Benjamin Franklin coined the phrase, “American Dream” during the early infancy of our country, proposing this dream as, “That pursuit of a better existence and a higher quality of life through hard work, determination, and devotion.
” While this may be what many of the characters in The Great Gatsby believe (Jay Gatsby in particular), one critical ideal is discarded in Fitzgerald’s twisted refinement of Franklin’s definition: morality. It is apparent that Jay Gatsby achieves his wealth and social status through illegal and immoral means, such as bootlegging alcohol. The irony becomes remarkably stunning when one realizes that the section of Franklin’s autobiography, which outlines his method for achieving this dream, is entitled “Moral Perfection”.
Fitzgerald presents a dark satire by portraying the immoral Jay Gatsby as an icon for the decay of the dream Franklin proposed and promoted so avidly. Fitzgerald masterfully allows the reader watch the evolution of Franklin’s American dream from its fertilization in the ambition of James Gatz to its dominance over Gatz’s life, eventually spawning Jay Gatsby (Gatz-bye) a self-destructive man holding on to a dream that can never become a reality. In addition to Gatsby’s delusional pursuit of happiness, Nick Carraway, our narrator, suffers from the same addiction to a dream, which, if made true, will never live up to its expectations. It is obvious that Nick envies Gatsby, hence the title of the novel. Nick is in awe of Gatsby’s wealth, social power and moreover, and most of all, the carefree lifestyle it allows. Nick, at the same time he is completely unaware of the illicit means by which Gatsby has gained his wealth. Following Gatsby’s death at the end of the novel, Fitzgerald shows Nick’s awakening from his dream to persuade the reader to walk away from his novel understanding the lesson that Nick learns from Gatsby’s folly.
Fitzgerald strives to expose a striking realization that the American dream that Franklin proposed will never be able to deliver its promise of “a better existence” in a society where morality is tossed aside so casually. Fitzgerald litters the novel with a cast of characters who are struggling to chase either emotionless dreams or impossible ones. All of these other characters suffer from this plague of disillusionment that has come to be known as a staple in modernist writing.Morality seems critical, by Franklin’s standards, to the success of his American Dream, but when one looks through the novel, searching for characters that are morally sound, one will find that they are few and far between.
We, the readers, are witness to multiple adulterous affairs, murder, illegal alcohol use, as well as a lack of camaraderie between friends. Fitzgerald’s diagnosis that decadence is the real killer of the American dream manifests itself in many characters and in many ways throughout The Great Gatsby. The most obvious is Gatsby who’s dream is to come back from his time spent in the armed forces, much wealthier than he left, with the hope that his newfound wealth will allow him to win back the heart of Daisy who he left behind.
When Gatsby left he didn’t have the financial power to secure Daisy’s devotion to him, for she became much more interested in the material possessions than love, which made her vulnerable to Tom Buchanan’s wealthy appeal. Gatsby sees that the only way he can reclaim her is by impressing her with a fortune . Gatsby becomes so intent on accomplishing this goal that in his mind the ends justify the means, without question. We are never told exactly how Gatsby procures his wealth, except that it most likely from illegal bootlegging and perhaps some ties to the mafia. This is Gatsby’s first major deviation, chronologically, from Franklin’s American Dream. Next, he turns his back on our narrator, Nick, who offers to help him achieve his goal by arranging a meeting with Daisy.
Gatsby, who’s self-indulgence blinds him to ignorance, practically treats Nick as a pimp instead of a friend, thinking all the while that he’s being quite sincere and helping Nick, who is not as well off as himself. In the opening of chapter five, Nick and Gatsby meet in front of Gatsby’s mansion where Nick informs Gatsby that he’s going to arrange for Daisy to arrive the following day for tea. At the end of the conversation, Gatsby decides to suggest his indecent proposal of some “work on the side” to Nick.”We both looked down at the grass – there was a sharp line where my ragged lawn ended and the darker, well-kept expanse of his began. I suspected that he Gatsby meant my grass.
