In The Great Gatsby the Author F Scott Fitzgerald meditates
on and critically analyses 1920s America and uses symbolism as a representation
of the American Dream. This essay will
define the understanding of the term ‘American Dream’ from the time of writing
the book. It will examine the symbolism
around this term in the writing of the characters in the Great Gatsby and will
discuss how the Great Gatsby represents the core ideals of the American Dream and
criticises the concept itself.
The term ‘American Dream’ was defined in 1931 by James
Truslow Adams as ‘that dream of a land in which life should be better and
richer and fuller for everyone, with opportunity for each according to ability
or achievement’. (Adams, 1934, p.415) this was some 6 years after publication
of the Great Gatsby but the overriding themes around the idea of the American
Dream had been around for some time before this. The idea of ‘betterment and to improve one’s
lot’ (Samuel, 2012, p.7) had been around for some time before the phrase was
coined. The qualities of hard work and
ambition are celebrated. The symbolic
raising oneself up from a start low on the economic and social level are feted. Many of the characters in the novel represent
what could be the antithesis and corruption of the American Dream ideals. Fitzgerald uses very careful patterns in his
words and imagery in the book. Details
that could be missed or thought of as trivial hold significance.
Gatsby himself has
used the idea of the American Dream to achieve his wealth and position in
society. On reading the novel it becomes
clear that his deep love for Daisy has driven him. He has an innate desire to prove he is worthy
of her. The characters of Tom and Daisy
have comfortably achieved the American Dream, they’ve reached the pinnacle of
their collective ambitions and feel there is nothing further in life that they,
as a couple, must achieve.
Starting the analysis with the titular character of Gatsby or
Jay Gatz as he was formerly known. Fitzgerald portrays the contemporary period
of the 1920s as a period where moral decay and a lack of values had begun to
stagnate America. Gatsby in a chameleon
like fashion has changed himself beyond recognition so he fulfils his dreams in
the pursuit of Daisy. In living in a
house across the bay from her he wanted to keep as near to her as he
dared. In the book Gatsby is noted to
have leaned across to a green light on the dock of Daisy and Tom’s home,
Fitzgerald is using this as a focal point in the story. The light could be a symbol of Gatsby’s dream
involving Daisy. Daisy though is not the
person he thinks that she is. She is not
the perfect dream that has driven Gatsby on but is a flawed character and all
too human. This falls short of Gatsby’s
expectations, this is what has driven him on to achieve his own American
Dream. The green light could be a
physical representation of his dream which no matter how hard he tries is
always just out of reach for him. There
can be no doubt when reading the novel that Gatsby loved Daisy to the point of
obsession. This love drove him to pursue
betterment to impress her. He acts in an
extravagant manner and a calculated move to gain her attention. The ‘greatness’ Gatsby achieves is a product
of the creative vitality of his imagination.
His dream is greater than any of the other characters. The character of Gatsby changed his name from
James Gatz to escape his past in the mid-west.
We learn that Gatsby earned his fortune through criminality. Fitzgerald leaves hints of this criminality
throughout the entirety of the novel.
The guests at Gatsby’s parties are drinking cocktails during an age of
prohibition. These decadent temptations
enticed more and more guests to Gatsby’s home.
Gatsby exudes an air of mystery and often there are hints of something
being amiss. He takes regular calls from
Chicago, Philadelphia and Detroit and he occasionally hints at his own
criminality. Gatsby’s friendship with
the mysterious ‘Meyer Wolfsheim’ in another hint at a criminal connection, we
learn that ‘he’s the man who fixed the World’s series back in 1919’. The novel gives the impression that although
Nick is aware that Gatsby is involved in criminal activities he chooses to look
beyond this to what he sees as the characters suffering and loyalty of love for
Daisy going so far as to dismiss his own staff and replace them with people
from Meyer Wolfsheim in order to protect her from gossip. The destruction of Gatsby’s dream is
portrayed as being inevitable as the relationship that he built up is based
entirely in fantasy. This downward
spiral takes apace on the introduction of Daisy’s child.
Gatsby has remained true to his dream even when reality was
causing it to crumble. His chivalrous
protection of Daisy who had been the driver of the car that killed Myrtle. Gatsby
was killed for the love he held for Daisy, by taking the blame for Myrtle’s
death he effectively signed his own death warrant. Ambition is something that has driven Gatsby
to the very edge. His pursuit and love
of Daisy has consumed his life. His greatest dream is to be with Daisy
again. Whilst Gatsby was away fighting
in the war Daisy met Tom and married him.
Daisy had always had a privileged background and was from a monied
family. Gatsby presumed that he needed
to have money to get Daisy back, to have enough money to give her anything she
desired. Even in death Fitzgerald
portrays Gatsby in a heroic and better light.
