The American Dream in The Great Gatsby: Fallacy or Not?
The American Dream is a concept that has existed since the unification of the states and can be found in some of the nation’s early readings. Just like today, different influential figures of the past defined the motif diversely, perhaps based on their context. For instance, for the Puritans, the American dream was perceived as in tandem to the pursuit of righteousness, for Thomas Jefferson, it was the fulfillment of his political ideologies, and for Benjamin Franklin, it symbolized the “self-made man” (Pearson 638). However, in a general sense, the doctrine holds that every individual, through his or her efforts, can achieve whatever goals they set for themselves, including political, social, and financial aims (Pearson 638). However, the post-World War 1 era characterized by economic prosperity brought with it changes to this American myth, and it started to be more and more materialistic. While this notion has been credited with building American society, it has also received scrutiny from various literary sources which have analyzed its inflated expectations.
Notably, in the F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, the American Dream appears as a fallacy funded by notions of greatness in the protagonist, Jay Gatsby. The American dream is symbolic of different things to various people. In my case, I always thought of the notion as being granted the equal opportunity to make a living, to live a better fuller life without being discriminated by anyone. However, after the three readings (The Great Gatsby, The Crucible, and Citizen), I found that my definition of it could be just as flawed as it is today. First, through characters like Jay Gatsby, I saw how the notion of equality and living well changed as he transformed from an innocent youngster to a criminal intent on making millions to win back a woman he loved. I also saw how unequal reality is. In The Great Gatsby, characters like Tom Buchanan are well respected, and their wild lives go unquestioned because they were born into wealth. However, for Gatsby, because his sources of wealth remain unknown and he is not recognized as being among the prestigious families in the city, some suspect him of acquiring his wealth through illegal means. Although this is not to say that Gatsby was moral in the story, given the lack of context and knowledge regarding his criminal activities, no one had the right to question his wealth. Similarly, in Citizen and The Crucible, the story is rife with how inequality forces the disenfranchised to live poor and miserable lives, often persecuted ones due to the low social standing in society. Overall, the readings have changed how I see the concept of the American dream. Although it is alive and well, perhaps it is not attainable for everyone as implied. While this popularized notion once stood for an identity characterized by hard work to achieve success, The Great Gatsby pessimistically portrays it as corrupted; in the author’s view the American dream was more about moving to New York to seek fame and fortunes to get rich more than it was about achieving one’s aims.
In The Great Gatsby, the audience first meets Jay Gatsby through Nick Caraways’ (the narrator) eyes, and at this juncture, the author begins to peel away the American dream as is known. When the readers first see Gatsby through Nick’s perspective, they see him as a man who represents hope. According to Nick, Gatsby had “one of those rare smiles with a quality of eternal reassurance in it, that you may come across four or five times in life. It faced, or seemed to face, the whole external world for an instant, and then concentrated on you with an irresistible prejudice in your favor. It understood you” (Fitzgerald 53). Here, despite being neighbors, Nick has only just met Gatsby at one of his legendary parties. Nick had previously seen Gatsby on his lawn and had heard rumors about the man but the two never actually met until the said party. He walks around the party in an attempt to introduce himself to his neighbor but ends up spending most of the night with a new acquaintance, Jordan Baker. While communing with Gatsby’s guests, Nick hears numerous rumors regarding his wealth. Eventually, they meet and end up having an awkward moment as Nick confuses his host and refers to him as a “chauffer” who had been sent to deliver the invitation (Fitzgerald 52). Here is where the author starts to show the American Dream as a fallacy. Without knowing Gatsby is the host of the party, Nick notes some subtle variations in his character and according to him, although Gatsby exhibits reassurance through his smile, his “elaborate formality of speech” proves that he may not be as honest as he appears. He also notices that his host did not participate in the festivities and mostly watched his guests. It is important to note here that up to this moment in the book, Fitzgerald delays the introduction of Gatsby to the readers and he wants Gatsby to appear in the lavish world he lives in. As the chapter proceeds, the main character is shrouded in mystery, and one starts to doubt whether Gatsby is living an American dream funded by his hard work. The low profile observed by Nick seems curiously out of place with the outlandish spending typical of Gatsby’s life. Among the things Nick finds off is the fact that despite the constant parties, Gatsby seems not to know his guests well. Also, Gatsby came off as one trying to change his accent to something it was not, had a habit of calling people “old sport” that seemed off, and the books in his library were fake. According to Nick’s assessment, the rich often used their opulence as a means of hiding their vices, but Gatsby seemed to be hiding something entirely different. The perception at the beginning of the chapter is that Gatsby is living the American dream, but the reality as the episode ends seems different. The author succeeds in starting to peel off the layers surrounding Gatsby and at the same time begins the process of proving that the American dream could be just but a fallacy.
