For many ‘The Great Gatsby’ is not simply a story of the thwarted love between a man and a woman, but a novel that is used to comment on the degeneration of the American dream in an era of prosperity and lavish materialism. The American Dream for the original settlers was concerned equality, freedom, religious utopia and prosperity for the self-made man. Just as on our initial meeting, Gatsby is reaches for the guiding “green light” sitting on Daisy’s East Egg dock to lead him to his goal, Fitzgerald suggests the founding fathers reached for the green light of America to guide them to theirs.
However the novel indicates the hedonism of 1920s America has corrupted this dream. Whereas in the past it was possible for the likes of Ben Franklin to achieve the ‘Dream’, it has now been made an impossibility. Gatsby’s aspirations of “future glory” parallel this notion. Looking from the outside it seems as though Gatsby has essentially achieved the ‘Dream’. However Fitzgerald takes us into his world so we can witness what happens when all beliefs are invested into something that is by definition a ‘Dream’, a possibility not an actuality.
Certainly upon learning of Gatsby’s past we truly see he is a self-made man who has achieved self-sufficiency through his own determination. Gatsby grew up as “James Gatz of North Dakota” the son of “unsuccessful farm people”. He essentially came from a relatively humble background as a “clam digger” by comparison to the Gatsby we see in the novel. Even as a young boy he resolved he would succeed: “grotesque and fantastic conceits haunted him in his bed at night”. He intensely believed the “drums of destiny” were to bring “future glory”, believing he was better than the life he was living.
As a result of his determination James Gatz: “sprang from his platonic conception of himself”. His whole life transpired into his quest to become “just the sort of Jay Gatsby that a seventeen year old would be likely to invent”. The true extent of Gatsby’s determination is evident upon reading his “schedule”. It seems Gatsby initially believes if he leads a virtuous life, as depicted by his vigorous timetable, he can succeed in achieving his aspirations. It is symbolic that this was discovered in the back of a copy of “Hopalong Cassidy”, a fictional character who achieved the American Dream.
Moreover, the “schedule” is a parallel to that of one of the founding fathers of the independent state, Benjamin Franklin, a self-made and self-sufficient character from America’s history who embodies the Dream. Just as Franklin did, Gatsby’s intention was to spend hours “studying electricity” and “the need for inventions” in order to achieve his dream. By deliberately echoing the well know text Fitzgerald encourages us to infer similarities between them. However Gatsby’s schedule markedly differs to that of Franklin in that Gatsby’s day lacks any periods of reflection between his long lists of daily activities.
Furthermore Gatsby already shows signs of battling against the hurdles his class brings him: “No wasting time at Shafters… No more smokeing or chewing”. This may suggest that from the beginning it will be an uphill struggle for Gatsby to achieve his dream. The significance of Dan Cody in his early days is also important in exploring Gatsby’s dream. To Gatsby he embodied the American Dream, being a representative all of that could be achieved. As an American pioneer, “a product of the Nebada silverfields”, Dan Cody had become “many times a millionaire”.
Gatsby’s determination was fuelled by Cody’s wealth and “lavish doings”. However it is significant that Cody remained an outsider. He was symbolically ‘at sea’, never part of the wealthy class ‘on dry land’. This perhaps is again an indication of the flaws in Gatsby’s plans too achieve his dream; as his mentor was never truly part of the elite it is not a surprise to see that later Gatsby remains an outsider too. On the face of it the “extravagantly ambitious” Jay Gatsby does seem to have achieved his dream in terms of material success.
Gatsby’s home, a mansion on Long Island, is situated on the “hot sands of his beach”. Additionally Fitzgerald depicts “Gatsby’s enormous garden” and emphasizes the size of his mansion through use of lists of the “halls and salons and verandas”. This perhaps enables us to infer a little of the wealth of a man able to afford an abode of such a scale and in such a location. Fitzgerald describes “his guests… his raft… his beach… his motorboats”. Here the extended use of possessive pronoun draws attention to how much he owns.
