How Is the Concept of “American Dream” Presented in “The Great Gatsby”?
With its depiction of a man rising from poverty to a luxurious life, The Great Gatsby of F. Scott Fitzgerald is a truly American novel. In this book, Fitzgerald seems to glorify the Jazz Age and splendid life of the upper classes, with its parties, cocktails, and dances. Nonetheless, the author’s fascination with the Jazz Age glamour can be deceptive. In fact, as many literary scholars have argued, The Great Gatsby is not at all an ode to the carefree life of those on top: on the contrary, the novel is a statement of illusiveness of the American dream, which can never bring one the happiness and fulfillment it promises.
The Depth of the Novel
According to Marius Bewey, the key topic of The Great Gatsby is the withering of the American dream. As Bewley states, “it can be shown that The Great Gatsby offers some of the severest and closest criticism of the American dream that our literature affords.” The novel is not a “pastoral documentary of the Jazz Age,” as Bewly puts it, but a text which analyses the particular features of the American experience in a highly artistic form. In this sense, with its acute social critic and depth, the novel can be seen as one of the greatest masterpieces of the American literature.
Nevertheless, to understand how exactly Fitzgerald refutes the concept of the American Dream in his novel, one should define the term more clearly. The capturing account of the American Dream from the Marxist perspective can be found in the book of Lois Tyson Critical Theory Today. According to Tyson, even though the American dream can seem like something natural and typical for all human beings, it is only an ideology which is imposed on us by society. The ideology of the American dream values competition, not cooperation as a way of achieving personal goals. It admires free markets exactly because they give space for competition between the entrepreneurs. Therefore, the American dream sees the society as a battlefield, wherein only the fittest will survive.
The Concept of the American Dream
What is more, the American dream is a deep individualist perspective, which promotes personal self-fulfillment and does not prescribe to care for the common good a lot. Another crucial aspect of the American dream is that it implies that financial success is a result of the hard work and nothing else. From this perspective, if one works hard enough, one will achieve the high socioeconomic status; the poor simply do not work hard enough. Such doctrine justifies the inequality in society and the huge gap between the rich and the poor. From the standpoint of the American dream, the poor are the only ones to blame for their poverty. In his article “Rethinking the American Dream,” David Kamp also states that even though initially the American dream meant an opportunity for everyone, today it is more about the fame and fortune for the upper classes.
In The Great Gatsby, Fitzgerald manages to grasp how the ideology of the American dream operated in the American society in the 1920s; at the same time, the book tells a universal story of human quest and desire. According to Edwin Fussel, reason why Fitzgerald’s novel is a masterpiece is “an uncanny ability to juxtapose the sensibilities implied by the phrase ‘romantic wonder’ with the most conspicuous, as well as the most deeply significant, phenomena of American civilization, and to derive from that juxtaposition a moral critique of human nature.” Therefore, The Great Gatsby can be understood as the story of the protagonist’s quest for such a romantic wonder. According to Fussel, the basic plot of the writer is always a story of quest and seduction. The quest of the protagonists is at the same time a flight—flight from reality, time, death, and normality. As Fitzgerald’s writing is deeply concerned with the current problems of American society, such romantic wonder is equated to the American dream. Hence, the diffuse desire of Fitzgerald’s characters is concentrated and focused; they strive for the American dream and believe that the accomplishment of their goal will make them happy. Nonetheless, the typical Fitzgerald’s characters discover that their aim cannot be achieved because of the corrupt nature of the American dream. Therefore, their pursuit of happiness is “perpetually damned” (Fussel).
Belonging to the Upper Class
American dream becomes the object of desire to Gatsby because it seems to him that the upper classes live in a world of leisure and carelessness, and they are surrounded by youth and grace. Their “high life” promises to satisfy the aesthetic needs of the young boy from unprivileged backgrounds. The belief that the life of the upper classes is nothing but joy and idyl is reflected in Gatsby’s vision of Daisy and Jordan’s past. Fitzgerald writes about the “clean, crisp mornings,” when Jordan walked on the soft grounds in her new plaid skirt (42). Daisy dressed in white enjoyed the popularity among men, with the officers ringing her all day long. All these details create an atmosphere of romance; they promise that Gatsby also will find such a perfect, heavenly life when he makes it to the top.
