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The Great Gatsby' is set in the Jazz Age of America, the 1920s which have come to be seen as a bubble of extravagance and affluence which burst with the Wall Street Crash in 1929. Fitzgerald wrote the book in 1925, and in it he explores the fundamental hollowness which characterized the Age as he saw it, and casts doubt upon the very core of American national identity - the American Dream.
The American Dream is a concept elegantly simple and yet peculiarly hard to define. At the root of it is the sense that America was created entirely separate from the Old World; the settlers had escaped from the feudal, fractious and somewhat ossified nations of Europe and been presented with a chance to start anew - "a fresh green breast of the new world." From this blank slate, those first idealistic settlers had created a society where "all men are created equal" and everyone had the chance to do the best for themselves as they could. Let us examine the passage from the Declaration of Independence from which that quote is taken:
"We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed with certain inalienable rights, and that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness."
A fine and daring ideal in the 18th century, and at the heart of what America hoped that it stood for. 'The Great Gatsby' examines how this dream existed in the early 20th century and whether or not it had been accomplished. The American Dream permeated all of society, and so every one of the characters in the book is in some senses a reflection of the the world envisaged by Jefferson and Washington, and even before them by those first people fleeing to a new life in the New World.
When we examine the characters in the book we can immediately see that they are not all born equal. Daisy and Tom, and to some extent Nick, are born into a rich, 'old money' environment which is symbolised in the novel by the established wealth of East Egg - a place of glittering "white palaces". Gatsby and the Wilsons are not 'old money', and despite Gatsby's wealth we get the impression throughout the book that through all his parties and social events he is trying to join that old clique, but never succeeding in elevating himself to the "distinguished secret society" of Tom and Daisy.
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Interestingly, neither Tom nor Daisy appear to have been made happy by this money. Daisy admits to Nick that she has "had a very bad time... I'm pretty cynical about everything". Tom too seems discontented. He was a sports star when he was younger and has spent the rest of his life since then trying to regain the feeling of fulfilment that he had - "one of those men who reach such an acute limited excellence at twenty-one that everything afterward savours of anti-climax." This is difficult, because he certainly lacks the mental apparatus to gain any sense of meaning from intellectual pursuits - he reads "deep books with long words in them" but only scrapes the surface of the ideas within, and he himself says "You think I'm pretty dumb... perhaps I am." Tom is at the pinnacle of American society, and yet he is dissatisfied, and striving for something unattainable because it is in the past... something which is paralleled by Gatsby's seeking Daisy and, in the end, the American Dream itself.
Myrtle is also striving for something. She is trapped in the Valley of ashes with her uninspiring husband George Wilson, and through Tom she is trying to escape from this. She has obviously been seduced by the rich, glitzy lifestyle that Tom's money can offer her, and when she can she pretends to belong to that set already ("The intense vitality... was converted into impressive hauteur"). Myrtle seeks satisfaction and meaning in her life by trying to assume the characteristics and lifestyle of the rich. Given the despair and squalor of the Valley of Ashes, we cannot really blame her, even though the aspect of the American Dream that she clings to is a diminished one, the image of consumer extravagance and the ability to throw money around - as when she says to Mrs McKee "I'm going to give you this dress as soon as I'm through with it. I've got to get another one to-morrow." The doors of upper class society are as closed to Myrtle as they are to Gatsby, though, for when she steps over the limit (claiming the right to speak Daisy's name and thus in a sense claim a place in that sphere of Tom's life) Tom "broke her nose with his open hand" - marking the invisible boundary dividing the two strata of society with a brutal action - all the more so for the matter of fact way in which it is done and goes unquestioned.
In a sense, the American Dream has failed both Tom and Myrtle, for the former has all the material wealth that should lead to happiness by lacks spiritual fulfilment, while the latter seeks to advance herself to such a state but is unable to do so because American society is unequal, and the High Society is one which is born into, not achieved. What has happened to Jefferson's assertion that "all men are created equal"? In order to more fully explore what Fitzgerald is saying to us about America, we must look at Gatsby, who is in many senses acts almost as a personification of what America stands for.