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The Criticism of American Dream in The Great Gatsby

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On the surface of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s novel “The Great Gatsby”, the book appears to be a celebration of the American Dream however upon further inspection it is evident that the novel holds deep criticisms towards the concept of the American Dream during the 1920’s, also known as the “Roaring Twenties”. The American Dream refers to the belief that anyone, regardless of race, class, gender or nationality has the potential to be a self-made success story if they work hard enough. The novel is set in the 1920’s, a time when people were recovering from World War I and the rate immigration increased, a time when women fought for their rights to vote as well as became comfortable with and owned their sexuality and flaunted their femininity, and America experienced a great economic boon where people believed that anyone could strike gold and become a millionaire. Although the American Dream seems to be the perfect depiction of American society, it greatly obscures the realities of American society that very well conflict with the concepts of the American dream such as systemic racism, xenophobia, sexism and social and racial inequality that are ingrained in American society. The characters in the novel, Gatsby specifically, all seem to be in pursuit of or may have attained their own respective American Dreams, however, as the novel progresses, the pursuit of the American Dream seems to lead the characters down dark and even fatal paths.

The American Dream can also be understood as the idea of people striving for something that is bigger than them but is always out of reach due to limitations. These limitations include race, class and / or gender which is evident within and throughout the novel through the lives of the main and supporting characters in the story. Firstly, the American Dream cannot be attained due to social class hierarchy – the divisions between the rich and the poor. The stark reality is that it is much more difficult for people to become successful and have greater opportunities if individuals are financially unstable and financial instability often prevents individuals from climbing up the social ladder and having a better standard of living. George Wilson is an example of an American citizen working hard and running a car shop in an attempt to achieve the American Dream, however he is denied this perhaps due to his low social ranking. His wife, Myrtle, too chases the American Dream in a bid to climb up the social ladder, attain greater status and wealth at any cost, even by engaging in an affair with Tom Buchanan and disregarding her marriage completely. The Wilson’s live in one of the poorer sections of Long Island, the Valley of Ash – an industrial wasteland bordering between the upper class and the economic centre of the city. This contrast of class suggests that there is no social mobility in American society and the rich will always reign over the poor and it seems that George Wilson will forever be tied to the Valley of Ashes no matter how hard he works. In Chapter 2, Tom and Nick drive to the Valley of Ashes to visit George B. Wilson’s garage, the same garage George and his wife have lived in for 11 years, and Nick describes the garage as “unprosperous and bare” as well as the owner, George Wilson, as “spiritless man, anaemic” suggesting that his standard of living is taking it’s toll on his body and spirit. His situation is further complicated by Tom’s constant patronizing of his business when he states, “if you feel that way about it, maybe I’d better sell it somewhere else after all.” Tom is aware that George is struggling and desperate for one of Tom’s cars. This is another example of how the rich once again dominating over the poor and making difficult for the poor to rise up the social ladder. George’s American Dream is to have a successful business so that he no longer struggles to make ends meet and so that he can provide the best for his wife Myrtle however no matter how hard he works he cannot achieve that dream. George Wilson’s situation illustrates the novel’s cynical attitude towards the American Dream and how it acts as a false promise to those born outside of wealth in American during the 1920’s.

The American Dream suggests that anyone, regardless of race, can become successful in American society, however the truth and limitations of the American Dream lie mostly in the fact that the dream is exclusive to upper-class whites, especially in the 1920’s where racial inequalities were rampant. The upper-class white communities had the opportunities and resources to achieve the Dream and would do anything to prevent people of colour from rising up and becoming a force in American society and cause changes in regards to social positions. Of all the characters in The Great Gatsby, Tom embodies the ideals of white supremacists of the 1920’s and this is evident from the beginning of the novel whereby he states “it’s up to us [white people], who are the dominant race, to watch out or these other races will have control over things.” This suggests the fear the white upper class had that their privilege and power would be lost to other races and so they created means of preventing the progression of people of colour in society and in doing so, created great inequalities towards people of colour in terms of rights and opportunities, making them incapable of achieving the American Dream. The novel itself has a stunning lack of characters of colour other than in fleeting, background moments within the novel such as the interracial couple Tom comments negatively about. It is as if their voices are completely disregarded from the story and that the American Dream can only apply to the main characters of the story who are all white and does not apply to people of colour. In chapter 4 when Nick is driving with Gatsby across the Queensborough bridge, he witnesses three, well-dressed African Americans being driven by a white chauffeur in a limousine. Nick reflects on this moment by stating that “anything can happen now that we’re over this bridge,” suggesting that this is a very unusual scene whereby black people are rich and are the passengers whereas the driver, the person who obeys the instructions of the passengers, is a white man. In a way, mobility and cars symbolize the American Dream in that they provide access and movement and are an indication of wealth and the black passengers allude to the movement and change of society where people of colour will rise up the social ladder and gradually gain more independence and opportunities thus allowing them to achieve the very exclusive American Dream.

Other limitations of the American Dream, more especially during the 1920’s, include the limitations of gender. The “Roaring Twenties” were seen as a time of major cultural changes, especially when it came to women and their rights and their roles in society, however, Fitzgerald once again chooses to portray a cynical attitude towards the American Dream dreams that cannot be attained.

Myrtle’s American Dream is to climb up the social ladder to obtain higher class and wealth and escape the Valley of Ash and the only way she would be able do that is to engage in an affair with Tom Buchanan, a wealthy and upper class married man. Myrtle was not born into wealth and being female in the 1920’s, she had much less opportunities in terms of rights and employment in American society than males did and she relied on her femininity, sexuality and wits to make it in America. In her attempt to achieve her American Dream, Myrtle tries to make Tom fall in love with her and take her away from her old life forever, however to Tom and to Nick who, upon his first encounter with her only describes her based off her physical appearance rather than her personality or intellect, Myrtle is seen as nothing but an object for pleasure. Even when Tom breaks her nose after she calls out Daisy’s name repeatedly, she still continues to engage in the toxic relationship with him and is willing to do anything to achieve her dream, even if it means accepting that she is and will always be just a piece of meat to Tom and nothing more. In chapter 7, Myrtle and George are fighting, perhaps because George is aware of Myrtle’s affair with Tom. In an attempt to escape the her husband and ultimately her life of poverty and low-ranking, she mistakes Gatsby’s car for Tom’s – the man who she believes will help her achieve her American Dream however she is killed. Myrtle aims too high for her dream and the result ends with her violent demise at the hands of Daisy.

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The Criticism of American Dream in The Great Gatsby. (2019, May 14). GradesFixer. Retrieved October 22, 2021, from
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