In F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, the protagonist, Jay Gatsby, is portrayed as being a symbol of the American dream, but ironically, this “dream” ends up being more of a nightmare. With a setting taking the reader back to New York State’s Long Island in the Roaring Twenties, the characters are buried in a culture that is focused on materialism and prestige. Those who do not play the game or fit the role are left behind and cannot be what society calls “the winners.” As a young man, Gatsby felt what it was like to be sold short of the American dream, having little money or social status, and for that matter, no beautiful woman of his dreams. But when Gatsby returned from the war to New York with riches and a newfound power, he was able to grab hold of the American dream. This dream that became a reality, however, seemed to sell Gatsby short, as he tragically found that his newly acquired wealth and social status ─ as well as the girl of his dreams, Daisy Buchanan ─ could not purchase his happiness. In fact, this dream came at the price of his good character, and ultimately, his life. Fitzgerald uses Gatsby in this novel to represent what went wrong with America ─ a society in the Roaring Twenties that turned its back on morals and integrity to embrace wealth, prestige, parties, immorality and alcohol ─ ingredients not for happiness and fulfillment, but for loneliness and despair.
Fitzgerald begins dismantling the heightened image of the American dream through the character and narrator, Nick Caraway, who often describes and characterizes Gatsby during his quest for Daisy, respect, and acceptance. Unlike most of the other characters in the novel, however, Nick sees through Gatsby’s supposed fulfillment and satisfaction, and does not envy the “great Gatsby,” who is praised and idolized by the indulgent materialistic crowds that gather at his mansion to party and drink. This lifestyle that society was told to buy into did not appeal to Nick, “Gatsby turned out all right in the end; it was what preyed on Gatsby, what foul dust floated in the wake of his dreams that temporarily closed out my interest in the aborted sorrows and short-winded elations of men,” (Fitzgerald 6). Instead of seeing Gatsby as a high-paying consumer, Nick sees Gatsby as the one who was being consumed by the price of having to pay dearly to reach his costly dreams, which will ultimately cost him his life. Nick saw through the false promises of happiness to be attained by pursuing and reaching the American dream, and he notes that any satisfaction or happiness gleaned as a result is shallow and short-lived. Early on, the reader witnesses that the ideals of glitz, glamour, prestige, promiscuity, and all the trappings of what became known as the high society in the Roaring Twenties is not what it is cut out to be.
Even though Gatsby and the high-brow company he keeps are characterized as living the American dream, the author uses Nick to show the true depravity of those who jump on board to live for this flawed concept. Nick actually calls Gatsby out, telling him exactly what he thinks about those who believe that they have reached the top of the ladder in life, “They’re a rotten crowd . . . You’re worth the whole damn bunch put together,” (Fitzgerald 162). Through Nick, Fitzgerald shows that Gatsby and all the partying elite with which he surrounds himself are morally depraved ─ even though they hold themselves up as being above the rest of society (that has not achieved the American dream). Nick even sets himself apart from Gatsby and his wealthy revelers, noting that virtuous behavior is far from what those chasing after the American dream possess, “Everyone suspects themselves of at least one of the cardinal virtues, and this is mine: I am one of the few honest people that I have ever known,” (Fitzgerald 64). This statement goes to show that moral behavior in the upper class society on Long Island is virtually non-existent as everyone strives to live the immoral lifestyle ─ of adultery and dishonest gain ─ that they were told to chase. Fitzgerald makes it very clear that those living the American dream are living a lie. He uses Gatsby to show the actual lows in the high life, depicting how he stands alone during his fancy parties and how truly depressed him is despite his mansion, fancy car and seemingly limitless money. The author also shows the disreputable and questionable way in which Gatsby acquired his wealth though bootlegging to further devalue the American dream, which, at this point, is turning out to be a more of a nightmare.
Nick is not the only one who Fitzgerald uses to help shine light on the dismal state of the American dream in the 1920s, as Tom Buchanan, Daisy’s husband; helps put the phony idealist and his unrewarding goals in their lowly place. Those in Long Island’s high society all appear to be in adulterous relationships, which appear to be the norm. Included in these sordid relationships are Tom, his married mistress, Myrtle, and Daisy, who had an affair with Gatsby in spite of her marriage. Tom, even though he is guilty of the same adulterous behavior of his wife, is seen here pointing out not only Gatsby’s immoral relations with his wife, but his fraudulent and mysterious background as to where and how he made his fortune, “I suppose the latest thing is to sit back and let Mr. Nobody from Nowhere make love to your wife . . . Well, if that’s the idea, you can count me out,” (Fitzgerald 137). Tom also divulges in this quote how it is normal for the social elite on Long Island to sit back and say nothing to anyone when their spouses are having affairs on them, since the practice is so common. This is yet another testimony given by the author that the American Dream in the Roaring Twenties is a sham and ignoble conquest.
In The Great Gatsby, Fitzgerald shows that instead of Gatsby and other main characters living it up and taking advantage of the blessings of living the American dream, they end up falling prey to its destructive forces. Gatsby, as well as Daisy, Tom, Myrtle, and countless others in the social elite of the Roaring Twenties, live their lives in tune with how “successful” people were to carry themselves, indulging in carnal sins and acquiring wealth though any unscrupulous way. Abandoning all moral responsibility to live a virtuous life of integrity, those chasing after and living the American dream in this society did not pay much heed to the famous Bible verse often given as a warning to avoid the pitfalls of life, “For the love of money is the root of all kinds of evil,” (New International Version Study Bible, 1 Timothy 6:10). Instead of electing to live a godly life as Nick did, Gatsby and other wealthy people with whom he associated chose money, prestige and sinfully indulgent behavior to be the driving force behind their lives. Because of Gatsby’s sin of sleeping with Daisy, her husband, Tom, plots to have his mistress’ husband kill the new millionaire ─ a train of infidelity that ends in murder. Furthermore, Daisy and Gatsby end up running over and killing Myrtle while sneaking around during their adulterous affair, continuing the destruction made by those chasing after the so-called American dream. The deceit and treachery used by those striving to live the American dream became virtually limitless with Gatsby and other characters in this book, as their morals often gave way to their greedy, carnal and power-hungry desires in a society that rewarded one’s portfolio over one’s character. The American dream in The Great Gatsby, therefore, should be more appropriately called “the American tragedy.”
Fitzgerald, F. Scott. The Great Gatsby. New York: Scribner, 2004. Print. The News International Version Study Bible. Ed. Kenneth Barker, Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1995. Print.