The Death of the American Dream, Research Paper Example

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Research Paper

The phrase “The American Dream” has been a part of the American culture for nearly a century, but the underlying ideas and ideals that embody the American Dream have been a part of the cultural fabric of the nation from the time before the nation was even born. From the earliest colonial days people from England came to the shores of North America looking to escape persecution, or build fortunes, or to simply have some sort of life that was unavailable to them at home. The land and resources in this new world were abundant, and if there were native people already here, they could and would be pushed aside in service of fulfilling the dreams and desires of the inhabitants. Over the course of the 18th and 19th centuries the new natives continued to push westward, filling up most of the continent. For successive generations, America was truly a land of opportunity, and the American Dream of finding success through hard work, rugged individualism, and the grace of God was reborn in each of these generations. In F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “The Great Gatsby,” the author looks at the underside of the American Dream, and finds that beneath the wealth and glamour of the early 20th century was an empty promise.

The phrase “the American Dream” was first put into print in the 1931 book “The Epic of America,” written by author James Truslow Adams. Adams’ book provided a story of American history that was clearly intended to cast that history in the best light. In Adams’ view, the American Dream was built on a combination of possibilities, opportunities, and ideals. Yes, life in America presented economic opportunities for those who were fortunate and who worked hard, but being an American and living the American Dream also meant sharing in the core values and principles that were, in the author’s eyes, unique to this nation. Ideas and ideals such as “Manifest Destiny” –the belief that God himself was guiding America forward into an ever-better future- were at the core of this American Dream. Adams’ book was published just as the Great Depression was first starting to slow the nation’s furious economic growth of the early 20th century; had the author taken a few more years to write it, it may have ended up presenting a very different look at America and the American Dream. Fitzgerald’s Gatsby was written and published in the middle of the 1920s, years before the crash on Wall Street and the ensuing economic depression that would scar the nation for years. Fitzgerald was clearly captivated by the glitz and glamour of the roaring 20s, but he was also repelled by it at the same time. In a sense, The Great Gatsby serves as both a celebration and condemnation of the American Dream.

In Gatsby Fitzgerald offers a look into the lives of privileged, wealthy people that in many ways mirrors his own biography. Fitxgerald was not born into privilege, but instead came from a fairly common middle class background and upbringing. He served in the military, and later hoped to have a career in advertising. While attending a function at a country club, he met a woman named Zelda with whom he fell in love. Zelda was from a wealthy background, and although Fitzgerald at first convinced her to marry him, she later broke off the engagement largely because his future economic prospects were dim. Once he began to have some success as a writer, however, she agreed to resume their engagement and eventually married Fitzgerald. In his years with Zelda, Fitzgerald was exposed to a lifestyle that was new to him, and that he struggled to afford through writing short stories for various magazines and other publications.

A number of elements from Fitzgerald’s life story are reflected in the narrative of The Great Gatsby. The narrator, Nick Carraway, serves as a stand-in for Fitzgerald; Carraway is from a solid background and upbringing, but sees himself as an outsider in the world of the privileged and wealthy. Carraway was hardly poor when growing up; in the opening lines of the book, he recounts how his father told him “whenever you feel like criticizing any one…just remember that all the people in this world haven’t had the advantages that you’ve had.”  Carraway is presented as a figure who is comfortable I his own skin, but who also seems to have a certain amount of disdain for those who have too much wealth.

One summer, Carraway rents a small house in the fictional town of West Egg, New York, and it is there that the story begins. Carraway is vaguely aware of the millionaire, Jay Gatsby, who lives next door; he has never met Gatsby, but he knows that Gatsby frequently hosts lavish parties. Carraway does not yet realize it, but Gatsby will soon figure prominently in his life. Fitzgerald quickly introduces the rest of the story’s main characters, as Carraway pays a visit to nearby East Egg at the home of his cousin Daisy and Daisy’s husband Tom Buchanan. It is clear that the Buchanans live a life of privilege, but almost immediately the cracks begin to show in the façade of their perfect life. Daisy complains loudly that “everything’s terrible anyhow,” as she talks about her views on the modern world. The conversation among the group soon turns to talk about how the “colored” people of the world are threatening to upset the social order that has placed white, presumably Anglo-Saxon people in charge of maintaining that order. Decker (1994) asserts that Gatsby is, at least in part, an examination of “anxiety about the loss of Anglo-Saxon privilege,” and there is no question that the issue of race comes up several times throughout the book.

