The Great Gatsby and the American Dream
Everyone wants to be successful in life, but most often people take the wrong ways to get there. In the 1920’s the American Dream was something that everyone struggled to have. A spouse, children, money, a big house and a car meant that someone had succeeded in life. A very important aspect was money and success was determined greatly by it. This was not true in all cases however. The belief that every man can rise to success no matter what his beginnings. Jay Gatsby was a poor boy that turned into a very wealthy man, but did he live the American Dream? Money is actually the only thing that Gatsby had a lot of. Jay Gatsby tries to live the life of The American Dream, but fails in his battle.
I became aware of the old island here that flowered once for Dutch sailors’ eyes – a fresh, green breast of the new world. Its vanished trees, the trees that had made way for Gatsby’s house, had once pandered in whispers to the last and greatest of all human dreams; for a transitory enchanted moment man must have held his breath in the presence of this continent, compelled into an aesthetic contemplation he neither understood nor desired, face to face for the last time in history with something commensurate to his capacity for wonder. (P. 171).
On his last visit to Gatsby’s house, Nick realizes that Gatsby’s belief in life and love resembles the hope and faith of those early Dutch sailors coming to America, looking forward to freedom and spiritual and material jubilation. With this in mind, we can be sure that Gatsby is the reflection of the American Dream. So, in what way is Gatsby representative of the American Dream?
After people have determined their specific aspirations, they need to structure a course of actions to achieve them in order to bring their dreams to reality. For Gatsby, his dream is very easily realized, to a certain extent, by virtue of his immense ambition and idealism. As described by Nick in the novel, Gatsby has an "extraordinary gift for hope", which has never been found in any other person:
If personality is an unbroken series of successful gestures, then there was something gorgeous about him, some heightened sensitivity to the promises of life, as if he were related to one of those intricate machines that register earthquakes ten thousand miles away. (P.8).
But he didn’t despise himself… (P.142).
Gatsby has an intense desire for Daisy, who is both wealthy and beautiful. The desire is so profound that it forms part of his belief in life and motivates him to do whatever possible to become rich and famous so as to bridge the gap between Daisy and him. In this way, money and success is merely the stepping-stone by which Gatsby attains his ultimate goal – winning Daisy back from Tom.
Gatsby is a person of magic, being able to manipulate and even change his fate. He was born penniless in an unsuccessful farming family in the Mid-west, as shown in his father’s remarks:
"As a matter of fact, he had no such facilities – he had no comfortable family standing behind him, and he is liable at the whim of an impersonal government to be blown anywhere about the world." (P.142).
He then goes to the East Coast to pursue his dream. Through his struggle for his dream, however, he has been able to amass a fortune and climb up the social ladder. He owes his success mostly to his own faith in life and his optimistic confidence in himself, though the opportunities and help from Dan Cody have to been acknowledged. His determination to strive towards his ideal can be mirrored in his changing his name from James Gatz to Jay Gatsby, which best fits him into a new, more dignified social class. His mental rejection of his legitimate parents as his parents is accompanied by his emulation of the father-like figure, Dan Cody. Above all, Gatsby is so diligent and industrious a young man that he deserves all his accomplishments. He is hardworking and resolved, as shown by his schedule and his general guidelines for life:
Gatsby's Schedule (P.164)
Rise from bed6.00 AM
Dumbbell exercise ; wall-scaling6.15 – 6.30 AM
Study electricity, etc7.15 – 8.15 AM
Work8.30 AM – 4.30 PM
Baseball ; sports4.30 – 5.00 PM
Practise elocution, poise ; how to attain it5.00 – 6.00 PM
Study needed inventions7.00 – 9.00 PM
Gatsby's General Resolves (P.164)
No wasting time…
Read one improving book or magazine per week.
Save $ 5.00 $ 3.00 per week.