The mass of staff he employs: “servants”, “caterers”, “gardeners”, the “butler” and the “chauffeur” again conveys his wealth. The parties that Gatsby holds all “through the summer nights” also indicate his affluence. The lavish occasions described as a “little party” by Gatsby entail an “orchestra”, “buffet tables”, “a bar”, “cocktail tables” and an enormity of guests, highlighted by the list of each and everyone by Fitzgerald. In addition his prosperity is emphasized as his “Rolls-Royce became an omnibus” at these events. Owning a Rolls Royce is in its own right evidence enough to prove the degree of his wealth.
In the 1920s they would have been a status symbol in higher proportions than today as it would have had to be shipped over to America. However the fact that he is not precious about its use, has the effect of highlighting he is so rich that it does not matter. Gatsby’s wealth has been used to ensure every last detail of his life is as splendid as he believes it would be for man of the upper class. His library houses not the “nice durable card board” as one of his guests expected but “absolutely real” books with “pages and everything”.
Furthermore he has a mass of “beautiful shirts” sent over for Gatsby by a “man in England… at the beginning of each season”. In one section Gatsby shows them off to Daisy and Nick and a “heap mounted” of every style, colour, fabric and design that could ever be imagined. However at this point in the novel we perhaps realize that although Gatsby undoubtedly has the material wealth he desires, he perhaps lacks the class and status of a true gentleman. This is also suggested when Tom expresses his “incredulous” disbelief that Gatsby could possibly be an “Oxford man” on account of his clothing: “Like hell he is!
He wears a pink suit”. We wonder as to whether a man of class would wear such flamboyant attire and in doing so we question how far Gatsby has achieved the American Dream. He has certainly accumulated material wealth, however “all this means nothing without Daisy”. Undoubtedly Gatsby has not spiritually succeeded in achieving his dream until he has gained her love. As a penniless young boy, who dreams of wealth and fortunes she symbolizes his achievement of this dream. Gatsby’s love for Daisy is ultimately derived from his attraction to her wealth.
This is suggested as in describing her beauty it is inextricably bound up with her wealth: her voice is “filled with money” and she possesses the “youth and mystery that wealth imprisons”. Some may even say he is in awe of her affluence, mesmerised by it. This is perhaps evident when he depicts her “gleaming like silver… above the hot struggles of the poor”. Furthermore we see the same adoration for her home: the young Gatsby is “amazed” by “such a beautiful house… there was a ripe mystery about it”. It seems almost as though her covets “her house… her rich full life”.
Additionally he was “excited… hat many men had already loved Daisy – it increased her value”. This suggests Daisy is not viewed as a person by Gatsby; she is a commodity he strives to possess. His motivation for becoming rich becomes an attempt to impress her because to attain her love would be to have become the man he has always dreamed of being. This is evident when she visits his home: “he revalued everything in his house according to the measure of response it drew from her well-loved eyes”. We can perhaps infer from this comment Gatsby is almost reassessing his views in order to concord with the image of the type of man she would desire.
The idealized perfection that Gatsby instills in Daisy she perhaps neither deserves nor possesses. Upon meeting her again “His count of enchanted objects had diminished by one” indicating she is no longer a dream but within his grasp. Some may feel this comment also suggests in reality she is no longer “enchanted”, Gatsby is becoming aware of the fact she is not in the high esteem he believed her to be. This notion is perhaps developed when Fitzgerald notes “There must have been moments that afternoon when Daisy tumbled short of his dreams”.
Gatsby cannot have Daisy in part as it is not Daisy he wants; rather, it is his representation of her. He has totally fantasized about what will happen and expects more from Daisy than what she can realistically give: “He wanted nothing less of Daisy than she should go to Tom and say: ‘I never loved you'” however “romantic possibilities” are “totally absent from her world”. We are aware even before Gatsby that his dreams for Daisy will fall short of reality as she lacks Gatsby’s determination and resolution.