It is Gatsby’s pursuit of the American dream of betterment that gives
him purpose in life and elevates him above the other characters in the book.
The relationship between Daisy and Tom is not a happy
one. Daisy found that she had married
the wrong man, and this irrevocably changed her outlook on life. Daisy at first thought that she had
everything she desired after marrying Tom.
She had wealth and thought this would be enough to have happiness and
love too but soon found that rather than achieving the American dream she is
trapped by it. The idea has corrupted
her. She has a child who seems to be of
little importance to her. She rarely
spends time with her child and doesn’t display the expected maternal behaviour
towards her. When her child was born
Daisy said ‘I’m glad it’s a girl. And I
hope she’ll be a fool – that’s the best thing a girl can be in this world, a
beautiful fool’ (Fitzgerald, 1993, p13).
Daisy is saying that there are limited choices for women in the world
she lives in. Daisy thought she had
married for love when she married Tom but realises that all she got was
money. Daisy realises when she meets up
with Gatsby that she could have married for love and money had she married
Gatsby. Her chasing of her version of
the American dream to be with the ideal ma destroyed her own happiness. Daisy is aware her husbands is committing
adultery. Early in the novel Tom
receives a phone call from a woman at dinner time. Jordan says, ‘She might have the decency not
to telephone him at dinner time’ (Fitzgerald, 1993, p12) She remains with him
as she enjoys the lifestyle he provides to her.
In the novel they are portrayed as being an unsettled couple, Daisy
herself says ‘what’ll we do with ourselves this afternoon…and the day after
that, and the next thirty years?’. This
is a demonstration by Fitzgerald of the ennui of the rich and their life of
superficiality. Tom and Daisy are an
example of the American dream gone bad.
Their relationship is stagnant, they have achieved everything that they
will ever need but still feel that there is something missing. When they first met Tom’s position pleased
Daisy. He was viewed as almost
aristocratic and she knew he would be able to provide for her. The lesson we learn from these characters is
that the acquisition of wealth comes at a cost and does not bring happiness.
When Tom and Nick meet Myrtle on the train they go to the
apartment that Tom has purchased for her.
Myrtle is seen to be very scornful of her own class and sees herself as
being separate to them. She describes
them as ‘these people’. She is
particularly critical of her husband George and states that ‘he wasn’t fit to
lick her shoes’. Myrtle’s desire for a
more luxurious life drew her into her affair with Tom. The decision she makes in pursuing this
seriously harms her marriage to George.
Ultimately this leads to her death.
Myrtles hope for a more glamorous and wealthy life is portrayed in her
reading of gossip magazines about the ‘rich and famous’ which is a
representation of her desire for that life with Tom who she feels is symbolic
of that rich and famous lifestyle. When
Myrtle and George first married she thought that she was crazy about him and
thought they’d be happy together ‘The only crazy I was was when I married
him. I knew right away I made a mistake. He borrowed somebody’s best suit to get
married in, and never told me about it, and the man came after it one day when
he was out..’ (Fitzgerald, 1993, p 24).
Myrtle is portrayed as being materialistic and vain, she is attracted to
Tom’s appearance and his wealth. In the
novel Myrtle is best described as lower class, she does not have wealth, but
she desires wealth and the status that it brings. She sees her affair with Tom as her way to
move up in society to the upper classes.
She wants the big house, the expensive car and an extravagant
lifestyle. Myrtles death could be
interpreted as ironic given that Daisy killed her whilst driving one of the
luxuries she desired. Her desires only
brought about destruction and ended up ending her life and that of Gatsby. Tom’s lies to her husband resulted in the
death of Gatsby. He lied to protect
Daisy and their hallowed position.
The American dream and the consequences of pursuing it no
matter the cost is described in many ways in the novel. Gatsby is a man with a dream that gives him
his purpose and drive in life to leave his past behind him and to create a life
with a view to making his dream come true no matter the consequences. Tom and Daisy conversely are the couple who
have achieved the dream but do not enjoy the life they have created. They are bound together by this longing for
something more that they cannot fathom. It
is evident from close reading of the novel that the American dream these
characters strived for bought only corruption and destruction. Most of the characters in the novel desire
money, wealth and happiness but each comes at a cost. The Great Gatsby is a novel that demonstrates
how easily the concept of the American dream can become corrupted. The overriding message Fitzgerald imparts is
that the American dream as a concept can never be satisfied as at its very core
it entails always striving for more.
More money, more power, more love but this can be snatched away from you
in the blink of an eye.
Adams, J.T. (1934) The Epic of America. New York. Little
Fitzgerald, F.S. (1993) notes added 2001. The Great Gatsby. London. Wordsworth Editions
Samuel, L (2012). The American Dream: A Cultural History.
Syracuse. Syracuse University Press