The Great Gatsby and the American Dream

There is no strict definition of the ‘American Dream’ though early in the twentieth century and in many ways still today it has become the term which describes an inherent faith in the promise of the new world. As a country, America has no far stretching history to forge and enrich its culture. Instead a nation’s character was flavoured with hopes and anticipation of the future, of a better life of more opportunity and purpose. People fledged to the Americas to start afresh, to experience modern luxuries and new technology. To become a part of the rat race and exploit the age of capitalism and materialism – overall to become rich through one’s own means. To realise the great American Dream therefore was an extension of Benjamin Franklin’s maxim of the ‘perfectibility of man’. Franklin was a great emblem of American ideology and a founder of much of its deepest held attitudes and beliefs. Franklin was one of the first self-confessed entrepreneurs and his many written works became great incentives for Americans to become pro-active and to try and be the best one could be. He founded his ideas on the prevailing optimism that with the right motivation and activity anyone could become a solvent, well-respected individual.

Perhaps no time in America’s history quite demonstrated the people’s obsessive preoccupation with the American dream than the 1920s. In the post-war period, it became an incredibly affluent country, rapidly industrialising and developing the quality of life. It became a time when gross extravagances were commonplace. The American president Herbert Hoover said in 1925 ‘We will root out poverty and put two cars in every garage’. On the surface of it, the nation was thriving with its own successes. People were elated by the possibility of continued happiness through material wealth. However, this atmosphere of striving relentlessly towards the future in the promise of rewards had a bitter flipside. Many authors found the new attitude of American people overly conceited. This idea in particular is explored in metaphor in many of Herman Melville’s works together with Edgar Allan Poe and Nathaniel Hawthorne, but demonstrably so in the novels of Evelyn Waugh, J.D. Salinger and of course, F. Scott Fitzgerald. These authors tried to show that the people of America were changing – becoming superficial and self-consumed and misconstruing happiness as wealth and materialism.

On the face of it, Fitzgerald’s wonderful creation of Jay Gatsby appears a champion of the then climate of profligacy and carefree living. He has as many beautiful shirts to make Daisy swoon and not two motor cars as Hoover would advise, but five. From his mansion in West Egg he holds wild parties every night mixing in the highest social circles. But the grand irony is that of all the characters in the book, Gatsby is perhaps the least inspired or objectively absorbed by the lifestyle he defines. And it is also perhaps precisely this reason that Gatsby is also the most likely to win our affections. As Nick points out he has an exceptional quality that separates him from typical Americans much less than exemplifies them:

‘If personality is an unbroken series of successful gestures, then there was something gorgeous about him, some heightened sensitivity to the promises of life,.an extraordinary gift for hope, a romantic readiness such as I have never found in any other person and which it is not likely I shall ever find again.’

Gatsby’s ‘gift for hope’ which Nick talks about certainly seems true of Franklin’s vision but there is a crucial contrast with the American dream’s personality of hopefulness and Gatsby’s personality and it is this: while Franklin advocated the importance of the individual, the hopefulness that one might successfully improve one’s own self and one’s own means, Gatsby’s greatest hope is to find Daisy and rekindle her love for him. We are endeared to Gatsby because he is the only character who quite clearly values human affection above wealth and recreation. He unlike any of the other characters has a firm belief in the good of humanity. In this way he is set in stark contrast with the narrator Nick who seems a born cynic, passive, sardonic and judgemental of other people though he claims otherwise. Jordan’s half-baked advances fail to woo him; indeed he seems genuinely disenchanted by the possibility of a loving relationship and finds friendship only in Gatsby. For Nick, Gatsby must seem the only warm, good hearted human being in New York and yet even so, the previous quote shows he is quick to qualify this – questioning whether personality is a true reflection of a person or indeed an ‘unbroken series of successful gestures’ – a comment which suggests Nick is hung up by the idea that all human interaction is a façade or an act rather than a true reflection of real feelings. Nick has a severely disillusioned view of 1920s socialite America yet his pessimism is invariably astute proving to be sound by the end of the novel. It is by contrast Gatsby’s irrepressible optimism and his rose-tinted sentimental view of the world that is revealed to be mistaken.

So The Great Gatsby is a novel which sees a character try and exploit the American Dream to win the love of a woman. Fitzgerald tells us that ‘Gatsby was overwhelmingly aware of the youth and mystery that wealth imprisons and preserves, of the freshness of many clothes and of Daisy, gleaming like silver, safe and proud above the hot struggles of the poor’ – it is this misconstrued impression of wealth as a timeless vessel of hope, as the preserver rather than the destroyer of mystery, which brings about his downfall. In this sense Gatsby’s end is not reflective of his means – his real end is finding love, his means is to buy it with displays of grandeur and extreme wealth. But such affection by definition cannot be real love and Daisy subsequently cannot give herself over to him with the intensity of feeling he had hoped for. Fitzgerald’s novel is saturated in themes of illusion, and deception. The great swathes of noveau riche – self-made American’s, success stories of the great American dream, are undermined by a superficiality and emptiness. The characters have founded their wealthy, though vacuously glamorous life-styles by capitalising on an identity which is bereft of morals. Mr. Gatsby himself has become incredibly rich in a short space of time because he absolves himself of moral responsibility and trades in the trafficking of alcohol. And yet his wealth breeds distrust and intolerance, his magnificent parties attract only insincere people who exploit his generosity. Similarly Tom Buchanan cannot count on the fidelity of his wife Daisy because he makes no effort to make sure of his own. In a climate of greed, relationships are no longer based on trust or affection but self-interest. The false, self-fulfilling nature of the relationships forged in the novel is made painfully clear for Nick who notices that only three people turn up to Gatsby’s funeral – a genuine surprise given his perceived popularity. It is this sense of hypocrisy and discovery of relationships which are feigned through mutual advantage rather than real emotion that brings about Nick’s gloomy disillusionment with 1920s society and his realisation that he will never meet anyone who shares Gatsby’s sentimentality.

