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The Great Gatsby is a tragic love story on the surface, but it's most commonly understood as a pessimistic critique of the American Dream. In the novel, Jay Gatsby overcomes his poor past to gain an incredible amount of money and a limited amount of social cache in 1920s NYC, only to be rejected by the "old money" crowd. He then gets killed after being tangled up with them.
Through Gatsby's life, as well as that of the Wilsons', Fitzgerald critiques the idea that America is a meritocracy where anyone can rise to the top with enough hard work. We will explore how this theme plays out in the plot, briefly analyze some key quotes about it, as well as do some character analysis and broader analysis of topics surrounding the American Dream in The Great Gatsby .
What is the American Dream? The American Dream in the Great Gatsby plot Key American Dream quotes Analyzing characters via the American Dream Common discussion and essay topics
Quick Note on Our Citations
Our citation format in this guide is (chapter.paragraph). We're using this system since there are many editions of Gatsby, so using page numbers would only work for students with our copy of the book.
To find a quotation we cite via chapter and paragraph in your book, you can either eyeball it (Paragraph 1-50: beginning of chapter; 50-100: middle of chapter; 100-on: end of chapter), or use the search function if you're using an online or eReader version of the text.
What Exactly Is "The American Dream"?
The American Dream is the belief that anyone, regardless of race, class, gender, or nationality, can be successful in America (read: rich) if they just work hard enough. The American Dream thus presents a pretty rosy view of American society that ignores problems like systemic racism and misogyny, xenophobia, tax evasion or state tax avoidance, and income inequality. It also presumes a myth of class equality, when the reality is America has a pretty well-developed class hierarchy.
The 1920s in particular was a pretty tumultuous time due to increased immigration (and the accompanying xenophobia), changing women's roles (spurred by the right to vote, which was won in 1919), and extraordinary income inequality.
The country was also in the midst of an economic boom, which fueled the belief that anyone could "strike it rich" on Wall Street. However, this rapid economic growth was built on a bubble which popped in 1929. The Great Gatsby was published in 1925, well before the crash, but through its wry descriptions of the ultra-wealthy, it seems to somehow predict that the fantastic wealth on display in 1920s New York was just as ephemeral as one of Gatsby's parties.
In any case, the novel, just by being set in the 1920s, is unlikely to present an optimistic view of the American Dream, or at least a version of the dream that's inclusive to all genders, ethnicities, and incomes. With that background in mind, let's jump into the plot!
The American Dream in The Great Gatsby
Chapter 1 places us in a particular year—1922—and gives us some background about WWI. This is relevant, since the 1920s is presented as a time of hollow decadence among the wealthy, as evidenced especially by the parties in Chapters 2 and 3. And as we mentioned above, the 1920s were a particularly tense time in America.
We also meet George and Myrtle Wilson in Chapter 2 , both working class people who are working to improve their lot in life, George through his work, and Myrtle through her affair with Tom Buchanan.
We learn about Gatsby's goal in Chapter 4 : to win Daisy back. Despite everything he owns, including fantastic amounts of money and an over-the-top mansion, for Gatsby, Daisy is the ultimate status symbol. So in Chapter 5 , when Daisy and Gatsby reunite and begin an affair, it seems like Gatsby could, in fact, achieve his goal.
In Chapter 6 , we learn about Gatsby's less-than-wealthy past, which not only makes him look like the star of a rags-to-riches story, it makes Gatsby himself seem like someone in pursuit of the American Dream, and for him the personification of that dream is Daisy.
However, in Chapters 7 and 8 , everything comes crashing down: Daisy refuses to leave Tom, Myrtle is killed, and George breaks down and kills Gatsby and then himself, leaving all of the "strivers" dead and the old money crowd safe. Furthermore, we learn in those last chapters that Gatsby didn't even achieve all his wealth through hard work, like the American Dream would stipulate—instead, he earned his money through crime. (He did work hard and honestly under Dan Cody, but lost Dan Cody's inheritance to his ex-wife.)
In short, things do not turn out well for our dreamers in the novel! Thus, the novel ends with Nick's sad meditation on the lost promise of the American Dream. You can read a detailed analysis of these last lines in our summary of the novel's ending .
Key American Dream Quotes
In this section we analyze some of the most important quotes that relate to the American Dream in the book.
But I didn't call to him for he gave a sudden intimation that he was content to be alone--he stretched out his arms toward the dark water in a curious way, and far as I was from him I could have sworn he was trembling. 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. (1.152)
In our first glimpse of Jay Gatsby, we see him reaching towards something far off, something in sight but definitely out of reach. This famous image of the green light is often understood as part of The Great Gatsby 's meditation on The American Dream—the idea that people are always reaching towards something greater than themselves that is just out of reach . You can read more about this in our post all about the green light .
The fact that this yearning image is our introduction to Gatsby foreshadows his unhappy end and also marks him as a dreamer, rather than people like Tom or Daisy who were born with money and don't need to strive for anything so far off.
Over the great bridge, with the sunlight through the girders making a constant flicker upon the moving cars, with the city rising up across the river in white heaps and sugar lumps all built with a wish out of non-olfactory money. The city seen from the Queensboro Bridge is always the city seen for the first time, in its first wild promise of all the mystery and the beauty in the world.
A dead man passed us in a hearse heaped with blooms, followed by two carriages with drawn blinds and by more cheerful carriages for friends. The friends looked out at us with the tragic eyes and short upper lips of south-eastern Europe, and I was glad that the sight of Gatsby's splendid car was included in their somber holiday. As we crossed Blackwell's Island a limousine passed us, driven by a white chauffeur, in which sat three modish Negroes, two bucks and a girl. I laughed aloud as the yolks of their eyeballs rolled toward us in haughty rivalry.
"Anything can happen now that we've slid over this bridge," I thought; "anything at all. . . ."
Even Gatsby could happen, without any particular wonder. (4.55-8)
Early in the novel, we get this mostly optimistic illustration of the American Dream—we see people of different races and nationalities racing towards NYC, a city of unfathomable possibility. This moment has all the classic elements of the American Dream—economic possibility, racial and religious diversity, a carefree attitude. At this moment, it does feel like "anything can happen," even a happy ending.
However, this rosy view eventually gets undermined by the tragic events later in the novel. And even at this point, Nick's condescension towards the people in the other cars reinforces America's racial hierarchy that disrupts the idea of the American Dream. There is even a little competition at play, a "haughty rivalry" at play between Gatsby's car and the one bearing the "modish Negroes."
Nick "laughs aloud" at this moment, suggesting he thinks it's amusing that the passengers in this other car see them as equals, or even rivals to be bested. In other words, he seems to firmly believe in the racial hierarchy Tom defends in Chapter 1, even if it doesn't admit it honestly.
His heart beat faster and faster as Daisy's white face came up to his own. He knew that when he kissed this girl, and forever wed his unutterable visions to her perishable breath, his mind would never romp again like the mind of God. So he waited, listening for a moment longer to the tuning fork that had been struck upon a star. Then he kissed her. At his lips' touch she blossomed for him like a flower and the incarnation was complete. (6.134)
This moment explicitly ties Daisy to all of Gatsby's larger dreams for a better life —to his American Dream. This sets the stage for the novel's tragic ending, since Daisy cannot hold up under the weight of the dream Gatsby projects onto her. Instead, she stays with Tom Buchanan, despite her feelings for Gatsby. Thus when Gatsby fails to win over Daisy, he also fails to achieve his version of the American Dream. This is why so many people read the novel as a somber or pessimistic take on the American Dream, rather than an optimistic one.
...as the moon rose higher the inessential houses began to melt away until gradually I became aware of the old island here that flowered once for Dutch sailors' eyes--a fresh, green breast of the new world. Its vanished trees, the trees that had made way for Gatsby's house, had once pandered in whispers to the last and greatest of all human dreams; for a transitory enchanted moment man must have held his breath in the presence of this continent, compelled into an aesthetic contemplation he neither understood nor desired, face to face for the last time in history with something commensurate to his capacity for wonder.
And as I sat there brooding on the old, unknown world, I thought of Gatsby's wonder when he first picked out the green light at the end of Daisy's dock. He had come a long way to this blue lawn and his dream must have seemed so close that he could hardly fail to grasp it. He did not know that it was already behind him, somewhere back in that vast obscurity beyond the city, where the dark fields of the republic rolled on under the night." (9.151-152)
The closing pages of the novel reflect at length on the American Dream, in an attitude that seems simultaneously mournful, appreciative, and pessimistic. It also ties back to our first glimpse of Gatsby, reaching out over the water towards the Buchanan's green light. Nick notes that Gatsby's dream was "already behind him" then (or in other words, it was impossible to attain). But still, he finds something to admire in how Gatsby still hoped for a better life, and constantly reached out toward that brighter future.
For a full consideration of these last lines and what they could mean, see our analysis of the novel's ending .
Analyzing Characters Through the American Dream
An analysis of the characters in terms of the American Dream usually leads to a pretty cynical take on the American Dream.
Most character analysis centered on the American Dream will necessarily focus on Gatsby, George, or Myrtle (the true strivers in the novel), though as we'll discuss below, the Buchanans can also provide some interesting layers of discussion. For character analysis that incorporates the American Dream, carefully consider your chosen character's motivations and desires, and how the novel does (or doesn't!) provide glimpses of the dream's fulfillment for them.
Gatsby himself is obviously the best candidate for writing about the American Dream—he comes from humble roots (he's the son of poor farmers from North Dakota) and rises to be notoriously wealthy, only for everything to slip away from him in the end. Many people also incorporate Daisy into their analyses as the physical representation of Gatsby's dream.
However, definitely consider the fact that in the traditional American Dream, people achieve their goals through honest hard work, but in Gatsby's case, he very quickly acquires a large amount of money through crime . Gatsby does attempt the hard work approach, through his years of service to Dan Cody, but that doesn't work out since Cody's ex-wife ends up with the entire inheritance. So instead he turns to crime, and only then does he manage to achieve his desired wealth.
So while Gatsby's story arc resembles a traditional rags-to-riches tale, the fact that he gained his money immorally complicates the idea that he is a perfect avatar for the American Dream . Furthermore, his success obviously doesn't last—he still pines for Daisy and loses everything in his attempt to get her back. In other words, Gatsby's huge dreams, all precariously wedded to Daisy ("He knew that when he kissed this girl, and forever wed his unutterable visions to her perishable breath, his mind would never romp again like the mind of God" (6.134)) are as flimsy and flight as Daisy herself.
George and Myrtle Wilson
This couple also represents people aiming at the dream— George owns his own shop and is doing his best to get business, though is increasingly worn down by the harsh demands of his life, while Myrtle chases after wealth and status through an affair with Tom.
Both are disempowered due to the lack of money at their own disposal —Myrtle certainly has access to some of the "finer things" through Tom but has to deal with his abuse, while George is unable to leave his current life and move West since he doesn't have the funds available. He even has to make himself servile to Tom in an attempt to get Tom to sell his car, a fact that could even cause him to overlook the evidence of his wife's affair. So neither character is on the upward trajectory that the American Dream promises, at least during the novel.
In the end, everything goes horribly wrong for both George and Myrtle, suggesting that in this world, it's dangerous to strive for more than you're given.
George and Myrtle's deadly fates, along with Gatsby's, help illustrate the novel's pessimistic attitude toward the American Dream. After all, how unfair is it that the couple working to improve their position in society (George and Myrtle) both end up dead, while Tom, who dragged Myrtle into an increasingly dangerous situation, and Daisy, who killed her, don't face any consequences? And on top of that they are fabulously wealthy? The American Dream certainly is not alive and well for the poor Wilsons.
Tom and Daisy as Antagonists to the American Dream
We've talked quite a bit already about Gatsby, George, and Myrtle—the three characters who come from humble roots and try to climb the ranks in 1920s New York. But what about the other major characters, especially the ones born with money? What is their relationship to the American Dream?
Specifically, Tom and Daisy have old money, and thus they don't need the American Dream, since they were born with America already at their feet.
Perhaps because of this, they seem to directly antagonize the dream—Daisy by refusing Gatsby, and Tom by helping to drag the Wilsons into tragedy .
This is especially interesting because unlike Gatsby, Myrtle, and George, who actively hope and dream of a better life, Daisy and Tom are described as bored and "careless," and end up instigating a large amount of tragedy through their own recklessness.
In other words, income inequality and the vastly different starts in life the characters have strongly affected their outcomes. The way they choose to live their lives, their morality (or lack thereof), and how much they dream doesn't seem to matter. This, of course, is tragic and antithetical to the idea of the American Dream, which claims that class should be irrelevant and anyone can rise to the top.
Daisy as a Personification of the American Dream
As we discuss in our post on money and materialism in The Great Gatsby , Daisy's voice is explicitly tied to money by Gatsby:
"Her voice is full of money," he said suddenly.
That was it. I'd never understood before. It was full of money--that was the inexhaustible charm that rose and fell in it, the jingle of it, the cymbals' song of it. . . . High in a white palace the king's daughter, the golden girl. . . . (7.105-6)
If Daisy's voice promises money, and the American Dream is explicitly linked to wealth, it's not hard to argue that Daisy herself—along with the green light at the end of her dock —stands in for the American Dream. In fact, as Nick goes on to describe Daisy as "High in a white palace the king's daughter, the golden girl," he also seems to literally describe Daisy as a prize, much like the princess at the end of a fairy tale (or even Princess Peach at the end of a Mario game!).
But Daisy, of course, is only human—flawed, flighty, and ultimately unable to embody the huge fantasy Gatsby projects onto her. So this, in turn, means that the American Dream itself is just a fantasy, a concept too flimsy to actually hold weight, especially in the fast-paced, dog-eat-dog world of 1920s America.
Furthermore, you should definitely consider the tension between the fact that Daisy represents Gatsby's ultimate goal, but at the same time (as we discussed above), her actual life is the opposite of the American Dream : she is born with money and privilege, likely dies with it all intact, and there are no consequences to how she chooses to live her life in between.
Can Female Characters Achieve the American Dream?
Finally, it's interesting to compare and contrast some of the female characters using the lens of the American Dream.
Let's start with Daisy, who is unhappy in her marriage and, despite a brief attempt to leave it, remains with Tom, unwilling to give up the status and security their marriage provides. At first, it may seem like Daisy doesn't dream at all, so of course she ends up unhappy. But consider the fact that Daisy was already born into the highest level of American society. The expectation placed on her, as a wealthy woman, was never to pursue something greater, but simply to maintain her status. She did that by marrying Tom, and it's understandable why she wouldn't risk the uncertainty and loss of status that would come through divorce and marriage to a bootlegger. Again, Daisy seems to typify the "anti-American" dream, in that she was born into a kind of aristocracy and simply has to maintain her position, not fight for something better.
In contrast, Myrtle, aside from Gatsby, seems to be the most ambitiously in pursuit of getting more than she was given in life. She parlays her affair with Tom into an apartment, nice clothes, and parties, and seems to revel in her newfound status. But of course, she is knocked down the hardest, killed for her involvement with the Buchanans, and specifically for wrongfully assuming she had value to them. Considering that Gatsby did have a chance to leave New York and distance himself from the unfolding tragedy, but Myrtle was the first to be killed, you could argue the novel presents an even bleaker view of the American Dream where women are concerned.
