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F. Scott Fitzgerald manages to define, praise, and condemn what is known as the American Dream in his most successful novel, The Great Gatsby. The novel is set in 1922, and it depicts the American Dream--and its demise--through the use of literary devices and symbols.
One literary device he uses to depict the American Dream is motif; one motif is geography as represented by East and West Egg. West Egg is where the "new rich" live, those who have made a lot of money by being entrepreneurial (or criminal) in the years after World War I ended. These people are portrayed as being rather gaudy (like Gatsby's pink suit and Rolls Royce), showy (like Gatsby's rather ostentatious white mansion), and gauche (socially awkward, as Gatsby seems always to be). It is as if they do not quite know what to do with their newly earned riches and therefore try to "copy" what they perceive to be the possessions and manners of the rich. This is a clear condemnation of the excessive materialism which was the result of pursuing the American Dream.
On the other hand, East Egg is filled with those who have always had money. While they do look like they have class, dignity, and manners (things lacking in West-Eggers), they are no better in their excesses than their newly rich neighbors. Tom and Daisy both have affairs, Jordan Baker is a cheat, Daisy kills a woman and lets someone else take the blame, and many of the East Eggers who come to Gatsby's parties bring their mistresses and act like heathens while they are there. The clear message seems to be that the result of the American Dream--wealth--causes destruction.
This is a highly symbolic novel, and Fitzgerald uses symbols to represent various aspects of the American Dream. The first is the Valley of Ashes, a place which depicts the consequences of the self-absorption of the rich. Nick says:
They were careless people, Tom and Daisy--they 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 other people clean up the mess they had made.
One of the results of this representative carelessness is the Valley of Ashes. The rich have made their money on industry and carelessly tossed the waste, resulting in this gray, poverty-stricken stretch of land. The people and the place matter not at all to those who selfishly left their waste for others to live in and deal with, another consequence of the American Dream, according to Fitzgerald.
An unmistakable symbol used to depict the American Dream, as well as its demise, is the green light at the end of Daisy's dock in East Egg. It is Gatsby's inspiration and his aspiration--the unattainable dream. When he was poor, Daisy could not marry him, so he worked hard and achieved the epitome of the American Dream. He literally recreated himself from virtually nothing, he made a lot of money (through illegal means, though no one seems to care much about that), and he surrounded himself with the material possessions which he thinks will entice Daisy to be with him. Nick philosophically compares the green light to the Pilgrims seeing America for the first time.
The dream soon dies, however.
[Gatsby] had come such a long way to this blue lawn, and his dream must have seemed so close he could hardly fail to grasp it. But what he did not know was that it was already behind him, somewhere in the vast obscurity beyond the city, where the dark fields of the republic rolled on under the night.
Here's a video that looks at the use of symbolism and the narrative of the American Dream in The Great Gatsby:
Fitzgerald uses many different mediums to express his views on the "American Dream." In fact, the entire novel can be seen as a commentary on the subject. One symbolic way in which he shows his disenchantment with the "American Dream" is his stark contrast between the haves and the have-nots. East and West Egg are separated to show the difference between new and old money. Fitzgerald comments on the idea that the American Dream is a hoax and one must be born into money in order to reap the benefits. Gatsby, although rich on his own, will never be like Daisy or Tom. The vast lake symbolizes the vast separation between the classes, even if they intermingle at times. Also, the valley of ashes is described very differently from the other places in the novel. Literally "on the other side of the tracks," this place is described using dark colors and depressing imagery. This symbolizes the divide between the physically and metaphorically far-apart classes. The poor will never have what the wealthy do, no matter how much effort and change is made. Gatsby is a prime example of this. He will always be James Gatz inside.
In addition to the other symbols, color plays a major role in Fitzgerald's novel. Here are some examples:
- The green light is suggestive of the desire of Gatsby for Daisy and his envy of her lifestyle.
- Once Gatsby connects with her, Daisy's green light no longer burns.
Blue - This color represents an illusory state.
- In Chapter Three, Gatsby has huge parties every Friday in his "blue gardens [where] men and women came and went like moths."
- In fact, much that has to do with Gatsby is blue: his chauffeur's uniform, the dress that he gives to one of his partygoers when hers rips, and his first sports jacket after he begins working for Dan Cody.
- In Chapter Two, Myrtle Wilson changes into a blue dress as she plays the role of Tom Buchanan's mistress, and the eyes of Dr. Eckleberg are "blue and gigantic."
- Mr. Wilson is "a blonde, spiritless man, anaemic and faintly handsome." He has "light blue eyes."
Yellow - Often the color of decadence, corruption, and evil, yellow appears frequently in the novel.
- At Gatsby's lawn parties, the two young women wear yellow dresses.
- Daisy and her possessions, such as the couch, her attire, and her automobile are white, suggesting sophistication and purity. But, Jordan says that she and Daisy have "left our white childhood." And, like the flower after whom she is named, the core of Daisy is corrupt.
- Gatsby's car is yellow, like the sun near which Icarus flies. There is an ominousness to yellow, and there is corruption to it as the twin girls at Gatsby's party in Chapter Three wear yellow dresses.
The Great Gatsby and the Pursuit of the American Dream
- The book showed what happened to the American dream in the 1920s when dreams became corrupted.
- Corruption comes with the desire for the perfect life.
- Has an affair with Tom because of her desire to live a luxurious life
- Has an unpleasant marriage which ultimately leads to her death
- "The only crazy I was was when I married him. I knew right away I made a mistake. He borrowed somebody’s best suit to get married in and never told me about it, and the man came after it one day when he was out…" (Pg. 37)
- Money, a good job, a big house, nice clothes, and a happy family symbolize the American dream.
- Marries Tom instead of waiting for Gatsby because of Tom’s wealth and Gatsby’s lack thereof.
- Believes that her “American dream” is all that Tom has: wealth, love, happiness, and her daughter when she was born.
- She wants her daughter to be a beautiful fool because “that’s the best a girl can be in this world, a beautiful fool.” (Pg. 22) She wants her daughter to grow up without all the corruption that is in the world.
- Reunites with Gatsby and realizes that she had true love.
- The only thing she could muster up was “They’re such beautiful shirts. It makes me sad because I’ve never seen such…beautiful shirts before.” (Pg 89).
- Realizes that she could’ve married Gatsby and had money if only she’d waited for him like he asked.
- This realization ruins her happiness she has with Tom.
- Moves across the bay to West Egg to be able to be near to Daisy
- Green light symbolizes Gatsby’s dream of having Daisy; symbolizes wealth, money, and jealousy
- Concerned with how people view him
- Wants everything “perfect” for Daisy, and wants her to see him as a “perfect man”
- Theme of reliving the past evident here
- Blinded by his desire to have “the American dream,” which ultimately leads to his death.
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