In The Great Gatsby the Author F Scott Fitzgerald meditateson and critically analyses 1920s America and uses symbolism as a representationof the American Dream. This essay willdefine the understanding of the term ‘American Dream’ from the time of writingthe book. It will examine the symbolismaround this term in the writing of the characters in the Great Gatsby and willdiscuss how the Great Gatsby represents the core ideals of the American Dream andcriticises the concept itself.The term ‘American Dream’ was defined in 1931 by JamesTruslow Adams as ‘that dream of a land in which life should be better andricher and fuller for everyone, with opportunity for each according to abilityor achievement’.
(Adams, 1934, p.415) this was some 6 years after publicationof the Great Gatsby but the overriding themes around the idea of the AmericanDream had been around for some time before this. The idea of ‘betterment and to improve one’slot’ (Samuel, 2012, p.7) had been around for some time before the phrase wascoined.
The qualities of hard work andambition are celebrated. The symbolicraising oneself up from a start low on the economic and social level are feted. Many of the characters in the novel representwhat could be the antithesis and corruption of the American Dream ideals. Fitzgerald uses very careful patterns in hiswords and imagery in the book. Detailsthat could be missed or thought of as trivial hold significance. Gatsby himself hasused the idea of the American Dream to achieve his wealth and position insociety. On reading the novel it becomesclear that his deep love for Daisy has driven him.
He has an innate desire to prove he is worthyof her. The characters of Tom and Daisyhave comfortably achieved the American Dream, they’ve reached the pinnacle oftheir 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 orJay Gatz as he was formerly known. Fitzgerald portrays the contemporary periodof the 1920s as a period where moral decay and a lack of values had begun tostagnate America.
Gatsby in a chameleonlike fashion has changed himself beyond recognition so he fulfils his dreams inthe pursuit of Daisy. In living in ahouse across the bay from her he wanted to keep as near to her as hedared. In the book Gatsby is noted tohave 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 dreaminvolving Daisy. Daisy though is not theperson he thinks that she is. She is notthe perfect dream that has driven Gatsby on but is a flawed character and alltoo human. This falls short of Gatsby’sexpectations, this is what has driven him on to achieve his own AmericanDream. The green light could be aphysical representation of his dream which no matter how hard he tries isalways just out of reach for him.
Therecan be no doubt when reading the novel that Gatsby loved Daisy to the point ofobsession. This love drove him to pursuebetterment to impress her. He acts in anextravagant manner and a calculated move to gain her attention. The ‘greatness’ Gatsby achieves is a productof the creative vitality of his imagination. His dream is greater than any of the other characters. The character of Gatsby changed his name fromJames Gatz to escape his past in the mid-west.
We learn that Gatsby earned his fortune through criminality. Fitzgerald leaves hints of this criminalitythroughout the entirety of the novel. The guests at Gatsby’s parties are drinking cocktails during an age ofprohibition. These decadent temptationsenticed more and more guests to Gatsby’s home. Gatsby exudes an air of mystery and often there are hints of somethingbeing amiss. He takes regular calls fromChicago, Philadelphia and Detroit and he occasionally hints at his owncriminality. Gatsby’s friendship withthe mysterious ‘Meyer Wolfsheim’ in another hint at a criminal connection, welearn that ‘he’s the man who fixed the World’s series back in 1919’.
The novel gives the impression that althoughNick is aware that Gatsby is involved in criminal activities he chooses to lookbeyond this to what he sees as the characters suffering and loyalty of love forDaisy going so far as to dismiss his own staff and replace them with peoplefrom Meyer Wolfsheim in order to protect her from gossip. The destruction of Gatsby’s dream isportrayed as being inevitable as the relationship that he built up is basedentirely in fantasy. This downwardspiral takes apace on the introduction of Daisy’s child. Gatsby has remained true to his dream even when reality wascausing it to crumble. His chivalrousprotection of Daisy who had been the driver of the car that killed Myrtle.
Gatsbywas killed for the love he held for Daisy, by taking the blame for Myrtle’sdeath he effectively signed his own death warrant. Ambition is something that has driven Gatsbyto the very edge. His pursuit and loveof Daisy has consumed his life. His greatest dream is to be with Daisyagain. Whilst Gatsby was away fightingin the war Daisy met Tom and they married. Daisy had always had a privileged background and was from a family with privilege.
