Within his acclaimed novel, The Great Gatsby, author F. Scott Fitzgerald uses the backdrop of the uninhibited, wealthy New York society of the Jazz Age to display his views using a cast of doomed characters. While it is a significant issue to the story, Fitzgerald does not directly address the concepts of the American Dream in The Great Gatsby. In fact, you will not find the words "American Dream" in this novel. However, Fitzgerald subtly weaves into his telling of the tragic tale the severe consequences of the 1920's manipulation of the American Dream. Fitzgerald concludes his novel by killing or injuring all his characters who took short-cuts toward an American Dream dominated by materialism. From his writing, I believe that Fitzgerald embraces the old-fashioned or conventional American Dream that hard work and sacrifice yields success.
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To properly comment on Fitzgerald's feelings about the American Dream, we should define its meaning. Webster's Dictionary defines the American Dream as: "American social ideal that stresses egalitarianism and especially material prosperity; the prosperity or life that is the realization of this ideal." John Pidgeon's view of the American Dream is, "The Dream is founded upon the philosophical fundamentals on which our nation was built, summed up in Thomas Jefferson's expression that all men are created equal and are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights to liberty, life and the pursuit of happiness. In other words, America was to be a place where men were politically free to pursue whatever goal they wished". (Pidgeon, 178-179)
The Jazz Age, in which The Great Gatsby is set, was an era when the American economy boomed and materialism predominated. Stories of people who had won immense wealth were common in the media at that time. Undoubtedly, in the 1920's many Americans adopted a corrupted and materialistic version of the American Dream.
Since Fitzgerald did not directly address the specific issue of the American Dream within The Great Gatsby, we must assume some aspects of Fitzgerald's feelings on the issue from his writing. Within The Great Gatsby, it appears as if Fitzgerald interchanged the concept of materialism for the American Dream. John Pidgeon wrote, "There is a general understanding by readers of The Great Gatsby that it is a commentary on the American Dream and not simply a documentary on the Jazz Age. It is a criticism of American experience-not only of our manners, but of our basic historic attitude toward life. The theme of Gatsby is the withering of the American Dream. The dream is essentially anti-puritanical (to go from rags to riches and therefore from rejection to acceptance)." (Pidgeon, 179)
The Great Gatsby may be a commentary on the 1920's version of the American Dream, but it is not an acceptance of it. On the first reading of The Great Gatsby, one may initially feel that author F. Scott Fitzgerald personally believed in the materialistic version of the American Dream because most of his main characters appear to have a "me first" mentality. Fitzgerald included considerable description of self-indulgent behaviors such as Gatsby's parties, Tom Buchanan's Sunday afternoon rendezvous with his girlfriend, and, Gatsby and Daisy's brief affair. Fitzgerald included no significant portrayal of standard work responsibilities or normal family life that would define the conventional American Dream. On the contrary, each of Fitzgerald's main characters, Gatsby, Daisy, Tom Buchanan, and even Nick Caraway, seem to be interested only in their own pleasures.
While Fitzgerald describes the "me first" version of the American Dream, he does not embrace it. Fitzgerald uses the classic morality play format of story-telling to demonstrate the recklessness of the "me first" philosophy over took the conventional American Dream in the 1920's. The typical premise of a morality play is that the main character makes a journey and is influenced by characters along the way. Just like in a morality play The Great Gatsby's narrator, Nick Caraway, journeys toward self-discovery of his own values by examining the behaviors and motivations of his dysfunctional West Egg neighbors.
Fitzgerald actually rejects of the corrupted version of the American Dream by crushing the lives and/or spirits of his characters who adopted a greedy American Dream (i.e. Tom's girlfriend, Myrtle Wilson is run-over, Gatsby is shot, and Daisy's marriage is challenged). Fitzgerald vividly projects either pain or death upon those who hold greedy philosophies or display immoral behaviors. Fitzgerald shows the corrupted version of the American dream is worthless:"When the dream disintegrates, Gatsby is face to face with reality. Tom and Daisy and millions of other small-minded, ruthless Americans believe only in the value of material things, with no room for faith and vision. As the novel closes, the experience of Gatsby becomes the focus of Fitzgerald's disillusionment" (Pidgeon, 182). By concluding his novel with such human destruction, Fitzgerald follows the morality play format and rejects the "me first" manipulation of the American Dream.
