How does F. Scott Fitzgerald portray the American Dream in The Great Gatsby through his use of symbolism and other literary devices?

Fitzgerald uses a variety of literary devices and symbols to portray the illusory nature of the American Dream in The Great Gatsby. One prominent symbol in the book is the the green light that represents Gatsby’s hopes and dreams for a life with Daisy. Another symbol is the Valley of the Ashes, which represents the ugly consequences of America’s obsession with wealth.

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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.

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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.
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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.

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Fitzgerald also portrays the American Dream through his description of Jay Gatsby, whom we hardly know anything about until the end of the novel, after he has died and his father, Henry C. Gatz, comes from Minnesota to attend the funeral.

We then learn that Gatsby has changed his name from the Semitic "Gatz" to a surname that will make it easier for him to fit into the WASPy circles that he wishes to enter. His reinvention is a quintessential aspect of what it means to be American and follows the example of countless immigrants and migrants who have assimilated into the American mainstream by anglicizing their names.

Henry Gatz also tells Nick Carraway about how disciplined James Gatz was, demonstrating a tenacity to succeed at a very young age. Henry presents James's old journal, which includes his daily schedule, as evidence of his work ethic. The schedule is reminiscent of that of Benjamin Franklin who followed a similar routine, which he outlined in his autobiography. The belief that hard work and discipline are always awarded with success is an American ideal that people believe will lead to the American Dream.

The tragedy of the novel is that, despite embracing American values—the needs to reinvent oneself and work hard—Gatsby is never particularly successful. Though he gets rich, he never wins the love or respect of Daisy Buchanan, who represents the social prestige that Gatsby has always coveted.

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Fitzgerald portrays the American Dream through the lyrical language of Nick Carraway but also shows it in the novel as having been debased. In a famous passage, Nick refers to the American Dream as follows: 

Gradually I became aware of the old island here that flowered once for Dutch sailors’ eyes—a fresh, green breast of the new world.… For a transitory enchanted moment man must have held his breath in the presence of this continent, compelled into an aesthetic contemplation he neither understood nor desired, face to face for the last time in history with something commensurate to his capacity for wonder.

The symbol of the American dream, a dream of being able to start anew, is the "fresh, green breast of the new world." The new world is pure: fresh and green, with green here meaning young and untouched, as well as fertile. This links us to Gatsby's dream of recapturing a purer past with Daisy, when they were both younger and fresher. For Gatsby, the dream is also symbolized by the color green, particularly by the "green light" at the end of the pier representing Gatsby's desire for Daisy.

Nick's lyrical language accentuates the beauty of the dream (even if the reality is more sordid: the story of the novel shows the reality while Nick's lyrical prose conveys the dream). Nick doesn't use ordinary, everyday words but heightened prose, such as  "transitory, enchanted moment," that along with the image of "man" holding his breath, underscores the fragile, ephemeral nature of the American dream. The poetic nature of the dream is highlighted in the last lines of the passage as well, with the alliterative, rhythmic use of words beginning with "c." 

At the very end of the book, the dream is again symbolized as the "green light" and the dreamers identified with the vivid image of "boats against the current," pulled back into the past. 

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