Even Jordan Baker , who seems to be living out a kind of dream by playing golf and being relatively independent, is tied to her family's money and insulated from consequences by it , making her a pretty poor representation of the dream. And of course, since her end game also seems to be marriage, she doesn't push the boundaries of women's roles as far as she might wish.
So while the women all push the boundaries of society's expectations of them in certain ways, they either fall in line or are killed, which definitely undermines the rosy of idea that anyone, regardless of gender, can make it in America. The American Dream as shown in Gatsby becomes even more pessimistic through the lens of the female characters.
Common Essay Questions/Discussion Topics
Now let's work through some of the more frequently brought up subjects for discussion.
#1: Was Gatsby's dream worth it? Was all the work, time, and patience worth it for him?
Like me, you might immediately think "of course it wasn't worth it! Gatsby lost everything, not to mention the Wilsons got caught up in the tragedy and ended up dead!" So if you want to make the more obvious "the dream wasn't worth it" argument, you could point to the unraveling that happens at the end of the novel (including the deaths of Myrtle, Gatsby and George) and how all Gatsby's achievements are for nothing, as evidenced by the sparse attendance of his funeral.
However, you could definitely take the less obvious route and argue that Gatsby's dream was worth it, despite the tragic end . First of all, consider Jay's unique characterization in the story: "He was a son of God--a phrase which, if it means anything, means just that--and he must be about His Father's Business, the service of a vast, vulgar and meretricious beauty" (6.7). In other words, Gatsby has a larger-than-life persona and he never would have been content to remain in North Dakota to be poor farmers like his parents.
Even if he ends up living a shorter life, he certainly lived a full one full of adventure. His dreams of wealth and status took him all over the world on Dan Cody's yacht, to Louisville where he met and fell in love with Daisy, to the battlefields of WWI, to the halls of Oxford University, and then to the fast-paced world of Manhattan in the early 1920s, when he earned a fortune as a bootlegger. In fact, it seems Jay lived several lives in the space of just half a normal lifespan. In short, to argue that Gatsby's dream was worth it, you should point to his larger-than-life conception of himself and the fact that he could have only sought happiness through striving for something greater than himself, even if that ended up being deadly in the end.
#2: In the Langston Hughes poem "A Dream Deferred," Hughes asks questions about what happens to postponed dreams. How does Fitzgerald examine this issue of deferred dreams? What do you think are the effects of postponing our dreams? How can you apply this lesson to your own life?
If you're thinking about "deferred dreams" in The Great Gatsby , the big one is obviously Gatsby's deferred dream for Daisy—nearly five years pass between his initial infatuation and his attempt in the novel to win her back, an attempt that obviously backfires. You can examine various aspects of Gatsby's dream—the flashbacks to his first memories of Daisy in Chapter 8 , the moment when they reunite in Chapter 5 , or the disastrous consequences of the confrontation of Chapter 7 —to illustrate Gatsby's deferred dream.
You could also look at George Wilson's postponed dream of going West, or Myrtle's dream of marrying a wealthy man of "breeding"—George never gets the funds to go West, and is instead mired in the Valley of Ashes, while Myrtle's attempt to achieve her dream after 12 years of marriage through an affair ends in tragedy. Apparently, dreams deferred are dreams doomed to fail.
As Nick Carraway says, "you can't repeat the past"—the novel seems to imply there is a small window for certain dreams, and when the window closes, they can no longer be attained. This is pretty pessimistic, and for the prompt's personal reflection aspect, I wouldn't say you should necessarily "apply this lesson to your own life" straightforwardly. But it is worth noting that certain opportunities are fleeting, and perhaps it's wiser to seek out newer and/or more attainable ones, rather than pining over a lost chance.
Any prompt like this one which has a section of more personal reflection gives you freedom to tie in your own experiences and point of view, so be thoughtful and think of good examples from your own life!
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#3: Explain how the novel does or does not demonstrate the death of the American Dream. Is the main theme of Gatsby indeed "the withering American Dream"? What does the novel offer about American identity?
In this prompt, another one that zeroes in on the dead or dying American Dream, you could discuss how the destruction of three lives (Gatsby, George, Myrtle) and the cynical portrayal of the old money crowd illustrates a dead, or dying American Dream . After all, if the characters who dream end up dead, and the ones who were born into life with money and privilege get to keep it without consequence, is there any room at all for the idea that less-privileged people can work their way up?
In terms of what the novel says about American identity, there are a few threads you could pick up—one is Nick's comment in Chapter 9 about the novel really being a story about (mid)westerners trying (and failing) to go East : "I see now that this has been a story of the West, after all--Tom and Gatsby, Daisy and Jordan and I, were all Westerners, and perhaps we possessed some deficiency in common which made us subtly unadaptable to Eastern life" (9.125). This observation suggests an American identity that is determined by birthplace, and that within the American identity there are smaller, inescapable points of identification.
Furthermore, for those in the novel not born into money, the American identity seems to be about striving to end up with more wealth and status. But in terms of the portrayal of the old money set, particularly Daisy, Tom, and Jordan, the novel presents a segment of American society that is essentially aristocratic—you have to be born into it. In that regard, too, the novel presents a fractured American identity, with different lives possible based on how much money you are born with.
In short, I think the novel disrupts the idea of a unified American identity or American dream, by instead presenting a tragic, fractured, and rigid American society, one that is divided based on both geographic location and social class.
#4: Most would consider dreams to be positive motivators to achieve success, but the characters in the novel often take their dreams of ideal lives too far. Explain how characters' American Dreams cause them to have pain when they could have been content with more modest ambitions.
Gatsby is an obvious choice here—his pursuit of money and status, particularly through Daisy, leads him to ruin. There were many points when perhaps Gatsby ;could have been happy with what he achieved (especially after his apparently successful endeavors in the war, if he had remained at Oxford, or even after amassing a great amount of wealth as a bootlegger) but instead he kept striving upward, which ultimately lead to his downfall. You can flesh this argument out with the quotations in Chapters 6 and 8 about Gatsby's past, along with his tragic death.
Myrtle would be another good choice for this type of prompt. In a sense, she seems to be living her ideal life in her affair with Tom—she has a fancy NYC apartment, hosts parties, and gets to act sophisticated—but these pleasures end up gravely hurting George, and of course her association with Tom Buchanan gets her killed.
Nick, too, if he had been happy with his family's respectable fortune and his girlfriend out west, might have avoided the pain of knowing Gatsby and the general sense of despair he was left with.
You might be wondering about George—after all, isn't he someone also dreaming of a better life? However, there aren't many instances of George taking his dreams of an ideal life "too far." In fact, he struggles just to make one car sale so that he can finally move out West with Myrtle. Also, given that his current situation in the Valley of Ashes is quite bleak, it's hard to say that striving upward gave him pain.
#5: The Great Gatsby is, among other things, a sobering and even ominous commentary on the dark side of the American dream. Discuss this theme, incorporating the conflicts of East Egg vs. West Egg and old money vs. new money. What does the American dream mean to Gatsby? What did the American Dream mean to Fitzgerald? How does morality fit into achieving the American dream?
This prompt allows you to consider pretty broadly the novel's attitude toward the American Dream, with emphasis on "sobering and even ominous" commentary. Note that Fitzgerald seems to be specifically mocking the stereotypical rags to riches story here—;especially since he draws the Dan Cody narrative almost note for note from the work of someone like Horatio Alger, whose books were almost universally about rich men schooling young, entrepreneurial boys in the ways of the world. In other words, you should discuss how the Great Gatsby seems to turn the idea of the American Dream as described in the quote on its head: Gatsby does achieve a rags-to-riches rise, but it doesn't last.
All of Gatsby's hard work for Dan Cody, after all, didn't pay off since he lost the inheritance. So instead, Gatsby turned to crime after the war to quickly gain a ton of money. Especially since Gatsby finally achieves his great wealth through dubious means, the novel further undermines the classic image of someone working hard and honestly to go from rags to riches.
If you're addressing this prompt or a similar one, make sure to focus on the darker aspects of the American Dream, including the dark conclusion to the novel and Daisy and Tom's protection from any real consequences . (This would also allow you to considering morality, and how morally bankrupt the characters are.)
#6: What is the current state of the American Dream?
This is a more outward-looking prompt, that allows you to consider current events today to either be generally optimistic (the American dream is alive and well) or pessimistic (it's as dead as it is in The Great Gatsby).
You have dozens of potential current events to use as evidence for either argument, but consider especially immigration and immigration reform, mass incarceration, income inequality, education, and health care in America as good potential examples to use as you argue about the current state of the American Dream. Your writing will be especially powerful if you can point to some specific current events to support your argument.
In this post, we discussed how important money is to the novel's version of the American Dream. You can read even more about money and materialism in The Great Gatsby right here .
Want to indulge in a little materialism of your own? Take a look through these 15 must-have items for any Great Gatsby fan .
Get complete guides to Jay Gatsby , George Wilson and Myrtle Wilson to get even more background on the "dreamers" in the novel.
Like we discussed above, the green light is often seen as a stand-in for the idea of the American Dream. Read more about this crucial symbol here .
Need help getting to grips with other literary works? Take a spin through our analyses of The Crucible , The Cask of Amontillado , and " Do not go gentle into this good night " to see analysis in action. You might also find our explanations of point of view , rhetorical devices , imagery , and literary elements and devices helpful.
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Anna scored in the 99th percentile on her SATs in high school, and went on to major in English at Princeton and to get her doctorate in English Literature at Columbia. She is passionate about improving student access to higher education.
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Great Gatsby Essay: The Pursuit of the American Dream
- Great Gatsby Essay: The Pursuit…
A major theme in The Great Gatsby is the pursuit of what can be termed the American dream. Do you agree? By choosing a major character or a situation in Fitzgerald’s novel, discuss how or whether Fitzgerald is successful in exposing the underside of the American dream)
This represents the idea of the American Dream, where qualities of hard work and ambition are shown. The novel The Great Gatsby by Scott Fitzgerald embodies many themes; however, the most significant one relates to the corruption of the American dream.
The American Dream is defined as someone starting low on the economic or social level, and working hard towards prosperity and or wealth and fame. By having money, a car, a big house, nice clothes, and a happy family symbolizes the American dream. This dream also represents that people, no matter who he or she is, can become successful in life by his or her own work.
The desire to strive for what one wants can be accomplished if they work hard enough. The dream is represented by the idea of a self-sufficient man or woman, who works hard to achieve a goal to become successful. The Great Gatsby is a novel that shows what happened to the American Dream in the 1920’s, which is a time period when the dreams became corrupted for many reasons.
The American dream not only causes corruption but has caused destruction. Myrtle, Gatsby and Daisy have all been corrupted and destroyed by the dream.
The desire for a luxurious life is what lures Myrtle into having an affair with Tom. This decision harms her marriage with George, which leads to her death and loss of true happiness. Myrtle has the hope and desire for a perfect, wealthy and famous type of life. She enjoys reading gossip magazines which represent her hope for the life of “the rich and famous”.
This shows how the one reason she wants to be with Tom, is because he represents the life of “the rich and famous”. When Myrtle first got married to George Wilson, she thought that she was crazy about him and thought that they were happy being together. Myrtle says, “The only crazy I was was when I married him. I knew right away I made a mistake.
He borrowed somebody’s best suit to get married in, and never told me about it, and the man came after it one day when he was out…” (Fitzgerald, 37) This shows how materialistic Myrtle is, and that she didn’t appreciate how George couldn’t afford his own suit to get married in. She looks at Tom in a different way. She looks at him as someone who can afford to buy their own suit for their own wedding. Myrtle is attracted to not only Tom’s appearance but his money as well.
She believes that Tom is the ideal picture-perfect man that represents the advertisement of the American Dream. Myrtle is considered to be lower class, as she doesn’t have a lot of money. Myrtle sleeps with Tom to inch her way to an upper-class status. People who are upper class are the ones that have money, drive fancy cars, and have nice big houses. Myrtle isn’t one of those people but desires to be one of them. This, later on, causes destruction and destroys Myrtle.
It was later found that Daisy was the one that hit Myrtle with her car which resulted in the death of Myrtle. It is ironic that Daisy was the one that killed her, since Myrtle was having an affair with her husband, Tom. This shows how the desire for a luxurious life and having the American dream, only caused destruction in this novel and destroyed someone’s life.
The hope for happiness is something that Daisy hoped to have, but finding out she married the wrong man changed who she is and her outlook on life. Early on in the novel, Daisy finds out a secret that Tom is hiding from her. Jordan says, “She might have the decency not to telephone him a dinner time.
Don’t you think?” (Fitzgerald, 20) Tom got a call from some women at dinner time, and Jordan claims that the woman is Tom’s, suggesting that he is sleeping with someone else. You learn throughout the novel that Tom and Daisy’s relationship is not to most ideal, happy relationship. Tom seems to be abusive towards her and rather does not seem to care much about her. Daisy thinks she has everything, wealth, love, and happiness which all tie into the American dream, but then she discovers that she has nothing and that she has been corrupted by this specific dream.
She thought she has all she desired but truly realized she had nothing. She has a child, who does not seem important to her at all. The child is never around, which shows a lot about Daisy. When her child was born, Daisy said “I’m glad it’s a girl. And I hope she’ll be a fool – that’s the best thing a girl can be in this world, a beautiful fool.” (Fitzgerald, 22)
Daisy basically explained that there are limited possibilities for women, and she would have rather had a boy. The baby has to be a beautiful fool in order to be happy and successful. Woman back in the 1920’s all married for money, and not necessarily love. Daisy thought she had loved when she married Tom, but truly in the long run, only came out with money.
With Gatsby, Daisy realized something that broke her heart. When reunited with Gatsby, who she has not seen in about five years Daisy breaks down and starts to cry. “They’re such beautiful shirts, it makes me sad because I’ve never seen such – such beautiful shirts before.” (Fitzgerald, 89) At this time Daisy realizes that she did marry for money and not for love.
She figures out that she could have married for money with Gatsby but would have had love too. The chase for the American dream and the ideal man to be with destroyed Daisy’s happiness.
The ambition for something has thrown Gatsby over the edge. His love and chase for Daisy have taken over his whole life. He feels that he has to live up to the American dream to accomplish what he truly dreams for, which is Daisy. While Gatsby was away fighting in the war, Daisy met Tom and married him.
Daisy had always been rich and Gatsby thought that in order to get Daisy back, he needs to have money so that he would be able to give Daisy anything she wanted. There was a green light where Daisy lived that Gatsby would always look out for.
The green light is of great significance in this novel. It becomes evident that this green light is not Daisy, but a symbol representing Gatsby’s dream of having Daisy. The fact that Daisy falls short of Gatsby’s expectations is obvious. Knowing this, one can see that no matter how hard Gatsby tries to live his fantasy, he will never be able to achieve it.
Through close examination of the green light, one may learn that the force that empowers Gatsby to follow his lifelong aspiration is that of the American Dream. Fitzgerald uses the green light as a symbol of hope, money, and jealousy. Gatsby looks up to the American dream and follows it so he can be the picture-perfect man that every girl desires.
