The theme of the decline of the American Dream played a central role in The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald. The book takes place over a few months in the 1920’s.
During this time, the American economy was experiencing a period of tremendous growth and people were spending extravagantly. It was also a time after Prohibition in America and this led to the rise of many underground drinking establishments and other sins in society.
The Dream is “always vaguely present but never clearly defined” which is the mythical ingredient that defines the American Dream as a motivating force of American civilization and therefore of literature as well (Carpenter 5). Fitzgerald used the romance between Jade Gatsby and Daisy Buchanan as a social criticism of the pursuit of wealth and extravagance in American society at the time. Corruption is a common theme in the novel.
American Dream to F. Scott Fitzgerald is full of materialism, and unfortunately the greedy of human nature, people constantly asking for more than what they already have. The Great Gatsby as one of the most influential novels that he has written was used as a mirror to reflect the social criticism, and his own interpretation of American Dream. In the book, Fitzgerald criticized American society.
The novel embodies many themes, however, the most significant one is the relation of corruption to the American Dream. The manner in which he characterized Daisy Buchanan, Tom Buchanan, Jay Gatsby is important in terms of giving an understanding of the American Dream that is over exaggerated and full of materialism.
“Her voice is full of money”(Fitzgerald 120) By marrying the wealthy Tom Buchanan, Daisy has reached the “fullest stature” and is “better and fuller” in the eyes of Gatsby. Daisy comes from a family of status and was born under “fortuitous circumstances of birth and position” (Adams 404).
In The American Paradox: Spiritual Hunger in an Age of Plenty, David Myers talks about the “human capacity for adoption” (Myers 135), which he explained the accumulation of materialism does not necessarily lead to an increase in the level of happiness. As she said to Gatsby, “And I hope she’ll be a fool – that’s the best thing a girl can be in this world, a beautiful little fool.”(Fitzgerald 116) From her perspective, she thinks what is best for her child is that living a life like her, eats comfort and prosperity, but without happiness.
Furthermore, when Nick found out that “they were conspiring together.” (Fitzgerald 409), she made her choice at that moment between Tom and Gatsby, in other words, she made a choice of living a life as a part of Old Money’s member. Deep down in her heart, she despises the lower class people, even the ones who are so-called new money. “But the rest offended her—and inarguably, because it wasn’t a gesture but an emotion. She was appalled by West Egg, this unprecedented “place.” (Fitzgerald 113)
As what Nick told Gatsby, Daisy never enjoyed the party that Gatsby has thrown for her, in fact, the difference between their classes is like a wall that stands in front of them which could never been put down. She was appalled by its raw vigor, however, in regard to the concept of the American Dream, there should never be class discriminations in the American Dream, but in the ruthless reality, class discrimination always exists. The upper class, especially the members who inherited great wealth from family are targeted as an opposition to the American Dream itself, and Daisy’s incredible capability to float out of any situation is one of the examples that Fitzgerald used to criticize American society.
Moreover, the function of Tom’s character in The Great Gatsby, in terms of social criticism related to the American Dream, is that of a contradictory force to Gatsby’s hard earned money, who inherited all the money from his wealthy family. As Alberto Lena who states in the analysis of Tom’s decadence: “Money earned without labor was an invitation to corruption […] and it was assumed that hereditary wealth had caused the decline of Europe” (Lena 22).
Supposing that America is a land that offers the possibility of escaping the dark cloud of European aristocracy and social class but failed its compromise, Tom’s wealth that was inherited from his family brought the negative connotations to the old money family, and the role of money can hardly escape any reader. When Gatsby finally confronted with Tom, Tom’s reaction falls under a common theme in the novel, which is the corruption of the American Dream.
“Certainly not for a common swindler who’d have to step the ring he put on her finger.” (Fitzgerald 275) He refers to Daisy as one of the properties he owns, and as long as the size of the ring is big enough, she will always be happy. Nothing could not be accomplished with money, that is what he believes, and that is his concept of American Dream. Although he does not have a job, and all he does is drinking every day and night, he has connections in the bond business and Wall Street.
As Thorstein Veblen, a noted economist suggested, there are two classes which are the leisure class and the immediate productive class, in other words, the wealthy part of the population, of which Tom is a member, are not in direct contact with any trades that support their family expenses. In contrast to self-made men like Gatsby, Tom’s money comes easily without hard work and it emphasizes on the gap between the leisure class and immediate work process.
In contrast to Tom and Daisy who are born rich, the pursuit of the American Dream is extremely hard for people like Gatsby, and it leads him down the wrong path which ends tragically. Giles Gunn, calls “Gatsby’s sense of wonder and idealism a tragedy”(Gunn, 175), referring that his extravagant dreams about love are in the end what kills him.
When Gatsby first met Daisy, he was nobody, however, with luck and hard-work, he is halfway to the final goal. Asking Daisy to tell Tom that she never loved him is the ultimate goal in order to prove he is worthy. In his mind, money is the only thing that could win Daisy back. “Can’t repeat the past?” he cried incredulously. “Why of course you can!”(Fitzgerald 21)
The ambition for winning Daisy back has thrown Gatsby over the edge. Gatsby loves Daisy, nevertheless, materialism lured him down the wrong path. Robert L. Carringer who is a professor of film and English at the University of Illinois, discussed the notion of Americanness in literature and according to his findings one of the components of a true American attitude is an “indomitable idealism” (Carringer 307), and Gatsby presented this characteristic without any doubt.
The very idea of the American Dream can be translated into the meaning of anything can be possible, and Fitzgerald allowed Gatsby’s dream to become so overwhelming in order to criticize the idealism of the American Dream. Gatsby’s extravagant dreams and illusions about love are the matters that killed him in the end, and unfortunately, he couldn’t separate his spiritual ideals from the material conditions in which he believes that money is the power of God.
Additionally, the nature of Gatsby’s rise to his wealth is also an allusion to the American Dream in the sense of its hypocrisy- the pursuit of happiness has been distorted by the corruption of the American Dream, and materialism. The attitude and values that Gatsby holds towards the society that destroyed him, his situation is applicable to society as a whole and reflects the social criticism of an accumulation of materialism.
In addition, the vivid characters under Fitzgerald’s pen expressed his idea of social criticism, which those who have wealth, seek more and those who aren’t wealthy have been distorted by the concept of money. The contempt and endless desire for money have distorted the original meaning of the American Dream, and The Great Gatsby acts out the truth that what was once the pure dream has become the race to become wealthy in every possible way.
Through the portrayal of Daisy, Tom, and Gatsby, the interpretation of distorted pursuit of American Dream represented the corruption of people in 1920s, and how the Dream was dominated by a glittering, golden surface with greed as well as deception underneath.