Futility of the American Dream Exposed in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby

Futility of the American Dream Exposed in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby

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The ideal of the ‘American Dream’ has hardly changed over the past century. The dream is a unique American phenomenon. It represents a nebulous concept that is exemplified by a number of American values. Many deem wealth and success to be the means to this paradigm. When stability, security and family values also become part of the suburban lifestyle, the American Dream comes close to becoming reality. Nick Carraway, the candid narrator of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s novel, The Great Gatsby analyzes the legitimacy of this principle through the inevitable downfall of Jay Gatsby. The novel takes place during the ‘roaring twenties’ in two sophisticated, affluent Long Island neighborhoods. The people in these neighborhoods epitomize the superficiality and arrogance that distorts the American Dream. Fitzgerald utilizes this environment and its people to examine the negative attributes of the American Dream.

Fitzgerald portrays two neighborhoods, East Egg and West Egg, to display the slowly evolving corruption of the American Dream. East Egg houses old money sophisticates, and West Egg accommodates the less fashionable “nouveau riche” types. The apparent differences cause the two neighborhoods to develop a seeming rivalry. The different neighborhoods are connected through the characters becoming entangled with each other. Both Carraway, and his wealthy, yet enigmatic neighbor, Jay Gatsby live in West Egg. Carraway lives in a modest bungalow, which is overshadowed by Gatsby’s extravagant estate. In his magnificent manor, Gatsby indulges in an excessive and exaggerated lifestyle including many lavish parties: “In his blue gardens men and girls came and went like moths among the whisperings and the champagne and the stars” (43). Gatsby considers his prodigious wealth and stature to be the means to regain his one true love, Daisy Buchanan. Daisy's aura of wealth and privilege--her many clothes, her perfect house, her lack of fear or worry—attract Gatsby's attention and gradual obsession. Gatsby realizes that his own capacity for hope made Daisy seem ideal to him. He does not realize that he is pursuing an image that has no true, lasting value. This realization would have made the world look entirely different to Gatsby, like "a new world, material without being real, where poor ghosts, breathing dreams like air, drifted fortuitously about” (169).

Daisy and her unfaithful husband Tom live in a large East Egg mansion directly across from Gatsby’s estate. In this environment, Gatsby’s destiny with Daisy becomes his individual version of the American Dream.

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Fitzgerald uses the wealthy New Yorkers that surround Gatsby and Nick to criticize the intrinsic motivations necessary to acquire the American Dream. There is a chain reaction of events, which inevitably lead to a tragic conclusion. Seeking a position or status and emulating each other becomes an obsession for these New Yorkers. As a result, greed, jealousy and envy have a destructive effect on the social fabric of their social classes.

When Gatsby meets with Daisy, he easily impresses her with his luxurious estate and posh manor. Gatsby does not recognize that Daisy’s image of the American Dream has been so distorted by the superficiality of her surroundings. To Daisy, the most impressive aspect of Gatsby is his inordinate amount of silk shirts: “They’re such beautiful shirts, she sobbed, her voice muffled in the thick folds. ‘It makes me sad because I’ve never seen such—beautiful shirts before” (98). The Long Island scene has caused its blue-blooded inhabitants, especially Daisy, to become nothing more than insincere and single-minded people who live in a fast-paced, impersonal environment. Daisy is able to take her position for granted and she becomes for Gatsby, the epitome of everything he invented "Jay Gatsby" to achieve. As Nick realizes, Gatsby’s dreams have been tarnished by the people that surround him: “it is what preyed on Gatsby, what foul dust floated in the wake of his dreams that temporarily closed out my interest in the abortive sorrows and short-winded elations of men” (7). These people believe that by surrounding themselves with material comforts, they are living the so-called American Dream. The characters are seduced by the mistaken belief that money equals self-worth. In reality, they are belittling themselves and sometimes deceiving one another. When Gatsby takes Nick with him to lunch with one of Gatsby’s associates, Meyer Wolfsheim Nick is shocked when he learns that Wolfsheim orchestrated the fixing of the World Series:

The idea staggered me. I remembered of course that the World’s Series had been fixed in 1919 but if I had thought of it all I would have thought of it as a thing that merely happened, the end of some inevitable chain. It never occurred to me that one man could play with the faith of 50 million people—with the single-mindedness of a burglar blowing a safe. (78)

Baseball, being America’s favorite pastime is an integral element of the American landscape. The fact that one man could get away with such a stunt, is deeply disturbing to Nick. It shows Fitzgerald’s critical attitude towards the prevailing morals of his time.

In The Great Gatsby, Fitzgerald demonstrates that the superficial environment corrupts and tarnishes the American Dream. In Gatsby’s case, the pursuit of the dream ultimately leads to his tragic death. It becomes apparent that The Great Gatsby is truly an indictment of the American Dream. It represents a fallacy, a mistaken belief that has become the goal of many generations. At one point, Nick writes that Gatsby must have realized what a grotesque thing a rose is--in other words, that a rose is not inherently beautiful, but is felt to be beautiful by people because they choose to perceive its form as a thing of beauty. Without that choice, the rose loses its beauty and becomes grotesque; beauty really is in the eye of the beholder. The American Dream is much like this rose, an outwardly beautiful visual concept. However, the weaknesses of human nature turn its pursuit into a failed reality.
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