Gatsby cares a lot about how people see him, and his appearance towards others. He wants everything to look perfect for Daisy, as he wants Daisy to view him as a perfect man. “We both looked down at the grass – there was a sharp line where my ragged lawn ended and the darker, well-kept expanse of his began. I suspected he meant my grass.” (Fitzgerald, 80)
This presents the theme of appearance vs. reality and how Gatsby wants everything to look nice and presentable when he meets up with Daisy for the first time in five years. Gatsby becomes corrupted because his main goal is to have Daisy. He needs to have an enormous mansion so he could feel confident enough to try and get Daisy. Gatsby was blinded by the American dream and as a result of this, cause the destruction of Gatsby himself. He didn’t end up getting what he wanted because the American dream took over who he truly was.
The American dream is a powerful dream that was significant in the novel The Great Gatsby by Scott Fitzgerald. It was evident that this dream only truly caused corruption and destruction. The desire for something sometimes causes people to be someone they are not and this usually does not result in a positive outcome.
The American Dream is defined as someone starting low on the economic or social level, and working hard towards prosperity and or wealth and fame. Most characters in the novel The Great Gatsby all wanted money, wealth, and happiness and would do anything in their power to get this.
The Great Gatsby is a novel that shows what happened to the American Dream in the 1920s, which is a time period when the dreams became corrupted. The American dream not only causes corruption but has caused destruction.
Myrtle, Gatsby, and Daisy have all been corrupted and destroyed by the dream and it was clear to be true. Money cannot buy you happiness which is something that the three characters in the novel The Great Gatsby truly did not realize.
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Author: William Anderson (Schoolworkhelper Editorial Team)
Tutor and Freelance Writer. Science Teacher and Lover of Essays. Article last reviewed: 2022 | St. Rosemary Institution © 2010-2023 | Creative Commons 4.0
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could you please give information for an MLA citation?
Hi. Please see the Author box.
thank you for leaving how to cite this
Your parenthetical references are incorrect and but the key points were helpful
WOW it really helped me on my essay. Thanks!!!
Hello Can I please get the authors name who wrote this and the date of when they wrote it,
can teachers find this with there plagiarising finder websites?
I just saw your comment…5 years after you wrote it
2 years after…yeah turnitin prob will catch that
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The Great Gatsby
F. scott fitzgerald, everything you need for every book you read..
The American Dream—that hard work can lead one from rags to riches—has been a core facet of American identity since its inception. Settlers came west to America from Europe seeking wealth and freedom. The pioneers headed west for the same reason. The Great Gatsby shows the tide turning east, as hordes flock to New York City seeking stock market fortunes. The Great Gatsby portrays this shift as a symbol of the American Dream's corruption. It's no longer a vision of building a life; it's just about getting rich.
Gatsby symbolizes both the corrupted Dream and the original uncorrupted Dream. He sees wealth as the solution to his problems, pursues money via shady schemes, and reinvents himself so much that he becomes hollow, disconnected from his past. Yet Gatsby's corrupt dream of wealth is motivated by an incorruptible love for Daisy . Gatsby's failure does not prove the folly of the American Dream—rather it proves the folly of short-cutting that dream by allowing corruption and materialism to prevail over hard work, integrity, and real love. And the dream of love that remains at Gatsby's core condemns nearly every other character in the novel, all of whom are empty beyond just their lust for money.
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The American Dream Quotes in The Great Gatsby
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American Dreaming: Really Reading The Great Gatsby
William e. cain.
Department of English, Wellesley College, Wellesley, MA 02481 USA
F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby (1925) is one of the best known and most widely read and taught novels in American literature. It is so familiar that even those who have not read it believe that they have and take for granted that they know about its main character and theme of the American Dream. We need to approach The Great Gatsby as if it were new and really read it, paying close attention to Fitzgerald’s literary language. His novel gives us a vivid depiction of and insight into income inequality as it existed in the 1920s and, by extension, as it exists today, when the American Dream is even more limited to the fortunate few, not within reach of the many. When we really read The Great Gatsby , we perceive and understand the American dimension of the novel and appreciate, too, the global range and relevance that in it Fitzgerald has achieved. It is a great American book and a great book of world literature.
It is odd that we connect F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby to the American Dream, for this dream is one of equal opportunity, and the celebration of material well-being and personal success, of contentment and happiness, whereas the novel concludes with the demise of its deluded protagonist, shot dead in a swimming pool by a deranged husband who believes that Gatsby killed his wife by smashing into her in his fancy car.
We honor and profess to believe in the American Dream, a dream that we say the nation’s history has shown to be a reality for many millions. Those born at the bottom, but who possess spirit, pluck, and determination, can rise to prosperity and personal fulfillment; immigrants, unable to speak English, can learn the language and acquire education, find employment, marry, buy a home, have children, lead decent lives in safe neighborhoods, vote in democratic elections, and enjoy a comfortable retirement. But the prime place accorded to The Great Gatsby in the literary canon suggests that Americans have known all along that the American Dream is largely myth, ideology, propaganda.
Reading The Great Gatsby is intended, it appears, as an indoctrination in reverse: we require young people to study Fitzgerald’s novel in high school and college courses so they realize, before embarking on their careers, that the American Dream they have heard about and will hear about, is beyond their reach. Even if they fulfill their dreams and gain their desires in material terms, they will not be happy.
When we think in this disenchanted way about The Great Gatsby , published in 1925, we might keep in mind that one of the most influential works of cultural history in this period was Oswald Spengler’s The Decline of the West , two volumes, 1918–1922. In a letter, June 6, 1940, Fitzgerald told Maxwell Perkins, his editor at Scribner’s, that he had read Spengler “the same summer I was writing The Great Gatsby and I don’t think I ever quite recovered from him.”
This could not literally have been the case: Fitzgerald was unable to read German and an English translation only became available in 1926, the year after The Great Gatsby ’s publication. But in the early to mid-1920s, there were articles and essays in English about Spengler that Fitzgerald could have read, and soon thereafter he may have turned to the book itself.
Later in the decade, Time magazine declared: “When the first volume of The Decline of the West appeared in Germany a few years ago, thousands of copies were sold. Cultivated European discourse quickly became Spengler-saturated. Spenglerism spurted from the pens of countless disciples. It was imperative to read Spengler, to sympathize or revolt. It still remains so” (December 10, 1928). Retrospectively, Fitzgerald could have felt that he must have been reading Spengler in 1924–1925 because this German author’s theory of historical degeneration matched the mood that pervades The Great Gatsby .
The Decline of the West is a perplexing, lurid text, imposing in manner, epic in scale, intermittently provocative, tedious as a whole. It is impossible to know which of its many sections seized Fitzgerald, but the pages on “money” are a potent corollary to his inquiry into American wealth: we can imagine Fitzgerald being engaged by them.
Spengler comments on the growth and expansion of the town, the city, and the accumulation and centrality of money there:
As soon as the market has become the town, it is no longer a question of mere centers for streams of goods traversing a purely peasant landscape, but of a second world within the walls, for which the merely producing life “out there” is nothing but object and means, and out of which another stream begins to circle. The decisive point is this—the true urban man is not a producer in the prime terrene sense. He has not the inward linkage with soil or with the goods that pass through his hands. He does not live with these, but looks at them from outside and appraises them in relation to his own life-upkeep…. In place of thinking in goods, we have thinking in money . (Vol. 2, ch. 13; Spengler’s italics)
About the enthralling Daisy Buchanan, Gatsby says, “Her voice is full of money,” to which the narrator Nick Carraway responds, “That was it. I’d never understood before. It was full of money—that was the inexhaustible charm that rose and fell in it, the jingle of it, the cymbals’ song of it” (120; New York: Scribner trade paperback, 2004).
It is not charm alone that money supplies. It also engenders callous indifference; after Gatsby’s death, Nick says about Tom Buchanan and Daisy: “They were careless people, Tom and Daisy—they smashed up things and creatures and then retreated back into their money or their vast carelessness, or whatever it was that kept them together, and let other people clean up the mess they had made” (179).
Wealth has hardened Tom and Daisy. They are careless, heedless, at a secure and indifferent distance from trouble, never facing the necessity to pay attention or minister to others. It is not that they are thoughtless but, rather, that they “think in money.”
About money, Spengler continues:
As the seat of this thinking, the city becomes the money-market, the center of values, and a stream of money-values begins to infuse, intellectualize, and command the stream of goods…. Only by attuning ourselves exactly to the spirit and economic outlook of the true townsman can we realize what they mean. He works not for needs, but for sales, for money. The business view gradually infuses itself into every kind of activity. At the beginning a man was wealthy because he was powerful—now he is powerful because he has money. (Vol. 2, ch. 14)
Tom does and does not fit Spengler’s discourse, for, though wealthy, he has inherited his money: he has no vocation or career and has not made anything. Tom and Daisy are profligate and irresponsible, leading lives that consist, in Nick’s phrase, of being “rich together” (6).
Tom is a formidable physical specimen, as Fitzgerald’s first description of him, through Nick, attests:
He was a sturdy, straw haired man of thirty with a rather hard mouth and a supercilious manner. Two shining, arrogant eyes had established dominance over his face and gave him the appearance of always leaning aggressively forward. Not even the effeminate swank of his riding clothes could hide the enormous power of that body—he seemed to fill those glistening boots until he strained the top lacing and you could see a great pack of muscle shifting when his shoulder moved under his thin coat. It was a body capable of enormous leverage—a cruel body. (7)
Tom inhabits a domineering body; his money is embedded in a proto-fascist mass of muscle. He vents a thuggish cruelty, as when he lashes out at his mistress Myrtle Wilson: “Making a short deft movement, Tom Buchanan broke her nose with his open hand” (37).
Fitzgerald was not a philosopher or cultural historian intent on composing encyclopedic arguments. Wittgenstein, Heidegger, Joseph Campbell, Northrop Frye, Whittaker Chambers, Henry Kissinger: these are among the figures, very different from Fitzgerald, whom Spengler influenced. But it is noteworthy that Fitzgerald sent his letter to Perkins, invoking Spengler, in June 1940. His career was faltering, and his effort to thrive as a Hollywood screenwriter was failing. The nation remained afflicted by the Great Depression’s tough times (unemployment was 15%), and the world was at war, with Hitler on the march across western Europe.
The Dunkirk evacuation was the first week of June. On June 10, the day of Fitzgerald’s letter to Perkins, Mussolini took Italy into the war as an ally of Germany. On this same day, the headline of the New York Times was: “Nazi Tanks Now Within 35 Miles of Paris.” The German army entered Paris on June 14, and France surrendered on June 22.
The literary critic Maureen Corrigan has stated: “ The Great Gatsby is the greatest … Our Greatest American Novel” ( So We Read On: How The Great Gatsby Came To Be and Why It Endures , 2014). Like others, she relates it to the American Dream, to American ideas and categories. Yet so reflexive has this line of response become that it tends to operate at a remove from Fitzgerald’s line-by-line writing. If we aim to understand the rich American resonance of The Great Gatsby , its Spengler-like dimension, and, ultimately, its universal range of reference, its impact on readers all across the globe, we must really read it.
That we should really read The Great Gatsby : this sounds obvious. But do we do it? The Great Gatsby is a book that we assume we already are familiar with, that (so we dimly recall) was assigned to us long ago in high school, that we tell ourselves we must have read. It is akin to Moby-Dick , Uncle Tom’s Cabin , Adventures of Huckleberry Finn , Catch-22, and other books that we know, or know about, even if we are not intimate with them or in fact have not actually read them. What we need to do, is to pause, take a breath, and approach Fitzgerald’s novel as if it were new to us.
For instance, on the first night that Nick attends one of Gatsby’s parties, he and his companion Jordan Baker intersect with “two girls in twin yellow dresses” who had met Jordan a month ago:
“You’ve dyed your hair since then,” remarked Jordan, and I started but the girls had moved casually on and her remark was addressed to the premature moon, produced like the supper, no doubt, out of a caterer’s basket. With Jordan’s slender golden arm resting in mine we descended the steps and sauntered about the garden. A tray of cocktails floated at us through the twilight and we sat down at a table with the two girls in yellow and three men, each one introduced to us as Mr. Mumble. (43)
This passage has the playful exuberance that we associate with Dickens, but it is more concise, subtle, and fleeting in its surreal, fantastical quality. We are invited to imagine the moon emerging like a felicitous treat from one of the caterer’s baskets, and we watch the tray dawdle in the air as if on its own. This is Fitzgerald’s evocation of the magic, unreality, and impossibility of Gatsby’s project to reconnect with Daisy. He gives us a controlled rhythm of sentences that amusingly climaxes with the three-man Mr. Mumble.
After a date with Jordan, Nick returns to his modest house: “When I came home to West Egg that night I was afraid for a moment that my house was on fire. Two o’clock and the whole corner of the peninsula was blazing with light which fell unreal on the shrubbery and made thin elongating glints upon the roadside wires. Turning a corner I saw that it was Gatsby’s house, lit from tower to cellar” (81). Fitzgerald is presenting an ostentatious effect—a house seemingly on fire, the peninsula blazing, and another house lit up from top to bottom. Yet the word “unreal” exposes the illusory nature of the scene. It is amazing and not real, majestic and unnerving testimony to Gatsby’s imagination, to his yearning to journey backward in time so that he can rewrite the narrative of his and Daisy’s lives. Such a keen image: the light sparking “glints,” quick flashes, on the wires.
The next day is the date for the afternoon tea that Nick has arranged for Gatsby’s meeting with Daisy. As always, in Fitzgerald’s description and dialogue there are bewitching phrases and images: “The rain cooled about half-past three to a damp mist, through which occasional thin drops swam like dew” (84). Then, Daisy arrives:
“Is this absolutely where you live, my dearest one?” The exhilarating ripple of her voice was a wild tonic in the rain. I had to follow the sound of it for a moment, up and down, with my ear alone before any words came through. A damp streak of hair lay like a dash of blue paint across her cheek and her hand was wet with glistening drops as I took it to help her from the car. “Are you in love with me,” she said low in my ear. “Or why did I have to come alone?” (85)
Fitzgerald catches the coy theatricality in Daisy’s sense of herself. She knows how flirtatious she is, and she performs her attractiveness for Nick’s enjoyment. It is pleasing to him to observe the performance even as he is aware that Daisy knows (and knows that he knows) that he is not in love with her. At the same time, Daisy’s quickness at producing this impression intimates her fragility, vulnerability, aloneness. Who is Daisy when she is not on stage? Who is she really?
Gatsby, Nick, and Daisy enter and wander through Gatsby’s opulent mansion: “If it wasn’t for the mist we could see your home across the bay,” said Gatsby. “You always have a green light that burns all night at the end of your dock” (92). Green is the color of life, renewal, nature, and energy; it is associated with growth, harmony, freshness, safety, fertility, and the environment. But green is also associated with money, finance, banking, ambition, greed, jealousy, and Wall Street. This duality makes green the appropriate color for the light that Gatsby has gazed at: it has become a symbol for him, at a distance yet clandestinely close, his secret. The mist implies more than Gatsby realizes. Now at last, he is with Daisy. But how clearly is he seeing her?
“Your home”: Gatsby does not register the implications of his words. Tom is a brute, but he is Daisy’s husband, and they have a child. Their luxurious, wasteful lifestyle, and Tom’s addiction to adultery: the cozy connotations of “home” do not flow from this family. But it is a family and they do have a home. This is the structure and history that Gatsby thinks he can blot out.