As the book continues, Gatsby is unraveled through Nick’s eyes, and he becomes a symbol for both the corrupted and original uncorrupted version of the American dream. Although Gatsby is a famous man, no one knows where he came from and where his wealth emanated from. Later, the readers learn that the protagonist was actually born as James Gatz on a farm in North Dakota, but he ran away from home to seek richness in New York. As Gatz, the author shows a pure young man looking to live the American dream, but as Gatsby, we see a man so corrupted by his greed that he becomes shallow and disconnected from the past. In reality, the character of Jay Gatsby was only a “platonic conception of himself” that he had invented as a seventeen-year-old and had chosen to remain committed to his new persona consistently (Fitzgerald 105). According to the author, “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” (Fitzgerald 105). Here, Nick is describing Gatsby as Gaz in chapter six of the book and uses a comparison of him and Jesus to show how Gatsby reinvented himself. The suggestive comparison here shows how the book’s protagonist decides to change his persona as a youngster and stays dedicated to the ideal despite the many challenges he faces later. Seeing money as a solution to everything, Gatsby pursues it via shady schemes and criminal activity. However, it would be inappropriate to define Gatsby’s change without involving his love for Daisy. He met her as a young man, and they agreed to marry, but Daisy marries Tom Buchanan, her social equal whom her parents approve of. To get Daisy back, Gatsby reinvents himself and becomes a man obsessed with money and power. He is determined to achieve social status to get his love back. An incorruptible love for Daisy powers Gatsby’s reinvention, and therefore, his acts may be seen as not discounting the American but as cutting it off by permitting dishonesty and covetousness to supersede hard work, real-love, and integrity.
Further, in the book, some characters get to live the American dream while others can only “dream’ it. On the one hand, Tom Buchanan represents those who need not struggle to live the American dream. He was born into money, and he and his family occupy an extravagant home, a “Georgian Colonial Mansion” that overlooks the bay. Moreover, he has servants who attend to the responsibilities he holds, according him time to enjoy leisurely activities such as Polo which was costly but he could afford it as he owned ponies and had the time to practice. On the other end of the spectrum in the novel’s protagonist, Jay Gatsby. Although he lives in a huge mansion, owns a Rolls Royce, and throws lavish parties, people doubt his richness as those who have known a privileged lifestyle rarely accepted the self-made millionaires like Gatsby. Because he was not born wealthy, he never attains respect similar to that granted to the likes of Buchanan. Those surrounding him even had suspicions that he earned his funds illegally. The same phenomena unfolds in books like The Crucible by Arthur Miller and Citizen by Claudia Rankine. In The Crucible, the wealthy live lavish lives and as per the story, are not persecuted for participating in witchcraft like the town’s less fortunate. Arthur Miller’s narrative effectively represents his viewpoint of a flawed concept (the American dream), and through the Salem persecutions shows that the notion of equality is also applicable to the notion of the American dream. In Citizen, Rankine employs Poetry as a literary tool to show how some members of society are rendered as “non-citizens.” These segregated members of society can only “dream” of the American dream as living it is derailed by those who oppress them. In essence, it is clear that all three writers view this concept as a flawed one. Perhaps one that held value at its inception, but that was transformed into something ugly by society. Ultimately, characters from all the narratives shows us that although the dream is famous, some live it but others probably never will.
To conclude, it is only fair to say that so far there fails to exist a conclusive and universal depiction of what precisely the ‘American Dream’ is. As shown in the various reads, all perceptions of the different authors ascertain that the motif is a flawed purposed way of living. From my viewpoint, this dream should be allowed a definition by every individual. While it is hard to evade the notion of materialistic fulfillment, not all people hold the misconception that money and power equal the American Dream. I believe that a sense of equality and lack of discrimination in society offers one the platform to achieve their own means and live what would deem to be the American Dream. The Great Gatsby’s depicts two sides of the coin, as one from Gatsby’s point of view and the other from Tom Buchanan’s esteemed lifestyle, and fallacy or not, the book clearly suggests that one’s truth does not necessarily have to be the ultimate truth.
Fitzgerald, F.Scott. The Great Gatsby. Penguin Books, 1950.
Miller, Arthur. The Crucible. Oxford University Press, 2019.
Rankine, Claudia. Citizen: An American Lyric. Gray Wolf Press, 2014.
Pearson, Roger L. “Gatsby: False Prophet of the American Dream.” The English Journal, vol. 59, no. 5, 1970, p. 638. doi:10.2307/813939.