Gatsby personifies the American Dream in two ways, in its purity and in its eventual corruption. As a young man, Jimmy Gatz of North Dakota dreamed of the future; he wanted to free himself from grinding poverty, achieve important accomplishments, and make a new, better life for himself. As his list of Resolves and daily schedule indicate, most of his day was spent working; the remainder of his time was spent in activities to make himself stronger, healthier, more educated, and successful. He also tried to become a better person. One of the notations in his journal of that time says, "Be better to parents." Almost none of his time was set aside for entertainment. He was hard-working, disciplined, focused, and motivated to succeed. In these respects, he can be seen to represent all those who reached for the American Dream, believing they could attain it through their own efforts.
Jimmy Gatz does make his way out of North Dakota, and as Jay Gatsby he rises out of poverty and builds a spectacular fortune, almost overnight--the American Dream realized. However, he accomplishes no great deeds, builds nothing of value, and his success does not develop from hard work or creativity. He embraces a corrupt lifestyle and becomes corrupt himself--a criminal who works for a gangster. By the 1920s, the novel suggests, great wealth can be achieved by only a few--those who inherit it or those who acquire it as famous entertainers, athletes, or criminals. No matter hard the honest George Wilson works, for example, he will never escape his poverty. The purity of the American Dream as it once existed is over, destroyed by social class and social corruption. Even baseball, the great American sport born in the 19th Century, has become corrupt.
The East/West motif and symbolism in the novel lie at its heart. Gatsby's early association with Dan Cody brings in elements of American history, with Cody representing the century gone by. The days of the 19th Century in which a pioneer like Cody could challenge the frontier and build a fortune are over, and with the death of the frontier, America changed forever; the best had been lost. Nick's contemplation of the early Dutch settlers at the conclusion of the novel emphasizes this theme.
The only part of America that somehow remains exempt from the corruption of the new century is Nick Carraway's Midwest. His memories of the Midwest of his youth collide with the hollow, selfish decadence he observes in the East; his Midwestern values conflict with the soulless amorality he finds in the Buchanans and their social class. Appalled, he turns his back on the East and goes home to the Midwest.
Nick decides that all he has experienced has been "a story of the West." He, Gatsby, and even Tom and Daisy originated in the West and all came to the East; Gatsby is destroyed and Nick, because he is a person of integrity, cannot stay. Only Tom and Daisy belong there because they had been corrupted by their inherited wealth before they arrived.