Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby depicts both the success and failure of the American dream in equal measure. Although the setting is the prosperous 1920s period, the deterioration in cultural values and growth in social problems negate the achievement of national prosperity. Fitzgerald portrays a society where deceit, social conflict, abuse, and environmental degradation seemed to prevail. As a result, the expectations of fulfillment are not attained despite the prosperity of the society. In practice, the American dream is founded on an ideal society, which cannot exist in reality. Given that America is a capitalistic economy, its members must competitively search and exploit various opportunities in the country, and accordingly the less competitive must inevitably remain poor as those who are more competitive become wealthy. Therefore, although the ideals embodied in the declaration of independence lay the foundation for the nation’s dream, which are the promise of a freer, more liberal and equal society where the rights of all citizens are upheld, in practice, these ideals are not realized. Accordingly, the American dream fails to take root.
The Significance of the American Dream
The significance of the American dream is depicted by the hope shown by the country’s population, which consists of immigrants from different parts of the world. Actually, these individuals had little to depend on in terms of funding or government help except for the vast land that they inhabited. The founding fathers of the nation identified four major ideals that lay the foundation for this dream: liberty, rights, democracy, equality and opportunity. For years, these ideals have motivated the Americans to work and achieve prosperity. In the 1931 words of James Adams, “life should be better and richer and fuller for everyone, with opportunity for each according to ability or achievement” (“James Truslow Adams Papers, 1918-1949.”).
True to Adam’s words, America made great strides in economic development especially after the 1800s industrial revolution. The building of the railway, which was completed in the late 1800s, was a major boost in the economic activities of America. Further inventions in the early 1900s caused major developments in the country. The civil war caused an increase in the production of steel, which made the US to be the leading world producer by 1900. Thereafter, employment in the industries grew and other manufacturing industries developed, specifically in the textile and leatherworks industry. As a result of the vibrant economic activities, urban centers began forming and various social and entertainment amenities were established to cater for the workers in their leisure time. Entertainment spots such as live bands, bars and restaurants, sporting venues, and other recreation facilities developed and they created new economic activities that kept money in circulation. Consequently, urban centers became attractive to people, mostly the youth who moved to these centers in large numbers in such of employment. An urban culture quickly emerged that adapted to a new lifestyle that was based on street life and devoid of the traditional cultural values and ethics. As a result, crime and other social problems began developing as the jobless youth sought for ways of earning a living. The urban centers soon became areas of numerous social activities that transformed business and the lives of the urban residents.
The Relation Between The Great Gatsby and The American Dream
Fitzgerald’s narrative sought to depict the 1920s as a period that was characterized by a vibrant economic and social activity in the newly formed American urban centers. In his depiction, he sought to expose and criticize the social ills that were quickly developing as the American society began discovering social recreational activities, some of which were retrogressive. In a way, he seemed to question the direction that the society was taking. Actually, he pointed out the fact that the developments being witnessed were not according to the preconceived ideas that were stated by the nation’s founding fathers. On the contrary, there seemed to be a decrease in equity, where some members of the community were wealthy and others poor. Similarly, some people are privileged and had access to the best that the society could offer, while others were not as privileged. In his narrative, Gatsby, Bakers, and Myrtle were all wealthy and living ‘their dream’ as far as wealth was concerned, they were exposed to a contrasting environment and the societal degradation that the poor in the society were exposed to. Therefore, due to lack of wealth, the poor were not able to access all the privileges expressed in the declaration of independence.
Similarity of The Great Gatsby and Martin Luther’s Speech
The Great Gatsby is reminiscent of Martin Luther’s “I have a dream” speech, where the civil rights activist cited the absence of real freedom and equity despite the nation having gained independence almost 200 years earlier. Martin Luther emphasized that real freedom is not the liberation from the British colonial rule, but from the ideology of racism. According to the activists, although America was free from the colonial rule it still needed be freed from racial discrimination. In his speech, he envisioned a nation where people would be judged by their character and what they stand for, and not by the color of their skin. In the same way, the society depicted by Fitzgerald were be prosperous and seemingly lived the American dream , unfortunately, they were not enjoying the expected ‘better life’ that prosperity was supposed to bring. The rich were still troubled by social issues such as marital infidelity, divorce, and a poor environment as depicted by the valley of ashes. Actually, the industrialization that brought the prosperity also brought numerous negative effects by causing decay of both the natural environment and the society.
Oppression Against Gatsby
In his narrative, Fitzgerald goes to great lengths to depict the oppression meted on Gatsby by the society to show that the society of that time was oppressive. Actually, Nick personifies the author in the narrative and represents his thoughts and view. According to Nick, Gatsby was a noble man who deserved respect. Nick seems determined to present Gatsby as a hero and a person who has not significant social problem apart from the separation that he was suffering from Daisy. In his first meeting with Gatsby, Nick expressed admiration for the man’s generosity and social stature. Notably, he is careful not to make a quick judgment about him in regards to the rumors that he was having an affair with Myrtle. He carefully labels it as an allegation and not a proven matter.
