. He has a significant amount of the inherited wealth, however, he his success makes him neither moral nor hard-working. This disrupts the link between wealth and morality, so typical for the American dream. Tom, as the most reach character in the novel, fully reveals, how debilitating the effects of consumerism and commodification can be. He believes that one is what one owns, and treats other people as if they were his commodity. Tom enjoys the affairs with the women from the working class simply because he can “buy” them and likes his economic power over them. His wife Daisy, who was a personification of desire for Gatsby and is the personification of the American dream for him, is, in fact, empty and indifferent (Boyle). She is interested in Gatsby only because she is sure that he is terribly reach and has higher socioeconomic position than she does. Thus, immediately after finding out the truth about Gatsby, Daisy loses all interest in him. Myrtle Wilson represents the devastating influence that American dream has on the people from the working class. Together with her husband, she lives in the “valley of ashes,” which is contrasted with the luxury villas of the Buchanans and people of their class. Just like Tom and Daisy, Myrtle is a highly unsympathetic character as she “sells” herself to Tom in hope to become his wife and acquire more wealth.
Gatsby himself is also no more virtuous than other characters. His love for Daisy is fake; he treats her as a commodity that could prove everyone, including himself, that he finally belongs to the world of the privileged. Even when he first meets Daisy and lies to her about his social status, Gatsby does not seduce her because of love: he simply wants to defy the class norms of the American society (Callahan 374). Throughout the novel, even though it seems that Gatsby loves Daisy, he is treating her no better than Tom: just as a possession. Her actual feelings and personality do not matter for Gatsby.
To sum up, in his novel The Great Gatsby, Fitzgerald criticizes the concept of the American Dream. He demonstrates that it does not actually fulfill the desires of the characters and does not bring happiness. In the novel, the characters who live the life so adored by the poor are empty and mean. Even the main character, Gatsby, is incapable of love, and only dreams to be with his beloved because of her social status and what she symbolizes to him.
Bewley, Marius. “Scott Fitzgerald’s Criticism of America.” The Sewanee Review, 62(2), 1954, 223-246.
Boyle, Thomas. “Unreliable Narration in “The Great Gatsby.””The Bulletin Of The Rocky Mountain Modern Language Association, 23(1), 21, 1969.
Callahan, John. “F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Evolving American Dream: The “Pursuit of Happiness” in Gatsby, Tender Is the Night, and The Last Tycoon.” Twentieth Century Literature, 42(3), 1996, 374. http://dx.doi.org/10.2307/441769
Fitzgerald, F. Scott. The Great Gatsby. Penguin Books, 2000.
Fussell, Edwin. Fitzgerald’s Brave New World. ELH, 19(4), 1952, 291. http://dx.doi.org/10.2307/2871901
Tyson, Louis. Critical Theory Today (1st ed.). Routledge, 2006.
Weber, Max. The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. Dancing Unicorn Books, 2016.
“The symbolic aspect of the novel adds greatly to our understanding of the text.’’ Discuss F. Scott Fitzgerald’s use of the symbols throughout the novel, supporting your answer with reference to the text.
Symbols play a huge role in the Great Gatsby. They add to the understanding we take from the novel. A symbol is an object, character, figure or colour that is used to represent an abstract idea or concept. F. Scott Fitzgerald uses many symbols throughout the novel to highlight key ideas, some are more obvious than others but all are effective. He makes use of all the symbolic options to reinforce the messages of the novel. Characters are used to highlight ideas. Places are used to add contrast. Symbols highlight the beliefs of characters and the seasonal setting aides the building climax.
Characters can be used as symbols to highlight an idea. Daisy is one such character. Fitzgerald uses Daisy to highlight the moral corruption of characters. Daisy she is described as ‘‘a silver idol weighing down [her] white [dress] against the singing breeze of fans.’’ White is a colour commonly associated with purity and innocence. However we soon realise that Daisy is far from pure and innocent. She is a morally corrupt character who lets Gatsby believe she will leave Tom for him, but in the end chooses Tom’s money over Gatsby’s love. We learn then that money is the most important thing to Daisy. Money is gold/yellow, a colour commonly associated with corruption and dishonesty. A daisy, the flower after which she is named, is a gold/yellow centre surrounded by white. This symbolises the moral corruption of Daisy. Daisies are also fragile flowers, and similarly Daisy is a fragile person who is unable to make her mind up. For me this is a symbol that helped me understand the moral corruption of the novel.
