Fitzgerald’s dominant theme in The Great Gatsby focuses on the corruption of the American Dream. By analyzing high society during the 1920s through the eyes of narrator Nick Carraway, the author reveals that the American Dream has transformed from a pure ideal of security into a convoluted scheme of materialistic power. In support of this message, Fitzgerald highlights the original aspects as well as the new aspects of the American Dream in his tragic story to illustrate that a once impervious dream is now lost forever to the American people.
The foundation qualities of the American Dream depicted in The Great Gatsby are perseverance and hope. The most glorified of these characteristics is that of success against all odds. The ethic of hard work can be found in the life of young James Gatz, whose focus on becoming a great man is carefully documented in his “Hopalong Cassidy” journal. When Mr. Gatz shows the tattered book to Nick, he declares, “‘Jimmy was bound to get ahead. He always had some resolves like this or something. Do you notice what he’s got about improving his mind? He was always great for that.'” (pg 182) The journal portrays the continual struggle for self-improvement which has defined the image of America as a land of opportunity. By comparing the young James Gatz to the young Benjamin Franklin, Fitzgerald proves that the American Dream is indeed able to survive in the face of modern society. The product of hard work is the wistful Jay Gatsby, who epitomizes the purest characteristic of the American Dream: everlasting hope. His burning desire to win Daisy’s love symbolizes the basis of the old dream: an ethereal goal and a never-ending search for the opportunity to reach that goal. Gatsby is first seen late at night, “standing with his hands in his pockets” and supposedly “out to determine what share [is] his of our local heavens” (pg 25). Nick watches Gatsby’s movements and comments:
Prices start at $12
Prices start at $11
Prices start at $10
“-he [stretches] out his arms toward the dark water in a curious way, and as far as I [am] from him I [can swear] he [is] trembling. Involuntarily I [glance] seaward-and [distinguish] nothing except a single green light, minute and far away, that might [be] the end of the dock.” (pg 25)
Gatsby’s goal gives him a purpose in life and sets him apart from the rest of the upper class. He is constantly striving to reach Daisy, from the moment he is seen reaching towards her house in East Egg to the final days of his life, patiently waiting outside Daisy’s house for hours when she has already decided to abandon her affair with him. Gatsby is distinguished as a man who retains some of the purest traits of the old dream but loses them by attempting to reach his goals by wearing the dream’s modern face.
Fitzgerald attributes the depravity of the modern dream to wealth, privilege, and the void of humanity that those aspects create. Money is clearly identified as the central proponent of the dream’s destruction; it becomes easily entangled with hope and success, inevitably replacing their places in the American Dream with materialism. This replacement is evident in Gatsby’s use of illegal practices and underground connections to attain his enormous fortune. His ostentatious parties, boundless mansion, and lavish clothing are all signs of his unknowing corruption. His ability to evade the law, demonstrated when his traffic violation is ignored by a police officer, reveals his use of status and privilege to get what he needs. Although Gatsby’s rise to prominence is symbolic of the nature of the new dream, the most odious qualities of that dream are evident in Daisy and Tom Buchanan, who live their lives with no hopes and no regrets because the true foundation of their characters is their opulence. While Daisy is never heard from again after Gatsby’s death, Nick confronts Tom one last time, at which point Gatsby’s rival responds: “‘I told him the truth… What if I did tell him? That fellow had it coming to him” (pg 187). Tom admits to the fact that he is responsible for Gatsby’s murder and Wilson’s suicide, but continues to claim innocence because he has never known guilt nor shame as a member of the established elite. Through Nick, Fitzgerald pinpoints the effect of the modern dream on the upper class, thus condemning an entire people and its revered society:
“It couldn’t forgive him or like him but I saw what he had done was, to him, entirely justified… They were careless people, Tom and Daisy- they smashed up things and creatures and then retreated back into their money or their vast carelessness or whatever it was that kept them together, and let other people clean up the mess they had made… ” (pg 187)
Nick realizes that Tom and Daisy represent a class of heartless citizens who have attained success at the cost of dehumanization. Their vast wealth blocks out all inspiration and all true emotion, resulting in a void of apathy buttressed by status and power.
At the end of the novel, Fitzgerald creates a sense of utter hopelessness to prove that the purity of the American Dream is dead with the examples of Daisy’s baby, Gatsby’s death, and Wilson’s suicide. The first hint of this tragic loss is the introduction of the Buchanans’ daughter, whom Daisy refers to as “Bles-sed precious.” When the girl is brought into the Buchanans’ salon, Nick observes an obvious disturbance in Gatsby’s attitude, thinking, “Gatsby and I in turn [lean] down and [take] the small reluctant hand. Afterwards he [keeps] looking at the child with surprise. I don’t think he [has] ever really believed in its existence before” (pg 123). Daisy then calls her child an “absolute little dream,” crushing all hopes Gatsby has of truly recreating the past. Society’s complete replacement of the American Dream with materialism is pointed out moments later when Nick and Gatsby attempt to discern the charm in Daisy’s voice. At the moment Gatsby blurts out, “‘Her voice is full of money,'” Nick stumbles across a revelation which changes his entire view of society:
“That was it. I’d never understood before. It was full of money- that was the inexhaustible charm that rose and fell in it, the jingle of it, the cymbals’ song of it. . . . High in a white palace the king’s daughter, the golden girl. . . .” (pg 127)
At this point, all of Daisy’s charm and beauty is stripped away, leaving nothing but money to be admired underneath. The dream Gatsby has been so inexorably pursuing is ripped apart into dollar bills as he discovers that for years he has been pursuing not love, but cold, hard, money, hidden behind the disguise of a human face. Subsequently, when Gatsby dies, any chance the American Dream has of surviving in the dehumanized modern world dies with him. Nick later speculates on Gatsby’s last thoughts before death, conjecturing, “He must have looked up at an unfamiliar sky through frightening leaves and shivered as he found what a grotesque thing a rose is and how raw the sunlight was upon the scarcely created grass” (pg 169). The hopes and dreams which have strengthened and uplifted Gatsby are shattered as he lies in the pool, dazed and confused in a world which he no longer understands.
After shooting Gatsby, George Wilson, Fitzgerald’s symbolization of the common man struggling to achieve his own success within the realm of the modern dream, commits suicide. The deaths of a rich man and a poor man, both pushing themselves towards the same impossible goal, mirror the death of the original dream on which America was founded. At the end of the novel, Nick returns to the Midwest with this disconcerting knowledge, reflecting on Gatsby’s life as the struggle of the American people in a society losing its humanity: “So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past” (pg 189). The dream is now utterly lost and can never be resurrected.
Through the unfolding events of a doomed romance, Fitzgerald simultaneously unfolds the tragic fate of American values. Gatsby and the other characters of his story act as vessels for the author’s true message- the American Dream, once a pure and mighty ideal, has been buried and is pressed into the ground by the inhuman void of money. Nick Carraway conveys this message as an outsider, an honest man who is witnessing the entire ordeal as an observer. The Great Gatsby is not the eulogy of a man named Jay Gatsby; rather, it is the eulogy of an institution that once was, but is now gone and can never be.
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