In Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, all the characters are, in one way or another, attempting to achieve a state of happiness in their lives. The main characters are divided into two groups: the rich upper class and the poorer lower class, which struggle to attain a higher position. Though the major players seek only to change their lives for the better, the idealism and spiritualism of the American Dream are inevitably crushed beneath the harsh reality of life, leaving their lives without meaning or purpose.
Tom and Daisy Buchanan, the rich socialite couple, seem to have everything they could possibly desire; however, though their lives are full of material possessions and worldly goods, they are unsatisfied and seek to change their circumstances. Tom, the arrogant ex-football player, drifts on “forever seeking a little wistfully for the dramatic turbulence of some irrecoverable football game”(pg. 10) and reads “deep books with long words in them”(pg. 17) in order to have something to talk about. Though he appears happily married to Daisy, Tom has an affair with Myrtle Wilson and keeps an apartment with her in New York. Tom’s basic nature of unrest prevents him from being satisfied with the life he leads, and so he creates another life for himself with Myrtle. Daisy Buchanan is an empty figure, a woman with neither strong desires nor convictions. Even before her loyalty to either Tom or Gatsby is called into question, Daisy does nothing but sit around all day and wonder what to do with herself. She knows that Tom has a mistress on the side, yet hesitates to leave him even when she learns of Gatsby’s devotion to her. Daisy professes her love to Gatsby, yet cannot bring herself to tell Tom goodbye except at Gatsby’s insistence. Even then, once Tom pleads with her to stay, Daisy quickly capitulates and ultimately leaves Gatsby for a life of comfort and security. The Buchanans are the ultimate examples of wealth and prosperity, the epitome of the rich life of the American Dream, yet their lives are empty, unfulfilled, and without purpose.
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Though Myrtle Wilson makes an attempt to escape her own class and pursue happiness with the richer set, her efforts ultimately produce no results and she dies, a victim of the very group she sought to join. Myrtle tries to join Tom’s class by entering into an affair with him and taking on his way of living, but in doing so she becomes vulgar and corrupt like the rich. She loses all sense of morality and is scornful of people of her own class. Her constant clothing changes signify her dissatisfaction with her life – she changes personalities every time she changes her dress: “with the influence of the dress her whole personality had also undergone a change. The intense vitality… was converted into impressive hauteur”(pg. 35). She treats the elevator boy in her apartment building with disdain: “Myrtle raised her eyebrows in despair at the shiftlessness of the lower orders. ‘These people! You have to keep after them all the time.'”(pg. 36). Though American democracy is based on the concept of equality among people, social discrimination does still exists, and the divisions between classes cannot be overcome. Myrtle strives for a new life for herself, yet she is corrupted by the supposedly ‘better’ group and finally falls victim to it.
Jay Gatsby’s idealistic view of Daisy Buchanan creates a conflict for him once he is confronted by reality. Over the course of five years, Gatsby has built Daisy up in his mind to be the perfect woman, someone that the actual Daisy could never measure up to: “any amount of fire or freshness can challenge what a man will store up in his ghostly heart”(pg. 101). Daisy cannot help but fall short of Gatsby’s dream, and so Gatsby is disappointed that the woman he loves does not exist as he imagines her to be. Though Gatsby is rich, he is of the lower set, and he attempts to join the upper class with Daisy. His desire for a better life stems from his faith that anything is possible if he puts his mind to it, which is also a part of the American Dream. However, Gatsby’s dream collapses when he fails to win Daisy and is ultimately rejected by the higher social group. All his ill-gotten wealth cannot help him and though he is killed physically by a bullet from George Wilson’s gun, Gatsby dies spiritually when Daisy chooses Tom over him. The failure of Gatsby’s ideals is directly related to the failure of the American Dream in that it is destroyed by reality, in this case by the reality of Daisy’s rejection. Without his dream, Gatsby has nothing, no fire to keep him going, no direction and no purpose.
Throughout the novel, Fitzgerald shows the collapse of dreams, whether they are dreams of money, status, or simply of happiness. The biggest collapse, however, is of the American Dream. The failure of the American Dream is unavoidable, not only because the reality of life cannot compare to idealistic dreams, but also because the ideals are usually far too perfect to be paralleled in reality. Dreams give purpose to life, something to work toward, an end to the road. Without dreams, one’s life has no meaning, as shown in the fates of Gatsby and the Buchanans. Their lives become empty and hollow without the presence of some ideal. Gatsby is a prime example of the failure of the American Dream.
Though he has become successful in life, all his wealth stems from illegal sources: “he… bought up a lot of side-street drug-stores here and in Chicago and sold grain alcohol over the counter”(pg. 141). Gatsby seems to think nothing of earning his money by illicit means, though that practice goes directly against the principles of the American Dream. Nick comments on this failure of the American Dream in his narrative descriptions of the characters, where all the immoral people have the money and the moral ones are the poor lower class. The American Dream is something all people work toward to some extent, yet it is doomed to failure as its ideals conflict with the reality of life. Although it is an admirable goal, it is an unobtainable one. The American Dream is just that – a dream.
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