‘An alluring but ultimately hollow enterprise.’ How far do you agree with this assertion about the novel’s presentation of the American Dream?
I largely agree with this assertion about the novel’s presentation of the American Dream. The American Dream was elevated in 1920s America because of the possibility to be wealthy despite not inheriting this wealth from one’s family. As such, through the novel, Fitzgerald repeatedly presents the American Dream as a goal that people in 1920s America who had humble beginnings avidly strived to attain. Despite the ideal of the American Dream seeming to captivate and attract people to strive for it, meaning to life seems to be lost in ‘achieving’ this dream. Even though characters like Gatsby and Myrtle appear to have achieved the American Dream, these efforts to attain the American Dream are ultimately seen to be futile and thus the American Dream appears to be a mere hopeless endeavour. Furthermore, the ‘achievement’ of the American Dream is shown to be a pyrrhic victory as one sacrifices their moral values and potential in this pursuit.
Through the novel, it is clearly expressed that the American Dream is a futile endeavour through the character, Gatsby. Daisy is the embodiment of the American Dream for Gatsby and he centres his life around the goal of ultimately being with her. The symbol of the green light is repeatedly used to represent this goal of reaching her. In the beginning, when Nick sees Gatsby, Gatsby had ‘stretched out his arms toward the dark water in a curious way’ towards ‘a single green light’. The action of Gatsby reaching for the reflection of the green light from Daisy’s dork signified his yearning to be with her once again. However the description of the water as ‘dark’ forebodes a bleak outcome for Gatsby’s pursuit. When Gatsby is finally able to meet her, Nick said ‘Possibly it had occurred to [Gatsby] that the colossal significance of that light had now vanished forever’ which illiterates the idea that the green light is what signifies his goal of reuniting with Daisy and thus upon doing so, the light which was tremendously significant to him had now lost its meaning as she was now very close to him, ‘as close as a star to the moon’. The use of cosmic imagery elevates their love and relationship as if Gatsby had imagined this meeting to be almost magical. This sense of Gatsby’s captivation by whole idea of meeting Daisy which he long awaited can be seen when the objects are described as ‘enchanted’ which elevates the setting, giving us insight to Gatsby’s delirious state from finally reaching his long-planned for goal of meeting Daisy whom he has deemed as his dream.
However, despite thinking that he has achieved his dream, Daisy, whom he had placed his hopes in was an unstable character and in contrary to his view of her, was not innocent or pure and thus he was betrayed by her and this led to his tragic end. In the novel, Daisy is associated with the colour white like when Nick first meets her in the novel, she is in a white dress. The colour white represents purity and innocence but ironically she does not possess these traits. Nick describes the charm that Daisy had saying ‘a stirring warmth flowed from her’ when she spoke, ‘warmth’ connotes comfort and suggests a sense of sincerity from her which was not consistent with her actual character. Furthermore, Nick describes Daisy’s voice as a ‘deathless song’ which is an allusion to the sirens who sang melodiously and attracted sailors to the coasts, causing shipwrecks. This allusion foreshadows Gatsby’s demise and the tragic end to his pursuit of her. During the confrontation between Gatsby, Daisy and Tom, Daisy began ‘drawing further and further into herself’ even though Gatsby was talking excitedly to her as she heard accusations against him by Tom. It was as though she could not accept the tainted wealth that Gatsby owned and she ultimately chose Tom as she found security in him. Thus, by putting all his hopes in Daisy, he had sealed his tragic outcome. It was said that ‘the dead dream fought on as the afternoon slipped away’ by referring to Gatsby’s dream as dead, it showed that his dream to be together with Daisy was no longer in his grasp thus showing that all his means to achieve his American Dream were futile as he ultimately does not end up with Daisy.
This idea of the futility of the efforts to attain the American Dream making it a hollow enterprise is also seen through Myrtle. Myrtle tries to live out the life of a rich person through Tom to fulfil her ambitions of attaining the American Dream. However, it is clear that she is does not in fact achieve the American Dream as she not only does not possess this wealth, she also cannot be truly happy living her life as Tom’s mistress with no real status. Tom is also seen to mistreat her and does not show her respect. Her dissatisfaction in her status as a mere mistress of Tom can be seen when she indignantly exclaims ‘Daisy! Daisy! Daisy!’ and ‘I’ll say it whenever I want to!’ when Tom was against her mentioning Daisy’s name. This showed her discontentment of being placed second to Daisy in Tom’s heart. Following her disobedience to his warning, Tom made ‘a short deft movement’ and ‘broke her noise with his open hand’. By striking her, Tom showed his lack of genuine concern for her well-being and displayed his view of her as merely someone whom he has bought over by his money. Moreover, at the pet shop, when Tom tells Myrtle ‘Here’s your money. Go and buy ten more dogs with it’ he seems to bring out the idea that their relationship is more alike to a transaction where Tom is buying Myrtle over with his wealth as she can satisfy her material wants with his money. Therefore, it is clear that Myrtle is not granted a status of respect even though she is can enjoy wealth through Tom and that she ultimately does not achieve the American Dream which encompasses living comfortably and happily in riches.