Another reason for Gatsby’s wish to achieve the American dream is that it implies possessing significant wealth, the goal which is deeply rooted in the Protestant ideal of the material success. As Max Weber observed it, the spirit of capitalism is closely related to the ethical code of the Protestants. As in Protestantism, work and activity are among the highest virtues, profit is seen as the merit of such work and something that has an end in itself. For Calvinists, which believed in predestination, success in business was a sign that one is chosen and saved by God. As Protestant ideals profoundly influence the American culture, it also characterized by a belief that the acquisition of wealth has no other goal than simply acquisition of wealth. For Gatsby, just as for many other Americans, money becomes something that can buy the happiness and the “romantic wonder” they strive for. Hence, as Fussel points out, the beauty and love in Fitzgerald’s texts are commercialized and commodified. They become the characteristics of the certain social class, who own large amounts of money.
The Portrayal of the Characters
The mean that helps to achieve the high degree of social criticism in The Great Gatsby is an unsympathetic portrayal of the majority of the characters. Tom Buchanan personifies narrow-minded, racist, and conservative American aristocracy. He has a significant amount of the inherited wealth. However, he his success makes him neither moral nor hard-working. This disrupts the link between wealth and morality, so typical for the American dream. Tom, as the most reach character in the novel, fully reveals, how debilitating the effects of consumerism and commodification can be. He believes that one is what one owns, and treats other people as if they were his commodity. Tom enjoys the affairs with the women from the working class just because he can “buy” them and likes his economic power over them. His wife Daisy, who was a personification of desire for Gatsby and is the personification of the American dream for him, is, in fact, empty and indifferent (Boyle). She is interested in Gatsby only because she is sure that he terribly reaches and has a higher socioeconomic position than she does. Thus, immediately after finding out the truth about Gatsby, Daisy loses all interest in him. Myrtle Wilson represents the devastating influence that the American dream has on the people from the working class. Together with her husband, she lives in the “valley of ashes,” which is contrasted with the luxury villas of the Buchanans and people of their class. Just like Tom and Daisy, Myrtle is a highly unsympathetic character as she “sells” herself to Tom in hope to become his wife and acquire more wealth.
Gatsby himself is also no more virtuous than other characters. His love for Daisy is fake; he treats her as a commodity that could prove everyone, including himself, that he finally belongs to the world of the privileged. Even when he first meets Daisy and lies to her about his social status, Gatsby does not seduce her because of love: he simply wants to defy the class norms of the American society (Callahan 374). Throughout the novel, even though it seems that Gatsby loves Daisy, he is treating her no better than Tom: just as a possession. Her actual feelings and personality do not matter for Gatsby.
To sum up, in his novel The Great Gatsby, Fitzgerald criticizes the concept of the American Dream. He demonstrates that it does not actually fulfill the desires of the characters and does not bring happiness. In the novel, the characters who live the life so adored by the poor are empty and mean. Even the main character, Gatsby, is incapable of love, and only dreams to be with his beloved because of her social status and what she symbolizes to him.
Bewley, Marius. “Scott Fitzgerald’s Criticism of America.” The Sewanee Review, vol. 62, no. 2, 1954, pp. 223-246.
Boyle, Thomas. “Unreliable Narration in The Great Gatsby.” The Bulletin Of The Rocky Mountain Modern Language Association, vol. 23, no.1, 1969, pp. 21-26.
Callahan, John. “F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Evolving American Dream: The ‘Pursuit of Happiness’ in Gatsby, Tender Is the Night, and The Last Tycoon.” Twentieth Century Literature, vol. 42, no. 3, 1996, p. 374. JSTOR, doi: 10.2307/441769.
Fitzgerald, F. Scott. The Great Gatsby. Penguin Books, 2000.
Fussell, Edwin. Fitzgerald’s Brave New World. ELH, vol. 19, no. 4, 1952, p. 291. JSTOR, doi: 10.2307/2871901.
Tyson, Louis. Critical Theory Today. 1st ed., Routledge, 2006.
Weber, Max. The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. Dancing Unicorn Books, 2016.