Fitzgerald’s next lines convey the depletion in Gatsby even as, at this moment, he has Daisy nearby and is making contact with her body:
Daisy put her arm through his abruptly but he seemed absorbed in what he had just said. Possibly it had occurred to him that the colossal significance of that light had now vanished forever. Compared to the great distance that had separated him from Daisy it had seemed very near to her, almost touching her. It had seemed as close as a star to the moon. Now it was again a green light on a dock. His count of enchanted objects had diminished by one. (92-93)
Is Gatsby feeling the self-questioning emotions that Nick attributes to him? “Possibly it had occurred to him”: this brooding reflection on Nick’s part may disclose more about him than it does about Gatsby. Fitzgerald is communicating to us Gatsby’s glamor and Nick’s ambivalent interpretation of it, his projection from himself into the American dreamer whom he scrutinizes with fascination and disapproval.
Then, as the chapter draws to a close, the peculiar Mr. Ewing Klipspringer plays the piano:
In the morning In the evening, Ain’t we got fun— Outside the wind was loud and there was a faint flow of thunder along the Sound. All the lights were going on in West Egg now; the electric trains, men-carrying, were plunging home through the rain from New York. It was the hour of a profound human change, and excitement was generating on the air. One thing’s sure and nothing’s surer The rich get richer and the poor get—children . In the meantime, In between time— (95)
The tune accents the contrast between rich and poor, and combines the intonation of a loud wind and a counter-intuitive, faintly sounding thunder. Fitzgerald gives us once again the imagery of light and electricity, and we hear in Nick’s voice that he is being mesmerized by a romantic, wistful imagination of his own.
Nick then turns to Gatsby, who has on this fateful day reunited with Daisy at last:
As I went over to say goodbye I saw that the expression of bewilderment had come back into Gatsby’s face, as though a faint doubt had occurred to him as to the quality of his present happiness. Almost five years! There must have been moments even that afternoon when Daisy tumbled short of his dreams—not through her own fault but because of the colossal vitality of his illusion. It had gone beyond her, beyond everything. He had thrown himself into it with a creative passion, adding to it all the time, decking it out with every bright feather that drifted his way. No amount of fire or freshness can challenge what a man will store up in his ghostly heart. (95-96)
This sounds dead-on about Gatsby, including his magnitude as a dreamer—the word “colossal” appears a second time. Yet we should ask how much Nick’s response is the result of his own desires, hopes, and doubts. He is a reader as much as we are, a reader of Gatsby who is struggling to understand this fabulously rich man who is captivating and mysterious, at once intriguing and absurd.
Nick reports Gatsby’s thoughts and feelings. Is this perception or, again, is it projection? He sees bewilderment in the face and infers (“as though”) that it signifies Gatsby’s uncertainty. The exclamation “almost five years” tells us what Gatsby and Nick, both of them, are likely to be marveling at. “There must have been,” Nick surmises: this is his interpretation of, his insistence on, the meaning for Gatsby of the reunion with Daisy. Nick says that Gatsby’s dream about her and about himself and her as one, his “illusion,” was so immense that, surely, she must have fallen short of embodying it. “Tumbled” means to fall suddenly and helplessly; a sudden downfall, overthrow, or defeat. This is the verb that Fitzgerald ties to Daisy here, while he connects Gatsby to “thrown himself,” which implies someone who is passionate and, also, out of control, desperate.
“Every bright feather that drifted”—as if Gatsby were so transfixed that he creatively works with the merest wisps that flutter by. “No amount of fire or freshness…”: Fitzgerald could have done without this sentence. It could feel tacked on, a sudden shift from the focus on Gatsby himself. But Fitzgerald deploys the sentence to point to Nick as an interpreter who is stating the lesson that Gatsby’s dream illuminates for Nick himself: “As I watched him he adjusted himself a little, visibly. His hand took hold of hers and as she said something low in his ear he turned toward her with a rush of emotion. I think that voice held him most with its fluctuating, feverish warmth because it couldn’t be over-dreamed—that voice was a deathless song” (96).
Fitzgerald was an avid reader of poetry, especially Keats and Shelley and others of the Romantic and Victorian periods. Here, he may be alluding to the phrase “deathless song” as Rudyard Kipling uses it in “The Last of the Light Brigade” (1891), which is itself a response to and revision of Tennyson’s “The Charge of the Light Brigade” (1854). Kipling’s poem describes the fate of the neglected survivors: “Though they were dying of famine, they lived in deathless song.” Gatsby served in combat in World War I, carnage and death enveloping him, entranced by the dream of re-crossing the Atlantic to recover Daisy. Nick tells us what he sees as he looks at Gatsby and Daisy, but he cannot hear her words. Fitzgerald could have written, “The voice…,” but instead he writes, “I think that…,” again dramatizing the impact of this moment on Nick, the observer.
Fitzgerald brings the chapter to a close:
They had forgotten me, but Daisy glanced up and held out her hand; Gatsby didn’t know me now at all. I looked once more at them and they looked back at me, remotely, possessed by intense life. Then I went out of the room and down the marble steps into the rain, leaving them there together. (96)
Gatsby and Daisy are reunited; Nick is forgotten, isolated from them, the detail of the falling rain calling attention to his sense of forlorn separateness from them. “Intense life” is a compact expressive term for his perception of this couple’s exhilarating intimacy. It voices the feeling of being alive at the highest degree that dreamers long for, the dream for them becoming incredibly true. This intense life is not in Nick himself. It is in his realization of a vital presence, overwhelming (“a rush of emotion”), miraculous, perhaps too great to be sustained for long, in Gatsby and Daisy. He is on the outside.
When we read The Great Gatsby , we tend to highlight Gatsby and his pursuit of Daisy, and the conflict that arises between him and Tom Buchanan—two wealthy men, each determined to defeat his rival and claim exclusive ownership of the beautiful woman. But Fitzgerald chose a first-person narrator, and, in certain respects, Nick is the most interesting of the novel’s characters.
The action of the story that Nick is telling took place in June–August 1922, and it is now two years later. Much time has passed, and he is back home in the Midwest. We might consider how much we could recall of a stretch of incidents and persons, spanning three months, that occurred two years earlier. How trustworthy would our memory be? Would we be creating—not so much remembering as inventing—as we reached backward in time to recollect our own and others’ words and actions and relationships?
When we really read The Great Gatsby , we should devote attention to Nick, to his dreams (or their absence), and to his social and economic position. Nick, we learn, is a Yale graduate and a veteran of the war. At the outset, his tone is sometimes self-indulgently clever and sarcastic, irritating, even as all the while he—that is, the astute artist Fitzgerald—is revealing his own entitled background and fine fortune.
Nick is not from a very wealthy family, but he is not from a poor one, either:
My family have been prominent, well-to-do people in this middle-western city for three generations. The Carraways are something of a clan and we have a tradition that we’re descended from the Dukes of Buccleuch, but the actual founder of my line was my grandfather’s brother who came here in fifty-one, sent a substitute to the Civil War and started the wholesale hardware business that my father carries on today. (3)
Nick says that the family tradition is that they descend from a line of Scottish peers, a detail that he mentions with irony but that, at the same time, he did not need to mention at all. He has pride in his origins, his status and distinction, which he downplays and is wry about, but which matters to him.
The Carraways were immigrants, generations ago; they are not newly arrived on East coast shores. This is more than a family; in an American context, with its more compressed time-frame, it is a clan, a line. The founder of this family-line must have achieved a measure of success, his American Dream, because when the Civil War threatened him, he had the money to buy an exemption from service in the Union army. He paid a substitute to risk mutilation or death in his place.
After the war, Nick was restless and, unlike the pioneers who journeyed westward, he moved in the opposite direction:
I decided to go east and learn the bond business. Everybody I knew was in the bond business so I supposed it could support one more single man. All my aunts and uncles talked it over as if they were choosing a prep-school for me and finally said, ‘Why ye—es’ with very grave, hesitant faces. Father agreed to finance me for a year and after various delays I came east, permanently, I thought, in the spring of twenty-two. (3)
Nick is somewhat cavalier about turning to the bond business. He is not single-minded or ambitious, not motivated by a burning dream of his own. The fact that everybody he knew was in the bond business tells us about the types of people he and his supportive family are familiar with. Nick then headed East, with a propitious advantage not available to others: his father agreed to finance him for a year.
Periodically, Nick refers to the work he does, the people with whom he interacts, and his attitude toward them:
I knew the other clerks and young bond-salesmen by their first names and lunched with them in dark crowded restaurants on little pig sausages and mashed potatoes and coffee. I even had a short affair with a girl who lived in Jersey City and worked in the accounting department, but her brother began throwing mean looks in my direction so when she went on her vacation in July I let it blow quietly away. (56)
We hear Nick’s distaste as he reports that he consorted with clerks. He had a sexual affair; we do not know anything about it or even the girl’s name—she is only a “girl,” not a woman. Her brother suspected that Nick would take sexual advantage of his sister and then would dispense with her. Nick’s blithe tone of voice implies that indeed he would do something like this. To him, this young woman was merely a fling.
Nick adds that he “took dinner usually at the Yale Club,” an experience he says he did not enjoy. But, nonetheless, he is a member of this club. Further on, Nick says that Jay Gatsby, then James Gatz, had begun his studies at “the small Lutheran college of St. Olaf in southern Minnesota,” but had left it after just two weeks (99). It is not only the very wealthy Tom Buchanan who benefits from privilege, but so does the Ivy League graduate and Yale Club member Nick.
Later, Nick says: “The next April  Daisy had her little girl and they went to France for a year. I saw them one spring in Cannes and later in Deauville and then they came back to Chicago to settle down” (77). Nick has the means to travel abroad and sojourn in resort towns on the French Riviera and in Normandy. He is among the fortunate few.
Nick’s family, then, is prominent and well-to-do. Tom’s family is hugely rich; Daisy’s family has social standing and money. As for Gatsby, born in North Dakota: “His parents were shiftless and unsuccessful farm people—his imagination had never really accepted them as his parents at all” (98). Perhaps this is the trait in Gatsby that for Fitzgerald defines him as an American Dreamer—imagination. It is imagination and tenacity, even ruthlessness, the willingness not only to move beyond one’s origins but also to deny them. The greatest American dreamers say Yes, but their power comes first from saying No.
This is the insight that Fitzgerald, writing during and about the 1920s, establishes and explores. The American Dreamer, as exemplified in the charismatic, crazy Gatsby, strives for success, for self-realization, rushing forward. But this Dream is propelled by the dreamer’s disavowal of his or her past, the refusal to be that person: I cannot accept these parents, this upbringing. Who I am, is intolerable to me, and I will not endure my existence in this paltry life: I will become someone else.
When Fitzgerald in the 1920s was describing Gatsby’s dream, what were the conditions of American life that he witnessed? What was happening all around him?
In the aftermath of the war, the U.S. economy in 1920–1921 had tumbled into a depression, especially in agriculture; the price of wheat plummeted by 50%, and cotton by 75%. The unemployment rate hit 11.7% in 1921. But, in a spectacular turnaround, it dropped to 6.7% by the following year and was down to 2.4% by 1923.
During the 1920s, the Gross Domestic Product (GDP) increased by 40%; annual per capita income did also, rising by 30%. As the scholar Robert A. Divine has noted: “the American people by the 1920s enjoyed the highest standard of living of any nation on earth.” Propelled by commerce, industry, banking, and the stock market, the economy boomed from 1922 t0 1927 at a growth rate of 7% per year. The U.S. accounted for nearly 50% of the world’s industrial output.
Many Americans at last had discretionary income, and, from shrewd marketers, they were receiving nonstop guidance about how to spend it. The historians George B. Tindall & David E. Shi explain: “More people than ever before had the money and leisure to taste of the affluent society, and a growing advertising industry fueled its appetites. By the mid-1920s, advertising had become both a major enterprise with a volume of $3.5 billion [$51 billion today] and a major institution of social control.”
During the spending sprees of the 1920s, Americans could purchase cameras, wrist-watches, washing machines, and much else. From 1922 to 1929, the number of telephones doubled—the word “telephone” occurs nineteen times in The Great Gatsby ; the number of radios increased from 60,000 to 10 million. By 1925, "50 million people a week went to the movies--the equivalent of half the nation's population" (Steven Mintz and Randy Roberts, Hollywood's America , 4th ed., 2010).
Nick and Tom attended Yale. Gatsby spent some weeks at Oxford. Daisy, meanwhile: we hear nothing about her education (which may have been entirely at home, with tutors). She has no interests other than travel and conspicuous consumption and display. The action of the novel takes place in 1922; the 19th amendment, giving women the right to vote, was ratified in August 1920. There is no indication that this means anything to Daisy.
During the 1920s,women began to benefit from greater freedom. Divorce, for example, became easier. In 1880, 1 in every 21 marriages ended in divorce; in 1924, it was 1 in 7. As the historian Irwin Unger has noted, in 1913 a typical woman’s outfit consumed 19.5 yards of cloth; in 1925, it required only seven yards. The ever-increasing popularity of movies and magazines also led to more attention to the right and best types of female behavior and appearance. As another historian, Jane Bailey, has said:
By 1920, hemlines were raised to below the knee; long curls gave way to short “bobbed” haircuts. Pleasure-seeking “flappers” (an English term once applied to prostitutes) drank, danced, and smoked their way through life. The heightened emphasis on female sexuality was not entirely emancipatory, however. As movies and magazines became more popular, standardized ideals of physical attractiveness took root. Sales of cosmetics increased from $17 million in 1914 to $141 million in 1925, as the goal of achieving perpetual youthfulness underwrote a cult of beauty and consumption. Flappers’ rejection of curves led to women binding their breasts and dieting to look boyish. The bathroom scale first appeared on the scene in the 1920s, and cigarette ads targeted women with such slogans as “Reach for a Lucky instead of a sweet.”
Daisy is slender, and she smokes. She also drinks alcohol, though, it seems, not to excess. This is in contrast to Jordan Baker’s account of Daisy’s drunken state on the evening before her marriage to Tom. Too late, Gatsby notified her that he was returning to the United States; by then committed to Tom, she became “drunk as a monkey” (76).
This, in the story, was in June 1919. Prohibition went into effect in 1920: it was illegal to manufacture, transport, or sell alcoholic beverages, and the consumption of alcohol, overall, declined. But drinking was common, and fashionable, for the middle and upper classes; at the expensive Plaza Hotel, Tom takes out a bottle of whiskey, and Daisy offers to make him a mint julep (129). Robert A. Divine points out that “bootleggers annually took in nearly $2 billion [$29.4 billion today], about two percent of the gross national product.” Gatsby is a bootlegger, a criminal: that is how he has amassed his fortune, supplemented by shady financial dealings with the gambler and gangster Meyer Wolfsheim.
The 1920s also marked the boom of the automobile-industry. Henry Ford had said: “I am going to democratize the automobile. When I’m through everybody will be able to afford one, and just about everyone will have one.” When Ford’s Model T was introduced in the early 1900s, its cost was $1000; in 1927, the cost of the Model A, which replaced the Model T, was $300. By 1929, there were 25 million registered passenger vehicles.