The American Dream is also seen as a pyrrhic victory in the novel as characters strive to achieve this dream at the expense of moral decadence having to forsake other things. This is clearly seen through Daisy’s effect on Gatsby as she is seen to hamper his progress and capacity to achieve greater things in life. The idea that Gatsby had put his all into his dream of being with Daisy can be expressed when Nick says that Gatsby wanted to perhaps recover some idea of himself ‘that had gone into loving Daisy’ which showed the great impact Daisy had on Gatsby. Nick suggests that Gatsby’s life had been ‘confused’ and ‘disordered’ since loving Daisy and this brings out the instability and lack of certainty that Daisy provides Gatsby with. When describing Daisy’s effects on Gatsby, Nick also says figuratively that if Gatsby could climb to a ‘secret place above the trees’ if he ‘climbed alone’. The ‘secret place’ conveys a sense of mystery, endless possibilities and potential and by suggesting that Gatsby can reach this place, Nick alleviates Gatsby by making him seem special. The emphasis on Gatsby climbing ‘alone’ suggests that it is Daisy whom limits his capacity for wonder and his ability to achieve greater things. The idea of Gatsby being tied down is also seen Nick says that by kissing Daisy, Gatsby’s ‘unutterable visions’ were ‘forever wed’ to ‘her perishable breath’. By referring to Gatsby’s visions as ‘unutterable’ he once again alleviates Gatsby by suggesting that his majestic thinking cannot be put into words and Nick also brings out the idea that Daisy ties him down with her mortality and instability as seen from the description of her breath as ‘perishable’ which suggests the transience of her presence. Nick also continues to say ‘his mind would never romp again like the mind of God’ and this line does not only show that Daisy limits Gatsby’s capacity for wonder and his potential for attaining for in life but it also gives us insight to the 1920s liberal and secular America and the shift away from religious beliefs and moral values as Nick casually compares Gatsby to God here.
Also, the ‘achieving’ the American Dream is seen as a pyrrhic victory for Gatsby as Gatsby sacrifices his reputation and morality to reach his goals. Gatsby’s moral decay is seen in his dishonest ways in achieving his wealth. Gatsby is said to have obtained his wealth through ‘bootlegging’ which was the illegal distribution of alcohol therefore bringing out the idea that even though Gatsby managed to attain wealth, he did so immorally and thus cannot be seen as a role model and someone who has achieved the American Dream. Furthermore, Gatsby’s moral decay can also be seen as he puts up a façade of himself as someone who is born rich so as to garner respect and lies about his background. When Gatsby drives out for lunch with Nick, Nick inquires Gatsby as to where he is from and Gatsby answers ‘San Francisco’ which is where the old rich stay. Gatsby then goes on to fabricate the story of his origin saying ‘My family all died and I came into a good deal of money’ so as to suggest that he was born into nobility. Gatsby even goes on to describe his adventures which never actually took place, claiming that he ‘[collected] jewels, chiefly rubies, [hunted] big game’ and other things in which sounded incredulous to Nick who knew they were false claims. Lying about his background and means of attaining his wealth to gain himself a good reputation shows Gatsby’s lack of substance as his life of living the American Dream seems to be superficial and a mere façade. Furthermore, his choice of pursuing Daisy even after she is married to Tom also expresses the idea that the pursuit of his American Dream had blinded him and caused him to discard his moral values as he disregarded Daisy’s marriage to Tom by pursuing an adulterous relationship with her to satisfy his own ambitions.
The idea that the American Dream is a pyrrhic victory can also be seen through Myrtle who also strives to attain the American Dream and sacrifices her morality in the process. The decadence of Myrtle can be seen through her immoral and superficial choice of becoming Tom’s mistress in order to obtain material goods which her husband cannot provide for her and to attempt to live like a rich person through Tom’s wealth to gratify herself. When Nick meets Myrtle through Tom, he observed that ‘she let four taxicabs drive away before she selected a new one’ and this shows Myrtle attempting to exercise the power which the wealth the Tom supplies her with allows her to possess. However, this power is only a façade and is temporal as she is not actually respected in society as a mistress. Just after the cab takes off back to the apartment, Myrtle states that she wants to get a dog from a shop that catches her eye saying ‘I want to get one for the apartment’ and thus they do so. Here, Myrtle’s materialism can be seen from her requests for material things to satisfy her fantasies of being rich. The apartment can be seen as her escape from reality and her living out of the American Dream which is ultimately transient for her as she is only with Tom for short periods of time. Myrtle also says that when she realised Wilson, her husband was actually poor and had borrowed someone else’s best suit to get married, she ‘cried to beat the band all afternoon’, as she had realised that Wilson would not be able to provide her with a luxurious life as she had hoped he would and thus she was dismayed at this fact. Her superficiality was shown here and even more so when she decided to live out this life of luxury withheld from her through Tom. Therefore, it is clear that even though Myrtle is able to live like the rich through Tom, she does so immorally by being Tom’s mistress and is seen to be superficial and materialistic. As such, it is seen that her moral values are lost through the pursuit of the American Dream.
Wilson had also attempted to reach the American Dream and wanted to become rich in order to live a comfortable life with his wife, Myrtle. However, Wilson’s hopes which were placed in Myrtle were shattered when she died and Wilson ends up murdering Gatsby thinking that Gatsby had run over his wife. This shows his moral decay that has occurred in Wilson as he had placed so much hope in his endeavour that when he lost Myrtle, he had lost the purpose in his life and thus had committed the immoral act of killing Gatsby for revenge.
In conclusion, the American Dream is largely presented in the novel as ‘An alluring but ultimately hollow enterprise’ through characters like Gatsby and Myrtle who prove this to be true. The American Dream is also seen as a pyrrhic victory as the characters who strive for the American Dream are required to forsake their moral values and potential to achieve greater things in order to achieve the American Dream.