Fitzgerald’s portrayal of the 1920’s is biased. The novel is based on one type of society--materialistic people. Such people still exist today, but both then and now there are millions of Americans whose dreams aren’t like the book. The American dream hasn’t changed, but it’s not exactly the way Fitzgerald portrayed it. It was and is more than shallow materialism.
I think Fitzgerald was criticizing the American Dream with his portrayal of the Roaring Twenties and the desire for people to accumulate as much wealth as they could as quickly as possible. The statement he seems to be making is that when people to reach their "dreams," they are unfulfilled and realize that they may have been chasing after something that wasn't realistic. Gatsby spends his whole life trying to become wealthy so that he can win Daisy's love, but she doesn't choose him. He wasted his time chasing after his "American Dream."
I do think the American Dream has changed. It used to be that people could come to this country with nothing and make something of themselves. This was unique to America because in most other countries, if a person was born to a low status, they were destined to stay that way. People came to this country knowing that, if they worked hard and educated themselves, they could raise their own status and climb out of poverty.
Now, the American Dream seems different for a couple of reasons. On one hand, you have people who think that the "dream" is entitled to them. They do not believe they have to work hard in order to achieve what they want in life. On the other hand, you have the people who have so many factors working against them that, no matter how hard they work, it is almost impossible for them to rise above adversity and make something of themselves. We say that America is the land of equal opportunity, but this is simply not the case. Some people have it much easier than others, and at times the system makes it hard for certain people to achieve their dreams.
While I agree with e-martin (Post #2), I also agree with litlady33 (Post #8). Gatsby, in particular, really was (a bit) better than the others, at least in Nick's mind (I recall Nick's comment to him at the end, "You're worth the whole damn bunch put together" -- 160). I do see your point, though: Gatsby did try to prove his worth to Daisy through material possessions and excessive accumulation of goods that failed to help him by the end of the novel.
I also believe that as a whole, American society has become even more enamored with material objects (but sadly, I think we always were attracted to those shiny baubles). As a teacher, I even notice a sad shift among my students and notice a huge discrepancy between the "haves" -- those with all the latest gadgets (cell phones, iPads, laptops, etc.) -- and the "have-nots" (some students who even struggle to remain clothed and fed). More often than not, the "haves" become the popular students, while those less fortunate are left behind. It also seems that in our Great Gatsby pre-reading discussions, more students every year assert that the American Dream has everything to do with money and status.
For those Puritans who fled England, the American Dream was one of religious freedom; for those Irish who starved in the Great Potato Famine, America offered them a chance to live and work and eat; for those who fled Italy after its civil war, America offered a new opportunity for jobs. And for other European immigrants it offered the promise of land, farms, and frontier.
While F. Scott Fitzgerald satirizes the American Dream as having become very materialistic in the Roaries '20s, it had become this type of sullied dream then as the criminal element grew in leap and bounds with the passage of the 18th Amendment. Certainly, the American Dream has become corrupted as today many (not all) Third World immigrants, legal and otherwise, enter this country for what they can get from criminality or welfare, rather than for what they can become. The tremendous financial debt of California is evidence of this "take" dream that is the inversion of the "become" and "earn" of the days of Ellis Island.
We might argue that Gatsby's dreams in The Great Gatsby for more than "shallow materialism" as he remains unsatisfied with the achievement of vast material wealth, pursuing and failing in his aim to 1) marry Daisy and achieve something like true love and 2) to become, somehow, truly great.
His ambitions were clearly material to some degree but there was more to him and more to his dreams than material wealth. That is why Nick was able to admire Gatsby in the end.
If Gatsby's aims were purely material, he wouldn't have needed Daisy and would not have been such a desparate and romantic figure. The fact that his material wealth is not enough to satisfy him suggests, I think, that Gatsby's dream was very much akin to the American Dream you are outlining here, one that is focused on being self-reliant, self-determined, and "improved" (in social station and, however vaguely, in spirit).
I have to agree that, for the most part, people are far more materialistic than in years before. Given the advancement of technology, people simply want more and more. For example, if a teenager does not have a smart phone they can be looked down upon.
I would not have dreamed of asking my parents for a computer when I was younger, Now they seem as normal on a holiday list as some new clothes.
Has the American Dream really changed? No. I do not think it has. People still desire things that they do not have. People still desire to make it in society. People still desire to do something greater than those around them.
I think that the American Dream has usually meant that one could find success, especially upward mobility and economic success, regardless of what their social station was. The idea goes that in this country, there are no artificial barriers to success. Like every country, social mobility and economic success are harder to attain at some points than at others. But I do think the American Dream is almost entirely related to material success, and always has been.
I've always felt that it's more accurate to say that the American Dream is the opportunity to pursue the career and lifestyle that you want to pursue, without interference from the government or any other entity. It doesn't necessarily mean that you will end up with a certain income or a certain kind of house or a high degree of success.
I actually think that the American dream is somewhat more materialistic today than it was 90 years ago. There are so many more material possessions that people can aspire to own today. We are also much more aware (through media and such) of what our fellow Americans own. This makes us more materialistic than we once were.
I think that part of the American dream is to be recognized. People want to accomplish something. It is true that being wealthy is part of it, but I do not think it’s the whole point. People want stable lives. They want to own a home, have a job, and be comfortable.
I have personally read The Great Gatsby a year before, and frankly I did not understand the message of F. S. Fitzgerald, but after having consulted some analyses, and after having related the novel to its historical context, I understood that Fitzgerald's message is that THE AMERICAN DREAM was in decline. Before the 1920s, one can undesrtand the AMERICAN DREAM as being characterized by Indvidualism, Hard Work, and Ethics. However, in the 1920s, with the appearance of a group of rich families in the USA, the pursuit of wealth depicted in some of the novel's characters, THE AMERICAN DREAM which based on the pursuit of happiness and equality became a dream based on th pursuit of wealth and material possession. This does not mean in any way that the American Dream came into its end, but that it moved away from its principles during the 1920s. This is my understanding of the novel