Fitzgerald reinforces many conventional or conservative American values at the conclusion of The Great Gatsby. Jay Gatsby, a man who lies in order to re-invent his own history, dies alone as the victim of a fatal lie from Tom Buchanan. Gatsby's only true mourner is his aged father; thus reinforcing the permanence of a father's love regardless of circumstances. Vast wealth fails to produce any true love for any of the characters. Sinfulness is punished by violent death. Even the concept of marriage, although a flawed marriage, survives for Tom and Daisy Buchanan.
The sense of place plays an important role in the telling of The Great Gatsby. F. Scott Fitzgerald's novel takes place in the wealthy enclaves of East Egg and West Egg New York, located on Long Island. The center for wealth and power in America was and remains New York City. In the New York City of the Roaring 20's, wealth was generally not achieved through hard work, but through manipulation and criminal activities. (Find a quote) The concept of gaining wealth, rather than earning it the old fashioned way, may have replaced the conventional notion of the American Dream, at least in some parts of America. Long Island and its proximity to wealth and high society, make The Great Gatsby interesting. Most of America was unfamiliar with such society and privilege. If The Great Gatsby was set in rural Kansas with its farming work ethic, it would not have been nearly as entertaining. A story about greed had to be set in the central location of greed.
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In writing The Great Gatsby in and about New York society, Fitzgerald provided some unique insight into the status of the American Dream at that particular time. According to the article Fitzgerald's Rendering of a Dream, "For Fitzgerald the American dream is beautiful yet grotesquely flawed and distorted" (Hearn 191). The Great Gatsby was written in 1925, well before the Great Depression. The 1920's were a time of booming wealth creation and general economic expansion. The Roaring 20's brought expanding industry and exploding financial wealth. In Fitzgerald's 1920's, American society was less decentralized and more geared toward those in power or position. The newspapers and magazines were filled with stories of wealthy individuals such as Carnegie and Rockefeller. This may have led to inflated expectations of the American Dream.
The Great Gatsby is somewhat autobiographical as many characters and the setting reflect the author's real life. Fitzgerald he grew up surrounded by Midwestern merchants and farmers. He attended an Eastern prep school and Princeton University before World War I. At this time, those who attended college were either really smart or rich. Fitzgerald's family lived off his mother's inheritance after his father twice failed in business. Because of these business failures, one can speculate that a young Fitzgerald was intrigued by the notion of wealth. Obviously, wealth is a dominant theme in The Great Gatsby as Fitzgerald lived and wrote among the wealthiest segment of American society. Most of characters in The Great Gatsby have great wealth or sponge-off of those who do. Myrtle and George Wilson are the working-class exceptions and they are portrayed in the most pitiful light throughout the novel. The wealth on Long Island residents provides the great conflict between greed and love.
Like the Gatsby character, in order to win over his wife, Zelda, Fitzgerald had to earn a comfortable income. Gatsby focused on gaining money so that he could throw lavish parties to wow Daisy. Similarly, Fitzgerald worked to earn Zelda's love. According to Matthew Bruccoli, "They embarked on an extravagant life as young celebrities" (Bruccoli, 2). Fitzgerald began the writing of The Great Gatsby while he and his wife lived in the luxury of Long Island. Their dream quickly started to unravel, "Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald did spend money faster than he earned it; the author who wrote so eloquently about the effects of money on character was unable to manage his own finances" (Bruccoli, 3). Along the way Fitzgerald became an alcoholic and his wife was entered into a mental hospital. Similarly to Gatsby, the Fitzgerald's American Dream, which was money driven, failed them in the end.
In The Great Gatsby, F. Scott Fitzgerald seems to questions the cost of the American Dream. His characters, which were focused on gaining wealth as their American Dream, were mostly damaged or destroyed. One could argue that in writing this way, Fitzgerald actually felt that the American Dream was damaged or unattainable. Nick seems to be the only character who knows the American Dream isn't always obtainable while Gatsby strongly believes the Dream is possible. During a conversation Nick has with Gatsby, Nick says, "I wouldn't ask too much of her," I ventured. "You can't repeat the past." Gatsby answers, "Can't repeat the past?' he cried incredulously. Why of course you can!'" (Fitzgerald, 116). Gatsby believes he can win over Daisy and relive their past love.
Critics who use The Great Gatsby to question the real attainability of the American Dream imply a sense of entitlement. No American is promised a better life. The American Dream is an aspirational challenge. Fitzgerald shows us that the American Dream cannot be bought; the American Dream must be earned through hard work and sacrifice. Generations of Americans have proven this. American Dream is not what is personified by Jay Gatsby: reinventing himself into something false and inauthentic by taking illegal short-cuts to accumulate ostentatious wealth. Jay Gatsby ultimately fails to gain his American Dream and ends up dead in his marvelous swimming pool.
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