Gatsby presumed that he needed to have money toget Daisy back, to have enough money to give her anything she desired. It is Gatsby’s pursuit of the American dreamof betterment that gives him purpose in life and elevates him above the othercharacters in the book. The relationship between Daisy and Tom is not a happyone. Daisy found that she had marriedthe wrong man, and this irrevocably changed her outlook on life. Daisy at first thought that she hadeverything she desired after marrying Tom. She had wealth and thought this would be enough to have happiness andlove too but soon found that rather than achieving the American dream she istrapped by it. The idea has corruptedher.
She has a child she rarely spendstime with and doesn’t display the expected maternal behaviour towards her. When her child was born Daisy said ‘I’m gladit’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 thereare limited choices for women in the world she lives in.
Daisy thought she had married for love whenshe married Tom but realises that all she got was money. Daisy realises when she meets up with Gatsbythat she could have married for love and money had she married Gatsby. Her chasing of her version of the Americandream to be with the ideal ma destroyed her own happiness. Daisy is aware her husbands is committingadultery. Early in the novel Tomreceives a phone call from a woman at dinner time. Jordan says, ‘She might have the decency notto telephone him at dinner time’ (Fitzgerald, 1993, p12) She remains with himas she enjoys the lifestyle he provides to her.
Tom and Daisy are an example of the American dream gone bad. Their relationship is stagnant, they haveachieved everything that they will ever need but still feel that there issomething missing. When they first metTom’s position pleased Daisy. He wasviewed as almost aristocratic and she knew he would be able to provide for her. The lesson we learn from these characters isthat 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 theapartment that Tom has purchased for her in New York. Daisy was aware that hekept a woman in the city. Myrtle is seento be very contemptuous of her own class and sees herself as being separate tothem.
She is particularly critical ofher husband George. Myrtle’s desire fora more luxurious life drew her into her affair with Tom. The decision she makes in pursuing thisseriously harms her marriage to George. Ultimately this leads to her death.
Myrtles hope for a more glamorous and wealthy life is portrayed in herreading of gossip magazines. When Myrtle and George first married she thoughtthey’d be happy together forever. Myrtleis portrayed as being materialistic and vain, she is attracted to Tom’sappearance and his wealth. In the novelMyrtle is best described as lower class, she does not have wealth, but shedesires wealth and the status that it brings. She sees her affair with Tom as her way to move up in society to theupper classes. She wants the big house,the expensive car and an extravagant lifestyle. Her desires only brought about destruction and ended up ending her lifeand that of Gatsby.
Tom lied about whowas driving the car that killed Myrtle which ends up costing Gatsby hislife. He lied to protect Daisy and theirhallowed position.The term ‘conspicuous consumption’ was first used byThorstein Veblen, in 1899 he published a book The Theory of the LeisureClass. He used the term ‘conspicuousconsumption’ to refer to the way that some wealthy Americans displayed theirwealth using their homes and possessions in such a way as to advertise theirposition in society. The Great Gatsbyuses some very clear markers of this ‘conspicuous consumption’ particularlyaround Tom and Daisy and most certainly in the behaviours of Gatsby. Indeed, Gatsby’s story could be seen as awarning against this behaviour. It was throughhis lavish displays of wealth that Gatsby ended up in an accident where Myrtledies, two very different worlds collide and ultimately this leads to his owndeath.The American dream and the consequences of pursuing it nomatter the cost is described in many ways in the novel.
Gatsby is a man with a dream that gives himhis purpose and drive in life to leave his past behind him and to create a lifewith a view to making his dream come true no matter the consequences. Tom and Daisy conversely are the couple whohave achieved the dream but do not enjoy the life they have created. They are bound together by this longing forsomething more that they cannot fathom. Itis evident from close reading of the novel that the American dream thesecharacters strived for bought only corruption and destruction. Most of the characters in the novel desiremoney, wealth and happiness but each comes at a cost. The Great Gatsby is a novel that demonstrateshow easily the concept of the American dream can become corrupted.
The overriding message Fitzgerald imparts isthat the American dream as a concept can never be satisfied as at its very coreit entails always striving for more. More money, more power, more love but this can be snatched away from youin the blink of an eye.