Saturday, May 28, 2011

The Great Gatsby and the criticism of the American dream.

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The 10’s were a period of decadence and partying despite the prohibition, a legal ban on both the production and selling of alcohol, providing an opportunity for criminal organisations to supply it illegally and at a high cost. The Great Gatsby was written in 15, after the First World War but before the Depression in the 10’s, amidst this time of partying and bootleg alcohol. The American dream evokes the idea that everyone can achieve their goals and happiness through hard, honest work- that everyone is presented with the same opportunities and can reach their full potential simply by striving to be all that they can and staying true to their beliefs and moral values. Thomas Jefferson expressed the embodiment of The American dream in the Declaration of Independence 1776

‘We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.’

The Great Gatsby is set during 1 in two ‘eggs’ just outside of New York. The West Egg, one of the regions, is home to ‘new money’ and those that have acquired their wealth rather than being born into it. The East Egg in contrast inhabits those who have a conventional social standing and represent the ideals of the old upper classes. At the beginning we are introduced to the narrator Nick Carraway; he has been taught by his father to reserve judgement on others as not all have had the advantages in life as he. Fitzgerald establishes this, as he wants to ensure that the reader trusts Nick’s recount of events as neutral and unbiased despite the fact that he is an involved character in the novel. It becomes clear however that Nick Caraway can not hide his feelings of the characters, he has a distaste for their immoral actions, however, this form of narrative allows Fitzgerald to not only be morally detached from the novel but also to display his own optimism of life in the character of Gatsby.

‘Gatsby of course can have no consciousness of his own significance-what his life really means-which is why Nick Carraway’s role, and the narrative method Fitzgerald has chosen, are of such crucial importance.’ (1)

Custom Essays on The Great Gatsby and the criticism of the American dream.

Fitzgerald’s characters are young and privileged, Tom and Daisy Buchanan, or young and deprived, Myrtle and George Wilson; they contrast each other. Jay Gatsby is the main character in the novel and it is he that is striving to achieve the American dream, or he is in pursuit of the one thing that he thinks will make him complete, which is his first love Daisy. ‘The American dream in its true sense has never been limited to material success alone’ (). At the end of the chapter1 the reader witnesses, through the eyes of Nick, Gatsby stretching his arms out and looking into the distance at a ‘single green light’. On the surface this symbolic gesture can be seen as Gatsby reaching out to Daisy who lives on the other side of the dock. It is representative however of Gatsby trying to capture the deceptive aspirations that are the American dream or on a whole something that everyone strives for but is just out of our reach. Gatsby thought that once he had achieved wealth and power he would have happiness in Daisy, however he can’t buy everything that is important to her; he cannot buy an established position in society. Gatsby chose the quick route to success, rather than working hard and honestly, and achieved it by becoming involved with some illegal organisations in order to make his money fast. The American dream when it was first established determined that all could reach their goals by honest, hard work but Gatsby’s corruption contrasts this and demonstrates Fitzgerald’s criticism of it. The dream is unrealistic, as it does not take into consideration the changes in society and its inhabitants. The fact that light is green can be quite deceptive to the reader implying that colours within the novel are important symbols in themselves. Daisy is wearing white on the first encounter with her indicating that she may be a virginal, innocent person however by the end of the novel this image is contradicted as she is actually shallow and superficial, motivated solely by greed and material possessions.

The rich characters in the novel own lavish mansions and cars, which were luxury items at this time and only owned by those who could afford them, and Fitzgerald’s description of them are poetically exquisite. For example ‘The front was broken by a line of French windows, glowing now with reflected gold and wide open to the warm wind of the afternoon…’ (pg.1) It was these material possessions however that corrupted the American dream. The characters are obsessed with their outward appearances, what they have on display and then ultimately how others perceive them via these status symbols. Gatsby himself has a lavish mansion however he built it not to show others what he had but to capture Daisy’s attention; if Daisy herself was not so shallow and concerned with superficial appearances Gatsby would have no need for such status symbols. The rich characters in the novel assume that Gatsby is the same and that all his possessions are fake and for show also; for example Jordan assumes that the books in the library are merely for display when in fact they are actually real. Jay Gatsby’s dream was honest at the beginning but he became corrupted along the way achieving his money and luxuries by partaking in illegal activity. Daisy herself was so shallow that she set standards that Jay would never be able to live up too whilst at the same time had no intention of ever leaving her husband.

The eyes of T.J. Eckleburg that look over the ‘‘valley of ashes’’ are symbolic of a godlike presence watching over the characters and their actions. Many of the immoral actions of the characters take place under these watchful eyes, for example the death of Myrtle and Tom’s affair, and they are representative of Fitzgerald’s attitude towards the lack of moral values in his own society. Fitzgerald describes them as brooding over the ‘solemn dumping ground’, judging the characters for allowing themselves to become spiritually corrupt. George Wilson whilst grief stricken at the end of chapter eight describes how he had taken his wife to the window and said ‘I told her she might fool me but she couldn’t fool God...God sees everything’. Myrtle is the one character that pays for her immoral actions, as God is the definitive judge of virtue of honesty. The characters idolised their possessions rather than God and lost their spiritual aim in life, as did many Americans living during this time period. A life without purpose or aim is meaningless; Tom and Daisy surrounded their lives with all their money could buy yet despite all they had their lives were empty and both had affairs to compensate for this. His description of the valley of ashes is heaving with images of baron, deadened area that not a living being could survive in - ‘ a fantastic farm where ashes grow like wheat into ridges and hills and grotesque gardens; where ashes take the forms of houses...of ash-grey men, who move dimly and already crumbling through the powdery air’ (pg ). This depiction is not only of an area similar to a desert or harsh environment but also significant of the moral wasteland that the area represents.