Gatsby, the iconic hero of the American Dream, uses it simply as a means to a very different end. He avoids social interaction at his parties, skulking in the inner chambers of his house and his great displays of wealth give him no more pleasure than in their perceived potential to bring Daisy back to him. Gatsby is only dubiously ‘Great’. He is flawed because he tries to find belonging in a society bereft of the most fundamental human morals like trust and fidelity. In an idealistic society governed by a striving impetus towards the acquisition of wealth and power, moral fibre begins to break down. The impact of the great American dream has only a physical, external effect on Gatsby whereas it has shaped the very consciousnesses of the other characters – Tom and Daisy Buchanan, Jordan, Myrtle and Gatsby’s corrupt work colleagues all display a fickle self-serving hedonism that echoes the then climate of quick-living, profligacy much more than Gatsby’s meticulously planned, romantic endeavour to win back Daisy’s heart and his nostalgia upon reflections of the past. Gatsby is in reality then, far removed from 1920s American lifestyle, he has simply become extremely good at mimicking its symptoms.

It seems then that Gatsby is both the champion and the antithesis of the American Dream. Gatsby invites the glowing optimism of the American Dream to appease his anxiety to earn the love of Daisy. By surrendering to the ideals of a forward-looking, hopeful American life he somehow convinces himself that the unlikely is a very real possibility. However, Gatsby’s grand scheme is doomed because wealth and social standing are not qualities which he cares to evince – they will not earn him a membership in America’s ‘great’ society. Gatsby is quite clearly inspired by Franklin’s autobiography. In chapter 9 Nick discovers a treasured old book of Gatsby’s which shares the same assiduous attention to routine and self-discipline in the form of daily schedules. Gatsby buys into Franklin’s ideals of self-improvement, resolving to ‘practice elocution, poise and how to attain it; read one improving book or magazine per week; and be better to parents’. Such an empty list of instructions towards self-help are listed here with comical irony. What indeed can such qualities give Gatsby that will make him any more accomplished in finding love? Gatsby’s great delusion and one of Fitzgerald’s most important messages is that the acquisition of material successes does not naturally enrich a person or society spiritually or emotionally. This is played out in Gatsby’s attempts at courting Daisy – he tries to woo her with his shirts rather than more heartfelt displays of real affection and yet surprisingly the ‘scrolls and plaids in coral and apple green and lavender and faint orange’ win him just the response he hopes for – ‘it makes me sad because I’ve never seen such beautiful shirts before’. Again the moment is half comical. Throughout the novel Fitzgerald’s characters are most genuinely stirred to emotion or touched by the mundane, by materials, extravagances or assortments of fancy shirts. Fitzgerald’s America often appears so superficial as to be funny. For instance, characters like Tom and Myrtle are two-dimensional and self-motivated to point of seeming unrealistic, but it is such cartoon-like, narrative extremes that allows Fitzgerald to make his most crucial point which is the severe loss of what are perhaps the real, ‘spiritual’ qualities of human life in all the excesses of self-seeking capitalism. In the relentless race towards modernisation, traditions, heartfelt beliefs and the spiritual side of human culture is lost in a dead expanse; a valley of ashes. All the while Fitzgerald uses symbolism to represent this decay, like T.S. Eliot in ‘The Wastelands’, old fashioned values are lost in an atmosphere of moral corruption , of the tacky and kitsch. Quite wonderfully even God himself has become redundant in Fitzgerald’s America, replaced by the watchful eyes of Dr. Eckleburg a huge billboard and the pinnacle of commercialism and spiritual dissemblance. An even more prevalent symbolic theme in the novel is the intensity of heat. Fitzgerald’s emphasis on the sun and dazzling brightness is exceptional. It makes up a huge contingent of the narration – setting scenes and on many occasions dictating the flow of events. Heat is used much as Camus uses glaring light to imply the burden of truth in ‘L’etranger’ or Shakespeare uses a storm to echo the madness and moral corruption of Lear’s world. In ‘The Great Gatsby’ it intensifies the growing discomfort of the characters’ landscapes. The falseness of the world they inhabit becomes a harsh and oppressive glasshouse, melting well-meaning facades. Heat and sunlight become more and more an aspect of the storyline in the novel climaxing on the day of Gatsby’s denouement; ‘the next day was broiling, almost the last, certainly the warmest day of the summer’. At the characters final group meeting in the restaurant, the sweltering heat amplifies the feelings of resent and bitterness behind their interactions. Sunlight might then be seen as Fitzgerald’s way of projecting nature’s grip on a human’s actions and the impossibility of defying the spirit of the world around you.


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