She will never leave Tom and their baby, as she is too indecisive. We see she cannot decide what she will do in the next ten minutes let alone with regard to the rest of her life, as a result “she had never, all along, intended on doing anything”. During the argument in the Plaza Hotel Gatsby’s romantic idealism is truly splintered. In the face of Tom’s pragmatism and the security his wealth brings “whatever intention” Daisy “had had, were definitely gone” all that remains is the “dead dream”. Consequently without Daisy, Gatsby has not achieved the American Dream.
Although Gatsby has attained the material wealth associated with it, to be the epitome of the dream he must have the status, getting Daisy symbolizes that to Gatsby. Gatsby will never achieve the type of social class Tom and Daisy possess. He endeavors to do so by reinventing himself. He changes his name from “James Gatz” to “Jay Gatsby” in an attempt to hide his Germanic, Eastern European history. Essentially he is trying to create a different character: “the son of some wealthy people in the Middle West” who was “educated at Oxford”.
We hear ludicrous stories from Gatsby as he struggles to construct an alternative past for himself whereby he “lived like a young rajah… collecting jewels” and he “pursued a tiger through the Bois de Boulogne”. However even with tokens to prove his ‘story’; “A souvenir of Oxford days” and medals from his successes at war we doubt the truth behind his accounts of his past. What’s more, other characters in the novel are not convinced by “Jay Gatsby”. Gatsby cannot escape his lower class background and remains a representative of Fitzgerald’s perception of the noveau riche being vulgar, gaudy, ostentatious, lacking in social graces and taste.
He lives in a monstrously ornate “factual imitation of the Hotel de Ville in Normandy” giving an image of fakeness. The home is mass of different styles thrown into one house: “Marie Antoinette music rooms”, “Restoration Salons”, the “Merton College Library” and the “Adam’s study” are copies of lavish European style. Its “thin beard of ivy”, an attempt to hide the “spanking” newness of a home on the less fashionable East Egg, reveals Gatsby’s home lacks history. Furthermore he wears flamboyant shirts and a “pink suit”.
He also drives a gaudy yellow Rolls Royce and does not pick up on subtle social signals such as the insincerity of Sloanes’ invitation to lunch. By contrast Fitzgerald portrays the old aristocracy possessing grace, taste, subtly and elegance, epitomized by the Buchanan’s tasteful “Georgian Colonial Mansion” indicating an established family history and the flowing white dresses of Daisy and Jordan Baker. The disparity in social status between that of Gatsby and that of Daisy will always keep them apart.
The mist that stands between their homes on opposite sides of the dock symbolizes this. Additionally as Nick comments on their meeting the distance between them “had seemed as close as a star to the moon”; there is the illusion of closeness however in actuality they are worlds apart. Daisy cannot help but look down upon “newly rich people”: “she was appalled by West Egg… appalled by its raw vigour that chafed under the old euphemisms”. Fitzgerald suggests the elitism of the aristocracy will always prevent the likes of Gatsby to ever truly succeed in achieving the American Dream.
Daisy “has membership in a rather distinguished society” to which “she and Tom belonged”. Gatsby simply lacks the security Tom’s wealth and social status brings to ever incite Daisy to leave the comfort of her relationship with Tom. Fitzgerald described his short story ‘Winter Dreams’ as “a sort of first draft for the Great Gatsby” making it interesting to compare with ‘The Great Gatsby’ in terms of the theme of dreams. As does ‘The Great Gatsby’, ‘Winter Dreams’ follows the attempt of a working class character, Dexter Green, to achieve his dream.
Dexter also desires wealth: “He wanted not to associate with glittering things and glittering people – he wanted the glittering things themselves”. Dexter could be seen to be a more realistic character. Gatsby lives for his dream; it is all consuming and visionary whereas Dexter knows his dream will never fully become an actuality. He shows acceptance that he can never be one of the elite but sees their carefree, confident lives as something he wants for his children: “he wished his children to be like them… carelessness was for his children”. Dexter does not need to be as instantly gratified as Gatsby does.