Fitzgerald describes Gatsby as having ‘something gorgeous about him, some heightened sensitivity to the promises of life’ and it may be the element of hope that Gatsby embodies that he finds so attractive. Gatsby remains ever optimistic that he will be able to win Daisy back despite the fact that he becomes corrupted whilst trying to achieve this dream. Gatsby is a hopeless romantic and, as Fitzgerald almost did, he lost the woman of his dreams, his true love because he had no money. For Gatsby his pursuit of money and possessions was merely a means for him to capture his dream. The American dream encouraged people to strive in order to attain whatever it was that would make them feel happy, successful and complete. The green light that Gatsby was obsessed with symbolises hope and it is with this image that Fitzgerald makes his strongest criticism of the American dream. The light is out of reach for Gatsby, as he has set himself a goal that he will never be able to accomplish, and his death at the end of the novel symbolises the death of The American dream itself.

‘If Gatsby is redeemed as an individual, it is only by the determination which he clings to his dream, however flawed and fragile its basis may be.’ ()

The American dream can bring consequences when the idealist becomes absorbed with material wealth and forgets about their spiritual well being. Love and happiness cannot be bought and Gatsby’s dream was doomed to fail as he had focused too much of his time on material improvement that time eluded him, but it was the circumstances of the period that had placed him under this pressure.

‘Gatsby exemplifies only a process of corruption for which he is not individually responsible. His sense of the ideal is no more nor less than that which his society offers him.’ (4)

Gatsby had a romantic ideal but it belonged to a specific period of his life that was to remain in the past as, time waits for no man, Daisy had moved on and was unwilling to risk all that she had gained to retreat into the past. Time is irrelevant to Gatsby, as the broken clock signifies, but this causes him to fail to keep in touch with reality. Gatsby’s dream belonging in the past juxtaposes Fitzgerald’s belief that the American dream belongs there also- reality and modern society can not keep up with the ideals that the American dream had once stood for. Fitzgerald poetically describes Gatsby’s attempts to go beyond his past as wasted time and energy � ‘So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past (pg187)- He was never to be successful as he is modern man living in a backward society. Tom and Daisy Buchanan represent the force of the current; America was to be the land of dreams but they embody the traditional views of European aristocracy and have infected the society with these opinions. The West Egg and East Egg regions are symbolic not only by the people that live in them but also because of the division between them; the ideals that the dream originally stood for cannot co-exist in a world that still has divisions among the classes. The American dream suggests that all people are equal but in the novel social discrimination is still at large and cannot be overcome by any of the characters. Myrtle’s affair with Tom is her attempt to try and break into this world but in doing so becomes corrupted herself, sneering at other people from her own class and becoming offensive. Her desire to become a member of this group is simply from her social ambition and she has no regard for the feelings of either Daisy or her husband George’s feelings. In contrast to this Gatsby’s yearning to do so is only somewhat influenced by social purposes but it is not the sole reason; it is however more imperative for him to succeed because his whole existence revolves around his belief that he can accomplish what he set out to do.

George and Myrtle Wilson are important characters in the novel as they contrast the rich world that Tom and Daisy inhabit yet all live unhappy lives; Nick Caraway describes George as being grey, covered with the ashen dust and ‘mingling immediately with the cement colour of the walls’. His depressing situation is due to his dying business; there is a gleam of hope in his eyes when he sees that Tom has come down to his garage hoping that he has brought some trade with him. The poor believed that their problems would vanish if they had more money but as demonstrated through Gatsby money can not buy happiness. Tom and Daisy were rich yet their lack of true love, lack of morals and lack of principles all led to their unhappiness. None of Gatsby’s so-called friends attend his funeral; his struggle for wealth and status had been wasted as in the end he was left with nothing. Consequence is a word of no significance to the characters in the novel. Nick says in chapter nine of Tom and Daisy, ‘They were careless people, Tom and Daisy- they smashed up things and then retreated back into their money...and let other people clean up the mess they had made’. Tom and Daisy allowed Gatsby to be murdered for a crime that he did not commit; Tom because he wanted Gatsby to be punished for loving his wife and Daisy as she had never before had to take consequences for her own actions. This is reinforced by Jordan’s description of being a driver; it was not up to her to be careful but to the other drivers on the road. Their life of decadence and carelessness caused the death of the American dream when they allowed Gatsby to die for their own corrupt actions.

‘Daisy and her morally empty, sosphitcated worldliness is quite incapable of sustaining the dream that Gatsby has created around her’ (5)

Tom, Daisy and Jordan are this ‘dust’ in the valley of ashes that have eventually caused the corruption of the American dream. The valley of ashes and the dust within are what are ultimately left of The American dream after the rich socialites destroyed it.


1. Andrew Hook, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ed. Robin Gilmore 1, 4

. Andrew Hook, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ed. Robin Gilmore 1, 5

. Andrew Hook, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ed. Robin Gilmore 1, 58

4. Andrew Hook, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ed. Robin Gilmore 1, 58

5. Andrew Hook, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ed. Robin Gilmore 1, 56


1. Hook, Andrew ‘F. Scott Fitzgerald, 1

. Mizener, Arthur ‘This Far Side of Paradise’, Houghton Mifflin Company 15

. www.sparknotes.com

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