The Great
Gatsby:
A Critique
of the
American
Dream
What is The American
Dream???
"That dream of a land in which life should be
better and richer and fuller for every person,
with opportunity for each according to his/her
ability or achievement.”."
“The concept of the American Dream can be
defined as the belief that individuals have the
freedom and opportunity to achieve their goals
through hard work.”
Components of the Dream
in the 1920’s
•American is a land of opportunity
•Rags to Riches-The possibility of
becoming rich, famous, powerful seems
to be within everyone’s grasp
•Jobs and education available to more
people than ever before
•The belief that rewards are earned
through a combination of skill and
effort
•Through hard work, courage and
determination one can achieve
prosperity. Americans can live better
than their parents did.
• From the days of its earliest settlement by
European immigrants, America was viewed as
the land of plenty, with abundant open land
and natural resources
• It was also perceived as the land of
opportunity, where migrants could settle and,
with discipline, hard work, and entrepreneurial
keenness, achieve material
success, educational
opportunities,
and social and religious
standing.
• Throughout the
years the
American Dream
has drawn
millions of
immigrants from
all over the world
to settle in the
United States.
•This quintessentially American experience and the changing
meaning of the American Dream has been reflected and
explored in American literature.
•Authors from William Bradford to Benjamin Franklin and
Thomas Jefferson to Walt Whitman all recognized the promise
of the American Dream and expressed their conviction that
America was a land of unprecedented opportunity for those
who were willing to work diligently and exercise an
entrepreneurial spirit.
•Countless literary works chronicled the rise of "self-made"
men, people who achieved great power and wealth because
of hard work and cunning.
• Yet even as such works were
being produced, some authors
were creating literary works that
reflected the downside of the
American Dream.
• In these works America was
depicted as a land of limited
opportunity for those on the
margins of society, such as
women, immigrants, minorities,
and the impoverished, who had
limited legal, economic, and
social opportunities open to
them.
American Dream was elusive; it remained
an extremely difficult goal no matter how
hard they laboured and despite their natural
talents.
As many authors, social critics, and
individuals were aware, the American
Dream remained an unattainable ideal to a
large segment of the U.S. population.
•Throughout the twentieth century the theme of the
American Dream and its pitfalls remained central to
American literature.
•As the country was roiled by industrialization, labour
unrest, economic and social inequality, and resentment
toward immigration, American writers reflected the
country's growing disillusionment with the myth of the
American Dream.
•These works also suggested the changing nature of the
concept; people began to believe that crime or get-rich
schemes, rather than hard work, could best provide the
material success they craved.
• One of the best-known works
of the twentieth century, F.
Scott Fitzgerald's The Great
Gatsby (1925), meditated on
the corruption and failed
promise of the American
Dream in an era of
exceptional prosperity, but
also of decayed social and
moral values.
• Fitzgerald's privileged
characters were imbued with
cynicism, greed, and selfabsorption, emblematic of the
social trends that
characterized the era of the
1920s before the Great
Depression.
• In the post-World War II
period, writers often
depicted the American
Dream as a nightmare in
which a hypocritical and
repressed society
vacuously pursued
material wealth and
social security at the
expense of spiritual and
intellectual well-being
and individual selfexpression.
The Great GatsbyA Critique of the Dream
The story of Jay Gatsby
is often construed as an
attack on the American
Dream
The Empty, Illusionary Nature of the
American Dream
• The novel exposes the myth that life can be better and
richer and fuller for every person, with opportunity for
each according to his/her ability or personal merit
• The novel indicates that the dream is not available to
everyone-consider the symbolic significance of Wilson
and The Valley of Ashes
• Furthermore, all people are not equal
• There is a strong divide on racial and class lines (racism
comments throughout the novel, East/West Egg vs. VofA
and East vs. West Egg
The Empty, Illusionary Nature of the
American Dream
• Even when Gatsby does realize his dream of having Daisy,
she is not what he thought she would be
• Morally, she is shallow, corrupt
• She proves to be fickle and self indulgent
• Nick even comments that she may have tumbled short of
Gatsby’s imagination
• The pursuit of this illusive dream leaves Gatsby unhappy-he
has basically cut ties with his family, he has few friends, he
has lost his grip on reality, he has been duped by the woman
he loves, and he dies, desperately clinging to a dead dream
The Empty, Illusionary Nature
of the American Dream
Just as the American Dream was
tainted by the “unworthiness of its
object” so too is Gatsby’s pursuit of
Daisy.
