The foundation of the American Dream is one of consumerism and capitalism that promises a better life. Having the ability to buy more is equated to having money and this is supposedly equated with a sense of fulfillment and success. Acquiring that wealth and happiness is exactly what Gatsby wants, and he attaches that desire to Daisy from the beginning of their relationship. In his telling of their initial meeting to Nick, Gatsby finds himself at Daisy’s glorious house, and Nick describes, “It amazed him—he had never been in such a beautiful house before. But what gave it an air of breathless intensity was that Daisy lived there—it was as casual a thing to her as his tent out at camp was to him”. As this is one of the first recollections heard from the story, Fitzgerald sets up their relationship as one based off of monetary fascination. Yes, Daisy is the “first ‘nice’ girl he had ever known”, but ultimately her possessions are attractive to him. This is further solidified as Nick states, “It excited [Gatsby], too, that many men had already loved Daisy—it increased her value in his eyes”. The word “value” holds heavy materialistic connotations, typically used to discuss prices assigned to non-human objects. Instead, however, it is Daisy’s price tag that increases with Gatsby behind the price gun machine deciding by how much.
Furthermore, the rich qualities that Daisy holds sparks a desire that will impact Gatsby throughout the entirety of the novel. Seeing the lifestyle she lives leads Gatsby to “[commit] himself to the following of a grail”. A grail is typically viewed in a religious context where worshippers are extremely dedicated to a cause. In this case, Gatsby commits to obtaining wealth in order to possess Daisy. Tyson explains, “Possession of Daisy would give Gatsby what he really wants: a permanent sign that he belongs to her socioeconomic class, to the same bright, spotless, airy, carefree world of the very rich that Daisy embodied for him when they first met”. Assigning such a powerfully connotated word such as “grail” when describing Gatsby’s chasing after a higher wealth class, Fitzgerald hints at the immense draw capitalism offers to its followers, making them desire it so much they have nothing else to do besides commit themselves to it. Additionally, another description of her illustrates Daisy as “gleaming like silver, safe and proud above the hot struggles of the poor”. In the ideals of the American Dream, poorness is frowned upon, encouraging others to pick themselves up and create a life of success and riches for themselves. Here, Gatsby is seen fantasizing about the safety Daisy, or her socioeconomic status, could provide, finally freeing himself from the chains of lower class living.
The concept of monetary value in their relationship is further perpetuated when looking at the symbolic value of the green light, a common discussion when talking about Gatsby and Daisy’s relationship. As they reunite, Gatsby proclaims to her, “You always have a green light that burns all night at the end of your dock”. Traditionally viewed as a symbol of hope, the green color of American money can be easily assigned to the light, suggesting a capitalistic viewing instead. Daisy always has the green light because she always does and will continue to have wealth, and Gatsby positions his house across from hers so he can admire exactly that. Ironically, that admiration is done quite literally from afar, suggesting it is something Gatsby can only dream of despite already falling under the umbrella of the upper class. Scholar Marius Bewley in his article “Scott Fitzgerald’s Criticism of America” argues that Fitzgerald’s writing of the in The Great Gatsby novel symbolizes the struggle between reality and illusion in the American Dream popularized during Fitzgerald’s time. Bewley states, “For Gatsby, Daisy does not exist in herself. She is the green light that signals him into the heart of his ultimate vision”. As stated, the vision Bewley discusses is Gatsby’s deep desire for the socioeconomic success perpetuated by the American Dream and keeping himself in direct sight of Daisy’s house helps him maintain motivation for the materialistic wealth he wants. Much like the impossibility of attaining the success of the American Dream, however, the light and therefore wealth is just far enough that it remains a vision instead of a literal dream come true.
Not only does the dream remain a distant wish, it also sets Gatsby up for imminent failure. Moments after he describes the green light to Daisy, Nick illustrates, “Daisy put her arm through his abruptly, but he seemed absorbed in what he had just said. Possibly it had occurred to him that the colossal significance of that light had now vanished forever”. In this moment, Gatsby actually has what the American Dream set him up to strive for: the success of wealth and the girl who stood for it. However, as Tyson asserts, “It seems that for Gatsby the sole function of material possessions is a sign exchange value: he wants the image their ownership confers on him and nothing more”. In other words, Gatsby does not want actual objects but only the status he inherits by having the ability to or actually having possession of them. The “colossal significance” of Daisy vanished upon gaining her, but the monetary values of the light did not, still remaining in a burning desire across the bay and out of his reach. Bewley argues, “[Fitzgerald] presents [wealth] in Gatsby as a romantic baptism of desire for a reality that stubbornly remains out of his sight”. This is the plight of capitalism, drawing him in and giving him what he wants but leaving him unsatisfied, still looking for the green light that should be by his side but is actually still out of reach.