At the heart of the “privilege” to which Decker refers, however, is not race, but the social order of class structure. Race may well play a factor in that overall framework, but the true underpinning of the social order is, and always has been, financial and economic power, or the lack of such power. Most of the characters in Gatsby are wealthy, yet Fitzgerald offers very few details about how any of these characters have earned their wealth. It is simply a matter of fact, as if being wealthy is ordained by God. The few characters in Gatsby who are not wealthy, such as Tom’s mistress Myrtle, seem caught between the two worlds of wealth and poverty. Myrtle lives in a small apartment above her husband’s gas station, but when she steps out as Tom’s mistress she begins to put on an air of smug superiority. Tom keeps a small apartment in the city for the purpose of meeting with his mistress, and it is there that Nick is first exposed to Tom’s true nature during the course of a small party. As Myrtle gets drunk, she complains loudly about how her order for ice was not yet fulfilled, and exclaims, “these people! You have to keep after them all the time.” While Myrtle may have been framing her exclamation in terms of race, it is also a commentary on social strata. Myrtle may live above a gas station, but as soon as she is in the company of her wealthy boyfriend, she sees herself as superior to those who serve her (or who should be serving her, anyway).

This theme of presenting people both as they are and as they wish to see themselves continues throughout the story. In his critical examination of Fitzgerald’s work, Bloom (1986) describes the “the wish to project an effective illusion,” a wish that seems to be a motivation force for nearly every character in the story. Tom wishes to be seen as a happily married and successful man, but he has a secret mistress. When Nick attends a party at Gatsby’s house for the first time, he is struck by how the guests all seem, in one way or another, to be engaged in some sort of performance. Most of the guests at the party, Nick discovers, have not even been invited; they have simply shown up at Gatsby’s mansion, knowing there would be a party. As Fitzgerald describes it, these guests “came and went without meeting Gatsby at all” and “conducted themselves according to the rules of behavior associated with amusement parks.” They may have been part of the social elite, but they behaved no better than the common folk who attend amusement parks.

When Nick finally meets the mysterious Jay Gatsby for the first time, he does not yet know that Gatsby is the most illusive figure of all the story’s characters. While it is revealed later that everything about Gatsby’s life story is a fiction, Nick is at first completely awed by Gatsby’s demeanor. As they meet for the first time, Gatsby “smiled understandingly –much more than understandingly. It was one of those rare smiles with a quality of eternal reassurance in it, that you may come across four or five times in life.” Nick feels immediately that he is “understood” by Gatsby, unaware that Gatsby is, in a sense, little more than a very successful con man.  Gatsby’s life has been spent in pursuit of “a vaguely defined greatness” (Dalton, 1995), and from what Nick can surmise, no one at the party seems to know how Gatsby has amassed his wealth. There are rumors that he is connected to one or another nefarious people or plots, but Gatsby presents himself as simply a young man who was born into, and inherited, his wealth. As the story progresses, however, it eventually becomes clear that everything about Gatsby is a fiction, and that his pursuit of the American Dream is itself based on an unattainable and ultimately fatal personal dream.

This is the central duality of Gatsby’s life: that he has a personal dream of reclaiming the love of Daisy, and that in pursuit of that dream he builds up an elaborate façade of wealth and privilege in order to appear worthy of her love. It is impossible not to see some of Fitzgerald’s own life in the story of Gatsby, just as Fitzgerald is also reflected in Nick Carraway. It is as if the two men are written to represent the two sides of Fitzgerald’s own personality: Gatsby as the figure who will do anything to impress the woman of his dreams, and Carraway, who is repelled by the empty, vacuous nature of the privileged elite. As Carraway learns more about Gatsby’s life, however, he finds himself rather sympathetic, as if seeing the man behind the façade makes allows him to see some of himself as well. Gatsby’s life of privilege may be a lie, but he built it only because he was desperate to impress the woman with whom he has been infatuated, even obsessed, for so many years.

Even if Gatsby is something of a fraud, the fact remains that he is in many ways the embodiment of the American Dream. While Adams argues in The Epic of America that the American Dream is not solely about economic success, but is also about ideals of individualism and the notion that the self-made man is the ultimate example of that dream. In that regard, Gatsby has unquestionably achieved the American Dream. He is the quintessential embodiment of a self-made man; he came from a modest background, and through the sheer force and power of his charm, charisma, and intelligence he managed to earn a fortune. At the same time, however, he seems to have amassed his wealth through a number of unsavory means, as it becomes clear that he is closely associated with characters such as Meyer Wolfsheim, a character based on the real-life Arnold Rothstein, a notorious gangster (Hays, 2011).

If the façade of wealth and privilege that Gatsby has built around himself has been founded on lies and criminal behavior, his motives for going to all that trouble seem to be, at least in his mind, rather pure. Gatsby is in love with Daisy, and has been ever since he dated her briefly years earlier. Like Fitzgerald’s real-life story, Gatsby’s economic prospects led to the dissolution of his romantic relationship with Daisy. Also like Fitzgerald, Gatsby plots to earn enough wealth to make a suitable candidate for Daisy to marry, but as events and years pass, she ends up married to Tom. Everything Gatsby does to earn his vast fortune over the years is done solely to impress her; he even goes so far as to take up residence in a mansion not far from Daisy in the hope that she will eventually end up at one of his parties. Though he is in love with Daisy, Gatsby cannot bring himself to simply contact her; instead he does all he can to make it appear that any meeting between the two of them will be coincidence. Even where his love of Daisy is concerned, his greater concern is maintaining the illusion of the wealthy playboy who is entirely nonchalant about the prospect of seeing Daisy again.

