How does The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald at once both critique and defend the American Dream, and how has World War I (1914-1918) and Prohibition (1920-1933) shaken faith in the American...

How does The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald at once both critique and defend the American Dream, and how has World War I (1914-1918) and Prohibition (1920-1933) shaken faith in the American Dream?

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mwestwood eNotes educator| Certified Educator

F. Scott Fitzgerald's novel The Great Gatsby, magnificent in its prose, is at once a tribute to the yearning heart of immigrants and the children of immigrants for the American Dream, their reach for a heavenly world where they could be rewarded for their hard work, and a satire of the superficial and meretricious value of materialism gained by exigent means during a decadent period aptly named by Fitzgerald as the Jazz Age. These two concepts are illustrated in the character of Jay Gatsby; furthermore, it is because Gatsby depicts both the mythical hero of the idealistic dream and the underworld character of the material dream that Nick Carraway experiences his ambivalent feelings for Gatsby, at first declaring that Jay represents "everything for which [he] ha[s] an affected scorn," only to later tell Gatsby he is "worth the whole damn bunch!" because Gatsby is the only truly moral person in his heart.

Gatsby's innocent belief that he can repeat the past, his conviction that "a promise that the rock of the world was founded securely on a fairy's wing," (5) that for him material values are bound inextricably with dreams, connects him to the ideal and the material both. But, his belief in Daisy, who falls short of his ideal, fails as do his efforts to enter the society of East Egg by means of an ostentatious house with Marie Antoinette rooms and golden fixtures, parties, and linen suits. His ill-gotten fortune from illegal transportation of alcoholic substances furthers his rejection in East Egg society, and, later, he becomes the scapegoat for the Buchanans'--"careless people"--immoral behavior.

Just as Nick is disillusioned in his perception of Daisy, Tom, Jordan, and others, so, too, is he disillusioned with the milieu of the country, the wasteland that lies between East and West Egg and New York City, and that of the senseless deaths of Americans in a horrific war. Likewise, Gatsby's association with criminals such as Meyer Wolfschiem and other unsavory characters disappoints Nick to the point that he feels he must return to the Midwest in order to realize a dream that has not become tainted such as Gatsby's.  One critic writes,

Fitzgerald's ending indicates that his diagnosis of America's immoral materialism is incurable. To him Daisy and Tom's avarice is the American reality and Gatsby's misdirected sincerity is no more than the American Dream.

Yet another adds,

The value of Gatsby's "incorruptible dream" is flawed. His American Dream is an American tragedy. 

The flaws in this dream are, among others, certainly WWII and Prohibition as human value has been degraded and money and materialism have superseded morality in a lawless era.

Wiggin42 | Student

Comparing the Great Gatsby to Fitzgerald's Winter Dreams can give a clearer picture of how Fitzgerald criticizes the American dream. In particular, both Dexter and Gatsby are disillusioned with the notion of a perfect girl in their minds. They are both heart broken when the enchantment is over (green light in Gatsby; age in Dreams). It relates to a broader notion that the American dream is based on fictitious ideas. 

Read the study guide:
The Great Gatsby

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