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The American dream states that any individual can achieve success regardless of family history, race, and/or religion simply by working hard. The 1920’s were a time of corruption and demise of moral values in society. The first World War had passed, and people were reveling in the materialism that came at the end of it, such as advanced technology and innovative inventions. The novel The Great Gatsby exploits the theme of the American Dream as it takes place in a corrupt period in history. Although the American Dream seemed more attainable than ever in the 1920’s, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s, The Great Gatsby demonstrates how materialism and the demise of moral values in society lead to the corruption and impossibility of the American Dream. This is accomplished through the use of symbols such as the Valley of Ashes, The Eyes of Dr. T.J. Eckleburg, and The Green Light. These 3 symbols play a huge roll in the novel for each of them are massively important in their own ways.
Mid-way between New York City and West Egg, lies the Valley of Ashes. The Valley of Ashes is a dreary place symbolizing the moral descent of society. As described in the novel it is, “A fantastic farm where ashes grow like wheat into ridges and hills and grotesque gardens, where ashes take the forms of houses and chimneys and rising smoke and finally, with a transcendent effort, of men who move dimly and already crumbling through the powdery air.” (Fitzgerald, 23). It is in The Valley of Ashes where most tragic incidents occur; Tom Buchanan has an affair with Myrtle Wilson, Daisy takes the life of Myrtle Wilson with Gatsby’s car, and George Wilson decides to kill Gatsby. These immoral actions are what corrupt the true American Dream. The Valley is an industrial dumping ground, a literal by-product of the upper-class materialism that corrupts the American Dream. Its residents represent those trapped in their pursuit of the American Dream while the rich indulge themselves in East and West Egg. Because of the continuing growth of capitalism in the United States, there became a gigantic difference between the life of those that were rich and those that were poor. The difference is quite immense for in the Valley of Ashes, “ashes take the forms of houses and chimneys and rising smoke and … of men who move dimly and already crumbling through the powdery air. Occasionally a line of gray cars crawls along an invisible track, gives out a ghastly creak, and comes to rest…the ash-gray men swarm up with leaden spades and stir up an impenetrable cloud, which screens their obscure operations from your sight” (23). Furthermore, the description shows the effects of social and moral decay in the American Dream. It is noticeable that Fitzgerald’s goal is to show the distinct contrast between the low-spirited atmosphere of the Valley and the extravagant wealth of the West Egg. While the working “ash-gray men” is struggling to feed their families in the Valley of Ashes, those in East and West Egg, are throwing extravagant parties and considering nothing but their own pleasure. The citizens of East and West Egg are selfish people and look out for nothing but themselves. For example, when Nick runs into Tom in Chicago, he is ruthless and refuses to confess Daisy’s crime in the Valley of Ashes, instead, he blames it on Gatsby, “What if I did tell him? That fellow had it coming to him. He threw dust into your eyes just like he did in Daisy’s, but he was a tough one. He ran over Myrtle like you’d run over a dog and never even stopped his car” (178). Their choice to run away from her murder is proof of the wealth-driven society in the 1920s and how their loss of morality has ruined Myrtle’s American Dream. Fitzgerald’s construction of Myrtle’s death in the valley of ashes symbolizes the impossibility of the American Dream and its corruption by the rich society in the “Roaring Twenties”. Therefore, the Valley of Ashes is what has happened to society and the values that it used to hold. No longer is working hard for your money the only option, now people can get rich fast, however at the same time, lose their morals along the way.
Another symbol used to show the decline in morals is the eyes of T.J Eckleburg. T.J Eckleburg’s billboard promotes the business of a successful eye doctor’s clinic in New York These gigantic blue eyes, without a face, look upon the Valley of Ashes and imitate materialism’s corruption of the 1920s American Dream. The eyes on the billboard symbolize the hopeless residents trapped in the Valley, taunted by the attractive American Dream, its wealth, and “happiness”. “But above the gray land and the spasms of bleak dust which drift endlessly over it, you perceive, after a moment, the eyes of Doctor T. J. Eckleburg” (23). T.J. Eckleburg’s eyes, deliberately overlooking the residents of the Valley of Ashes, symbolize the unachievable temptation, the American Dream. While looking at the giant eyes after Myrtle’s death, Wilson reveals he had taken his wife to the window just before she died and told her, “I told her she might fool me, but she couldn’t fool God… ‘God knows what you’ve been doing, everything you’ve been doing. You may fool me, but you can’t fool God!’” (135). This shows how corrupt the moral values have become in America and its people. George Wilson makes the connection between the eyes of T.J. Eckleburg and the eyes of God. This reference shows the loss of moral and spiritual values in America, as their God has been lessened to a commercial optometrist watching over a wasteland populated by those left behind from the American Dream. Following a central theme of modernism, this new God watches over his paradise that has been reduced to ash-heaps by modern man. Wilson is an immediate example of what happens when the American Dream does not turn out as planned. The billboard watches over Tom’s adulterous and wealth-driven affair with Myrtle; it watches Gatsby’s bootlegging meetings with Meyer Wolfsheim to impress Daisy, and it watches over Myrtle and George Wilson’s fight over the American Dream. The incidences in the Valley of Ashes watched over by the eyes of T.J. Eckleburg, symbolize how the loss of moral values in society has led to the corruption of the American Dream.
Lastly, the final symbol used in The Great Gatsby to represent the American Dream is The Green Light located at the end of Tom and Daisy Buchanan’s dock. This green light represents Gatsby’s ultimate aspiration: to pursue and win Daisy’s love. Nick Carraway’s first vision of Gatsby was when he saw Gatsby extend his arms towards the light, Nick describes this as, “He (Gatsby) stretched out his arms toward the dark water in a curious way…Involuntarily I glanced seaward — and distinguished nothing except a single green light, minute and far away, that might have been the end of a dock.” (21). Gatsby associates his desire and passion for Daisy with the Green Light. Also, it symbolizes Gatsby’s dream of winning Daisy back because to obtain Daisy would be completing Gatsby’s American Dream. She is like a trophy, a prize that he would like to win to complete his whole materialistic dream. Once Daisy and Gatsby reunite and begin a new relationship, a mist conceals the green light, foreshadowing that they were never meant to be. Nick observes, “Possibly it had occurred to him that the colossal significance of that light had now vanished forever. Now it was again a green light on a dock. His count of enchanted objects had diminished by one” (92-93). This suggests that Gatsby realizes he must face the reality of Daisy, rather than the ideal woman he has created in his mind. The Green Light also indicates Gatsby’s desire to be rich and his belief in the American Dream, “Gatsby believed in the green light, the orgiastic future that year by year recedes before us. It eluded us then, but that’s no matter — to-morrow we will run faster, stretch out our arms farther…” (180). Gatsby lives in the past, as he believes in the uncorrupted American Dream. He believes in a dream where morals are better than materials. Additionally, the color green represents Gatsby’s lust for Daisy, who completes his American Dream. Finally, Gatsby’s disastrous pursuit of the Green Light symbolizes how America’s materialistic values and shallowness have not only corrupted the American Dream but also made it unachievable.
The Great Gatsby is a great representation of the corruption of society and the fall of the American Dream. The novel shows us the way people will fall into the hands of money, greed, and power. Additionally, it also shows us the things people will do to get where they want and what they want. There are many symbolic events and objects that present the fall of the American Dream such as the Green Light, the eyes of T.J. Eckleberg, and lastly The Valley of Ashes. America became a society completely obsessed with money and capitalism; accordingly, the economy could not support such a lavish lifestyle. In the end, the roaring twenties died out along with the fabricated idea of living the American Dream. Whatever is left resembles the Valley of Ashes.
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