The Valley of Ashes is a symbolic place used in the book. It is first introduced to us in Chapter Two, when Tom takes Nick to meet Myrtle Wilson, his mistress. It is a “desolate area of land’’ between West Egg and New York which was created by the dumping of industrial ashes. The Valley Of Ashes represents the moral and social decay produced by the pursuit of wealth without thought for others. Its main purpose in the novel, from my understanding, is to highlight the plight of the poor who are exiled to stay living in this “solemn dumping ground.’’ It also provided me with a contrast between the lives of the “careless people’’ who lived the high life and those who weren’t benefitting from what came to be known as “The Roaring Twenties.’’ I found it to be a highly effective symbol that aided my understanding of the novel.
Overlooking The Valley Of Ashes is a billboard of the Doctor T. J. Eckleburg. The advertisement is simply a pair of eyes “[looking] out of no face’’ and stands at “one yard high,’’ looking out over the “solemn dumping ground.’’ There is a strong link between the eyes and God. God is believed to watch over everyone and be all seeing, similar to T.J. Eckleburg . They may represent God staring down upon and judging American society and seeing the moral wasteland that as previously stated the Valley Of Ashes symbolises. It is George Wilson that highlights this symbolism. He refers to the eyes when he tells Myrtle he knows about her affair; “I took her to the window…..and I said “God knows what you’ve been doing, everything you’ve been doing. You may fool me, but you can’t fool God.’’ In doing this Fitzgerald suggests that symbols only have meaning because characters instill them with meaning. The connection between the eyes and God are strongest in Wilson’s grief stricken mind. He repeats that “God sees everything’’ to himself, allowing the reader and unsettling insight into his mind prior to killing Gatsby and himself. It is also key that colour is once again brought into this symbol. The rims of his glasses are yellow, which symbolises that although he sees corruptness he also sees it through the eyes of someone who is also corrupt. This reinforced the idea that corrupt characters wrongly judge others for being corrupt. Personally this was my favourite symbol in the novel because it was the easiest to understand.
Another symbolic place that added to the understanding I took from the novel was the two “eggs’’ on which Nick, Gatsby and the Buchanans lived. East and West Egg are two fictional villages on Long Island created by Fitzgerald as the setting for the novel. They are both “[dissimilar] in every particular except shape and size.’’ Nick lives on West Egg “the less fashionable of the two,’’ in the ‘’consoling proximity of millionaires.’’ The residents of West Egg, referred to as “West Eggers’’ are looked down upon by their old money neighbours on East Egg. Daisy and Tom are typical East Egg residents, old money and careless about others. Colour again is associated with the eggs. Eggs are a yellow/gold centre surrounded by white, which similar to Daisy shows that money and corruption is at their core. An egg also symbolizes a false show of purity as we never know if an egg is decaying or rotten on the inside until we crack it. It is my understanding that East and West Egg are no exception to this, appearing to be perfect from the outside. However, when on the inside Nick soon realises, a “rotten bunch’’ of people live there. Therefore the eggs helped my understanding of the novel.
The Green Light at the end of Daisy’s dock is by far the most important symbol in the novel. An artificial light that flashes to make incoming boats aware of the dock, it is key in understanding the novel. The light is symbolic of Gatsby’s American Dream; his pursuit to “change the past’’ and regain Daisy’s love. The green light gave Gatsby something to reach for. He purposely chose his home so as to have the green light within reaching distance. By choosing to have Gatsby reaching for an artificial light, Fitzgerald highlights that Gatsby’s dream was artificial and unrealistic. Gatsby believed that his dream was “so close he could hardly fail to grasp it,’’ however because the light is artificial we understand that he undoubtedly will fail. Nick highlights the importance of the green light in the last lines of the book; “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.’’ For me this sums up the significance of the American dream to the novel; we aim to achieve it and no matter how hard we try it is always out of our reach, but we still strive and one day it will become reality.
Finally the seasonal setting of the novel can also be interpreted as symbolic. The novel is set in the summer of 1922. The summer in New York is known to be hot, heavy and humid. This is reflected as the novel reaches its climax. When the main characters take their trip to New York it is on one of the hottest days of the summer. This reflects the tension building between Tm and Gatsby which reaches boiling point in the hotel room when Gatsby suggests it is time for Daisy to tell Tom she “never loved him.’’ The two, fighting for Daisy’s affections, come to blows over their love for her. Tom, fighting to hold onto the last shred of Daisy’s love he has, and Gatsby, clinging to his “no longer tangible’’ American dream, both snap. I found the symbol of the summer to be helpful in understanding how the novel would pan out. Overall F. Scott Fitzgerald worked wonders with the symbolic aspect of the novel. He used every option to create symbols that help the reader to gain a stronger understanding of his novel and the ideas behind it. From colours to characters and places to seasonal settings I thoroughly enjoyed the way the symbols worked with the novel.