Friday, June 19, 2009

Criticism of the American Dream in The Great Gatsby

The American Dream--as it arose in the Colonial period and developed in the nineteenth century--was based on the assumption that each person, no matter what his origins, could succeed in life on the sole basis of his or her own skill and effort. The dream was embodied in the ideal of the self-made man.The Great Gatsby is a novel about what happened to the American dream in the 1920s, a period when the old values that gave substance to the dream had been corrupted by the vulgar pursuit of wealth. The characters are Midwesterners who have come East in pursuit of this new dream of money, fame, success, glamour, and excitement.

What Fitzgerald seems to be criticizing in The Great Gatsby is not the American Dream itself but the corruption of the American Dream. What was once--for Ben Franklin, for example, or Thomas Jefferson--a belief in self-reliance and hard work has become what Nick Carraway calls "...the service of a vast, vulgar, and meretricious beauty." The energy that might have gone into the pursuit of noble goals has been channeled into the pursuit of power and pleasure, and a very showy, but fundamentally empty form of success. How is this developed? I have tried to indicate in the chapter-by-chapter analysis, especially in the Notes, that Fitzgerald's critique of the dream of success is developed primarily through the five central characters and through certain dominant images and symbols.

The book 'The Great Gatsby' by F. Scott Fitzgerald was an 'icon of its time.' The book discusses topics that were important, controversial and interesting back in 1920's America. The novel is 'an exploration of the American Dream as it exists in a corrupt period of history.' The main themes in the book are the decay of morals and values and the frustration of a 'modern' society. The Great Gatsby describes the decay of the American Dream and the want for money and materialism.

This novel also describes the gap between the rich and the poor (Gatsby and the Wilsons, West Egg and the Valley of the Ashes) by comparing the differences between the Western United States (traditional western culture) and the Eastern United States (money obsessed values). On a smaller scale this could be seen as the difference between the West Egg (the 'new, money) and the East egg (the 'old' money).

The 1920's were a time of corruption and the degradation of moral values for the United States and many other countries. World War One had just ended and people were reveling in the materialism that came with the end of it, new mass produced commodities such as motor cars and radios were filling people's driveways and houses, money was more accessible (before the Great Depression). Cars were becoming a social symbol in the 1920s as we can see with Gatsby's five cars, one of which he gives to Nick and one of which kills Myrtle Wilson later on in the novel. Herbert Hoover (an American President) said in 1925 "We will root out poverty and put two cars in every garage."

The parties that Gatsby held every week in the summer were a symbol of the carelessness of the time. Gatsby would hide in the house while the 'guests', most of whom were not even invited, would party, eat and drink until the early hours of the morning without even meeting the guest or even knowing who he was. People would turn up just to be seen or reported in the local newspapers "In his blue garden people came and went like moths among the whisperings and the champagne." This shows the carelessness of the guests. Another quote about the parties refers to the way the guests devour the endless supply of food and never give a thought as to who gave it to them. "Every Friday five crates of oranges and Lemons arrived from a fruiterer In New York- Every Monday these same oranges and lemons left his backdoor in a pyramid of pulpless halves." This is also a symbol; it relates the 'pulpless halves' to the rather 'empty' guests, soulless people obsessed by image and wealth, a corruption of the American Dream.

Fitzgerald’s negative views of society are also portrayed through his depiction of certain guests at Gatsby’s parties. The symbol of the two women dressed identically in yellow at Gatsby’s party represent the values of the people of the 20s. The two women meet Jordan and Nick at Gatsby’s party and are completely self-involved. These women are only concerned with what happens to them and the fun that they have at the parties and don’t even inquire the names of Jordan and Nick who they are so openly speaking with. "Do you come to these parties often? inquired Jordan of the girl beside her. The last one was the one I met you at, answered the girl in an alert, confident voice. She turned to her companion: Wasn’t it for you Lucille? It was for Lucille too. I like to come, Lucille said I never care what I do, so I always have a good time."

Another sign of the fall of the American Dream in The Great Gatsby is the way Gatsby makes his money. Gatsby gets his fortune through the illegal sale of alcohol ('bootlegging'). The sale of alcohol was prohibited in the United States in the 1920s. Gatsby came from the western United States where there was 'old money.' There he met Dan Cody who taught him how to 'bootleg.' As Gatsby became richer he moved to West Egg in New York. Gatsby's house is a rather artificial place, the house was originally built to impress Daisy with his so-called wealth, and this is a sign of a corrupt way of 'winning' love through money and wealth. Gatsby's house is furnished well with old looking ornaments and (probably) second hand antiques, Gatsby's house also has a library which is full of 'uncut' literature. The conversation between Jordan and an unnamed man at one of Gatsby's parties talks about the books: "Absolutely real - have real pages and everything. I'd thought they'd be a nice durable cardboard." These books and antiques are just Gatsby's way of showing off his wealth to others, however Gatsby doesn't really care for materialism, we can tell this because his bedroom, the only room he really ever uses, is empty compared to the rest of the house. Gatsby's love life is also a sign of declining morals, and also a sign of further corruption of the American Dream. Daisy has an affair with Gatsby; Gatsby then gets concerned that Daisy does not tell Tom about her affair with him in chapter six. Eventually Daisy tells Tom about her affair with Jay Gatsby.

The climax of the story comes when Gatsby tells Tom that Daisy never loved him. The fall of the American Dream and corruption is also evident in the position and treatment of children in the story, Daisy and Tom's daughter, Pammy, is treated as an object to show off rather than a child to love. "The child, relinquished by the nurse, rushed across the room and rooted shyly into her mother's dress." The child does not know her mother very well and is still very shy to go near her. Gatsby had never really known of the existence of Daisy's child, as Daisy was probably afraid to tell him about her. "Afterward he kept looking at the child in surprise. I don't think he had ever really believed it it's existence before." The word it instead of her also denotes the child's position as nil. Daisy uses the child as a show item: "I got dressed before luncheon" said the child, turning eagerly towards Daisy. "That's because your mother wanted to show you off" replies Daisy. When the child speaks to Daisy, Daisy never answers or replies to her. Daisy always changes the subject as if she doesn't even notice the child is there. For example, when the girl comments Jordan's dress, Daisy ignores her and asks her what she thinks about her friends: "Aunt Jordan's got on a white dress too" (said the child). "How do you like mother's friends?" (Replies Daisy). Also: "Where's daddy?" (Said the child) "She doesn't look like her father" explained Daisy. 'Daddy' (Tom) is also never around, he was not there when his child was born. Daisy thinks that Tom is 'brutish' and she has never really liked him.

The Great Gatsby is a great portrayal of the corruption of society and the fall of the American Dream. The Great Gatsby shows us the way people will fall into the hands of money, greed and power and get involved in illegal activities to get where they want and what they want. This book is a perfect example of the fall of the American Dream in the 1920s.