The American Dream: An Example from The Great Gatsby

The American Dream is a deceivingly complex concept. For some people it is a simple as a white picket fence, two kids and a dog, and financial stability. For others, it is a long arduous journey for acceptance, by self and others. It is a journey for the attainment of power and the ability to make change. It is a journey fueled by racial or financial circumstances. It is any mean to an end to attain the ultimate goal of happiness and a state of being content with one’s life. The diversity of thought surrounding the American Dream is what makes it so complicated. There is no one dream that satisfies the needs and wants of all people, which consequently makes the American Dream unattainable.

Also adding to the unreachable quality of the American Dream is the pessimistic matter of fact that no one ever quite gets everything that they want. But logically, not being able to secure every desire one has is what fuels the glorification and necessity of the American Dream. The Great Gatsby, a novel often analyzed for its conveyance of the American Dream, uses the American Dream as a materialistic ideal, a marker of social status.

By living an extremely lavish, materialistic, supposedly carefree lifestyle, the main character Jay Gatsby puts on a front that he has obtained everything he could ever want, an essential piece to the American Dream. Jay Gatsby’s dream starts out as the purest embodiment of the American Dream, with the idea that hard work and dedication will lead him to the greatest happiness. It is through the people that he meets and the experiences he faces that his dream becomes warped into an obsessive, materialistic sham. This materialistic sham consumes the genuine aspirations he has for his life almost as soon as he establishes them.

If there were ever any decency to the American Dream it would be the seventeen-year-old James Gatz, a son to farmer immigrants of the Midwest. He strived to better himself with education and rise to a higher social class than the one he was born into. James Gatz set himself a daily schedule for betterment, containing sectioned off parts of the day to study academics and practice elocution and poise. He also made a point to remind himself to keep up his personal appearance, stimulate himself intellectually outside of his normal academic work, and save money. This was the genuine side of James Gatz that existed until his acquaintance with Dan Cody corrupted him.

In the eyes of James Gatz, this was a turning point in his life for the better because it was his first opportunity to advance himself culturally. This meeting is more significant because it was one of the first moments where Gatz lost sight of his dream based on hard work and denied his familial background, important parts to the American Dream. The first major moment would be Gatz’s decision to leave St. Olaf because of his opposition to having to work his way through his education. Upon introducing himself to Dan Cody, James Gatz changes his name to Jay Gatsby, distancing himself from his German-Slavic origins. From there materialism began to engulf their mentor-mentee relationship with Dan Cody’s yacht representing “all the beauty and glamour in the world” to Gatsby, and Cody outfitting Gatsby’s wardrobe to fit Cody’s lifestyle just days after meeting (Fitzgerald 100).

Readers are reminded of Gatsby’s sincere and humble beginnings when his father, Mr. Gatz, is introduced in the final pages of the novel. Gatsby’s father is extremely proud that his son accomplished his dream, the American Dream. Nick’s description of the “cracked in the corners and dirty with many hands” photo of Gatsby’s mansion is representative of Mr. Gatz’s pride (Fitzgerald 172). The mood at this point in the story does not revolve around grief, however, which, reasonably, a parent that is burying their child should express. The focus is instead on Mr. Gatz’s awe with his son’s materialistic possessions. This only echoes the loss of Gatsby’s dream throughout the course of his brief, unfulfilled lifetime.

Following his time with Dan Cody and because of his time in the military, Gatsby had a chance meeting with Daisy. Gatsby becomes infatuated soon after meeting her and she becomes the object of his affection “and to this conception he was faithful to the end” (Fitzgerald 98). Love becomes the new and sole aspect of his dream. It is fair to say that love requires hard work, but this would be from both parties, it should not be a one-sided matter as it is in The Great Gatsby. The dream loses focus when Gatsby has to corrupt his morals in order to gain Daisy’s attention for even a moment. Throughout the novel, it is alluded to that Gatsby takes part in a number of illegal and corrupt business deals. It is never explicitly acknowledged, but given the secrecy of his phone calls and the lack of accountability from his superiors after his murder, he likely was a part of some illegal deals.