Having made enough money, he begins to implement his plans, step by step, to buy
Firstly, he buys an expensive mansion at West Egg, proximate to Daisy’s at East Egg so that he can always glaze at "the green light that burns all night at the end of your Daisy’s dock" (P.90). Actually, he also buys a luxurious "yellow car", a deluxe yacht, many ornate clothes and stacks of bona fide books, not only to show off his wealth and social and educational status, but also to impress Daisy. Gatsby is so proud of his great attire that when Daisy visits his lavish mansion:
He took out a pile of shirts and began throwing them, one by one, before us, shirts of sheer linen and thick silk and fine flannel… While we admired he brought more and the soft rich heap mounted higher – shirts with stripes and scrolls and plaids in coral and apple-green and lavender and faint orange, with monograms of indian blue. (P.89).
Effectively, Daisy is so dazzled by his opulent mansion and in particular his rich apparel that she bends her head into the shirts and exclaims marvelously: "They’re such beautiful shirts!" (P.89). Moreover, he throws numerous extravagant parties in the hope that Daisy will turn out in one of them. Assuming that he can buy Daisy’s love by exhibiting his wealth, Gatsby becomes committed into doing these all. However, money is not God. Nor is it a salvation for mankind. Therefore, Gatsby’ deliberate deeds are doomed to be in vain.
Indeed, there is a hint foreshadowing the futility of Gatsby’s desire for Daisy. Early in the novel, when Jordan is talking about Gatsby, Daisy demands, "Gatsby? What Gatsby?" (P.16), inferring that Gatsby no longer occupies an important position in Daisy’s heart, and is bound to be fruitless of his hopefulness about Daisy.
The loss of Daisy by Gatsby has been taken for granted to be perceived as the equivalence to the failure of his dream for his predominant impetus to success is Daisy. This is not wrong; but a deeper analysis will yield a better, more thorough perception. In the first place, it can be argued that after Gatsby has set a course of action for realizing his dream early in his life, he fails to mature beyond that point, so much so that:
His dream must have seemed so close that he could hardly fail to grasp it. He did not know that it was already behind him… And Gatsby believed in the green light, the orgiastic future that year by year recedes before us. (P.171).
Besides, he also fails to achieve the status he has been searching for. He throws extravagant parties aiming at spreading his wealth and increasing his social reputation, but cannot achieve the intended effects. People coming to his parties uninvited often fail to meet him. No one actually knows who Gatsby is and what he did. They just harbor the suspicions that "he killed a man once" and he is a bootlegger. That’s all. And their feelings are rather negative and injurious.
Not even Tom shows respect for him. In Tom’s eyes, Gatsby is his social inferior. He was born rich and always belongs to the rich and the highly reputable. Gatsby, however, has just happened to be rich and is always below him in the social hierarchy. He is incredulous and contemptuous of Gatsby’s educational attainment. When somebody tells him that Gatsby was an Oxford man, he is outright disdainful and opprobrious of Gatsby, insofar as he makes such abusive remarks:
"An Oxford man! Like hell he is!" (P.116).
"Oxford, New Mexico, or something like that." (P.116).
Later, when he suffers unfavorably in the wrangle with Gatsby over Daisy’s affection, he discloses from where Gatsby attains his state of wealth, rather despicably:
"Who are you, anyhow? You’re one of that bunch that hangs around with Meyer Wolfshiem… I found out what your ‘drug-stores’ were. He and this Wolfshiem bought up a lot of side-street drug-stores here and sold grain alcohol over the counter. That’s one of his little stunts. I picked him for a bootlegger the first time I saw him, and I wasn’t far wrong." (P.127).
Indeed, Gatsby makes a fortune in illegal dealings with Meyer Wolfshiem, to which we will come back later in the essay. These sorts of social discrimination and divisions among classes, which are contradictory to the principles of the American Dream, really abound in American society at that time. And this accounts to the failure of the American Dream at large.