Therefore, the novel asserts that for many
people in society, the idea of the American
Dream is an illusion; it is not even possible
for many people in society, namely those
who face race and class barriers (like
Wilson and those in the Valley of Ashes).
Furthermore, even those who believe they
have actually achieved the dream (like
Gatsby), find they have achieved something
that is empty and hollow.
American Dream has been reduced to
the vulgar pursuit of wealth
• The pursuit of the American Dream began as something
pure; people were willing to work hard to build a better
life for themselves and their families
• Likewise, Gatsby’s original dream was pure; he wanted to
make something of himself, to escape his humble
beginnings and be more successful than his shiftless,
farming parents
• Gatsby started out as honourable and hard working (his
resolves, his commitment to bettering himself)
American Dream has been reduced to
the vulgar pursuit of wealth
• Along the way, an unrestrained desire for money
and pleasure surpassed more noble goals
• Society became concerned with getting rich quick
• People sometimes made money in ways that were
dishonourable and illegal
• The Valley of Ashes represents the moral and
social decay that results from the uninhibited
pursuit of wealth, as the rich indulge
themselves with regard for nothing but their
own pleasure
American Dream has been reduced
to the vulgar pursuit of wealth
• This also occurs for Gatsby-he fixates on achieving
Daisy, and all the wealth, privilege, and luxury she
represents
• There is early evidence that Gatsby is not willing to
advance through hard work and achievement; he refuses
to work as a janitor to pay his way through college
• In his pursuit of Daisy, and this lifestyle, he abandons
even more of his original ideals
• He decides that he must acquire vast amounts of wealth
to achieve his dream of being with her
• Resorts to bootlegging
• He ends up with excess wealth and is still unhappy
Thus, the novel asserts that the pursuit of
the American Dream, a once noble
goal, became reduced to the vulgar
pursuit of wealth; people cast aside
their morals and values in the name of
amassing vast sums of wealth.
Portrayal of 1920’s Society
• In many ways, Fitzgerald portrays that the 1920’s
society is one that has followed the wrong path
• The novel condemns a lack of morality and
spirituality in the 1920’s
• Society’s moral blindness is represented in the
novel by the glasses motif; Dr. Eckleburg’s
eyes,and the character Owl Eyes reinforce the lack
of morality that exists in the society
• Society is ripe with scandal and dishonesty
Portrayal of 1920’s Society
• The community as a whole refuses to condemn lack of
morality and wrong doing
• Gatsby’s involvement in bootlegging
• Wolfshiem’s fixing of the 1919 world series
• Tom’s character-racist, classist, unfaithful
• Nick, Daisy’s cousin, even meets and interacts with Tom’s
mistress
• Daisy, who knows about the affair, refuses to condemn it
• Jordan Baker-dishonest, careless, selfish
• Inhumanity towards Gatsby (no one attends his funeralKlipspringer phone call)
In essence, Fitzgerald’s portrayal of 1920’s society is
of a country that threatens to become morally
depleted, corrupt, and lacking in spirituality. This
has already occurred in the East (where the novel
is set), a location characterized by fast paced,
exciting style of living; but it has come at a great
price. In pursuing this lifestyle, people have cast
aside the honourable values and ideals. At the end
of the novel Nick is nostalgic for the more
traditional social values and ideals, and he returns
west, in search of them.
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