‘The Great Gatsby’ Continues to Define American Dream

The word Jazz in its progress toward respectability has first meant sex, then dancing, then music. It is associated with a state of nervous stimulation, not unlike that of big cities behind the lines of a war.
F. Scott Fitzgerald

F. Scott Fitzgerald, author of The Great Gatsby and coiner of the term “The Jazz Age” to describe the 1920s, also called that decade “the most expensive orgy in history.” Gatsby lambasts this orgiastic quality as a distraction from the true American Dream, and since its 1925 publication has become known, second only to Twain’s Huckleberry Finn, as the Great American Novel.

Jay Gatsby is the embodiment of commonly recognized elements of the American Dream. He is a self-starter, coming from commonplace folk, working hard, and accumulating wealth and status. He is of New Money, working the economy and social trends to his advantage while adapting the etiquette and mannerisms of one who is secure and at ease in the world. But Fitzgerald does not intend for Gatsby to glorify the obtaining of wealth. Gatsby’s greatness does not lie in his castle-like property, his blazing parties, or his lavish generosity. Gatsby’s greatness lies in the quality that allowed him to achieve his wealth, and would even if he had not become wealthy: his greatness is in his capacity to hope. The act of hoping, Fitzgerald argues, is the true American Dream.

We meet Gatsby through the novel’s narrator, Nick Carroway. Nick comes from a well-to-do family, and is working in bonds (one of the more fashionable trades of the decade). He is not successful in his job. Nick is also complacent, too comfortable in his family’s generations of social status and financial security to bother hoping for anything more, and his purpose is to observe Gatsby’s living of the Dream. In this, Fitzgerald gives the voice of the novel to those Lost Generation members who have lost their drive, their values, and their capacity to hope. Fitzgerald gives more weight to those who are unable to live the Dream than those who are, just as the glamour of the 20s lay in those who participated in the illusions of the decade. Nick is a trustworthy narrator, however; he describes himself as an honest man, and though Gatsby is everything a member of the complacent class despises, Nick must be honest about Gatsby’s greatness even through Nick’s own distaste.

Leonardo DiCaprio/Great GatsbyDistaste for Gatsby is a substantial component of the novel. Those coming from Old Money look down on those who have only recently acquired wealth. Those who come from poorer backgrounds and who are socially and financially stagnant scorn Gatsby in part out of resentment and envy. Of the hundreds of those who attend Gatsby’s parties, only two come to his funeral–including Nick. The richer classes have no need for hope; the stagnant, poorer classes can’t find it. Gatsby’s hopeful nature is useless and repugnant to them, and those who encounter or seek out his company do so in order to gain from his financial success instead of from his character. Fitzgerald argues that the golden age of the 20s was a farce; the Lost Generation sought the golden calf, the materials and possessions and indulgences of life, without caring about what was real or of value. The Great Gatsby seeks to dispel this illusion, the loss of which is hard, but not without hope.

Gatsby himself is a man of loss. He originally had a chance of entering the world of Old Money when he met Daisy five years prior to novel’s events, and loses the Old World when he loses Daisy; he loses his inheritance to a woman who comes from Old Money; he loses his life to a member of the stagnant working class. But he is sustained through his buoyancy. Though Gatsby has lost, though he was born out of favor and poor and without even the proverbial boots or bootstraps, Gatsby has sustained his concrete optimism for a wealthy life and, even more so, for Daisy’s love. Even in Gatsby’s death, Fitzgerald sustains that hope through Nick’s narration. “Tomorrow we will run faster, stretch out our arms farther…. And one fine morning—“ rhapsodizes Nick, breaking off as if the reality will be too great for words, “And so we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.”

Gatsby’s looking back into the past is eventually what kills him. Great Americans have historically been associated with manifest destiny; Americans must keep pushing onward, outward, forging new territory, always seeking, hoping, and achieving. The backward-looking habits of Gatsby are what distract him from his goal of ultimate upward mobility; had Gatsby not loved or sought Daisy after he lost her, he would have not been distracted with the carelessness, charm, and libertinism of Old Money, which is what Daisy represents. Had Gatsby not loved Daisy, he would not have abandoned his manifest destiny. In seeking Daisy, he has his hope, but has misplaced it. In the end, this is what kills him. The Old Money class has created the perfect scenario for the poor, working class, and complacent to destroy those who are successful in their upward mobility; those who have abandoned the American Dream are the killers of those who hope.

The latest film adaptation of this novel–staring Leonardo DiCaprio, Tobey McGuire, and Carey Mulligan–directed by Baz Luhrmann, plays up the traits of the 1920s that entice and satisfy both the Lost Generation and the current Millennial Generation. Known as Gen Y, or the Me Generation, what characterizes the 2000s are the values that have been surveyed and reported on: more than ever, young Americans rank wealth as a top priority in their lives, and Luhrmann takes full advantage of the opulence of the novel and its times to attract young viewers. The movie is visually stunning, with beautiful scenery, costumes, and close-ups of the staggering wealth of the country’s upper crust. Luhrmann interposes currently popular music to fully convey the high-rolling, large-living partying of the 20s to Gen Y, and uses the glitter of the film to skilled (and thus far lucrative) effect.

Likewise, the Robert Redford film adaptation of Gatsby in 1974 takes advantage of the Baby Boomer generation. Boomers are characterized as being one of the wealthiest generations in American history, and some of the first to expect improvement in their standard of living and the world as a whole during their lifetimes. Gatsby, as a film and as a novel, works best with those who understand the Roaring Twenties, the wealth, the excitement, and the possibility for more. But Fitzgerald does not honor the capacity for prosperity. Fitzgerald speaks to his generation and those thereafter to honor the nation’s capacity for optimism. He speaks to those who have lost the American Dream, replacing it with a golden calf, to remind the observant of the greatest American characteristic: hope.

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