Automobiles abound in Fitzgerald’s book, and Gatsby’s car is the aristocrat among them, a radiant vehicle known to all:
I’d seen it. Everybody had seen it. It was a rich cream color, bright with nickel, swollen here and there in its monstrous length with triumphant hatboxes and supper-boxes and tool boxes, and terraced with a labyrinth of windshields that mirrored a dozen suns. Sitting down behind many layers of glass in a sort of green leather conservatory we started to town. (64)
Tom and Daisy have showy cars—and a chauffeur drives her to the tea at Nick’s where she meets Gatsby (85). Meanwhile, the ineffectual gas-station man George Wilson dreams that Tom will bestow on him a car that the wealthy Buchanans intend to get rid of; he appeals to Tom, reminds him, and in response Tom barks at him in annoyance.
A monument to 1920s’ opulence and excess, there is, furthermore, Gatsby’s prodigious house, to the right of Nick’s place: “The one on my right was a colossal affair by any standard—it was a factual imitation of some Hôtel de Ville in Normandy, with a tower on one side, spanking new under a thin beard of raw ivy, and a marble swimming pool and more than forty acres of lawn and garden” (5). Nick also visits the Buchanan residence:
Their house was even more elaborate than I expected, a cheerful red and white Georgian Colonial mansion overlooking the bay. The lawn started at the beach and ran toward the front door for a quarter of a mile, jumping over sun-dials and brick walks and burning gardens—finally when it reached the house drifting up the side in bright vines as though from the momentum of its run. The front was broken by a line of French windows, glowing now with reflected gold, and wide open to the warm windy afternoon, and Tom Buchanan in riding clothes was standing with his legs apart on the front porch. (6)
Fitzgerald foregrounds Tom’s truculent, conquest-seeking sexuality. Later, we learn that he and Daisy left Chicago for this massive mansion in the East because of one of his sexual escapades (131).
The lifestyles of the rich and famous are maintained by innumerable workers—drivers, cooks, waiters, gardeners, servants. Fitzgerald makes this crucial point often, as here, about Gatsby’s elaborate parties: “Every Friday five crates of oranges and lemons arrived from a fruiterer in New York—every Monday these same oranges and lemons left his back door in a pyramid of pulp- less halves. There was a machine in the kitchen which could extract the juice of two hundred oranges in half an hour, if a little button was pressed two hundred times by a butler’s thumb” (39–40). The butler, dehumanized, depersonalized, has been reduced to a thumb. Gatsby does not give him a thought. This mansion-owner with the Midas touch pays no more heed to his staff’s mind-numbing routines than do the Buchanans.
Fitzgerald perceived that the 1920s economy was making American a new gilded age. At the beginning of the decade, President Warren G. Harding’s principal cabinet member was Secretary of the Treasury Andrew W. Mellon, who cut personal income taxes to a maximum rate of 20%, lowered the estate tax, and repealed the gift tax. He also implemented steep tariffs and slashed federal spending. Loyalists of big business were appointed to regulatory boards and agencies. Corporate profits and stock dividends soared, rising far more rapidly than did the wages of workers.
Speaking in 1928 during his presidential campaign, Herbert Hoover declared: “We in America today are nearer to the financial triumph over poverty than ever before in the history of our land. The poor man is vanishing from us. Under the Republican system, our industrial output has increased as never before, and our wages have grown steadily in buying power.”
Poor people were vanishing because no one was bothering to look for them. Workers were losing power, and labor unions—a force during the era of Eugene V. Debs and the Socialists and International Workers of the World—suffered a falling off in their ranks. The historians Tindall and Shi point out: “Prosperity, propaganda, welfare capitalism [i.e., bonuses, pensions, health and recreational activities in the workplace], and active hostility, combined to cause union membership to drop from about 5 million in 1920 to 3.5 million in 1929.”
Farmers had to deal with unstable prices, deep debts, foreclosures, and bankruptcies. Farm exports fell as agriculture in Europe was restored after the war; farm income in 1919 was 22 billion; in 1929, 13 billion.
What about African Americans? Nick refers to them several times, e.g., “As we crossed Blackwell’s Island a limousine passed us, driven by a white chauffeur, in which sat three modish negroes, two bucks and a girl. I laughed aloud as the yolks of their eyeballs rolled toward us in haughty rivalry” (69). In 1920s New York City, few African Americans were being escorted in limousines with white men as their drivers. Most were sharecroppers in the South, under the sway of white landowners. Falling prices for crops hurt them badly, and for many the 1920s were harsh and unforgiving.
Hundreds of thousands of sharecroppers and other workers lost their jobs during this decade. Many African-Americans in the South migrated northward to New York, Chicago, Detroit, and other cities. They found employment but of an uneven and inadequate kind. Much of the work they did was in the lowest-paying jobs; and they lived in segregated areas, in inferior-quality housing.
As for other groups:
A 1928 report on the condition of Native Americans found that half owned less than $500 and that 71 percent lived on less than $200 a year. Mexican Americans, too, had failed to share in the prosperity. During the 1920s, each year 25,000 Mexicans migrated to the United States. Most lived in conditions of extreme poverty. In Los Angeles the infant mortality rate was five times higher than the rate for Anglos, and most homes lacked toilets. A survey found that a substantial number of Mexican Americans had virtually no meat or fresh vegetables in their diet; 40 percent said that they could not afford to give their children milk. ( Digital American History, University of Houston)
By 1929, the top 1% of the population owned 19% of all personal wealth. The top 5 % owned 34%. Only the top 10 percent owned stocks. This was a decade of extreme income inequality, as Fitzgerald confirms. There are the old money Buchanans, the new money Gatsby, the bond-businessman Nick who is subsidized by his father; and then, on the other hand, there is the floundering, beaten-down George Wilson, and, among many others alongside or lower down from him, the “Finn” who works in Nick’s house as a maid—he never refers to her by name.
In 1929, economists concluded that a family of four needed $2000 per year [$29,000 today] for its basic necessities. Even during this prosperous period, approximately 50% of American families did not reach this level of income. “The top 0.1 percent of American families in 1929 had an aggregate income equal to that of the bottom 42 percent” (Robert S. McElvaine, The Great Depression , 1984).
Also in 1929, the stock market crashed, from 452 in September to 52 in July 1932. Banks failed; farmers lost their lands; factories and mines came to a stop. Investments and savings were wiped out. Farm income fell by 50%. Foreign trade fell by 66%. By 1932, personal income had declined by more than 50 %. Unemployment was 25%. In the automobile industry, production by 1932 fell to 25% of the 1929 total; the number of automobile workers fell to 40% of the 1929 total. By 1931–1932, the average family income had collapsed to $1350 per year. There was no safety net.
For much of the nation, financial prosperity and security were not achievable in the 1920s, and by the 1930s, except for the very fortunate, it had disappeared. So much for the American Dream.
But we should inquire into this American Dream even more, this term to which The Great Gatsby is always linked. For it was in circulation not only during the 1920s, but earlier as well. I have not been able to locate any book that has “American Dream” in its title in the date range 1800 to 1930. From 2000 to the present, by contrast, there are more than one hundred. Still, the phrase does appear in various texts in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and the implication is that people know what it means.
A notable example is in an editorial in the Montgomery Advertiser , February 1, 1916, urging the nation to be militantly ready and prepared for war: “If the American idea, the American hope, the American Dream, and the structures which Americans have erected, are not worth fighting for to maintain and protect, they were not worth fighting for to establish.”
Zelda Sayre was born in Montgomery, Alabama, in 1900; her father, Anthony Dickinson Sayre (1858–1931), a lawyer, jurist, and Democratic legislator, was appointed in 1909 to the State Supreme Court. I am sure that he read the Montgomery Advertiser ; possibly he perused this editorial on a day when his daughter was at the breakfast table or in the living room with him.
F. Scott Fitzgerald, commissioned as a second lieutenant, met Zelda in Montgomery in July 1918; this is altered slightly, but not significantly, in the novel—Gatsby meets Daisy in August 1917, in Louisville, Kentucky. Fitzgerald hence could feel the fervor of Gatsby’s dream because he had felt it strongly in himself. He craved success as a writer because through it he believed he could win Zelda. His first novel, This Side of Paradise , was published on March 26, 1920; one week later, he and Zelda were married. Age twenty-four, Fitzgerald had obtained the object that had enchanted him.
By the early 1950s, literary critics and scholars were regularly invoking “the American Dream” in relation to The Great Gatsby , as did, for instance, Marius Bewley: “Critics of Scott Fitzgerald tend to agree that The Great Gatsby is somehow a commentary on that elusive phrase, the American Dream. The assumption seems to be that Fitzgerald approved.” To the contrary, says Bewley: “ The Great Gatsby offers some of the severest and closest criticism of the American dream that our literature affords…. The theme of Gatsby is the withering of the American dream” (“Scott Fitzgerald’s Criticism of America,” Sewanee Review , Spring 1954).
The American Dream as aspiration and illusion had gained currency in the aftermath of World War II and from the surge in the economy that boosted consumption in the 1950s. The economy grew during this decade by 37%, and the median American family experienced an increase in purchasing power of 30%. Unemployment was low, inflation was low.
The critic Sarah Churchwell says: “It is not a coincidence that The Great Gatsby began to be widely hailed as a masterpiece in America during the 1950s, as the American dream took hold once more, and the nation was once again absorbed in chasing the green light of economic and material success” ( Careless People: Murder, Mayhem, and the Invention of The Great Gatsby , 2013). Yet Bewley refers to “withering,” implying that the Dream, as portrayed by Fitzgerald, had in some earlier era flowered and flourished but had now shriveled and wizened.
When was this era? The American Dream was not widespread in the 1920s, and it became even more restricted during the Great Depression decade. If there is a single main source for the term, it is James Truslow Adams’s The Epic of America , published in 1931, six years after The Great Gatsby, and two years into the Great Depression, the high times for the fortunate in the 1920s shattered.
Adams (1878–1949), born in Brooklyn, was an excellent student in high school and college, but he faltered in his graduate studies in philosophy and history and found little satisfaction in publishing and finance. While living in New York with his father and sister, Adams began to devote his time and energy to the writing of history, based in primary sources, rendered in an appealing, accessible style. Adams’s three-volume survey of the settlement of New England and its history to 1850 was a major success, and for this project and other books in the 1920s he was widely praised.
Adams based The Epic of America on his conviction that self-improvement and self-formation were the motive forces in American history. Adams maintains that there has always been:
… the American dream , that dream of a land in which life should be better and richer and fuller for every man, with opportunity for each according to his ability or achievement. It is a difficult dream for the European upper-classes to interpret adequately, and too many of us ourselves have grown weary and mistrustful of it. (Adams’s italics)
He continues: “It is not a dream of motor cars and high wages merely, but a dream of a social order in which each man and each woman shall be able to attain to the fullest stature of which they are innately capable, and be recognized by others for what they are, regardless of the fortuitous circumstances of birth or position.”
Adams states that the American Dream is more than money and materialism:
No, the American dream that has lured tens of millions of all nations to our shores in the past century has not been a dream of merely material plenty, though that has doubtless counted heavily. It has been much more than that. It has been a dream of being able to grow to fullest development as man and woman, unhampered by the barriers which had slowly been erected in older civilizations, unrepressed by social orders which had developed for the benefit of classes rather than for the simple human being of any and every class. And that dream has been realized more fully in actual life here than anywhere else, though very imperfectly even among ourselves.
It has been a magnificent epic and dream, Adams affirms. But he then asks, what about the American Dream at present and in the future?
If the American dream is to come true and to abide with us, it will, at bottom, depend on the people themselves. If we are to achieve a richer and fuller life for all, they have got to know what such an achievement implies. In a modern industrial State, an economic base is essential for all. We point with pride to our “national income,” but the nation is only an aggregate of individual men and women, and when we turn from the single figure of total income to the incomes of individuals, we find a very marked injustice in its distribution.
The concern that Adams expresses is about income inequality—he saw it in the 1920s, and again in the Great Depression decade. In this same year, 1931, looking backward, Fitzgerald wrote in an essay, “Echoes of the Jazz Age”:
It ended two years ago, because the utter confidence which was its essential prop received an enormous jolt, and it didn’t take long for the flimsy structure to settle earthward. And after two years the Jazz Age seems as far away as the days before the War. It was borrowed time anyhow—the whole upper tenth of a nation living with the insouciance of grand dukes and the casualness of chorus girls. But the moralizing is easy now and it was pleasant to be in one’s twenties in such a certain and unworried time.
The upper tenth troubles Adams too, as he declares in a verdict that applies to the 1920s, the 1950s—and to where we are in the twenty-first century:
There is no reason why wealth, which is a social product, should not be more equitably controlled and distributed in the interests of society. A system that steadily increases the gulf between the ordinary man and the super-rich, that permits the resources of society to be gathered into personal fortunes that afford their owners millions of income a year, with only the chance that here and there a few may be moved to confer some of their surplus upon the public in ways chosen wholly by themselves, is assuredly a wasteful and unjust system. It is, perhaps, as inimical as anything could be to the American dream.
Nick says about the very rich American Dreamer Gatsby: “He wanted nothing less of Daisy than that she should go to Tom and say: ‘I never loved you’. After she had obliterated four years with that sentence they could decide upon the more practical measures to be taken” (109). Gatsby wanted money, an immense amount of it, which he procures by lawless means, so that he can capture Daisy, who represents for him privilege and status. “Obliterate”: to remove utterly from recognition or memory; to remove from existence; to destroy utterly all trace, indication, or significance. It never occurs to Gatsby to consider whether Daisy, herself, wants to participate in his dream. He assumes that she does—and that she will immediately erase the fact that she has been and is married to Tom and is the mother of a child.
Gatsby is blinded by his dream, and by money and the potency he believes that it gives him. At one point, in front of Nick and Jordan Baker, Daisy “got up and went over to Gatsby and pulled his face down, kissing him on the mouth.” She murmurs: “You know I love you” (116). But for Gatsby this will not suffice. He will not allow Daisy to say that she once loved Tom but now loves him. He commands her to negate the person she was, a person with a past and a memory of it. The money that Gatsby has, and the magnitude of his hyperbolic purchases, should prove to her, so Gatsby presumes, that he loves her and that she should join him in the story-line of their lives than he has constructed.
Gatsby does feel apprehension when Daisy seems not to be falling into exact conformity with his image of her, to which Nick replies:
“I wouldn’t ask too much of her,” I ventured. “You can’t repeat the past.” “Can’t repeat the past?” he cried incredulously. “Why of course you can!” He looked around him wildly, as if the past were lurking here in the shadow of his house, just out of reach of his hand. “I’m going to fix everything just the way it was before,” he said, nodding determinedly. “She’ll see.” (110)
Nick warns Gatsby about the impossibility of this ultimatum, this imposition on Daisy. But Nick does not formulate his point in quite the correct terms—and Gatsby does not discern the misleading nature of both Nick’s words and his own incredulous reply. Gatsby does not want to “repeat” the past. His intention is not that at all. It is through money and rhetoric to obliterate the past, to write a new history on a blank page, as though the one there before had never existed. Why not? If you have the money, you can do anything.
Fixing everything the way it was before: this links Gatsby to Meyer Wolfsheim, who “fixed the World Series” in 1919 (73). It is criminal to recreate another person in the coercive manner that Gatsby is committed to. Fitzgerald intends for us to recognize that for Gatsby “the way it was before” is not his dream. His dream is to make it the way it was not: he hates his past, and his money is his guarantee that he can dispense with the person he was and invite—that is, order—Daisy to do the same.
