The Reality of the American Dream in The Great Gatsby

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The idea of the American Dream has shifted from century to century. Specifically in the 1920’s, it shifted from having a happy family, to striking it rich. F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby focuses on these immense changes people faced in this postwar era. Despite the economic flourishment, the 1920’s was an era of the struggle to find happiness. The novel’s narrator, Nick Carraway, experiences these trials when he moves to West egg, a part of New York, and encounters his neighbor: the infamous Jay Gatsby. As the novel progresses, Nick realizes Gatsby’s involvement with Daisy, his cousin from East egg. Both Nick and Gatsby get entangled in a web of lies and false hope, created by the wealth and greed of the society they live in. Ultimately, the novel ends with the death of Gatsby. Fitzgerald writes a novel that criticizes the American Dream in order to show how it corrupts decisions, and, through the use of the green light, represents how unreachable this Dream is. Fitzgerald wants the reader appreciate what they have, and realize that people try to achieve their American Dream will never be satisfied, as they will always want more than what they have.

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The Great Gatsby criticizes the American Dream by showing how it corrupts happiness and decisions, specifically through the example of Myrtle Wilson. When Myrtle talks to Nick and the rest of her friends in the Plaza Hotel about how she felt after marrying George Wilson. Fitzgerald writes, “I knew right away I made a mistake. He borrowed somebody’s best suit to get married in, and the man came after it one day when he was out… I gave it to him and then I lay down and cried to beat the band all afternoon”. This quote is a clear example of the reason Myrtle decided to start sleeping with Tom. When Myrtle first got married, she thought that she was in love with George, but immediately after she realizes she hates him because he does not have enough money. The fact that he had to borrow someone’s suit for their wedding does not sit well with her. This shows Myrtle’s materialistic side. She cares so much about a mere suit, rather than the man she married. When she says,“I knew right away I made a mistake” this represents how her view of the American Dream shapes her interests. She appreciates luxury, and wants to live a lavish life full of riches. To her, Tom is the epitome of the American Dream. Tom can give her dogs, hotel rooms, and magazines whereas George cannot. This draws Myrtle into having an affair with Tom, because she desires to live the perfect American Dream, with a man who can provide for her. She does not want to worry about money, and wants to live among the wealthy class. Her decision to have an affair with Tom, and achieve her dream, jeopardizes what is left of the relationship she has with George. Her desire to live among the wealthy will never truly come true, because she will always want more. She will never be satisfied. These afflicted actions ultimately lead Myrtle to her demise because she literally gets hit by a car when she tries to chase what she cannot have.

The use of the green light is a major part of the novel that specifically represents Gatsby’s hopes and desires for his life. After Nick comes back from the Buchanans house in the beginning of the novel, he sees Gatsby outside his house. Nick says. “ …he stretched out his arm towards the dark water in a curious way… nothing except a single green light, minute and far away, that might have been the end of the dock”. This quotation shows that Gatsby is reaching for the green light. This light, which is on the dock of Daisy’s house, represents what Gatsby hopes for. He bought his house in this spot of West egg, solely because it is across from Daisy’s house. Everything he does is consumed by his motivation to impress Daisy. Gatsby thinks that in order to be successful and get people like Daisy to accept him, he has to be perfect. The light represents the life he wants with Daisy. His dream is to be with her, and in order to do that he thinks he has to be rich and well off. Another way the green light represents Gatsby’s dream, is the color green specifically. Green, which is associated with paper money, represents that Gatsby would do anything to get rich, as he believes this is the only way to get in with the elite class. He resorts to illegal means to get his money, as Fitzgerald writes, “... [He] bought up a lot of side-street drug-stores here and in Chicago and sold grain alcohol over the counter…”. Despite all of his efforts, Gatsby is shut out from the upper class when Daisy rejects him and chooses Tom. Everything Gatsby worked for goes to waste. It represents the blankness of the promise of the American Dream. After striking it rich, Gatsby still does not have Daisy, and will never achieve the life he wants with her.

Fitzgerald criticizes the American Dream in order to highlight how unreacheable it is for the characters, explicitly concentrating on Gatsby. His ending is an epitome of this idea. When Nick finishes up with Gatsby’s funeral and he decides to move, he ponders Gatsby’s legacy. He says, “... 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…so we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past”. This evidence suggests that ultimately, Gatsby is never able to fulfil his Dream. Once again, the idea of reaching comes up. He is so close to having Daisy in his grasp, but eventually loses her when she rejects him. Her rejection proves detrimental, because it shows him that despite everything he did, she would never accept him as her equal. When Fitzgerald writes, “borne back ceaselessly into the past” he is commenting on how Gatsby’s past would always creep up on him. Despite everything he does to prune his appearance into the perfect man everyone would accept, his old lifestyle restricts him from actually fitting in with the elite class. His dream is “already behind him,” when he is killed. Everything he hoped for with Daisy was cut short because he could not reach this fantasy. This connects back to how aspiring for certain dreams will leave people dissatisfied. He never feels like he has enough, and continues to try and live out his fantasy, until he gets to a point where his efforts are cut short by his death.

Evidently, Fitzgerald proposes a strong criticism of the idea of the American Dream. He does this by stating how it corrupts people’s decisions, seen through Myrtle’s actions over the course of the novel. He also uses the green light to symbolize Gatsby’s insurmountable desire to be with Daisy, and how the American Dream is unachievable. The novel reflects the 1920’s ideals in which sentiments shifted to material items and wealth. Fitzgerald wrote this novel to inform the audience that no matter what, people who try to achieve their idea of the American Dream will never be satisfied. They will always be working towards more, so there is no way to be pleased with the outcome of life. Myrtle and Gatsby are clear examples of people who were not happy with the life they lived, and tried to get more than they could have. He wants the reader to try and appreciate what they have, rather than allow their lives to be consumed with obsessing over certain hopes that they will never achieve.  

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