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"The Great Gatsby" mainly portrays the American Dream in relation to wealth. It was always Gatsby's dream to marry Daisy, but he does not have what he considers enough wealth to win her/support her. By the time the novel is taking place though, Gatsby is freakishly wealthy. He's got so much money that he can afford real books to put in his library instead of fake books like all of the other West Egg residents. The thing with Gatsby's wealth though is that it hasn't been obtained in the most honest of professions. Nobody is 100% certain about where he made his money from, but it is suspected that he is a bootlegger or has mob ties.
‘He’s a bootlegger,’ said the young ladies, moving somewhere between his cocktails and his flowers. ‘One time he killed a man who had found out that he was nephew to von Hindenburg and second cousin to the devil.'"
But none of that matters to people. All that matters is that he is rich. Gatsby has made it, and everybody is in awe of him and jealous of him.
Whether the money is made legally, handed down by families, or obtained honorably is inconsequential in "The Great Gatsby." Wealth is king. Fitzgerald discusses some differences between East Egg money and West Egg money. One is new money. The other is old wealth. There's some snobbery going on there, but in reality neither group cares, which is evidenced by the fact that both groups party at each other's houses. They are all rich no matter where the money came from.
All of that money, wealth, and power is held in stark contrast to the people in the Valley of Ashes. Everything about their existence feels lowly and dirty. Why? Because they are not wealthy. That financial disparity even makes Tom think that he can "borrow" George Wilson's wife, Myrtle, with no consequences.
I think his portrayal is extremely accurate. I've read enough history to know that money was being made all over the place during the roaring 20's. I also believe that the desire for wealth and power is just as strong today as it was then. People choose to drive certain cars or live in certain areas to show off their wealth. It's a status thing and people love showing off their status (Facebook included).
Do I agree with it? Sure. The American Dream has always been the ability to pursue your dream and talents. If that's wealth, go for it. If it's something else that will make you happy, most Americans are not going to stop you. That's the American Dream. The ability to follow your own dream.
Your response to this prompt will depend largely on your own take on the American Dream as the prompt asks you to evaluate Fitzgerald's treatment of the American Dream as it relates to your own views.
In writing this essay, you will want to briefly define the American Dream. Is it an ideal of social/economic progress, climbing the class ladder? Or is the American Dream rather a certain kind of freedom to be yourself, even if that self is a fabrication? Is the best definition of the American Dream somewhere in between this freedom of self-determination and the possibility for social advancement?
In the central character of Gatsby, Fitzgerald may be understood to be making a variety of comments on the American Dream. Depending on your own views of the essence of the American Dream, Gatsby may be a positive figure demonstrating the potential of individuals to define their own destiny, a negative figure exemplifying the moral vacuum of social success, or an ironic figure demonstrating both the potential for social mobility and the questionable motivations that allow someone to successfully re-make himself through deceit (and, also, perhaps naivete).
"If personality is an unbroken series of successful gestures, then there was something gorgeous about him, some heightened sensitivity to the promises of life.… [Gatsby had] an extraordinary gift for hope, a romantic readiness such as I have never found in any other person and which it is not likely I shall ever find again."
After defining the American Dream as you see it, you can assess the ways in which The Great Gatsby engages with these ideas.
- Does the novel suggest that people are positively free to act on a sense of self-determination, to decide their own destiny?
- Does the novel suggest that there are consequences to this pursuit? If so, what kind of comment might the novel be offering by suggesting that self-fabrication has consequences in regards to the validity of the American Dream?
- If the American Dream is a sacrosanct ideal founded in the values of hard work and dedication to one's potential, is there some irony in the novel relating to the lifestyles portrayed by Tom and Daisy, Gatsby and Nick as well? Are these characters fulfilling the American Dream or are they examples of how this dream is somehow materially corrupted, based on no values but rather on superficial urges toward self-gratification?
- How does the romance that animates Gatsby's story-line relate to the American Dream? Is Gatsby attempting to win back Daisy in order to rise socially (as per one definition of the American Dream), legitimizing his stature through marriage? Or is Gatsby pursuing a sense of his own potential for achieving some kind of perfection? How does his success and his failure in this romance function as a comment on the American Dream (either of social mobility or self-determination)?
All of these questions are meant to help you open up the prompt and approach the broad idea of the American Dream from a more pointed angle than the prompt itself offers. There are, clearly, a number of ways to address the question of the American Dream in Fitzgerald's novel.
The American Dream is a concept which secularizes the Protestant notion of Election, promising rewards for a particular form of goodness combining moral rectitude with hard work, energy, focus, and determination. Within this mythos, the United States becomes a land of infinite opportunity for a sort of idealized character who enacts a "rags-to-riches" trajectory, in which the protagonist, rather than exemplifying the heroic virtues of a hereditary nobility, instead performs the narrative of the "self-made man."
In The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald, Jay Gatsby exemplifies this mythos, reinventing himself and even changing his name from James Gatz to Jay Gatsby. Despite this, however, the book reveals some of the gaps in the dream, including the way in which the hereditary rich of West Egg never completely accept Gatsby.
As you write your essay, you should research the actual statistics concerning social mobility, and what is called the GINI Index (a measure of inter-generational social mobility) in the United States. In actual fact, social mobility is far less common in reality than the myth of the American Dream makes it appear.
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