Nick breaks from this dialogue to reflect on Gatsby’s obsession: “He talked a lot about the past and I gathered that he wanted to recover something, some idea of himself perhaps, that had gone into loving Daisy. His life had been confused and disordered since then, but if he could once return to a certain starting place and go over it all slowly, he could find out what that thing was...” (110; Fitzgerald’s ellipsis). Nick’s story is entwined with Gatsby’s. Often it is difficult to know when Nick is giving us an accurate impression of Gatsby and when he is speculating about him.
Nick next proceeds to stage and paint the scene of Gatsby’s remembered vision of his momentous time with Daisy:
…One autumn night, five years before, they had been walking down the street when the leaves were falling, and they came to a place where there were no trees and the sidewalk was white with moonlight. They stopped here and turned toward each other. Now it was a cool night with that mysterious excitement in it which comes at the two changes of the year. The quiet lights in the houses were humming out into the darkness and there was a stir and bustle among the stars. Out of the corner of his eye Gatsby saw that the blocks of the sidewalk really formed a ladder and mounted to a secret place above the trees—he could climb to it, if he climbed alone, and once there he could suck on the pap of life, gulp down the incomparable milk of wonder. (110; Fitzgerald’s ellipsis)
Fitzgerald heightens Nick’s language, imbuing it with romance, melodrama, and phantasmagoric sublimity. This is far beyond anything that Gatsby could articulate. It is sumptuous and strained, lavish and ridiculous: Nick is appalled and seduced by the wealth-laden Gatsby’s effort to incarnate his Daisy-inspired imagination.
Fitzgerald returns to this scene when Nick once more tells the reader about Gatsby’s first experiences of Daisy. He says that Gatsby said: “She was the first ‘nice’ girl he had ever known. In various unrevealed capacities he had come in contact with such people but always with indiscernible barbed wire between. He found her excitingly desirable” (148). An acute phrase: the “barbed wire” visible yet indiscernible, not to be seen. It is oracular for Gatsby, who would take part in the Argonne offensive in France (66), one of the deadliest battles in U.S. military history, where there were labyrinthine networks of barbed wire in the killing zones.
To pre-war Gatsby, Daisy is not only desirable but excitingly so: she arouses, stirs, stimulates him. She amplifies desire: “He went to her house, at first with other officers from Camp Taylor, then alone. It amazed him—he had never been in such a beautiful house before. But what gave it an air of breathless intensity was that Daisy lived there—it was as casual a thing to her as his tent out at camp was to him” (148). There is more here about the house than about Daisy; it is not her, but the house to which Gatsby (according to Nick) attached the word “beautiful.”
This is where Daisy lives, but the antecedent for “it” is “house”—that is, while Daisy is special, it is the house itself that has “breathless intensity”: “There was a ripe mystery about it, a hint of bedrooms upstairs more beautiful and cool than other bedrooms, of gay and radiant activities taking place through its corridors and of romances that were not musty and laid away already in lavender but fresh and breathing and redolent of this year’s shining motor cars and of dances whose flowers were scarcely withered” (148). Nothing about Daisy’s appearance, not anything directly about her at all. The word “beautiful” reappears, but again not in reference to her but to the house.
Nick then returns to Daisy: “It excited him too that many men had already loved Daisy—it increased her value in his eyes. He felt their presence all about the house, pervading the air with the shades and echoes of still vibrant emotions’ (148). Later, Gatsby will insist that Daisy obliterate, wipe out (109, 132), her relationship with Tom. But at this initial stage, her value to Gatsby is increased because other young men have loved her. They confirm the rightness of Gatsby’s desire for her, intensifying it.
The next passage takes us to the climax of Gatsby’s pursuit:
But he knew that he was in Daisy’s house by a colossal accident. However glorious might be his future as Jay Gatsby, he was at present a penniless young man without a past, and at any moment the invisible cloak of his uniform might slip from his shoulders. So he made the most of his time. He took what he could get, ravenously and unscrupulously—eventually he took Daisy one still October night, took her because he had no real right to touch her hand. (149)
Gatsby is pretending to Daisy to be someone he is not. In army uniform—another marvel, the cloak that is invisible—all of the officers are the same. Gatsby can represent himself to Daisy as better in status than he really is. Deceiving her, he is playing a role; he knows (she does not know) who he is—the offspring of shiftless, unsuccessful parents whom he has repudiated.
What makes the passage shocking is that, having deceived Daisy, Gatsby “takes” her sexually. He takes her, he took her; two lines later Fitzgerald repeats, “he had certainly taken her.” Nick’s account makes this sexual consummation not a loving one but an assault, a molestation, or worse. “Ravenously” implies extreme hunger, being famished, voracious like a beast, intensely eager for gratification or satisfaction. “Unscrupulously”: without scruples, without conscience, unprincipled. Is this love? If it is, it is expressed as if it were theft, a trespass, an act of resentment, of hate and self-hatred. Fitzgerald could have written the passage differently, or not included it at all. This is what he wanted.
When Gatsby, his “taking” done, separates from Daisy, “She vanished into her rich house, into her rich, full life leaving Gatsby—nothing. He felt married to her, that was all” (149). He feels married to her: it is hard to know what this means. For the main impression is one of coercion and grievance, of sexual violation. Gatsby desires Daisy. Or, should we say that he despises her?—despises the socially privileged and wealthy? Gatsby knows that Daisy does not know who he is and would rebuff him if she did. His interaction with her has left him feeling cancelled out, null and void.
“When they met again,” says Nick:
two days later it was Gatsby who was breathless, who was somehow betrayed. Her porch was bright with the bought luxury of star-shine; the wicker of the settee squeaked fashionably as she turned toward him and he kissed her curious and lovely mouth. She had caught a cold and it made her voice huskier and more charming than ever and 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. (149-150)
Gatsby, objectifying Daisy, values her silvery presence for its distance from futile poverty where dreams never come true. She is preserved in her wealth; she is imprisoned too, but the implication is that Gatsby, by uniting himself to her, will liberate her along with himself. This is an impossible dream, as somewhere in his mind Gatsby is aware. Daisy is captivating but sullied in his eyes: he has tainted her by taking her.
In a startling juxtaposition, Fitzgerald passes from Nick’s description to Gatsby’s own colloquial speech:
“I can’t describe to you how surprised I was to find out I loved her, old sport. I even hoped for a while that she’d throw me over, but she didn’t, because she was in love with me too. She thought I knew a lot because I knew different things from her.... Well, there I was, way off my ambitions, getting deeper in love every minute, and all of a sudden I didn’t care. What was the use of doing great things if I could have a better time telling her what I was going to do?” (150)
Gatsby is acknowledging that, for him, the American Dream is better talked about than experienced: he could have done great things but what is even better is the prospect of telling Daisy that he will do them in the future. It might be better for Gatsby never to do them, because if they were done, it would no longer be possible to talk about them, anticipate them, look forward to them. Gatsby may realize that if he did great things, these would not make him happy. Not doing them means not being disappointed.
In the screenplay for his film adaptation of The Great Gatsby , 2013, Baz Luhrmann revises the dialogue of this scene. Gatsby says: “I knew it was a great mistake for a man like me to fall in love. A great mistake. I’m only 32…. I might still be a great man if I could only forget that I once lost Daisy. But my life, old sport, my life has got to be like this… He draws a slanting line from the lawn to the stars. ” Luhrmann is bringing out, putting into words, an insight into Gatsby that Fitzgerald glances at. Gatsby reveals that he knows the mistake he made; in two senses, it is a “great” mistake. There is time for him to choose a different direction. Money is not everything and neither is Daisy, But Gatsby cannot make this choice: he cannot forget that he lost Daisy. Does he want to possess her because he desires her, or does he desire her because he lost her?
Fitzgerald’s exposition of, and inquiry into, the American Dream, undertaken in 1925, is psychologically complex, written in a suspenseful first-person form full of twists and turns, flash-forwards and flash-backs. Fitzgerald criticizes delusion and illusion, yet from first to final page, his craftsmanship, his adroit literary language, is subtle and sensitive. He pays tribute to the American Dream that he discredits, and we remain wedded to it.
On the campaign train in Iowa, 2007, Barack Obama celebrated the American Dream:
As I’ve traveled around Iowa and the rest of the country these last nine months, I haven’t been struck by our differences—I’ve been impressed by the values and hopes that we share. In big cities and small towns; among men and women; young and old; black, white, and brown—Americans share a faith in simple dreams. A job with wages that can support a family. Health care that we can count on and afford. A retirement that is dignified and secure. Education and opportunity for our kids. Common hopes. American dreams.
Obama said that he, his grandparents, and other family members had achieved this dream, but that many Americans were now finding their hopes for it to be unfulfilled: “While some have prospered beyond imagination in this global economy, middle-class Americans—as well as those working hard to become middle class—are seeing the American dream slip further and further away.”
“You know it from your own lives,” Obama continued: Americans are working harder for less and paying more for health care and college. For most folks, one income isn’t enough to raise a family and send your kids to college. Sometimes, two incomes aren’t enough. It’s harder to save. It’s harder to retire. You’re doing your part, you’re meeting your responsibilities, but it always seems like you’re treading water or falling behind. And as I see this every day on the campaign trail, I’m reminded of how unlikely it is that the dreams of my family could be realized today.
Obama told his audience—this was the basis for his campaign: “I don’t accept this future. We need to reclaim the American dream.” During his two terms, 2008–2016, how well did President Obama perform in his effort to restore and reanimate the American Dream?
In a study published in late 2014, Emmanuel Saez and Gabriel Zucman concluded: “The share of wealth held by the top 0.1 percent of families is now almost as high as in the late 1920s, when The Great Gatsby defined an era that rested on the inherited fortunes of the robber barons of the Gilded Age.” They noted:
The flip side of these trends at the top of the wealth ladder is the erosion of wealth among the middle class and the poor…. The growing indebtedness of most Americans is the main reason behind the erosion of the wealth share of the bottom 90 percent of families. Many middle class families own homes and have pensions, but too many of these families also have much higher mortgages to repay and much higher consumer credit and student loans to service than before. (“Exploding Wealth Inequality in the United States,” Washington Center for Equitable Growth , October 20, 2014)
Preparing in 2014 for her presidential campaign, Hillary Clinton said: “We have to do a better job of getting our economy growing again and producing results and renewing the American Dream so Americans feel they have a stake in the future and that the economy and political system is not stacked against them.” She had served as Obama’s secretary of state from 2009 to 2013; her promise to renew the American Dream thus amounted to a critique of the administration that she had been part of.
From 2000-01 to 2014–15, Hillary and Bill Clinton made more than $150 million in lecture fees; in total, during these fifteen years after he left the White House, they made $240 million. They led (and continue to lead) luxurious lives; they have a charitable foundation worth many millions; and their net worth (estimates vary) is somewhere in the $120 million range.
Money “has always been passed down in families”—as Fitzgerald shows through Tom Buchanan—“but today, across America, parents who can are helping their grown children in unprecedented ways” (Jen Doll, Harper’s Bazaar , February 12, 2019). Since 2001, the Clintons’ daughter Chelsea has served as a member of the corporate board of IAC/InteractiveCorp, a media and investment company: she has received $9 million in compensation. She has one qualification for this position: her parents. Her wedding in 2010 cost $2 million; for their New York City condo, she and her husband paid $10.5 million; they have a net worth in excess of $30 million.
Hillary Clinton lost the election in 2016 to Donald Trump, net worth, $3.7 billion, who had launched his campaign in June 2015 with a speech that concluded:
Trump : Sadly, the American dream is dead. Audience member : Bring it back. Trump : But if I get elected president I will bring it back bigger and better and stronger than ever before, and we will make America great again.
During President Trump’s term, from 2016 forward, the numbers for growth, employment, and the stock market have been positive. Vice President Mike Pence said, April 10, 2019, that the American dream was “dying until President Donald Trump was inaugurated” in 2017. Trump’s policies are generating jobs “at the fastest pace of all,” Pence emphasized, and this “gives evidence of the fact that the American dream is coming back.” “Was the American dream in trouble? You bet,” Pence said in an interview: “I really do believe that’s why the American people chose a president whose family lived the American dream and was willing to go in and fight to make the American dream available for every American” ( CNBC , April 11, 2019).
Donald Trump Jr. has said: “For the last 50 years our biggest net export has been the American Dream, but because of Donald Trump we’ve brought that American Dream home, where it belongs” (June 25, 2019). Eric Trump, the second of the President’s sons, echoes this claim: “We have achieved something that was incredible and something that is so much bigger than what we are and it shows that the American dream is alive and under him I think the American dream is going to be stronger than it was ever before” ( FOX Business , September 30, 2019).
On the other hand: In late 2019, the Census Bureau reported: “The gap between the richest and the poorest U.S. households is now the largest it has been in the past 50 years.” “The most troubling thing about the new report,” states the economist William M. Rodgers III, is that it “clearly illustrates the inability of the current economic expansion, the longest on record, to lessen inequality” (Bill Chappell, “U.S. Income Inequality Worsens, Widening To A New Gap,” NPR , September 26, 2019).
As for the record-setting stock market: in 2008, 62% of Americans owned stock; in 2020, 55% do. This means that nearly half of the nation owns no stock—no mutual funds, no retirement funds. The top 10% of families with the highest income own, on average, $969,000 in stocks. Among low-income workers, 92% of them do not have a retirement account or cannot afford to contribute to one. (Allison Schrager, Quartz , September 5, 2019; Gallup News , September 13, 2019.)
The authors of a report published in 2019 conclude:
We live in an age of astonishing inequality. Income and wealth disparities in the United States have risen to heights not seen since the Gilded Age and are among the highest in the developed world. Median wages for U.S. workers have stagnated for nearly fifty years. Fewer and fewer younger Americans can expect to do better than their parents. Racial disparities in wealth and well-being remain stubbornly persistent. In 2017, life expectancy in the United States declined for the third year in a row, and the allocation of healthcare looks both inefficient and unfair. Advances in automation and digitization threaten even greater labor market disruptions in the years ahead. (“Forum on Economics After Neoliberalism,” Boston Review , February 15, 2019)
Nevertheless, we dream on. In Orlando, Florida, June 18, 2019, President Trump announced his bid for reelection:
Our country is now thriving, prospering and booming. And frankly, it’s soaring to incredible new heights. Our economy is the envy of the world, perhaps the greatest economy we’ve had in the history of our country. And as long as you keep this team in place, we have a tremendous way to go. Our future has never ever looked brighter or sharper. The fact is, the American Dream is back, it’s bigger and better, and stronger than ever, before.
In 2019, 25% of American workers made less than $10 per hour. This places their income for the year below the federal poverty level. Overall, “the number of people earning less than $30,000 accounts for 46.5 percent of the population.” During the next five years, the job most in-demand, which will rise 47%, is home health-aide. Its median salary is $23,210.
The reporter/journalist Jeanna Smialek observes that “unequal access to opportunities is now a global story. Barriers vary by country, but children are generally more likely to earn incomes similar to their parents’ in nations with higher income inequality.” She comments further: “the graph of this relationship is often called a Great Gatsby Curve , named after F. Scott Fitzgerald’s novel about social mobility and its costs.” The United States is “further toward the high-inequality, high-immobility end of the scale than other advanced economies.”
