F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby is a story that takes place during the Roaring Twenties, narrated by Nick Carraway, who rents a small house next door to a mysterious millionaire known as Gatsby. The book itself is regarded as an American literary classic because of Fitzgerald's ability to capture the essence of love in the era and to depict a myriad of socioeconomic themes including prosperity, and the evolution of jazz. Research on the novel has expressed that Fitzgerald put elements of his life in the book, as well as the glowing topic of pursuing the American Dream.
It can be said that Fitzgerald used autobiographical flourishes throughout the book, but where they are most evident is in the characters of Nick and Gatsby. They are very similar characters but have made different choices along their life's paths and opened a wide spectrum between each other. Fitzgerald, himself appears to fall within the two in terms of personality. Fitzgerald himself grew up on Long island, in the town of Great Neck, which is the setting for The Great Gatsby. Perhaps the central juxtaposition in the novel was Fitzgerald's idea for West Egg and East Egg (Hearne). The two towns are contrasted as being old and new money, but the larger viewpoint that Fitzgerald makes is the distinction between the road taken and the road not taken.
Like Nick and Gatsby, Fitzgerald also had a significant woman in his life, Zelda. The character of Nick, however, gave up on his dream whereas Fitzgerald did not. Fitzgerald would acquire his money through what was deemed an honest man's work. Gatsby's way to prominence was mysteriously shrouded in The Great Gatsby. It would seem then that character of Gatsby fit everything that Fitzgerald hoped and dreamed for, a responsive attitude to money, social status and the eminence of fashionable fame. The most telling aspect of 'Gatsby' and Fitzgerald is the similarities between their deaths. Gatsby lost the love of his life, Daisy as a result of an early death and Fitzgerald would depart this world at the age of 44. While the theory of predicting one's death has always been a fascinating one, Fitzgerald, unknowingly provided a discourse within his book by essentially causing Gatsby to lose his life at an early age (Hearne). Yet, while the juxtapositions of Fitzgerald’s biography are the overarching pattern of The Great Gatsby, a greater theme exists in the book and that is the so-called American Dream.
The Great Gatsby seemed to have a firm grasp on society when it was released in film, book, and even now. Fitzgerald would discover that he had taken on the great American dream itself and the corresponding loss of innocence. The phrase has found distinction in society, translating to mean a loss of naiveté. Perhaps, Fitzgerald had grown up or expanded his understanding of the world through writing the characters of Nick and Gatsby and the novel itself, which while popular was a wild and inhumane modernity tale (Hitchens). For Fitzgerald, life was more than just acquiring luxury, but what one experienced along the journey towards that opulence.
The first indication of Fitzgerald's understanding of the American Dream is the identity of Nick Carraway. To Nick, the world is full of justice, fairness, and unity and ultimately financial success (Hearne). For Fitzgerald, Americans depict the American dream as a guarantee of independence and achievement of the promise land, but through the usage of Nick's lingo of society being "marred by our obvious suppressions" (Fitzgerald), it is clear that Fitzgerald is making a critique of what ambition actually means. Fitzgerald also makes a critique in the usage of Gatsby telling Daisy of the great things he "was going to do" (Fitzgerald) rather than actually doing them. Fitzgerald believes the world is flawed and that is painstakingly underscored with the beautiful, yet grotesque artistry afoot in The Great Gatsby. Nick ad infinitum speaks of Gatsby, who has seemingly made it as successful millionaire, as an "unbroken series of successful gestures. [There was] something gorgeous about him, some heightened sensitivity to the promises of life, as if he were related to one of those intricate machines that register earthquakes ten thousand miles away" (Fitzgerald). Here, Fitzgerald is displaying Gatsby as an elegant and idyllic dreamer who is "the gift of hope" (Fitzgerald) to a society that is seeking its goals and objectives to be triumphant.
Fitzgerald feels that the character of the American dream is flawed. His usage of descriptions within how Nick views Wolfsheim speaks to this as "Nick claims instead of addressing people with his eyes, he [Wolfsheim] uses his expressive nose. Nick eats with ferocious delicacy, has the finest specimen of human molars for cuff buttons and it ultimately corrupt. The mages speak of brutality even as he sits dignifiedly in a well-fanned Forty-second Street cellar having luncheon and speaking of Gatsby's fine breeding and reminiscing about an implied loyalty of friends dead and gone" (Hearne). Here, there is an incongruity of the American character that has been muddied with vice. Wolfsheim is understood to be an iconic figure despite of his life's toils. Fitzgerald’s critique here is that society has found solace in understanding that often times to gain the so-called American dream; one may fall into corrupt behavior in order to achieve it.
Could it be that Fitzgerald’s novel is nothing more than a mockery of consumer consumption, noticeable emulation and a culture that is replete with illusions of wealth? In other words, that economics is the central standard by which one can achieve the American dream. For Fitzgerald, society has a "superficial illusion of wealth. Wealth is an establishment and anything but is a vulgar imitation" (Canterbury). Perhaps this is what Fitzgerald speaks of in his loss of innocence thoughts (Hitchens). That society has a damaged understanding of what it takes to achieve fame. Fame, to society, after all does sound awesome and is replete with dispensations of cars, mansions and all the money one can spend as evidenced by the character of Gatsby. Yet, Fitzgerald makes a pivotal statement with this character, that wealth essentially is not all it is cracked up to be if you lose your "innocence" (Hitchens) along the way to achieve it.
Fitzgerald's final critique about the fallacy of the American dream comes when Nick correlates America's beauty to "Gatsby's wonder when he first picked out the green light at the end of Daisy's clock" (Fitzgerald). Here, the imagery is passionate and spellbinding. Nick likens the experience of the Dutch sailors to that of Daisy and Gatsby's relationship. Fitzgerald understands that America has great potential and promise (Hearne), but that the American dream is not definite. It is rather a personification that certain individuals have more than others.
Fitzgerald recognizes that "we like Gatsby can be blinded by our own ambition and miss the truth that lies before us. Fitzgerald knows well the spirit of America, but he also knows the reality of life. We as Americans are like boats moving against a current. Every move forward comes with some movement backward. We look ahead and back at the same time" (Hearne). Thus, Fitzgerald fashions that the greatness of an individual and in turn America is understanding this greatness and not allowing anything to stand in one's or it's way in the pursuit of the American dream. Fitzgerald uses the character of Nick to prompt this thought.
The definition of the American dream is a set of ideals and the thought that life should be better and richer as a result of these ideals. The Great Gatsby underlines this philosophy unequivocally through its usage of social class imagery juxtaposed with commentary on the road to happiness. Through a series of characters and dialogue, F. Scott Fitzgerald highlights his life as well as the restrictions and mystique of the American dream.
Canterbury, E R. "Thorstein Veblen and The Great Gatsby." Journal of Economic Issues XXXII.2 (1999): 297-304.
Fitzgerald, F S. The Great Gatsby. Charles Scribner's Sons, 1925.
Hearne, Kimberly. "Fitzgerald’s Rendering of a Dream." The Explicator 68.3 (2010): 189–194.
Hitchens, Christopher. "The Road to West Egg." Vanity Fair May 2000. http://www.vanityfair.com/culture/features/2000/05/hitchens200005.