Pursuit of the American dream is a central theme running through The Great Gatsby. F. Scott Fitzgerald conveys different attitudes toward pursuing this dream—and succeeding or failing in this pursuit—through characterization and setting. By offering contrasting characters and settings, the author largely emphasizes the differences. He also shows how an obsessive pursuit can end in failure.
The main character, Jay Gatsby, represents relentless pursuit of his version of the American dream. The key element of Gatsby’s dream is romantic happiness in the form of Daisy Buchanan. Hoping to win her over again, Gatsby mistakenly believes that wealth is the most important factor that separates them. Fitzgerald portrays Gatsby as a hopeless romantic combined with a ruthless businessman, and his story serves as a distortion of the classic rags-to-riches tale.
Contrasted to Gatsby is Myrtle Wilson, whose dream is a life of luxury. She aspires to leave her humdrum existence as the wife of a garage mechanic. Myrtle deludes herself that her affair with Tom could lead to marriage, imagining that religion, not class, is the major obstacle.
Two contrasting settings are associated with these characters. Gatsby’s mansion represents the height of luxury, with more rooms than he can use, a swimming pool, and brilliant décor. This setting shows his nouveau riche attitude and his willingness to squander resources in lavish parties. A starkly different environment is the desolate area that Nick calls the “valley of ashes.” This dreary, gray landscape near the Wilson garage shows the grim results of the dream: burnt residue left by industrial development.