The Great Gatsby | The American Dream
This essay looks at Fitzgerald's critique of Jay Gatsby’s particular vision of the 1920s American Dream; what Fitzgerald seems to be criticizing is not the American Dream itself but the corruption of the American Dream.
The ideal of the American Dream is based on the fantasy that an individual can achieve success regardless of family history, race, or religion simply by working hard enough. Frequently, “success” is equated with the fortune that the independent, self-reliant individual can win. In The Great Gatsby, Fitzgerald examines and critiques Jay Gatsby’s particular vision of the 1920s American Dream. Though Fitzgerald himself is associated with the excesses of the “Roaring Twenties,” he is also an astute social critic whose novel does more to detail society’s failure to fulfill its potential than it does to glamorize the “Jazz Age.”
As a self-proclaimed “tale of the West,” the novel explores questions about America and the varieties of the American Dream. In this respect, The Great Gatsby is perhaps that legendary opus, the “Great American Novel”—following in the footsteps of Herman Melville’s Moby Dick and Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn. As a novel that has much to say about faith, belief, and illusion, it merits being considered alongside works like T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land, which explores the “hollowness” lying below the surface of modern life. It is possible to regard Gatsby as an archetypal tragic figure, the epitome of idealism and innocence who strives for order, purpose and meaning in a chaotic world. Fitzgerald introduces the theme of underlying chaos early in the novel when the violent Tom Buchanan declares, “‘Civilization’s going to pieces’” (12; ch. 1).
Although Fitzgerald is sketchy about the details of Gatsby’s meteoric rise, the reader does know that he was a poor boy from the midwest without inherited wealth or family connections who succeeded in obtaining an elaborate house in West Egg from where he stages lavish, catered parties for people he doesn’t know. With wealth comes the opportunity to reinvent his identity, inspired primarily by a “single green light, minute and far away” (21; ch. 1): this is the house of Daisy Fay Buchanan, the very wealthy, former Louisville belle whom Gatsby had loved before the war but who marries the immensely wealthy Tom Buchanan of Chicago.
All that matters for Gatsby is the future: achieving his goal of reclaiming Daisy. That is part of the power of the American Dream—the irrelevance of the past. A fabricated history is just as useful as a truthful history. So Gatsby constructs grandiose lies that he doesn’t even bother to cloak in a shred of reality. For instance, when he decides to convince Nick Carraway, the novel’s narrator, that he isn’t a “nobody,” Gatsby casually mentions that he’s the “‘son of some wealthy people in the Middle West … but educated at Oxford, because all my ancestors have been educated there for many years’” (65; ch. 4).