Moreover, the monetary decisions Gatsby makes to attain Daisy, when standing separate from the process of winning Daisy over, are not very fulfilling either. The extravagant parties he throws to gain her attention are only there for show, containing a multitude of guests from various places who he may or may not know. In fact, Nick describes the guests stating, “Sometimes they came and went without having met Gatsby at all, came for the party with a simplicity of heart that was its own ticket of admission”. As illustrated later and heavily suggested here, Gatsby remains an onlooker at most of his parties, refraining from gaining any true social connections or friends aside from the brief stint with Nick. He becomes so focused on his extrinsic, materialistic image that he neglects intrinsic needs of the human condition. Furthermore, the grand house he builds remains widely unused. Notably, the man in the library looking at Gatsby’s wide collection of books exclaims, “See! It’s a bona-fide piece of printed matter. It fooled me. This fella’s a regular Belasco. It’s a triumph. What thoroughness! What realism! Knew when to stop, too—didn’t cut the pages”. Sure, Gatsby went through the trouble and finances of purchasing a plethora of literature in order to fit his wealthy, well-rounded image but he does not actually spend time reading the books. Tyson argues, “Thus, in accumulating material goods in order to win Daisy, he accumulated one kind of commodity sign in order to acquire another”. In other words, Gatsby perpetuates the materialistic process of the American Dream by continuing a loop of purchasing to achieve and maintain a status. Furthermore, all of which he owns and puts on is strictly for outside opinion, which makes him “a ‘mythic’ character in this sense—he has no private life, no meaning or significance…”. In summary, Gatsby exists solely as a person with a purpose he continuously chases and fails to actually obtain. He lacks any other source besides Daisy and consumerism which both inevitably leave him starved.
Gatsby’s destiny, per the American Dream, was already settled for him before he even began the journey for status and Daisy. At the end of the novel, Nick explains:
And as I sat there brooding on the old, unknown world, I thought of Gatsby’s wonder when he first picked out the green light at the end of Daisy’s dock. He 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 did not know that it was already behind him, somewhere back in that vast obscurity beyond the city, where the dark fields of the republic rolled on under the night.
Like most people seduced by capitalism’s promised sense of achievement, Gatsby set out to attain a goal: the wealth personified in Daisy. Bewley describes his journey as “an acting out of this tragedy of the American vision” , where he strives for something, becomes extremely close to obtaining it, and then still fails. Meeting Daisy, “pick[ing] out the green light , and gaining exposure to the type of wealth Americans were and are taught they need to obtain set Gatsby on a path of immeasurable consumeristic behaviors that were destined to never fulfill him in the first place. Bewley asserts that “the essence of the American dream whose tragedy Gatsby is enacting is that it lives in a past and a future that never existed, and is helpless in the present that it does”. Much like the plethora of others who fall prey to the idea that they could build a successful life for themselves, Gatsby did not recognize he failed to have a shot. His failure further underscores Fitzgerald’s warning that even those who succeed in having the socioeconomic status they “should” will still likely be unfulfilled in their lives, never quite hitting the mark they desire.
As evident, Gatsby places a lot of emphasis on his relationship with Daisy and therefore on the importance of the social status and materialism that the American Dream promised during this time. His consistent passion is best defined by part of Nick’s closing statement where he proclaims, “Gatsby believed in the green light, the orgastic future that year by year recedes before us”. Again, the green light, the powerful symbol of all-encompassing money is Gatsby’s motivational factor, yet Nick seemingly admits for the first time that no one is ever able to actually attain what Gatsby spends his life trying to. Bewley asserts, “[Gatsby’s] aspirations have been rehearsed, and his tragedy suffered, by all the generations of Americans who have gone before” . By stating the desired future “recedes before us”, readers are clued into the idea that others have been in Gatsby’s shoes, chasing the same dreams that never quite come to fruition. The American Dream is frequently criticized for the concept of an unattainable future of fulfillment, leaving its victims empty but full of the materials they thought they needed. In the end, Gatsby is left without Daisy and without a sense of achievement—just an unused house and evidence of placing material value over anything else.
Despite all of this, Fitzgerald does emphasize that people continue to strive for the American Dream. Nick illustrates, “It eluded us then, but that’s no matter—to-morrow we will run faster, stretch out our arms farther…And one find morning—So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past”. While some critics believe this statement to be Fitzgerald failing to come full circle with his anti-capitalistic preaching, with Tyson even arguing that it “strengthens the back-flow, bearing us ceaselessly back under capitalism’s spell” because it entices readers into thinking there is actually something tangible to be achieved. However, this sentence implicates exactly what Fitzgerald tells readers to be beware of. Capitalism keeps its victims in a loop, constantly chasing what they cannot achieve, emphasized by the act of beating “against the current”. The commonality of this occurrence, highlighted by Nick’s use of the words “us,” “we,” and “our,” , suggests that Gatsby is not special and his downfall was played out already by a man before him and will likely occur again in a man after him. Despite Tyson’s claim, there is nothing intoxicating about constantly chasing the promised “one fine morning” despite having the evidence it will never bring a person what he desires.
Capitalism is a widely critiqued monetary system designed to keep its followers in an endless loop of spending to acquire happiness. Even in all of his “greatness,” Gatsby is not immune to the consequences of a system like this, showing readers all that one can have while simultaneously having nothing. For Gatsby and Fitzgerald, Daisy symbolizes the impossible attainment of wealth, a social status that everyone is taught to crave but finds themselves stumbling to achieve. Once they do get there, of course, as Gatsby did, they may find they are no better off with the accumulation of wealth and materials as they were with the bare necessities they were taught would land them nowhere. Despite the publication of this book occurring almost a century ago, America has a lot to learn in terms of the danger of the monetary loop. Modern society still ignores all of the warnings of the past, pushing on like Nick suggests to obtain the impossible.