In the United States, says Smialek, “higher income-inequality goes hand in hand with lower upward-mobility,” and she cites research by the economists Raj Chetty, Nathaniel Hendren, and others. Hendren observes: “It just speaks to this kind of question: To what extent are we a country where kids have a notion of the American dream?” ( Bloomberg Business Week , March 20, 2019; see also John Jerrim and Lindsey Macmillan, “Income Inequality, Intergenerational Mobility, and the Great Gatsby Curve: Is Education the Key?,” Social Forces , December 2015).
Senator Bernie Sanders has spoken about the American Dream. In 2014, on the Senate floor, he asked, “What happened to the American Dream?”, and he replied, “we are now the most unequal society” among all of the industrial nations. In his campaign for the 2016 nomination, Sanders emphasized the crisis of income inequality, and he is emphasizing it even more. The son of Jewish immigrants, a member of a family that struggled to pay the bills, Sanders through hard work and education made it all the way to the U.S. Senate; he now is “attempting to identify his own personal story with the American Dream”, a dream that, he contends, fewer and fewer Americans can hope to achieve (Walter G. Moss, LA Progressive, March 30, 2019).
On his campaign www-site, Joe Biden also presents himself as an embodiment of and proponent for the American Dream:
During my adolescent and college years, men and women were changing the country—Martin Luther King, Jr., John F. Kennedy, Robert Kennedy—and I was swept up in their eloquence, their conviction, the sheer size of their improbable dreams…. America is an idea that goes back to our founding principle that all men are created equal. It’s an idea that’s stronger than any army, bigger than any ocean, more powerful than any dictator. It gives hope to the most desperate people on Earth. It instills in every single person in this country the belief that no matter where they start in life, there’s nothing they can’t achieve if they work at it.
So too does Senator Elizabeth Warren, and she has a proposal for reducing the inequality gap:
I’ve got plans to put the American Dream within reach for America’s families—and a plan to pay for it with a two-cent wealth tax. A two-cent tax on fortunes of more than $50 million – the wealthiest 0.1% -- can bring in the revenue we need to invest in universal child-care, public education, universal tuition-free public college and student debt cancellation for 95% of people who have it…. Education was my ticket to live my dreams, and it’s time we make that opportunity available to every family who wants it. ( Concord Monitor , November 13, 2019)
Those at the top, the wealthiest Americans: they are the most alarmed critics of the Sanders and Warren positions and proposals. Hedge-fund manager Leon Cooperman, for instance, wailed about Warren’s intention to set new rules for Wall Street: “This is the fucking American Dream she is shitting on” ( Politico , October 23, 2019). More temperately, he said: “Let’s elevate the dialogue and find ways to keep this a land of opportunity where hard work, talent, and luck are rewarded and everyone gets a fair shot at realizing the American Dream.” Cooperman’s net worth is $3.2 billion.
Critics of a tax increase on the very rich and of regulation that might lessen income inequality: these worried voices include Michael Bloomberg (net worth, $56.4 billion) and Jeff Bezos (net worth in 2010, $12.3 billion; in 2019, net worth, $116 billion—the remainder after his wife received $36 billion in their divorce settlement). The sports merchandise executive Michael Rubin (net worth, $2.9 billion) contends that boosting taxes on the super-rich “would have the exact opposite effect of what you want to happen…. What makes America great is that this is a true land for the entrepreneur…. What would happen is that people won’t start businesses here anymore” ( Yahoo Finance , January 9, 2020).
Mark Cuban (net worth, $4.1 billion) weighs in: “I love entrepreneurship because that’s what makes this country grow. And if I can help companies grow, I’m setting the foundation for future generations. It sends the message that the American dream is alive and well” ( CNBC , March 24, 2018). Cuban endorsed Hillary Clinton in 2016 as the best advocate of (his phrase) “the American Dream.” She says that she is in favor of an estate tax, but as for a tax increase aimed at the very wealthy (like herself), she asserts that this would be “incredibly disruptive” ( Daily Beast , July 31, 2016; Business Insider , November 7, 2019).
In 2019, the world’s 500 wealthiest people added $1.2 trillion to their fortunes, increasing their collective net worth 25%, to at least $5.9 trillion. The twenty-six people at the top possess greater wealth than the 3.8 billion people in the bottom half of the world’s population. In the United States, there are 600+ billionaires.
In a report, January 2020, Oxfam focused on this vast disparity and concluded: “Extreme wealth is a sign of a failing system. Governments must take steps to radically reduce the gap between the rich and the rest of society and prioritize the well-being of all citizens over unsustainable growth and profit.”
In the same month, many of the attendees at the World Economic Forum, “the most concentrated gathering of wealth and power on the planet,” at their meeting in Davos, Switzerland, expressed a similar concern. Kristalina Georgieva, Managing Director of the International Monetary Fund, said: “The beginning of this decade has been eerily reminiscent of the 1920s.” In a report that was prepared for this meeting, the United States is at #27 in the world’s social mobility index, behind, e.g., Germany, France, Canada, Japan, and the United Kingdom. One observer remarked: “Canadians have a better shot at the American Dream than Americans do.” (Chloe Taylor, CNBC , January 19, 2020; Heather Long, Washington Post , January 20, 2020; Hanna Ziady, CNN Business , January 20, 2020.)
Among Americans, 61% say that there “is too much economic inequality.” For young people, ages 18 to 29, the figure rises to more than 70%. If there is a surprise in the polling, it is that only 40+ percent say that reversing income inequality should be a “top priority.” But the priorities they do emphasize, such as “creating affordable health care, fighting drug addiction, making college more affordable, fixing the federal budget deficit, and solving climate change”—all of these are connected to economic policy. People recognize this—which is why nearly 60% believe that the very wealthy should pay more in taxes ( CNBC , January 9, 2020; NPR , January 9, 2020).
Economists have demonstrated that inequality is higher today than it has been since the 1920s, the decade of The Great Gatsby. In Forbes magazine, for example, Jesse Colombo writes: “It’s not fashionable to wear flapper dresses and do the Charleston, but 1920s-style wealth inequality is definitely back in style. America’s ultra-rich haven’t held as much of the country’s wealth since the Jazz Age” (February 28, 2019). Here are the conclusions presented in recent studies of the American Dream:
Absolute mobility has declined sharply in America over the past half-century primarily because of the growth in inequality. Socio-economic outcomes reflect socio-economic origins to an extent that is difficult to reconcile with talk of opportunity. Your circumstances at birth—specifically, what your parents do for a living—are an even bigger factor in how far you get in life than we have previously realized. At least since the 1980s, American have worried that the United States is no longer the “land of opportunity” it once was. Data show a slow, steady decline in the probability of moving up…. Millennials might be the first American generation to experience as much downward mobility as upward mobility. (Kyle Kowalski, “Is the American Dream Waking Up? Sloww , May 2019; Michael Hout, “Social Mobility,” The Poverty and Inequality Report , Stanford University, 2019.)
If Fitzgerald were alive, he would see that the inequality he had depicted in The Great Gatsby has widened, that it is not a gap, but an abyss.
All of this is true and crucially pertinent to Fitzgerald’s novel as we read it now. But he is saying even more in it, and here we need to move through and beyond American themes and the statistics that bear witness to them. For there is in The Great Gatsby a vision that exceeds money, inequality, and the American Dream. I am referring in particular to the novel’s final pages, to the elegiac, plaintive paragraphs that are familiar to many of us but that perhaps we have not really read. In them, Fitzgerald is simultaneously American and global, national and international; he is transhistorical, universal.
“These concluding lines are so impassioned and impressive,” says the critic Richard Chase, “that we feel the whole book has been driving toward this moment of ecstatic contemplation, this final moment of transcendence” ( The American Novel and Its Tradition , 1957). In the completed first draft, these lines are not at the end but, rather, at the close of the first chapter. Fitzgerald made many revisions throughout his typed draft and page proofs. But he made very few changes in these paragraphs. What he did, was to relocate them. He wanted them to be the conclusion even as he knew that their melancholy intensity would be present in the mood and atmosphere of his story from the start.
The mansion is empty. Gatsby is dead and buried. Soon Nick will be leaving for the Midwest:
Most of the big shore places were closed now and there were hardly any lights except the shadowy, moving glow of a ferryboat across the Sound. And as the moon rose higher the inessential houses began to melt away until gradually I became aware of the old island here that flowered once for Dutch sailors’ eyes—a fresh, green breast of the new world. Its vanished trees, the trees that had made way for Gatsby’s house, had once pandered in whispers to the last and greatest of all human dreams; for a transitory enchanted moment man must have held his breath in the presence of this continent, compelled into an aesthetic contemplation he neither understood nor desired, face to face for the last time in history with something commensurate to his capacity for wonder. (180)
These sentences are laden with loss and longing. But this is only one register of it, the tone of voice of the first-person narrator Nick. Fitzgerald’s perspective is here as well, and he is more tough-minded in his judgments.
The term “pandered” points us, ironically and critically, toward Nick, toward the role he played in fostering Gatsby’s quest for Daisy that culminated in the dreamer’s death. Nick’s imagination expands as he moves centuries backward in time to the moment when Long Island was dense with forests and when Dutch sailors first glimpsed it. For them, according to Nick, it might have been the breath-taking prospect of a new beginning, an Eden rediscovered, and he seems to share in this reverie. But Fitzgerald knows that history was more complicated then, and that much has transpired since.
In April 1609, Henry Hudson, an English sea captain hired by the Dutch East India Company, undertook a voyage of exploration to North America to locate a sea and trade route to Asia. By July, his eighty-foot ship with its crew of sixteen had reached Nova Scotia and shortly thereafter he arrived at present-day Staten and Long Islands, and then travelled up the river that now bears his name. Hudson grasped that here were lucrative possibilities for commerce, for money-making, for profit, especially in the fur trade. Settlers began to arrive in 1624–25; the first group consisted of thirty families. This Dutch territory included Manhattan, parts of Long Island, Connecticut, and New Jersey.
In 1626, Peter Minuit, director of the colony, with a payment of blankets, kettles, and knives, secured an alliance or treaty with the neighboring Native Americans. The Dutch settlement was small, some 270 people, in the midst of tribes that were sometimes in conflict with one another. Relations between settlers and Native Americans were, at the outset, peaceful for the most part, but there was an attack on a Dutch fort at Albany, named Fort Orange, as early as 1626.; Bloody conflicts broke out in the 1640s and into the 1650s. The New Netherland population was 2000, with 1500 in New Amsterdam at the southern tip of Manhattan.
Also in 1626, a Dutch ship unloaded eleven slaves in New Amsterdam, and others were brought up the coast from the Caribbean. New Amsterdam was built by slave labor, and by 1640, one-third of the population was African.
Nick imagines Dutch seamen looking from the outside in , but Fitzgerald wants us also to be cognizant of the view from the inside out —Nick himself is on the shore, looking outward. The enchantment, the awe, may have been thrilling for those on the outside who first experienced it, but in this novel filled with people of various races and ethnicities, Fitzgerald presents a history that these men aboard ship did not know, did not possess but would inaugurate and sustain through dispossession, enslavement, battle, and war. Fitzgerald calls attention to the deforestation of the land, the assault on it, the exploitation of it as it lay there ready to be taken.
Nick refers to the “fresh, green breast of the new world,” an image that Fitzgerald is connecting to the green light, beguiling and perilous, and to the terrible death of Myrtle Wilson, killed by Daisy driving the car with Gatsby next to her:
The “death car” as the newspapers called it, didn’t stop; it came out of the gathering darkness, wavered tragically for a moment and then disappeared around the next bend. Michaelis wasn’t even sure of its color—he told the first policeman that it was light green. The other car, the one going toward New York, came to rest a hundred yards beyond, and its driver hurried back to where Myrtle Wilson, her life violently extinguished, knelt in the road and mingled her thick, dark blood with the dust. Michaelis and this man reached her first but when they had torn open her shirtwaist still damp with perspiration, they saw that her left breast was swinging loose like a flap and there was no need to listen for the heart beneath. The mouth was wide open and ripped at the corners as though she had choked a little in giving up the tremendous vitality she had stored so long. (137)
Maxwell Perkins urged Fitzgerald to change the sickening detail about Myrtle’s breast. But in a letter of reply, January 24, 1925, Fitzgerald refused: “I want Myrtle’s breast ripped off—it’s exactly the thing.” This is the brutal end of the line for Myrtle, a dreamer whose "tremendous vitality" links her to Gatsby, possessed by the "colossal vitality" of the desire he stored so long for Daisy.
The Great Gatsby brims with violence. We hear about the Civil War, the Great War, race-war (Tom Buchanan’s panic that “Nordics” soon will be overwhelmed by “the colored empires,” 12–13), Myrtle’s broken nose, the rumor that Gatsby’s “killed a man” (44, 49), car crashes, murder (a man who “strangled his wife,” 62), suicide (a man “who killed himself by jumping in front of a subway train in Times Square,” 63), a “dead man” in a hearse (68), a murder by a criminal mob (70), suspicious death (that of young Gatsby’s patron, Dan Cody, 100), child abuse (Gatsby’s father “beat him,” 173), and Wilson’s killing of Gatsby.
Nick then says:
And as I sat there brooding on the old, unknown world, I thought of Gatsby’s wonder when he first picked out the green light at the end of Daisy’s dock. He had come a long way to this blue lawn and his dream must have seemed so close that he could hardly fail to grasp it. He did not know that it was already behind him, somewhere back in that vast obscurity beyond the city, where the dark fields of the republic rolled on under the night.
He broods his way into a final affirmation and tragic prophecy:
Gatsby believed in the green light, the orgastic future that year by year recedes before us. It eluded us then, but that’s no matter—tomorrow we will run faster, stretch out our arms farther.... And one fine morning—— So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.
When we read The Great Gatsby , we inevitably think (as Fitzgerald wants us to) about the American Dream—what it was and is, and whether, if we are losing this Dream, we might restore it in this twenty-first century riven by income inequality. But when we really read The Great Gatsby , we realize that Fitzgerald has written both a great American novel and a great novel for the world.
The Great Gatsby belongs with Melville’s Moby-Dick , Dreiser’s Sister Carrie , and Ellison’s Invisible Man —milestone American books that readers everywhere deeply respond to. Fitzgerald compels all of his readers to reflect on what it means to be human, bodies ensnared by time, consumed by desires destined never to be fulfilled. The Great Gatsby is rooted in a time and place and nation: it is American through and through, and it is an essential guide to and diagnosis of the way we live now. But it is, furthermore, a literary work with an all-inclusive address that speaks to societies and cultures outside its American context.
Fitzgerald has a message about life in America and a message about life itself. He believes that life for all persons is the pursuit of happiness, not the achievement of it. Most of us have faith in, we yearn for, a future of maximum well-being—not just a good life, but one so good that it overcomes and redeems, or seems to, the inexorability of death. This is the dream we cannot reach, a satisfaction that cannot be measured, a happiness that eludes us. If only, somehow, we could get to it, we would know immortality.