From the time when Gatsby and Daisy are reacquainted following the war, the entire novel focuses on Gatsby’s attempts to regain her affection. Most of these attempts could be seen as authentic acts of love, however, it is hard to see them in this light because talk of materialistic things surrounds every act, even Daisy is spoken of as a material thing from time to time, “it increased her value in his eyes” (Fitzgerald 149). Daisy is again equated to a material thing rather than a person when Nick and Gatsby speak of the sound of her voice; “Her voice is full of money,’ he said suddenly. That was it. I’d never understood it before. It was full of money” (Fitzgerald 120). Through the money he has earned working under Wolfsheim, Gatsby purchases a mansion within the proximity of Daisy’s and throws lavish parties to catch her attention.

Following the murder of Myrtle, Gatsby reveals to Nick his first meeting with Daisy, but more so than his actual interaction with Daisy, he focuses on the house she lives in, “he had never been in such a beautiful house… a hint of bedrooms upstairs more beautiful and cool than other bedrooms… redolent of this year’s shining motor-cars and of dances whose flowers were scarcely withered” (Fitzgerald 148-149). With this skewed focus, it could be proposed that Gatsby is more taken by the world that Daisy represents than who she actually is as a person. One of Gatsby’s most telling moments as a materialistic-obsessive person is on the day Nick invites Daisy and Gatsby over for tea at his house.

Gatsby sees to it that Nick’s house and yard are in the most pristine condition; as if anything less would inhibit his chances with getting Daisy to reciprocate his love. This love that Gatsby revolves his whole life around is anything but honest. He incessantly puts Daisy on a pedestal above himself, “he knew that he was in Daisy’s house by a colossal accident… he took Daisy one still October night, took her because he had no real right to touch her hand” (Fitzgerald 149). Any love, and in this case Gatsby’s dream, that is based on these circumstances is destined to fail because it was never actually there to begin with.

In the final pages of the novel, it becomes apparent to Gatsby that he failed to grasp his dream and that somewhere along the way to it he got thrown off track. It takes longer for Nick Carraway to make the same realization. Gatsby takes it upon himself to analyze and reanalyze the afternoon at the plaza. He no longer has a confident air when speaking about his and Daisy’s love, he delegitimizes Daisy’s feelings now that they do not appear to align with his own, and he now feels the need to justify every belief he has to Nick, “I don’t think she ever loved him… You must remember, old sport, she was very excited this afternoon. He told her those things in a way that frightened her… And the result was she hardly knew what she was saying” (Fitzgerald 152). And while it takes Nick until the death of Gatsby to recognize the shallowness and immorality of Gatsby’s desires, Fitzgerald hints that Gatsby might have already realized on the morning of his final day that everything he had hoped for was behind him, “I suppose Daisy’ll call too.’ He looked at me anxiously, as if he hoped I’d corroborate this” (154).

In chapter eight of The Great Gatsby, Nick offers a contrasting description of Gatsby’s mansion to the hope and beauty Gatsby saw in his home and what it could do for his dream and to what the party goers viewed it as; for the first time it is viewed with discontent, “There was an inexplicable amount of dust everywhere, and the rooms were musty, as though they hadn’t been aired for many days” (Fitzgerald 148). Nick Carraway finds himself in a haze of anger, confusion, and sadness. As he attempts to plan a funeral service and a gathering to celebrate the life of Jay Gatsby, he is awoken to the harsh reality that all those who interacted with Gatsby and took part of his journey on the way to accomplishing his dream only cared for the material bounty Gatsby had to offer them, not the person and the aspirations. Before Nick heads back to the West, he gives his final, most candid and harsh judgment on the life of Gatsby, only furthering the idea that materialism had consumed the his American Dream, “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” (Fitzgerald 180).

While the American Dream is often thrust upon Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby as a celebration of hard work with elaborate parties and freedom, when examining the novel closely, it is hard to ignore the materialistic connotations placed on the dream. On a base level, it appears that Gatsby only fails to capture his dream following the climax of the plot, when Daisy ultimately chooses Tom over Gatsby, however, his dream was far out of reach from the beginning of its existence and only continued to move further away as his life progresses. This negates the claim by one critic who said Fitzgerald successfully convinced readers that Gatsby could equally fail and succeed. In order for this to be a remotely accurate statement, the reader would need to have full faith in the idea of the American Dream with no skepticism of its shortcomings. This necessity of no skepticism would be rare amongst the people actually in the process of elevating themselves in the American society.