False Security and Blind Pursuits
The American Dream and its Negative Implications in The Great Gatsby
The Declaration of Independence (United States 1776) states that “all men are created
equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, [and] that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” This statement encapsulates the American Dream, a Platonic ideal in which the concept is more perfect than its implementation. Ironically, pursuing the dream leads to capitalism with its inherent socioeconomic disparities. In his novel The Great Gatsby (1925), Francis Scott Fitzgerald captures the disillusion related to the American Dream through post-World War I psychological uncertainty, spiritual malaise, and alienation. Like many other lost generation modernist writers, he is a cultural prophet of the early twentieth century who critiques the moment and provides new perspective, meaning, and hope through art. He capitalizes on Ezra Pound’s motto, “make it new,” by finding a unique voice. The narrator, Nick Carraway, explains his experience in Long Island, New York, focusing on the opulent Eggs and blue-collar Valley of Ashes. James Gatz, his neighbor, is an ambitious young man who surrounds himself with grand materialism, including throwing extravagant parties where others go to hide their spiritual malaise. The Eggs and Valley of Ashes reveal a grotesque reality where no one, not even James Gatz, achieves the American Dream.
Gatz believes ambition and will are the only prerequisites to achieving his designs for existential fulfillment. He does not let meager beginnings define him and toils for a world where nothing is unobtainable. At a young age, Gatz begins organizing his life and reinventing himself as the “son of god” (98). Gatz’s daily routines and “general resolves” (173) prevent distraction, engendering an unrelenting focus on his goals. Scruples are not an obstacle for Gatz to secure his future as he preys on Dan Cody, a depressed millionaire sailing aimlessly on his yacht. Gatz attempts to show Cody that he is Jay Gatsby, a man who “sprang from his Platonic conception of himself” (98). Gatz envisions Gatsby as his best self. He is unwilling to accept his past, including his previous name, as truth. After receiving no inheritance from Cody, Gatz assumes a life of crime to make his fortune. His ethics prompt Wolfsheim, a crook who “fixed the World’s Series… in 1919” (73), to start him in business. Gatz uses his new money to forge a facade of divinity for his guests. For example, when Nick sees Gatz’s smile for the first time, he is awed by Gatz but “[gets] a strong impression that” Gatz picks “his words with care” (48). Gatz wants to prove that he has completed himself, though Nick glimpses the illusion. Rumors eventually confirm Nick’s beliefs about him, bringing Gatz back into the mortal plane. Perceiving Nick’s incredulity, Gatz states, “I don’t want you to get the wrong idea of me” (65). He strives to protect his secrets, thinking they will ruin his chances at further success if leaked. Knowing his grandeur has not touched its peak, Gatz continues reaching for the American Dream.
Daisy Buchanan is Gatz’s “golden girl” (120), a person of blue blood, whom he needs to embody Gatsby. Gatz’s arrogance leads to openly expressing affection towards Daisy in front of Tom, her husband. On a scorching day, the novel’s protagonists head to “the parlor of a suite in the Plaza Hotel” (126). Awkward tension, produced from heat, sparks a dispute concerning Daisy where Gatz and Tom are “out in the open at last” (129) about their love for her. Tom triumphs when he exposes Gatz as a crook, saying to Daisy, “I think he realizes that his presumptuous little flirtation is over” (135). Gatz does not understand why Daisy leaves him, imagining affluence and a seemingly achieved American Dream will bring loyalty from a person whose voice is “full of money” (120). Daisy’s voice has an “inexhaustible charm” from her natural beauty that allows her to escape into the illusion of “a white palace” as “the king’s daughter.” She takes pleasure in using men’s money and being the object of their attention. Daisy has a brief period of “unexpected joy” (89) with Gatz, thinking he was more exploitable than Tom. The Buchanans share Gatz’s belief that money will buy them happiness. The three-hundred-and-fifty-thousand dollar string of pearls Tom purchases for Daisy the day before their wedding (75-76) demonstrates he is similar to Gatz in how he confesses love and garners fidelity. Daisy receives the pearls and uses them, coupled with drinking for the first time, to forget about inner emptiness. Daisy and Tom are “careless people” who “retreat back into their money” through entitlement and toxic manners (179). The couple cannot acknowledge their mistakes and selfishly expect someone else to “clean up the mess” they leave behind. Both Gatz and the Buchanans ultimately refuse to accept reality, creating a fantasy that dispels loneliness.
Failure to achieve the American Dream also breeds despair in the Valley of Ashes. Residents of the valley, a “desolate” (23), “solemn dumping ground” (24), yearn for the prosperity that is tangible in the surrounding areas. To find relief from their plight, the “ash-gray men” “who move dimly” (23) through the valley loot passersby, a sensual pursuit and weak attempt at hedonism. Gatz, once socially outcast like those in the Valley of Ashes, achieves class mobility only through lies and deceit. He must work for his position, unlike the Buchanans, who effortlessly remain at a higher status. The billboard of T.J. Eckleburg overlooks the valley, and although Eckleburg is an oculist, he “sank down himself into eternal blindness” (24). The statement’s irony illustrates the town’s inability to achieve the American Dream. The billboard is a testament to the Valley of Ashes as a prison that traps its inmates in wretchedness. Nick sees these hardships through Tom’s unjust treatment of George Wilson, a car salesman in the valley. Tom cuckolds Wilson by having a relationship with Myrtle, his wife. He further disrespects Wilson by tantalizing him with a car that Tom feels Wilson is undeserving of, revealing socioeconomic disparities and oppression of the working class. Equating Eckleburg’s eyes to those of god (160) confirms Wilson believes even god has stopped caring about his community. The Valley of Ashes is left behind in a capitalist society and succumbs to the stereotypes the Eggs impose.