Gatsby, in an attempt to achieve his vision, creates a new character and fictional history for himself by telling ludicrous stories about his past and his days at Oxford College. He also resorts in crime to make enough money to impress Daisy. Conversely Dexter does not aspire so high; instead he creates a suitable parentage so that his children may belong with the upper classes. He goes to a “famous university in the East” and develops his successful businesses through hard work and by overcoming the “mysterious denials and prohibitions in which life indulges”.
In a sense, with respect to achieving status, Gatsby and Dexter’s experiences are polar. Whereas Gatsby attempts to become one of the elite though he is never accepted by those who were born into the aristocracy, Dexter is successful in associating with those with pedigree though feels himself to be different. Dexter’s success at mixing with the upper class is illustrated on the golf course, centers for snobbishness, where he plays as equals with those for whom he caddied.
Dexter’s relative success is because he, perhaps like our narrator Nick in the ‘Great Gatsby’, has an understanding of the world of the rich and sees himself s different to them: “He knew the sort of men they were… in one sense, he was better than them”. This is a great contrast to Gatsby who is unable to distinguish between what constitutes the tasteful style of old wealth and what is seen to be ostentatious extravagance of the new rich. The contrast is nowhere more apparent than the disparity between each character’s wardrobes.
Whereas Gatsby wears a “pink suit” Dexter wears “good clothes” made by “the best tailors”. Dexter recognizes that although American pedigree can afford to be carefree he must be careful as “to be careless in dress in manner required more confidence than to be careful”. Both characters become driven to succeed by a woman. Just as Gatsby strives to create a home for Daisy, the character of Judy Jones motivated Dexter. She played a significant role in changing his life firstly in moving him to give up caddying and secondly as a young wealthy man.
Judy Jones becomes an addiction to Dexter as the “ecstasy of losing himself in her was opiate”. Although both achieve the material wealth they dreamed of neither is completely satisfied without achieving the love of these women. Gaining their love becomes symbolic of their wider dream. However neither Gatsby nor Dexter are able to grasp these women. Ultimately Dexter sees Judy does not live up to “his illusion as to her desirability”. Judy is in the end unobtainable as she marries and has children. Moreover she fades as she grows older becoming undesirable.
Gatsby eventually sees Daisy is equally undesirable and unobtainable. Just as this realization signifies Gatsby’s “dead dream”, Dexter’s “dream was gone”. This revelation for Dexter allows him to accept the relationship he had with Judy is in the past: “left behind in the country of illusion, of youth, of the richness of life”. Gatsby’s whole life can ultimately been seen as an attempt to “recover … loving Daisy”. To realize the unworthiness of this aspiration is to realize his whole life has been meaningless. All he is left with is “what foul dust floated in the wake of dreams”.
Subsequently it is true to say “Gatsby paid a high price for living with a single dream”. At any rate he paid a high price for becoming all consumed in a waking dream, confusing it for what is real. However he may reach for his dream of obtaining Daisy and all she symbolizes, but she will always remain a distant reality because it is not truly Daisy he reaches for, it is his representation of her. Gatsby has instilled Daisy with an idealistic perfection that she cannot possibly attain in reality and pursues her with such passion that he is blind to her limitations.
The disintegration of Gatsby’s dream of Daisy reveals the corruption that wealth causes and the unworthiness of its goal. Gatsby’s dream is effectively used by Fitzgerald to illustrate his belief that the American Dream deteriorates as a result of the amoral pursuit of wealth in the 1920s. Whereas in the past it was possible for the likes of Ben Franklin to succeed, the easy money and relaxed social values of the era have corrupted the American Dream. This is symbolized in the final conclusion of the novel: “… the trees that had made way for Gatsby’s house, had once panderdred in whispers to the last and greatest of all human dreams”.
The materialism and decadence of 1920s America that Gatsby and his faux town house represent have destroyed what “flowered once for Dutch sailors”. Furthermore it has created an aristocracy of the ‘old rich’ whose elitism prevents anyone from truly attaining the Dream. Fitzgerald suggests that reaching for the American Dream is like reaching for “the green light, the orgastic future that year by year recedes us”. Gatsby had complete aspirations of the impossible; effectively he was attempting “recreate the past… he did not know it was already behind him”.