The Great Gatsby | The American DreamThis essay looks at Fitzgerald’s critique of Jay Gatsby’s particular visionof the 1920s American Dream; what Fitzgerald seems to be criticizing is notthe American Dream itself but the corruption of the American Dream. The ideal of the American Dream is based on the fantasy that an individualcan achieve success regardless of family history, race, or religion simplyby working hard enough.
Frequently, “success” is equated with the fortunethat the independent, self-reliant individual can win. In The Great Gatsby,Fitzgerald examines and critiques Jay Gatsby’s particular vision of the1920s American Dream. Though Fitzgerald himself is associated with theexcesses of the “Roaring Twenties,” he is also an astute social criticwhose novel does more to detail society’s failure to fulfill its potentialthan it does to glamorize the “Jazz Age. “As a self-proclaimed “tale of the West,” the novel explores questions aboutAmerica and the varieties of the American Dream. In this respect, The GreatGatsby is perhaps that legendary opus, the “Great American Novel”-followingin the footsteps of Herman Melville’s Moby Dick and Mark Twain’sHuckleberry Finn.
As a novel that has much to say about faith, belief, andillusion, it merits being considered alongside works like T. S. Eliot’s TheWaste Land, which explores the “hollowness” lying below the surface ofmodern life. It is possible to regard Gatsby as an archetypal tragicfigure, the epitome of idealism and innocence who strives for order,purpose and meaning in a chaotic world. Fitzgerald introduces the theme ofunderlying chaos early in the novel when the violent Tom Buchanan declares,”‘Civilization’s going to pieces'” (12; ch. 1).
Although Fitzgerald is sketchy about the details of Gatsby’s meteoric rise,the reader does know that he was a poor boy from the midwest withoutinherited wealth or family connections who succeeded in obtaining anelaborate house in West Egg from where he stages lavish, catered partiesfor people he doesn’t know. With wealth comes the opportunity to reinventhis identity, inspired primarily by a “single green light, minute and faraway” (21; ch. 1): this is the house of Daisy Fay Buchanan, the verywealthy, former Louisville belle whom Gatsby had loved before the war butwho marries the immensely wealthy Tom Buchanan of Chicago. All that matters for Gatsby is the future: achieving his goal of reclaimingDaisy. That is part of the power of the American Dream-the irrelevance ofthe past. A fabricated history is just as useful as a truthful history.
SoGatsby constructs grandiose lies that he doesn’t even bother to cloak in ashred of reality. For instance, when he decides to convince Nick Carraway,the novel’s narrator, that he isn’t a “nobody,” Gatsby casually mentionsthat he’s the “‘son of some wealthy people in the Middle West . . . buteducated at Oxford, because all my ancestors have been educated there formany years'” (65; ch.
4). When Nick, who is indeed from the Middle West, inquires “‘What part?'”Gatsby is reduced to the geographically hysterical lie: “‘San Francisco. ‘”Later in the novel, the reader learns that far from being educated atOxford as part of a family tradition, Gatsby’s brief stint there was partof a program for American soldiers following World War I. As Nick observes,Gatsby gives new meaning to the phrase “the self-made man”: “The truth wasthat Jay Gatsby of West Egg, Long Island, sprang from his Platonicconception of himself” (98; ch. 6). The idealism evident in Gatsby’s constant aspirations helps define whatFitzgerald saw as the basis for the American Character.
Certainly Gatsby isa firm believer in the American Dream of self-made success: he has not onlyself-promoted an entire new persona for himself, but he has also succeededboth financially and , at least ostensibly, socially. Yet the Dream whichoffers Gatsby the chance to “suck on the pap of life” (110; ch. 6) forceshim to climb to a solitary place, isolated and alienated from the rest ofsociety. In the midst of the drunken revelers at his party, Gatsby is”standing alone on the marble steps and looking from one group to anotherwith approving eyes” (50; ch.
3) At the end of the novel, Gatsby will alsobe practically alone at his own funeral. Gatsby’s primary ideological shortcoming is that he makes Daisy Buchananthe sole focus of his belief in the orgastic future. His previously variedaspirations (evidenced by the book Gatsby’s father shows Nick detailing hisson’s resolutions to improved himself) are sacrificed to Gatsby’s single-minded obsession with Daisy. Even Gatsby realized when he first kissedDaisy that once he “forever wed his unutterable visions to her perishablebreath, his mind would never romp again like the mind of God” (110; ch. 6).
Finally five years later, Gatsby reunites with Daisy, takes her on a tourof his ostentatious mansion, and pathetically displays his collection ofBritish-made shirts. Significantly, that much longed-for afternoon producesnot bliss but disappointment. As Nick observes:As I went over to say good-by I saw that the expression of bewildermenthad come back into Gatsby’s face, as though a faint doubt had occurred tohim as to the quality of his present happiness. Almost five years! Theremust have been moments even that afternoon when Daisy tumbled short of hisdreams-not through her own fault, but because of the colossal vitality ofhis illusion. (95; ch.
5)As the novel unfolds, Gatsby seems to realize that-as he did with his ownpersona-he has created an ideal for Daisy to live up to. He remains firmlycommitted to her, even after her careless driving has caused MyrtleWilson’s death. Only his own needless death at the hands of the distraughtMr. Wilson (led by Tom Buchanan to believe that Gatsby has killed Myrtle)ends Gatsby’s obsession with Daisy. What Fitzgerald seems to be criticizing in The Great Gatsby is not theAmerican Dream itself but the corruption of the American Dream.
What wasonce for leaders like Thomas Jefferson a belief in self-reliance and hardwork has become what Nick Carraway calls “the service of a vast, vulgar,and meretricious beauty” (98; ch. 6). The energy that might have gone intothe pursuit of noble goals has been channeled into the pursuit of power andpleasure, and a very showy, but ultimately empty, form of success. Gatsby’s dream can be identified with America herself with its emphasis onthe inherent goodness within people, youth, vitality, and a magnanimousopenness to life itself. With the destruction of Gatsby, we witness apossible destiny of America herself.
Critic Matthew J. Bruccoli, writing inFitzgerald: A Life in Letters, quotes a letter written by Fitzgerald whilecomposing Gatsby: “That’s the whole burden of this novel-the loss of thoseillusions that give such color to the world so that you don’t care whetherthings are true or false as long as they partake of the magical glory. “Work CitedFitzgerald, F. Scott. The Great Gatsby. New York: Scribner PaperbackEdition, 2004.