Death of The American Dream

Death of The American Dream

A by joliecouer

This is an essay on The Great Gatsby that I wrote for my Junior Honors English class


        As a testament to the complexity of the human spirit, it is ironically fitting that this nation’s greatest literary works were born from the some of the worst carnage the world has ever seen. In the wake of The Great War that shattered the global peace of the early twentieth century, American Literature underwent an unforgettable maturation. Although society recovered rather hastily from the butchery of World War I, there was a generation of writers, musicians, and artists that became disenchanted with traditional American ideals. While the American people welcomed the 1920s as the racy Jazz Age of consumerism and decadence, literary notions of idealism turned into cynicism and disillusionment. The Modernist Movement was thus conceived. One of the central ideas of this genre of literature was the deterioration of the American Dream: a loss of faith in the patriotic ideals that had tied American citizens to their culture, land, and each other. The great literary genius F. Scott Fitzgerald captured this societal dejection in his quintessential novel The Great Gatsby. Paralleling the spiritual emptiness of society, three of his characters, Myrtle Wilson, Nick Carraway, and Jay Gatsby, each embody the corrosion of a pillar of the elusive American Dream.        


One of the most eminent facets of the American Dream is the importance and ultimate triumph of the self-sufficient individual; the idea that success will come to person with enough faith in his or her own capabilities. Myrtle Wilson, the mistress of the wealthy Tom Buchanan, is one such individual who tries to create a place for herself in the greater society. She comes from the desolate valley of ashes, a barren wasteland of “men who move dimly and already crumbling through the powdery air” (27). She comes from junkyard of useless dreams, yet she has an inherent belief that she deserves more out of life. Despite her bleak, gray background, “there [is] an immediate perceptible vitality about her as if the nerves of her body [are] continually smouldering” (30). The fire of life may be smothered in her surroundings, but she has a certain vivacity within her. Her ambition brings her closer to men like Tom who can promise her a life unheard of in the valley of ashes. Myrtle is yet another common face among millions who have wanted to better their lives, millions who have sacrificed themselves in the pursuit of the American Dream. But alas, as the modernists believed, the individual is indeed fallible. It is not enough that Myrtle believes she is better than the ash she lives in or better than her feeble husband who “[isn’t] fit to lick [her] shoe” (39). In the end, she is of no more importance than the meaning of her name: a common shrub found in the bleak and dry desert. Her strive for individual triumph and significance culminates in a violently careless car accident that leaves her dead in the middle of the road, “[mingling] her thick, dark blood with the dust” (145). Myrtle’s fiery blood, “the tremendous vitality she had stored so long” which had promised to be her deliverance of life takes her no farther than the dust she once walked upon (145). Thus falls a tenet of the American Dream, as the common belief in the power of the individual to rise above circumstance proves to be another cruel farce of life. 


        Since the days of early colonization and manifest destiny, the American birthright has been one of ever-expanding opportunity. The entire feel-good era of the Roaring Twenties cemented this idea of perpetual optimism at the core of the American Dream. However, even prosperity has its limits, and the Dream began to fall apart in the late twenties. Nick Carraway, a prominent character of The Great Gatsby, undergoes a loss of faith comparable to the disillusionment of society. As a profound witness to the yellowed corruption around him, Nick’s optimism in the promise of a new day gradually fades into heavy skepticism. At the beginning of the novel, Nick moves to the East in search of new opportunities, an action which in itself is a sanguine manifestation of his faith in the American Dream. Believing in the artificial prosperity of the Jazz Age, Nick leaves the Midwest with “that familiar conviction that life was beginning over again with the summer” (8). However, throughout the course of the novel, he unwillingly becomes entwined in the convoluted motives and poignant aspirations of “the pursued, the pursuing, the busy and the tired” (85). He sees the arrogant nonchalance of the rich through Tom and Daisy “who [smash] up things and creatures and then [retreat] back into their money” (187). He sees Myrtle’s wild social struggle to fit into the upper echelon of society in which she does not belong. He sees George Wilson fatally rise out the choking valley of ashes to try to salvage the last tangible purpose left in his life. And at the end of all this, Nick reluctantly comes to terms with the mortal façade of human character that hides vice behind a veneer of purity; he realizes that dreaming is nothing more than fuel for the pitiless fire of paradox that consumes the poor idealist and spares the corrupt rich. For Nick, the greatest casualty of this inferno is Gatsby, someone he truly admires. He reaches the extent of his optimism when he intimately witnesses “what preyed on Gatsby, what foul dust floated in the wake of his dreams that temporarily closed out [Nick’s] interest in the… short winded elations of men” (7). There is new price to dreaming, one that Nick realizes must be paid with unfulfilled potential. Thus, as in society, Nick loses faith in the fickle abundance that once promised new life and prosperity. Instead of being an instrument for positive change, the American Dream proves to be a “[boat] against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past” (189). As the modernists believed, society is condemned to the ultimately futile task of trying to resist the forces of predestined fate.        


 The single most prominent component of the American Dream is a reverence for America as the new Eden: a land of beauty, bounty, and unlimited promise. In the life of Jay Gatsby, this fervid veneration is both his greatest asset and most fatal flaw. In the novel, he is the only character who wholly believes in the American Dream. His almost desperate yearning to win the love of Daisy, the golden girl, lends an aura of “something gorgeous about him, some heightened sensitivity to the promises of life” (6). Gatsby wants Daisy so badly that he builds his entire life around her. All the wealth he amasses, all the showy parties he throws, and all the seeming decadence of his life exists for the sole purpose of bringing himself closer to Daisy. From his meager beginnings as a vagabond teenager to his extravagant life after the war, he makes great strides to improve his position in society; and when he finally reaches his mansion with a view of Daisy’s dock, “his dream [seems] so close that he could hardly fail to grasp it” (189). Regrettably, it is society in the end that fails to sustain these dreamers. Gatsby comes so close to finally winning the elusive Daisy, that prized green light at the end of the dock, but as in the case of Myrtle Wilson, wanting something badly is not reason enough to attain it. Faith in Eden is not enough. The American Dream is not enough. When Gatsby sees how Daisy reacts to his efforts to win her love, he knows in his heart that the “colossal significance of that light [has now vanished forever” (98). She will never completely love him as he loves her, and it is this realization that kills Gatsby’s dream and takes away his reason for living. At this final moment of painful comprehension, America loses it idyllic virtue as Gatsby sees “what a grotesque thing a rose is and how raw the sunlight [is] upon the scarcely created grass” (169). There is no longer enough fertile vigor in society to nourish noble aspirations of love and devotion. All that remains after the transient flashes of hope from people like Gatsb, is the eternal struggle to make sense of a spiritually empty world.          


        The Great Gatsby defines Modernist literature through its conveyance of the true essence of society during the tumultuous Jazz Age. What began as an era of seemingly endless prosperity became one the most disillusioned time periods in American history. The unifying Dream that had once held enough opportunity for an entire nation crumbled under social and economic duress. No longer did the success of an individual rest in his or her own hands; optimism bleakly faded into passive depression, and America ceased to be the fertile land of promise. As The Great Gatsby and other modernist writing tries to convey, there are limits to the capacity for human progression. As a society, the American people can only travel as far forward as their past permits. Sometimes however, individuals arise out of the confines of reality with the audacity to hope for something more. Although they fail in their ultimate endeavors, society does not forget their courageous struggle. As evidence, almost a century later, readers still remember the greatness of a common man who gave his life to love. The Dream may have died, but society will continue to honor its martyrs.

© 2008 joliecouer

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Added on July 31, 2008
Last Updated on July 31, 2008