There’s another little thing,’ he said uncertainly, and hesitated.Would you rather put it off a few days?’ I askedOh, it isn’t about that. At least – ‘ He fumbled with a series of beginnings. Why, I thought – why, look here, old sport, you don’t make much money, do you?’Not very much.’This seemed to reassure him and he continued more confidently.I thought you didn’t, if you’ll pardon my – you see, I carry on a little business on the side, a sort of a sideline, you understand. And I thought that if you don’t make very much – You’re selling bonds, aren’t you, old sport?’Trying to.’Well this would interest you.
It wouldn’t take up much of your time and you might pick up a nice bit of money. It happens to be a rather confidential sort of thing.’I realize now that under different circumstances that conversation might have been on of the crises of my life. But, because the offer was obviously and tactlessly for a service to be rendered, I had no choice except to cut him off there.” (Pp. 87-88)Gatsby tries to pull Nick in with him, but fails leaving Nick to ponder his admiration of Gatsby.
These are good examples of the ways in which Jay Gatsby’s egocentric behavior sets him up for his tragic fate near the end of the novel. The disappointment felt by Nick is not the only example of the way Gatsby is blinded from the reality of what he is doing to those around him because of his obsession with his dream of happiness with Daisy. Then, in the end he loses everything for Daisy, including Daisy and his life. Daisy proves that her attraction to Gatsby is purely financially based by the way she loses interest in him as soon as she finds out about his source of income. Finally, Gatsby loses his life because Tom tells George who the car that hit Myrtle belonged to – feeling no remorse because of Gatsby’s attempts to steal his wife. The added tragedy of the situation is that Nick (and most likely Fitzgerald) would want us to believe that Gatsby never really realized that what he was doing was wrong because it was all in pursuit of a “better existence”. At the end, Nick says this of Gatsby’s love for Daisy: “He Gatsby had come a long way to this blue lawn and his dream must have seemed so close that he could hardly fail to grasp it. He didn’t know that it was already behind him, somewhere back in the vast obscurity beyond the city, where the dark fields of the republic rolled on under the night.
“Nick is another interesting case for study when discussing the American dream in this novel. Nick has a dream of his own, which is to be rich like Gatsby so he can live the lifestyle of a playboy, like Gatsby. He envies everything about Gatsby at the beginning of the book, and claims, “He Gatsby has an extraordinary gift for hope, a romantic readiness such as I have never found in any other person and which it is not likely I shall ever find again” (p.6).
We can see that Nick admires Gatsby’s strong will and ambition because he sees what it can procure in terms of wealth, social status and social freedom. Fitzgerald wants the reader to see this as the seed of the American dream being planted within Nick. He even chooses envy, one of the seven deadly sins as the means of conception. This is where the reader gets the best chance to see the American dream decay in front of his/her own eyes. Gatsby, on the other hand is no longer in the envious stage – wanting what Tom has, but rather he’s determined to take what Tom has without recognition of the circumstances. After all, without morality, there are no guidelines to say what is wrong and what is right in terms of getting what one believes will make him/her happy. Nick, on the other hand, is slowly becoming brainwashed by the hope of an impossible future. He even admits in the passage quoted above, that were the circumstances worse and Gatsby more devious, rather than ignorant, he might have followed Gatsby down the same path, but in some sense Gatsby’s lack of tact helped to save Nick from the peril of the American Dream.
Nick is not without his flaws though. We can see that as a narrator, he lies to us from the beginning of the book by boasting that he is, “inclined to reserve all judgments”, as it was part of his upbringing. He lies because the entire book he has a very set opinion of practically every character. For instance, we know he isn’t too fond of Tom and that he envies Gatsby. It would seem that Fitzgerald purposely created a fallible narrator in the hopes that the reader would question the validity of his narration. After all, the book wouldn’t say much if we were to assume that Nick is “healed” completely at the end and that to avoid being assimilated into the millions of people who come to America seeking a promised happiness all you had to do was get a better grip on reality.
Fitzgerald is very careful to let the reader know that certain traits are inherent in people, making them quite susceptible to this kind of devotion. Hope and optimism seem to be the two largest traits that can make a person prone to contract a serious case of “dream-fever”.Fitzgerald also constructs a subtle background of situations and characters that have nothing to do with the plight of Gatsby, Nick, or Daisy (as each pertains to the other) in order to show the way the American dream can disappoint just about anyone. If we look closely at all the characters it becomes apparent that almost every major character is engaged in some sort of activity that is compromising his or her morals.
