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F. Scott Fitzgerald explores the decline of the American Dream in one of his most famous novels, The Great Gatsby. Although this book only takes place over a few months, it represents the entire time period of the 1920s, in which society, mainly on the East Coast, sees the decay of the American Dream. What once was the idea of hard work and prosperity becomes perverted idealism and pathetic optimism. In this novel, Gatsby and other characters represent the corrupt American Dream.
When Gatsby’s real past has been revealed, it seems as though he embodies the American Dream. Once a young fisherman and clam digger, he becomes a self-made wealthy man through hard work, despite being the son of unsuccessful parents. Nick states, “His parents were shiftless and unsuccessful farm people- his imagination had never really accepted them as his parents at all” (104). The fact that Gatsby has achieved more than his parents is one definition of the American Dream. He also has a mentor, Dan Cody, who influences Gatsby at a young age. Cody himself is a self-made millionaire. As Nick explains, “Cody was fifty years old then, a product of the Nevada silver fields, of the Yukon, of every rush for metal since Seventy-five. The transactions in Montana copper that made him many times a millionaire found him physically robust…”(105). Living on Cody’s expensive yacht, Gatsby becomes accustomed to the luxurious lifestyle of the rich and dedicates himself to become a wealthy, successful man.
Gatsby’s dream, however, becomes corrupt. He uses “get-rich-quick” schemes and throws outlandish and over-the-top parties to get the attention of his love, Daisy. It is even intimated that he sells grain alcohol over the counter. Tom states, “I found out what your ‘drug stores’ were. He and this Wolfshiem bought up a lot of side-street drug stores here and in Chicago 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” (141). Gatsby simply replies, “What about it?” (141). Gatsby also is connected with other illegal activities and gambling. Gatsby wants Daisy so badly that he once was willing to give up his noble dreams for money and material possessions. His idealism, however, becomes perverted. The desire for personal happiness and individualism is no longer the American Dream; it has been consumed by materials and pleasures. Gatsby drives around in his Rolls-Royce, shows off his many expensive shirts, and lives in an obscenely huge mansion, but all of these objects are completely unnecessary and obviously do not make him happy. Nick describes the time when Gatsby shows off his shirts:
“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 which lost their folds as they fell and covered the table. While we admired he brought out more and the soft rich heap mounted higher.”
“I’ve got a man in England who buys me clothes. He sends over a selection of things at the beginning of each season, spring and fall,” Gatsby says (97).
Gatsby is simply flaunting his wealth in an attempt to attract Daisy.
The parties that Gatsby throws are completely “empty”. Many people show up to these parties, but all of them do it for themselves and their meaningless pursuits of pleasure. Nick explains the parties that Gatsby has. He says,
“…the cars from New York are parked five deep in the drive, and already the halls and salons and verandas are gaudy with primary colors…The bar is in full swing and floating rounds of cocktails permeate the garden outside until the air is alive with chatter and laughter and casual innuendo and introductions forgotten on the spot and enthusiastic meetings between women who never knew each other’s names” (44).
These people are fake, greedy, and hollow. They do not really care about Gatsby or each other, but rather come just because they can. Again, they are pursuing material possessions and cheap pleasure. In fact, they do not even show up to Gatsby’s funeral. Nick and Owl Eyes discuss this at Gatsby’s grave.
“I couldn’t get to the house.” [Owl Eyes states]
“Neither could anybody else.”
“Go on! Why, my God! They used to go there by the hundreds. The poor son-of-a-bitch.”
Their idealisms are perverted, and their actions are immoral. The parties that Gatsby throws only worsen these morals and idealisms.
Morality is not the only value that has gone astray in this novel. Gatsby’s optimism is corrupt as well. He has the unobtainable goal of winning Daisy over. He puts her on a pedestal and idealizes her, even though she is not worthy of Gatsby’s attention. The object of Gatsby’s dream (Daisy) is unworthy, just like the objects of the corrupted American Dream (pleasure and money) are unworthy. Nick tries to explain this to him by saying, “They’re a rotten crowd. You’re worth the whole damn bunch put together” (162). Because Gatsby cannot earn Daisy’s love, he is forced to earn all of his money illegally in order to impress her. Yet because of their different social statuses, he cannot reach this goal.
Social status is another example of the dream’s corruption. Residents on West Egg, including Gatsby, cannot win the affection of the residents of East Egg. Even though people living in West Egg have made their own money themselves and worked hard to do so, they have not gained the respect of East Egg, whose residents have old money. Gatsby thinks that he can break the barrier between the two classes, but in reality, it is impossible. He tries to bring back the past, when his dream had value. He says, “Can’t repeat the past? Why of course you can!” (116). Gatsby dedicates his whole life to this illusion of a dream, and when he finally realizes it is impossible, there is nothing left to do but die. Nick narrates, “He had paid a high price for living too long with a single dream. A new world, material without being real, where poor ghosts, breathing dreams like air, drifted fortuitously about…” (169). His dream is impossible and cannot bring happiness to him, and, therefore, is an illusion.
Gatsby is not the only character in this book to represent the perversion of the American Dream. His partner and accomplice, Meyer Wolfsheim, is involved in all sorts of illegal activities in order to gain his wealth. Gatsby says, “He’s a gambler. He’s the man who fixed the World’s Series back in 1919” (78). Jordan Baker is another example. Nick says, “There was a row that nearly reached the newspapers- a suggestion that she had moved her ball from a bad lie in the semi-final round” (62). Both of these characters have done illegal and unfair things to gain their accomplishments. This is certainly not a part of the traditional view of the American Dream, where hard work will accomplish anything.
When most people first read The Great Gatsby, they think it is a love story between Gatsby and Daisy. After more thought and reading, it becomes clear that Fitzgerald is trying to convey a larger message. It is that in the 1920s, the traditional American Dream was taken over by the extreme desire for money and pleasure. The American dream had become a perverted idealism and a pathetic optimism. People during this time ambitiously chased unobtainable goals, and many were left in despair. There is much more to the “Jazz Age” than flapper girls and illegal alcohol. Americans started to see the decay of the American Dream.
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