For most people, the “American dream” is the ultimate goal in life. To be self-made and successful is something that people have been dreaming of since before time. One thing that people don’t understand, however, is that this dream is just that- a dream. In F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, the age-old and over-glorified concept of the “American dream” is shown in a negative light with the purpose of denouncing the false and idealistic notion that the achievement of this dream will satisfy one’s needs in life and happiness.
One way that Fitzgerald symbolizes the hollowness of the “American dream” in The Great Gatsby is through Gatsby and Daisy’s relationship. He portrays the shallowness of Daisy, and in doing so, he also exposes the falsehood of the “American dream.” Gatsby does everything he can to impress Daisy, all of which include trying to lure her with material items. He becomes rich, not for himself, but for the sole purpose of winning back Daisy. When Gatsby brings Daisy and Nick on a tour of his mansion, he shows them his collection of colorful shirts. Daisy breaks down in tears because she’s never “seen such beautiful shirts before” (Fitzgerald 92). However, the reader can insinuate that she is really crying because she may be regretting her choice to marry Tom, because Gatsby is far richer. This is a significant moment because it is considered the “key to The Great Gatsby that reaches its moment of truth” (qtd. in Roberts 4). It is apparent that “Gatsby sees significance in Daisy, but Daisy sees only image in Gatsby” (Lutz 3). This is proven in the novel when she notes to herself that he always “looks so cool” and he resembles “the advertisement of the man” (Fitzgerald 119). Daisy also proves this once again when she moves on seamlessly and emotionlessly from Gatsby to Tom. She doesn’t show any guilt for someone who killed a person and let their lover take the fall for it, resulting in his death. Because of this, both Daisy and Tom prove themselves to be careless people. The superficial nature of Daisy and Gatsby’s relationship paves the way to the symbolism of the hollowness of the American dream.
F. Scott Fitzgerald also makes the point that the American dream can lead some to change their morals for the worse. This idea can also be found paralleling with Gatsby and Daisy’s relationship. It seemed as though the chase for Daisy paid off more than the real thing. Gatsby made a name for himself and became rich and successful in the pursuit of Daisy. When Gatsby finally reunited with Daisy, it ended up being catastrophic even though they thought they loved each other. He lost sight of his morals and it resulted in the death of three people, including himself. This is symbolism for the American dream, because a lot of people, once they become powerful or successful, can abuse their power or take advantage of it. An example of this is when Nick is talking to Meyer Wolfsheim about Gatsby, and he mentions how Gatsby is “the kind of man you’d like to take home and introduce to your mother and sister” (Fitzgerald 72). In the same conversation, Wolfsheim also says, “Gatsby’s very careful about women. He would never so much as look at a friend’s wife,” (Fitzgerald 72). Obviously, meeting Daisy again changed this about Gatsby because he got involved with a married woman shortly thereafter. It is apparent that “Gatsby’s love is erased by his assumption of wealth and the endurance of his love” (qtd. in Lutz 5). Before Gatsby and Daisy’s reunion, Gatsby never would have thought about getting involved with a married woman, yet he eventually did because he was so obsessed with his dream.
Another way that Fitzgerald paints the American dream in a negative light is with the Valley of Ashes -- it symbolizes the lack of morality when it comes to people achieving the “American dream.” It is the negative side-effects of people that left others behind and walked over when trying to reach this dream. Some adjectives used to describe the Valley of Ashes are “dim”, “crumbling”, “powdery”, “gray”, “invisible”, “ghastly”, and “obscure” (Fitzgerald 23). This is also comparable to when Nick said that Gatsby has “foul dust” that “floats in the wake” of his dreams (Fitzgerald 2). The connotations of all these words makes the reader think of a dirty, grimy place. It is apparent that Fitzgerald did this on purpose, in order to convey the negative aspect of the attainment of the American dream. It is an industrial area, with workers and few people who actually reside there. This is also effective in making the point, because it shows the conditions that the workers worked in, compared to the lavishness of Tom’s life, for example. Fitzgerald uses the Valley of Ashes in The Great Gatsby to show that hard-workers are not credited, they are trampled over, and forgotten in the pursuit of the “American dream.”
Fitzgerald also conveys the idea that the American dream is not realistic and that there will always be class prejudice through the characters in the novel. West Egg and East Egg are both wealthy communities, but East egg symbolizes people who are born into money, meanwhile West Egg symbolizes people who are self-made, indicating the possibility of achieving it the immoral way, or a “get rich quick” scheme. West Egg is described by Nick as “the least fashionable of the two” (Fitzgerald 5). This shows that there is already a built-in prejudice against “new money” that is ingrained in people’s thoughts. This thought is also shown through characters themselves and how their lives turn out by the end of the novel. The characters who are already rich due to aristocracy, such as Jordan, Tom, Nick, and Daisy, end up untouched in the end. They move on and feel no guilt after what happened between them and others around them. However, the characters who worked, such as Gatsby and Wilson, each have less than lucky fates. They both had no one close to them, and ended up at their funerals alone. It is portrayed like this to show that the “American dream” is set up for aristocratic people to strive while self-made people have to jump through hoops. Fitzgerald presents the idea that the “American dream” is not only unattainable, but also unforgiving for characters who are not born into money.
Some may say that The Great Gatsby is just a tale of the roaring twenties, depicting a love triangle, or square. But it actually goes so much deeper in exposing the classic “American dream” that still, to this day, so many Americans have. This was intended, as the delivery of this story from Nick Carraway was so charming that “it is easy to overlook how unnervingly subtle the structural intelligence behind it was” (Babarese 1). Using symbolism throughout the novel, Fitzgerald conveys the idea that the “American dream” is nothing more than a dream and is not only unrealistic to attain, but is also not worth the achievement.