We’ve already discussed Nick and Gatsby, but Daisy, Tom, and Myrtle are all guilty of the same sin – adultery. Faithfulness is only inherent in one married person in the book, George Wilson, but George has his own personality flaws and ends up committing a deadly sin of his own – wrath. He has trouble controlling his temper and eventually snaps after he wife is killed and murders Gatsby and commits suicide. George is the only one that seems to have lost his dream a long time ago, when his wife began resenting him, then cheating on him, and has turned to religion to find happiness.
He claims, after believing that Tom killed Myrtle, that, “God sees everything”. George has lost faith in the world for some time and it seems as though he’s only living for the next life, which is proven by the fact that he is able to kill himself. The only people who don’t really seem to be emotionally scarred, or killed by the events that take place in the novel are the surviving women in the book.
Daisy’s dream is money, though as we know, it wasn’t always that way. Jordan is likewise interested in material objects and not that concerned with love, although in the end we get a hint that maybe things will turn around for her and Nick. Overall, however, she is almost as guilty as Daisy for being naively drawn into the well of commercialistic coldness. Daisy seems to be able to leave Gatsby behind as a memory, though we don’t know for sure that she is severely hurt by his death, or to what degree. We can speculate that her absence from Gatsby’s funeral would suggest a lack of emotional burden. At the end of the novel, we don’t really get any indication as to how Daisy ends up, and it’s hard to say because of the way she leaves with Tom in a situation that is foreign to the reader because for the first time neither one is interested in someone else. We can assume, however, based on Fitzgerald’s message, that if Daisy never realizes that money can’t buy happiness or love, she will be stuck chasing a dream that cannot be attained for the rest of her life. The same is true for Jordan, although we do get a suggestive hint that she may turn around because Nick has been enlightened, and now has a better understanding of the dangers that come with becoming obsessive over the impossible or the unimportant.
Tom is yet another ambiguity when it comes to the end of the novel. There is no way to say what will become of him, although it seems he’s got more reason than any to see the need for a change in his attitude on life. He came the closest to loosing everything, without actually doing it.
He almost lost his wife to Gatsby and he did loose his mistress, though he was lucky not to loose his wife on account of his cheating. It seems that the significance of his disappearance with Daisy is meant to suggest that they have gone off to start a new life, but then again maybe its just to chase new dreams.This novel is able to adequately show the dangers involved in chasing a dream that is too fantastic, or purely material. Gatsby paid for his naive dream chasing with his life and his dream, not to mention the pain he caused those around him and close to him. This is evident because of the fact that only a few people show up to his funeral. He cared for only one person, who didn’t really care for him, at least not to the same degree.
Nick is lucky, by Fitzgerald’s standards at least, because he is able to look inward, unlike the most of the other characters, and see what that kind of obsession is doing to Gatsby. He despises Gatsby too much to help him, but remains a friend out of pity and takes the knowledge he has gained to see where he could have ended up had he followed Gatsby and taken that “job” offer.Tom and Daisy both suffer from the sins of gluttony and avarice that dominate their dreams of happiness, they can’t get away from thinking that the more they own the happier they’ll be.
This can be seen in the way Tom mourns little for Myrtle, but only worries about himself when George comes to see him after Myrtle’s death. If he feels a little hurt it’s because he’ll have to go out and find another mistress, and we can’t say for sure whether or not he will. Fitzgerald is bent on making sure the readers take away one message, there is no more American dream. He doesn’t stop there though, he goes on to warn his readers that if you don’t believe him and decide chase your personal American dream and shoot too high or too low, you will end up miserable, possibly for the rest of your life. Lastly, there is no doubt that this novel’s message about the decay of the American dream is solely focused on an audience facing some of the most vastly changing times in our civilization’s history and a warning that just like Jay Gatsby found out, there is no way to reclaim the past, that American dream, Franklin’s American dream is gone.