How does F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby critique the American Dream as it exists in a tumultuous and corrupt period (1920's)?

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F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby is properly considered one of the seminal works of literature exposing the “American dream” as crass materialism, at least to those who agree that assessment.  The key figure, other than the narrator, Nick Carraway, is, of course, Jay Gatsby.  Gatsby has devoted his life to two things: the accumulation of wealth, synonymous in his eyes with the “American dream,” and the accumulation of Daisy Buchanan, who exists in Fitzgerald’s novel as a metaphor for the spiritual emptiness that too often sat at the center of the materialism the author condemns.  Taking place during a period of exaggerated domestic euphoria, Black Friday and the Great Depression looming just over the horizon, The Great Gatsby illuminates the fragility and, on occasion, superficiality of the dream to which so many, embodied in the person of Gatsby himself, aspired.   If this be the dream, Fitzgerald appears to be saying, then be careful what you ask for in life.

While the figure of Jay Gatsby represents the misguided obsession with materialism, it is Tom and Daisy Buchanan who represent the moral emptiness of it.  Early in The Great Gatsby, in Chapter One, Fitzgerald describes the Buchanans as a couple of considerable wealth, yet whose relationship and whose lives are devoid of meaning:

“They had spent a year in France, for no particular reason, and then drifted here and there unrestfully wherever people played polo and were rich together.”

It is to this manner of living that Gatsby aspires, and his unrelenting pursuit of the vacuous Daisy is the novel’s ultimate declaration of the hopelessness of casting one’s fate to the pursuit of the dream.  Gatsby’s “new money” wealth, a symbol of cultural inferiority in the upper-class environs of the 1920s, was a wall dividing him from that which he most desired.  His criminal undertakings and associations, so important to his ability to accumulate wealth, have tainted him and condemned him to a side of that wall that he will never be able to overcome.  The unethical and occasionally criminal practices that fueled the accumulation of wealth represented in East Egg has long since been glossed-over with a thin veneer of respectability. 

As The Great Gatsby progresses, and as the cold, distant Daisy, the living, breathing symbol of the spiritual emptiness at the heart of the “American dream” is forced to consider the implications of having killed Myrtle Wilson, it is the morally-redeemable symbol of “new money” who comes to her aid in an act that serves also to open Gatsby’s eyes to the realities of the dream he had so-anxiously pursued.   Late in Chapter Eight, Nick describes the crumbling world of Jay Gatsby, as the dream personified by Daisy Buchanan precipitates his fall:

“He must have felt that he had lost the old warm world, paid a high price for living too long with a single dream. He must have looked up at an unfamiliar sky through frightening leaves and shivered as he found what a grotesque thing a rose is and how raw the sunlight was upon the scarcely created grass. A new world, material without being real, where poor ghosts, breathing dreams like air, drifted fortuitously that ashen, fantastic figure gliding toward him through the amorphous trees.” 

As The Great Gatsby comes to end, Nick further reflects back on the tragic figure of Jay Gatsby -- whose mansion is located in the West Egg section of Long Island, the section reserved for the inferior “new money” types -- gazes across the bay in the direction of East Egg, site of “old money” types like the Buchanans.  In one of the novel’s most important and telling passages, Nick describes watching Gatsby stare longingly at the images of East Egg from his own well-manicured lawn across the water:

“And as I sat there brooding on the old, unknown world, I thought of Gatsby’s wonder when he first picked out the green light at the end of Daisy’s dock. He had come a long way to this blue lawn, and his dream must have seemed so close that he could hardly fail to grasp it. He did not know that it was already behind him, somewhere back in that vast obscurity beyond the city, where the dark fields of the republic rolled on under the night.

"Gatsby believed in the green light, the orgastic future that year by year recedes before us. It eluded us then, but that's no matter—to-morrow we will run faster, stretch out our arms farther. . . . And one fine morning——

"So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.” 

F. Scott Fitzgerald’s critique of “the American dream,” as defined during the period described in his novel, is one of a bleak, emotionless existence.  The Great Gatsby was written prior to the tumultuous events yet to come – mainly, the stock market crash and onset of the depression – but Fitzgerald’s story can be seen as having been prescient regarding the moral and practical implications of the crass materialism that defined the “American dream.”

Read the study guide:
The Great Gatsby

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