The Hero in Gatsby
Throughout the narrative, Nick seeks to portray Gatsby as a hero. Significantly, he does not indicate whether the allegations against Gatsby were true, but resists from referring to it in a manner to suggest that it should similarly be ignored by the audience. Fitzgerald’s heightened opinion of Gatsby is further revealed in the way that he entitles his narrative. He distinguishes Gatsby from the other characters by calling him “Great”. In spite of the allegations and accusation leveled against Gatsby by Tom and the society’s wrong assumption that Gatsby killed Myrtle, the author calls him great. In fact, he uses the word “great” in the title of his narrative to illustrate the importance of this remark. Nick knew that Gatsby was innocent and that the negative perception of the other characters about Gatsby were wrong. Therefore, Nick was disgusted at the death of Gatsby because felt that he did not deserve to die. According to him, Gatsby was a great and individual who strove to uphold human dignity and social values. Probably he felt that Gatsby was correct in seeking a reunion with Daisy and that he deserved a peaceful life with the woman that he loved. Therefore, Gatsby was a hero who did not deserve to die but was murdered for a mistaken crime.
Gatsby’s death is an indicator of the social injustice in the city because although he was murdered, he was innocent of the accusations leveled against him. According to Nick, Gatsby may have been the only upright man among the characters in the narrative, but he faced a fate that was not deserved. Nick is the only person who attended Gatsby’s burial apart from reporters, who eventually gave the wrong report that Gatsby killed Myrtle. Therefore, Nick is a witness of the injustice that occurred, which brings to question the level of justice in the city. Going by the events in the narrative, the justice that the nation’s founding fathers fought for has not been achieved.
Furthermore, Gatsby’s character represents hope in the manner in which he persistently held to the dream of reuniting with his wife. Evidently, the wealthy man does not lose his focus and for years desists from dating another woman with the hope that he would eventually find Daisy. He goes to the extent of holding parties with the hope that Daisy would one day attend. His dream seems to come true as Nick invites Daisy to Gatsby’s party and the much awaited re-union seems to be materializing. However, due to the society’s degraded values and immorality, Gatsby is killed, which ends the long-held dream. Figuratively, the death of Gatsby represented the death of ‘hope’ in the American society.
Gatsby’s greatness is gained by the manner in which he holds on to hope, which is one of the founding virtues of the American nation. The founding generation depicted hope by the manner in which they were willing to inhabit an undeveloped land and build it to greatness. The founding fathers envisioned a nation where justice prevailed and where all citizens had the freedom to pursue their dream. Opportunity and justice were among the five ideals in the declaration of independence. In the novel, Gatsby held on to a dream that the society depicted in the narrative would consider unattainable. The level of societal decay had increased to the point that majority of people do not hold to fidelity. According to public opinion, it was unusual for a person in Gatsby’s situation to hope for a reunion because infidelity and corruption were rampant. But Gatsby chose hope that was almost materializing before being cut short by his death.
The depiction of the death of the nation’s original hope by the death of Gatsby is accurate. Not only does the personification of hope fit the life of Gatsby, but also the fate of the character ended represents the ‘death’ of hope. Actually, the societal factors that frustrate the hope that is entrenched in the declaration are corruption, injustice, and moral decay. In the end, the great character is destroyed because of the moral decay and immorality in the society. Therefore, the author demonstrates that these societal values are important for the achievement of a just society that can achieve its goals. As a nation, the American society had allowed moral decay and by addressing these societal problems, the nation can revive its dream as envisioned by the country’s founding fathers.
Few literary works portray the decline of the American dream in the 1920s as Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby. To elaborate, the 1920s society demonstrated material success and wealth, which was one of the ideals of the American dream. However, the economic development and urbanization resulted in moral decay, corruption and social injustice that negated the economic development. These factors are the major disruption to achieving the dream that America’s founding fathers had. Similarly, the life of Gatsby represents hope, and his death represents the end of hope. Generally, the factors that lead to his death; moral decay and corruption are the same factors that are killing America’s hope. Fitzgerald suggests that the American society can revive the nation’s dreams and revive the hope of achieving a liberal, just and prosperous nation.
Fitzgerald, F. Scott. The Great Gatsby. Detroit: Wheeler Pub., 2008. Print.
“James Truslow Adams Papers, 1918-1949.”. Columbia.edu. N.p., 2017. Web. 12 Mar. 2017.
King, Martin Luther. “The American Dream”. 1964. Speech.