The similarities and differences in the portrayal of the American Dream in Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby and Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men could not be more profound given the clearly antithetical perspectives of these two classics of American literature. The two novels can be considered sequentially, as Steinbeck’s depiction of those inhabiting the lower rung of society takes place during the Great Depression, and Fitzgerald’s story takes place before the stock market crash of 1929 and the full-fledged onset of the Great Depression that will create the milieu into which Lennie, George, Candy, Crooks and the other desperately-poor-lucky-to-have-any-job characters enter our collective consciousness. That the two novels present widely disparate views of the concept of the American Dream, therefore, is a natural outgrowth of times in which each story occurs.
Of Mice and Men, of course, tells the story of two men, George and Lennie, the first diminutive in stature but smart and burnt out, the latter a physical giant with diminished mental capacity who is completely reliant on his smaller, smarter friend for protection and guidance. George and Lennie are itinerant ranch and farm hands, traveling the western agricultural world in perpetual search of employment and place to rest their heads. Their notion of the American Dream is limited to anything better than what they have. The depths to which their ambitions have fallen can be suggested in the following passage, when the two men are currently staked out at a ranch the foreman of which, Curly, is an abusive bully with an attractive but seemingly promiscuous wife whose suggestions of sexuality belie a desperately lonely human seeking only human companionship with somebody more giving than her husband. Frightened of Curly’s surly demeanor, Lennie is anxious to move on, but is cautioned by the wiser George:
“Lennie cried out suddenly—‘I don’t like this place, George. This ain’t no good place. I wanna get outa here.’ ‘We gotta keep it till we get a stake. We can’t help it, Lennie. We’ll get out jus’ as soon as we can. I don’t like it no better than you do.’ He went back to the table and set out a new solitaire hand. ‘No, I don’t like it,’ he said. ‘For two bits I’d shove out of here. If we can get jus’ a few dollars in the poke we’ll shove off and go up the American River and pan gold. We can make maybe a couple of dollars a day there, and we might hit a pocket.’”
Lennie’s ideal home is a ranch with only George and him and a plethora of rabbits hopping around with which to play. He wants stability and a safe environment. George, however, wants to be free of his entire existence, including Lennie. If the mentally-impaired Lennie only wants someone to be with and some animals upon which to lavish attention, George only wants a few dollars in his pocket and the opportunity to be his own man within the extremely limited parameters available to men like him. The following passage provides another glimpse into George’s vision of the American Dream:
“George undid his bindle and brought out three cans of beans. He stood them about the fire, close in against the blaze, but not quite touching the flame. ‘There’s enough beans for four men,’ George said. Lennie watched him from over the fire. He said patiently, ‘I like ‘em with ketchup.’ ‘Well, we ain’t got any,’ George exploded. ‘Whatever we ain’t got, that’s what you want. God a’mighty, if I was alone I could live so easy. I could go get a job an’ work, an’ no trouble. No mess at all, and when the end of the month come I could take my fifty bucks and go into town and get whatever I want. Why, I could stay in a cat house all night. I could eat any place I want, hotel or any place, and order any damn thing I could think of. An’ I could do all that every damn month. Get a gallon of whisky, or set in a pool room and play cards or shoot pool.’”
Contrast this vision of the American Dream with the unbridled ambition of Fitzgerald’s narrator and the conspicuous consumption prevalent throughout the East Egg community of Long Island during “the Roaring Twenties.” Nick Carraway, the narrator of Fitzgerald’s novel, could enjoy a nice upper-middle-class existence in the Midwest, his family having run a successful business in Chicago. Nick, though, wants more. For him, the American Dream is represented by the opulence of New York and the financial services to which he is drawn: “Instead of being the warm center of the world the middle-west now seemed like the ragged edge of the universe—so I decided to go east and learn the bond business.” Nick seeks the excitement of New York and the material comfort and lifestyles Long Island provides. His second cousin, Daisy, lives in the “old money” world of East Egg with her husband Tom Buchanan. The Buchanans, as Nick soon discovers, live in an enormous mansion with seemingly inexhaustible wealth. Nick’s initial description of Tom Buchanan suggests the kind of “old money” existence to which Nick aspires:
“His family were enormously wealthy—even in college his freedom with money was a matter for reproach—but now he’d left Chicago and come east in a fashion that rather took your breath away: for instance he’d brought down a string of polo ponies from Lake Forest. It was hard to realize that a man in my own generation was wealthy enough to do that.”
That the American Dream personified by Tom and Daisy and those with whom they associate in their East Egg community turns out to be considerably more constipating than Nick may have appreciated is suggested in his early observations of the Buchanans: “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.”
The Buchanans are living the American Dream in the sense of enormous wealth and the material trappings that represents. This American Dream, however, is emotionally stultifying, and comes at the expense of true happiness.
Across the bay, however, in the “new money” world of West Egg, is the novel’s main character, Jay Gatsby. If the Buchanans represent the emotionally comatose version of the American Dream, Gatsby represents its rotten underside. As Fitzgerald’s novel unfolds, Nick becomes increasingly aware of his neighbor’s true identity and the psychological baggage that neighbor brought with him from the Midwestern state of North Dakota, where he was simply known as James Gatz. Gatsby earned his fortune through illegal activities like gambling and as a bootlegger, smuggling alcohol into New York in defiance of Prohibition. Whereas Gatsby’s employer, Meyer Wolfsheim, a thinly-veiled depiction of real-life organized crime figure Arnold Rothstein, is content to rule the underworld, Gatsby’s ambitions are driven more to the American Dream personified by the Buchanans. Towards that goal, the former James Gatz became the fabulously wealthy and somewhat mysterious figure of Jay Gatsby. Fitzgerald’s early depiction of his titular character is captures best in that passage at the end of Chapter One when Nick, having returned from his visit to the Buchanans’ estate across the bay, spies his neighbor gazing raptly at the place from which Nick has just returned:
“I decided to call to him. Miss Baker had mentioned him at dinner, and that would do for an introduction. But I didn’t call to him for he gave a sudden intimation that he was content to be alone—he stretched out his arms toward the dark water in a curious way, and far as I was from him I could have sworn he was trembling. Involuntarily I glanced seaward—and distinguished nothing except a single green light, minute and far away, that might have been the end of a dock.”
Nick was raised with certain “Midwestern” values, such as those instilled in him by his father, and is sufficiently pragmatic and realistic to appreciate the moral decay at the heart of the American Dream. Gatsby, though, is obsessed with a vision of the American Dream that he believes can only be attained through deceit and myriad displays of conspicuous consumption. His American Dream lies across the bay in East Egg, and it includes Nick’s cousin Daisy. That Gatsby’s dream has to remain out-of-reach is Fitzgerald’s ultimate indictment on that concept. George and Lennie would be content having their own small spread of land to farm and on which to raise animals. Their American Dream is as out of reach for them, however, as Gatsby’s is for him.