The Valley of Ashes and the Eggs are juxtaposed to demonstrate that higher social status does not represent bliss, and both groups are lost. In the Eggs, people anesthetize themselves to their hopelessness; Gatz’s parties are one way to repress their emotions and escape. These social events imply a Garden of Eden, seeking to temporarily blur their perception of the harsh outer world. Most people come uninvited, but they are drawn like moths to the profligacy of Gatz’s mansion for an excuse to self-indulge. The parties bolster impressions of contentment by eradicating boredom. Attendees can quickly change the subject matter to something of greater interest and continuously switch groups to feel satisfied. This swiftness is why Jordan Baker, Nick’s girlfriend, appreciates the intimacy and anonymity of large social gatherings (49). She is able to take on any identity and let others please her instead of having to please them. Guests meticulously avoid treacherous gaps in their amusement, which would otherwise force the facing of their alienation. When Gatz’s parties end, there is a steep anticlimax where cars drive “sulkily away” (113). Gatz’s “career as Trimalchio [is] over,” and the Eggs’ population now has to find a new form of solace.
Throughout the novel, the green light at the end of the Buchanans’ dock represents the American Dream as unattainable. Gatz is the epitome of the light’s meaning: his “dream must have seemed so close that he could hardly fail to grasp it” (180). He imagines Daisy would still love him and buys his house after “just three years” (90) to get closer to her. In doing so, he inevitably encroaches on the green light. Gatz stretches “out his arm toward” (20) Gatsby for so long that the concept seems obtainable to him. The thought is from his younger self, yet Gatz continues to “beat on… ceaselessly into the past” (180). He is reckless in his ambitions because of “[believing] in the green light”--or the American Dream--and expecting an “orgastic future.” Gatz avoids the truth since it brings him too much pain. The time he spends with Daisy diminishes the light “again” to “a green light on a dock” (93). It no longer seems enchanted to him, foreshadowing his downfall. The color green symbolizes Gatz’s paper money and his desire for more. The Buchanans have an older, more substantial fortune that derives from silver and gold. In contrast to Gatz, the Buchanans are elites whose high stature is unaffected by others’ opinions. The green light gives Gatz hope, but he, like the rest of the novel’s characters, whether in the Eggs or Valley of Ashes, despairs in his inability to capture it.
As the Eggs and Valley of Ashes’ citizens realize they can never achieve all their ends in a place where capitalism creates a divide, one group becomes detrimental to the other. There are relentless battles that end in losses on both sides. For instance, Wilson commits suicide after killing Gatsby (162). Prejudices against the valley produce feelings that lead to attacks like Wilson’s. Daisy, who cannot take responsibility for her actions, such as the vehicular manslaughter of Myrtle, provokes Wilson to become “deranged by grief” (164) and homicidal. Gatz tells Nick that he will take the blame for Myrtle’s death (143) and sacrifices himself for Daisy. He catalyzes his demise when he loses sight of Gatsby due to the misguided pursuit of Daisy. In the end, Gatz finds “what a grotesque thing a rose is and how raw the sunlight was” (161). Gatz realizes his definition of beauty is impure. He finally understands a raw reality, where the American Dream stays a dream. Dying at that age of “scarcely created grass” (161), Gatz fails to finish his journey towards the green light. The past catches up to him, and only at the brink of death does he recognize his objectives are not divine, forcing him to forfeit the fantastical environment he created.
The foundation of Fitzgerald’s society, which chases the American Dream, is a tragically accepted falsehood. The Great Gatsby depicts a utopia defined by White upper-class males. Fitzgerald fails to give the Valley of Ashes, an oppressed group, a personalized version of happiness. Instead, he assumes their wants are the same as the Eggs’ inhabitants. “I, Too,” also published in 1925, by Harlem Renaissance poet Langston Hughes, offers a far simpler American Dream: here, a “darker brother,” a Black servant, would secure a Platonic self through merely eating “at the table” and not “in the kitchen.” The hedonistic pursuits in the Eggs lead to the further opening of the void that the American Dream aims to close, a perpetual cycle that Fitzgerald’s characters cannot escape. If Gatz reasoned it permissible to aspire to a simpler version of paradise, he might have found contentment.
Declaration of Independence. 1776. US National Archives and Records Administration,
Fitzgerald, F. Scott. The Great Gatsby. Edited by James L. W. West III, Charles Scribner's Sons, 2018.
Hughes, Langston, “I, too.” 1925. Poetry Foundation,