Even as Nick becomes aware of Gatsby’s intentions, and starts to suspect that there may be more to Gatsby’s story, he seems sympathetic to his plight. He willingly helps to arrange a meeting between the two, which soon sets off a chain of events that will result in tragedy. Before long, Tom is aware of Gatsby’s interest in his wife, and even though Tom is an adulterer he is not happy about the prospect of losing Daisy to Gatsby. Tom has his suspicions about Gatsby’s wealth and how he amassed it, and he confronts Gatsby in conversation, threatening to dig deeper into Gatsby’s background to expose the truth of his life and how he became wealthy. At every turn in the book, Fitzgerald explores themes about the duality in the characters. Each character has the outward face they put on for the public, and also has hidden secrets. This reflects Fitzgerald’s view of the American Dream; wealth and success may be celebrated and even revered, but there are often dark, hidden truths about how the wealthy and successful live their lives.

Once the truth about Gatsby’s desire for Daisy is revealed, events in the story rush to a conclusion, both figuratively and literally. As Gatsby and Daisy drive back from New York, they strike and kill Myrtle in a freak coincidence. Gatsby reveals the truth about his life to Nick, and Nick finds himself sympathetic to Gatsby as he realizes how the illusion and fiction that Gatsby created was all done to impress the woman he loves. Nick becomes even more put off by Tom and Daisy when he realizes that Daisy was the one who actually drove the car that killed Myrtle, and that she was the one who chose not to stop at the scene. Gatsby may have been living a lie, but in the end it is Daisy and Tom who lose Nick’s respect. He sees them as “conspirators,” and realizes how much Gatsby sacrificed while they continued to live their lives of privilege. When Gatsby is murdered by Myrtle’s husband, Nick realizes that Tom led the killer to Gatsby. Gatsby’s pursuit of the American Dream cost him his life, while Daisy and Tom “smashed up things and creatures and then retreated back into their money of their vast carelessness, or whatever it was that kept them together, and let people clean up the mess they had made.” It was clear to Nick that they were the living embodiment of the real American Dream, as their positions of privilege were not just built on money, but were protected by the entire social structure that supported and sustained them, and allowed them to make Gatsby pay the price for their sins.

Fitzgerald’s story continues to resonate today in a time where many people seem to be questioning whether the American Dream is a relic of an earlier time. Other writers of other generations have explored similar themes; in the book “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas,” author Hunter S. Thompson looks back at the counter-culture movement of the late 1960s from the vantage point of the economic malaise and social decadence of the 1970s. In his book, Thompson (1972) writes, “now, less than five years later, you can go up on a steep hill in Las Vegas and look West, and with the right kind of eyes you can almost see the high-water mark—that place where the wave finally broke and rolled back.”  In his way, Thompson echoes the theme in the closing lines of The Great Gatsby, about how we are “borne back ceaselessly into the past” by the dreams we dream and the goals we pursue. Gatsby’s fatal flaw was that he dreamed of a brief moment in time, and believed that if he just tried hard enough he could recapture that moment and live in it forever. Fitzgerald, through the voice of Nick Carraway, reminds us that such dreams are nothing more than illusions. When Nick attends the funeral of Gatsby –and almost no one is there to stand witness to the dead man- he is not just mourning the death of James Gatz; he is mourning the death of the American Dream.

The death of the American Dream is a theme that resonates now more than ever. America’s economic superiority of the 20th century is being replaced by a new realization that the nation’s economy may never reach those heights again. The American Dream was about more than just economics, but at its core was the belief that with hard work and dedication, America was a land of opportunity for all Americans. That belief in endless opportunity is fading for many Americans, as millions live in poverty and scrape by on wages that are not enough to meet the most basic survival needs. The Great Gatsby may have been about the death of the American Dream, it was written a time when America was in a period of growth and prosperity. Looking back at that time a century later, it is hard not to wonder if the American Dream will survive.

References

Adams, J. T. (1931). The epic of America. Boston, Mass.: Little, Brown, and Co.

Bloom, H. (1986). F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The great Gatsby. New Haven, CT: Chelsea House Publishers.

Decker, J. L. (1994). Gatsby’s Pristine Dream: The Diminishment of the Self-Made Man in the Tribal Twenties. NOVEL: A Forum on Fiction28(1), 52-71.

Fitzgerald, F. S. (1925). The Great Gatsby, by F. Scott Fitzgerald. Retrieved from http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/f/fitzgerald/f_scott/gatsby/

Gross, D. (1995). Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby. The Explicator53(4), 230.

Hays, P. L. (2011). Oxymoron in The Great Gatsby. Papers on Language & Literature,47(3), 318.

Thompson, H. S. (1972). Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas Full Text. Retrieved from http://www.undergroundbound.net/filedepot/hunter%20s%20thompson%20-%20fear%20and%20loathing%20in%20las%20vegas.pdf

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