We tell ourselves that we need to try harder and desire more intensely. Then it will come. But it does not, and the “current” pulls us rearward, into oblivion. There is no religious comfort or consolation. We beat on, striving, not finding contentment. This is the only choice we have: amid a finite existence, we seek persons and objects that beckon to us, that we are convinced represent desires and dreams uniquely our own.
The Great Gatsby is superior by far to everything that Fitzgerald wrote before it, and nothing that he wrote after it, not Tender is the Night (1934) or The Love of the Last Tycoon , comes close to it. Everything that Fitzgerald had, everything that he was, is in this novel. His self-destructive behavior, alcoholism, financial pressures, and the mental illness of his wife Zelda denied him the luminous career that his astonishing talent seemed to promise. He died of a heart attack in December 1940, age forty-four.
In a letter in October 1940 to his daughter Scottie, Fitzgerald described to her “the wise and tragic sense of life”:
By this I mean the thing that lies behind all great careers, from Shakespeare’s to Abraham Lincoln’s, and as far back as there are books to read—the sense that life is essentially a cheat and its conditions are those of defeat, and that the redeeming things are not “happiness and pleasure” but the deeper satisfactions that come out of struggle. Having learned this in theory from the lives and conclusions of great men, you can get a hell of a lot more enjoyment out of whatever bright things come your way.
The Great Gatsby dramatizes the myths and realities of this country and continent from the moment of the settlers’ arrival and then onward to the 1920s and to the present where we see the American Dream broken by income inequality. But what may be even more remarkable is that, translated into fifty languages worldwide , The Great Gatsby transcends its national origin and setting. Fitzgerald tells truths about the human condition, about desire, disappointment, and death. Really read, it is about the American Dream and much more.
June 2020 : The pandemic that struck the United States and the world earlier this year has caused widespread illness and death, damaged the national and international economies, and created agonized uncertainty about the future. Scholars and researchers are in agreement about one point at least: the pandemic has caused (and will continue to cause) the most harm among America’s most vulnerable—the elderly, minorities, and low-income workers and their families.
Many have painted a bleak picture. Alexis Crow, for example, an expert in economics and finance, has noted:
In the United States, the twinned health and economic crises resulting from coronavirus have laid bare several persistent issues in the socio-economic fabric of the country—and which also complicate the trajectory of sustainable growth for future generations. These issues include fiscal sustainability and ballooning deficits; income inequality and the vast disparity in livelihoods across the income distribution; the hollowing out of the Mittelstand (small and medium enterprises); and the future of work and employment. (Atlantic Council, May 15, 2020)
A report from the International Monetary Fund expresses a similar concern:
The pandemic will leave the poor further disadvantaged…. The inequality gap between rich and poor has widened after previous epidemics—and Covid-19 will be no different…. If past pandemics are any guide, the toll on poorer and vulnerable segments of society will be several times worse. Indeed, a recent poll of top economists found that the vast majority felt the Covid-19 pandemic will worsen inequality, in part through its disproportionate impact on low-skilled workers. (World Economic Forum, May 18, 2020)
The epidemiologist Sandro Galea, in his study of the national and international effects of coronavirus, has said:
Discussions about Covid-19 pandemic’s effects tend to focus either on public health or the economy, as if they were two separate matters. But they are linked, and not just by data about the disease’s disproportionate impact on poor and minority populations. The worldwide economic devastation from lockdown policies is sending millions into poverty — increasing their exposure to potential covid-19 infection as well as to the deadly threat that comes simply from being poor.
A central determinant of health is money—the ability to afford such basic resources as nutritious food, access to good medical care, safe housing, quality education, and the simple peace of mind that comes with having the means to weather sudden shocks…. Less money generally means shorter, sicker lives, as reflected by the approximately 14-year gap in life expectancy between the richest and poorest Americans. ( Washington Post , May 26, 2020)
David N. Cicilline, a member of Congress from Rhode Island, links the sickness and mortality rates of Covid-19 to income inequality, and to the deterioration of the American Dream:
The global pandemic has laid bare the economic fragility of millions of American families. In the last few decades, the American middle class has been hollowed out. For millions of Americans living paycheck to paycheck, the American Dream—the ideal that in this country anything is possible, and everyone can achieve the security of a good life—is nearly unattainable. For decades, anyone taking a clear-eyed look into the economic well-being of our middle class would have seen the warning signs. But this public health crisis has uncovered an even deeper, more fundamental crisis for all to see. The United States is simply no longer the country of opportunity that we once were. ( Boston Globe , May 22, 2020)
In the midst of the pandemic, the nation also has been racked and torn apart by the death of George Floyd, an African-American killed by white police-officer Derek Chauvin (three of his fellow officers assisted in the arrest) in Minneapolis, Minnesota, on May 25th. Demonstrations and protests have taken place throughout the United States and abroad, with angry voices demanding action to bring an end to police brutality, systemic racism, poverty, income inequality, and the lack of equity in education and health care.
Many have spoken with extreme bitterness and indignation. Kari Winter, an American Studies scholar and Minneapolis-native, contends—and others have reiterated this indictment:
When Derek Chauvin pressed his knee on George Floyd’s neck, he committed a brutal, horrific murder. He had three immediate collaborators, but they are not alone in their guilt. Their behavior is enabled by the systemic rot of racism. Four hundred years of white supremacy have put the American dream of democracy on life support…. When black lives don’t matter, none of our lives matter. When black rights don’t matter, the American Constitution does not matter. Freedom of the press? Arrested. Cruel and unusual punishment? Celebrated. Right to be secure in your person and house against unreasonable search, seizure or murder? Smashed to smithereens. (University of Buffalo News Center, June 1, 2020; see also Robin Wright, “Fury at America and Its Values Spreads Globally,” The New Yorker , June 1, 2020)
In The Great Gatsby , with brilliant perception and understanding, Fitzgerald examines and exposes the limitations of the American Dream. It might crack and come apart in the years ahead in ways that would shock but not surprise him.
Senior Editor of Society , is Mary Jewett Gaiser Professor of English at Wellesley College in Wellesley, MA. His publications include (as coeditor) The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism (3rd ed., 2018).
Springer Nature remains neutral with regard to jurisdictional claims in published maps and institutional affiliations.
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The Great Gatsby and the American dream
I n the New York Times earlier this year, Paul Krugman wrote of an economic effect called " The Great Gatsby curve ," a graph that measures fiscal inequality against social mobility and shows that America's marked economic inequality means it has correlatively low social mobility. In one sense this hardly seems newsworthy, but it is telling that even economists think that F Scott Fitzgerald's masterpiece offers the most resonant (and economical) shorthand for the problems of social mobility, economic inequality and class antagonism that we face today. Nietzsche – whose Genealogy of Morals Fitzgerald greatly admired – called the transformation of class resentment into a moral system "ressentiment"; in America, it is increasingly called the failure of the American dream, a failure now mapped by the " Gatsby curve".
Fitzgerald had much to say about the failure of this dream, and the fraudulences that sustain it – but his insights are not all contained within the economical pages of his greatest novel. Indeed, when Fitzgerald published The Great Gatsby in April 1925, the phrase "American dream" as we know it did not exist. Many now assume the phrase stretches back to the nation's founding, but "the American dream" was never used to describe a shared national value system until a popular 1917 novel called Susan Lenox: Her Fall and Rise , which remarked that "the fashion and home magazines … have prepared thousands of Americans … for the possible rise of fortune that is the universal American dream and hope." The OED lists this as the first recorded instance of the American dream, although it's not yet the catchphrase as we know it. That meaning is clearly emerging – but only as "possible" rise of fortune; a dream, not a promise. And as of 1917, at least some Americans were evidently beginning to recognise that consumerism and mass marketing were teaching them what to want, and that rises of fortune would be measured by the acquisition of status symbols. The phrase next appeared in print in a 1923 Vanity Fair article by Walter Lippmann , "Education and the White-Collar Class" (which Fitzgerald probably read); it warned that widening access to education was creating untenable economic pressure, as young people graduated with degrees only to find that insufficient white-collar jobs awaited. Instead of limiting access to education in order to keep such jobs the exclusive domain of the upper classes (a practice America had recently begun to justify by means of a controversial new idea called "intelligence tests"), Lippmann argued that Americans must decide that skilled labour was a proper vocation for educated people. There simply weren't enough white-collar jobs to go around, but "if education could be regarded not as a step ladder to a few special vocations, but as the key to the treasure house of life, we should not even have to consider the fatal proposal that higher education be confined to a small and selected class," a decision that would mark the "failure of the American dream" of universal education.
These two incipient instances of the phrase are both, in their different ways, uncannily prophetic; but as a catchphrase, the American dream did not explode into popular culture until the 1931 publication of a book called The Epic of America by James Truslow Adams, which spoke of "the American dream of a better, richer and happier life for all our citizens of every rank, which is the greatest contribution we have made to the thought and welfare of the world. That dream or hope has been present from the start. Ever since we became an independent nation, each generation has seen an uprising of ordinary Americans to save that dream from the forces that appear to be overwhelming it."
In the early years of the great depression Adams's book sparked a great national debate about the promise of America as a place that fosters "the genuine worth of each man or woman", whose efforts should be restricted by "no barriers beyond their own natures". Two years later, a New York Times article noted: "Get-rich-quick and gambling was the bane of our life before the smash"; they were also what caused the "smash" itself in 1929. By 1933, Adams was writing in the New York Times of the way the American dream had been hijacked: "Throughout our history, the pure gold of this vision has been heavily alloyed with the dross of materialistic aims. Not only did the wage scales and our standard of living seem to promise riches to the poor immigrant, but the extent and natural wealth of the continent awaiting exploitation offered to Americans of the older stocks such opportunities for rapid fortunes that the making of money and the enjoying of what money could buy too often became our ideal of a full and satisfying life. The struggle of each against all for the dazzling prizes destroyed in some measure both our private ideals and our sense of social obligation." As the Depression deepened, books such as Who Owns America? A New Declaration of Independence were arguing that "monopoly capitalism is morally ugly as well as economically unsound," that in America "the large majority should be able – in accordance with the tenets of the 'American dream' … to count on living in an atmosphere of equality, in a world which puts relatively few barriers between man and man." Part of the problem, however, was that the dream itself was being destroyed by "the friends of big business, who dishonour the dream by saying that it has been realised" already.
The phrase the American dream was first invented, in other words, to describe a failure, not a promise: or rather, a broken promise, a dream that was continually faltering beneath the rampant monopoly capitalism that set each struggling against all; and it is no coincidence that it was first popularised during the early years of the great depression. The impending failure had been clear to Fitzgerald by the time he finished Gatsby – and the fact that in 1925 most Americans were still recklessly chasing the dream had a great deal to do with the initial commercial and critical failure of The Great Gatsby , which would not be hailed as a masterpiece until the 50s, once hindsight had revealed its prophetic truth.
On 19 October 1929, just five days before the first stock market crash and 10 days before Black Tuesday, Scott Fitzgerald published a now-forgotten story called "The Swimmers," about an American working for the ironically named Promissory Trust Bank, and his realisation that American ideals have been corrupted by money. This corruption is emblematised by sexual infidelity: as in Gatsby , Fitzgerald again used adultery to suggest a larger world of broken promises and betrayals of faith. There's a remarkable moment early in "The Swimmers" – which Fitzgerald called "the hardest story I ever wrote, too big for its space" – when an unfaithful wife, who is French, complains about the American women she sees on the Riviera:
"How would you place them?" she exclaimed. "Great ladies, bourgeoises, adventuresses - they are all the same. Look! …"
Suddenly she pointed to an American girl going into the water:
"That young lady may be a stenographer and yet be compelled to warp herself, dressing and acting as if she had all the money in the world."
"Perhaps she will have, some day."
"That's the story they are told; it happens to one, not to the ninety-nine. That's why all their faces over thirty are discontented and unhappy."
The American dream comes true for just 1%: for the other 99%, only discontent and bitterness await, ressentiment on a mass scale. More than 15 years later, the Marxist critics Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer used a similar image of the typist who believed she would be a movie star to reveal the American dream as a rigged lottery that no one wins but everyone plays. Today, almost 100 years after "The Swimmers" appeared, the Occupy movement has clenched its fist around the same angry realisation that we are all the 99%, not the 1%. More remarkable than the fact that Fitzgerald beat Adorno and Horkheimer and the Occupy movement to the punch, however, is that he saw all this before Wall Street came smashing down.
The villain of "The Swimmers" is a rich, vulgar banker who preaches an updated version of the gilded age's "gospel of wealth": "Money is power … Money made this country, built its great and glorious cities, created its industries, covered it with an iron network of railroads." The banker is wrong, the story makes clear, but his vision of America is winning. Feeling increasingly alienated, the protagonist, Marston, finds himself musing on the meanings of America, and especially its eagerness to forget history: "Americans, he liked to say, should be born with fins, and perhaps they were – perhaps money was a form of fin. In England property begot a strong place sense, but Americans, restless and with shallow roots, needed fins and wings. There was even a recurrent idea in America about an education that would leave out history and the past, that should be a sort of equipment for aerial adventure, weighed down by none of the stowaways of inheritance or tradition." The buoyancy of modern America depended on its being unanchored by history or tradition, and this is the America we have inherited. Historical amnesia is certainly liberating – so liberating that America is once again diving into free fall, unmoored by any critical or intellectual insight into its own myths, or even into the histories of the debates that we think define our moment.
Marston eventually decides that there is no place for him in the crass society symbolised by his rival, but he will not relinquish his faith in the ideals that America can represent. As Marston sails for Europe, watching America recede into his past, Fitzgerald offers a closing meditation nearly as incantatory as the famous conclusion of Gatsby: "Watching the fading city, the fading shore, from the deck of the Majestic, he had a sense of overwhelming gratitude and of gladness that America was there, that under the ugly débris of industry the rich land still pushed up, incorrigibly lavish and fertile, and that in the heart of the leaderless people the old generosities and devotions fought on, breaking out sometimes in fanaticism and excess, but indomitable and undefeated. There was a lost generation in the saddle at the moment, but it seemed to him that the men coming on, the men of the war, were better; and all his old feeling that America was a bizarre accident, a sort of historical sport, had gone forever. The best of America was the best of the world … France was a land, England was a people, but America, having about it still that quality of the idea, was harder to utter – it was the graves at Shiloh and the tired, drawn, nervous faces of its great men, and the country boys dying in the Argonne for a phrase that was empty before their bodies withered. It was a willingness of the heart."
Wall Street crashed 10 days later.
Two years after The Great Gatsby appeared, a reporter was sent to interview the famous author. Meeting "the voice and embodiment of the jazz age, its product and its beneficiary, a popular novelist, a movie scenarist, a dweller in the gilded palaces", the reporter found instead, to his distinct hilarity, that Fitzgerald was "forecasting doom, death and damnation to his generation". "He sounded", said the reporter, like "an intellectual Sampson" predicting that the Plaza Hotel's marble columns would crumble. Fitzgerald's absurd prophecy was that America would face a great "national testing" in the very near future:
"The idea that we're the greatest people in the world because we have the most money in the world is ridiculous. Wait until this wave of prosperity is over! Wait ten or fifteen years! Wait until the next war on the Pacific, or against some European combination! … The next fifteen years will show how much resistance there is in the American race."
"There has never been an American tragedy," Fitzgerald ended. "There have only been great failures."
It was 1927. The reporter was vastly amused.
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