A second culprit to the failure of the American Dream is the moral decadence of people in general. In essence, spiritual improvements are concomitant with material improvements. They are mutually complementary. However, with the material part too easily achieved (perhaps thanks to the emergence of a new concept called ‘easy money’ – the selling of bonds, insurance, automobiles, etc.), people begin to lose their spiritual purpose as material achievements blindfold people’s spiritual aspirations. As a consequence, the society shows a decline in spiritual life of its inhabitants, and their lives become lacking in meaning and ideal. And this is often identified as the ‘Jazz Age’, during which the overwhelming atmosphere of careless gaiety and wild celebration is prevalent. This becomes almost evident when Gatsby throws an enormous number of lavish parties where its wild extravagance and the shallowness and aimlessness of the guests are by no means implicit:
Five crates of oranges and lemons every party… every Monday these same oranges and lemons left his back door in a pyramid of pulpless halves. (P.41)
There was dancing now on the canvas in the garden; old men pushing young girls backward in eternal graceless circles, superior couples holding each other tortuously, fashionably, and keeping in the corners – and a great number of single girls dancing individualistically or relieving the orchestra for a moment of the burden of the banjo or the traps. By midnight the hilarity had increased… happy, vacuous bursts of laughter rose toward the summer sky. (P.47-48).
The scenario is made more explicit by Daisy’s lament:
"What’ll we do with ourselves this afternoon?" cried Daisy, "and the day after that, and the next 30 years?" (P.113).
After all, this period is characterized by some kinds of new culture, for example the emergence of jazz music, the Charleston dance, movies and the automobile.
Accompanying the degradation of spiritual life and purpose is the corruption of values. In order to bring their dreams closer to reality, people are prepared to do whatever possible, even resort to criminal activities. In fact, in the so-called Roaring Twenties, organized crimes ran rampant. Cheating, bribery, bootlegging and illegal gambling were rife in society at that time. Even murder is no rarer. In the novel, it is bootlegging that Gatsby commits, as revealed earlier in the essay. At that time, law in the United States, spawning some kind of gangster called bootleggers, who smuggled liquor illegally, forbade the production and sale of alcoholic drinks.
Lastly, it is the disparity between reality and ideals that prompts the failure of Gatsby’s dream and the American Dream by and large. Perhaps the love affair between Gatsby and Daisy in the past is such a memorable experience of bliss that he always longs for the past, even though it seems impractical for him to regain Daisy’s affection:
"Your wife doesn’t love you," said Gatsby. "She’s never loved you. She loves me… She only married you because I was poor and she was tired of waiting for me. It was a terrible mistake, but in her heart she never loved anyone except me." (P.124).
From the above example, it is clear that Gatsby’s desire for Daisy is so obsessed that he talks wildly. In addition to his naivete and impracticality, Gatsby is over-sentimental. After the knockdown of Myrtle by Daisy, he tries to take the blame for Myrtle’s death without a word of complaint. He watches over Daisy on her way home lest she may be hurt. Even after she has arrived home, he is no less heedful. He still insists on guarding outside her house for safety’s sake. Probably, Gatsby cannot desert Daisy after the accident until he knows what she is going to do. He is snatching at some last hope. To his disappointment, his attempt to recapture the past eventually withers in its pursuit. Thus, Gatsby’s dream is an illusion. It also reminds us that having strong ambition and faith as well as being hardworking by no means guarantee success – after all, ideals are ideals; reality is reality!
Gatsby is the living embodiment of the American Dream in many respects because of his extraordinary gift for hope, his Platonic conception of himself, his faith in life’s possibility and his commitment to his aspirations. He represents the general public who is poor but has hopes and dreams for which they are to strive to give meaning and purpose to their efforts. His dream symbolizes the larger American Dream in which all have the equal opportunity to get what they want. Nonetheless, the fiasco in his personal dream also typifies the collapse of the American Dream on the whole in which social discrimination and class divisions, spiritual voidness and hollow gaiety, and the decadence of values and ideals prevail. The novel is a great reminder that money cannot make the world go around, after all.
1. F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby, Penguin Books, London, 1950.