The American Dream as Told by “The Great Gatsby”

The American Dream is illustrated in the Declaration of Independence as “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” along with “all men are created equal.” In The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald, which takes place in the 1920s, the American Dream is portrayed as a rags-to-riches story about Jay Gatsby. Gatsby was born James Gatz, a lower-class man who escaped his rags of unsuccessful farmer-hood and soon became rich off of inheritance. Over time the basic American Dream has stayed constant–equality, life, and liberty–but this raises the question: has this “Dream” improved since the Gatsby Era? To put it simply: no, the dream has not improved. As the United States has grown, the American Dream has become more humble, yet much more fundamental. With new immigration laws and bans, the American Dream can now be defined as becoming equal in today’s society and the (not-so-simple) goal of starting a life in the United States.

According to The Great Gatsby, America has come from a dream of wealth to the modern dream equivalent to basic human rights: equality and life. In the book, those who were not wealthy lived in the “valley of ashes.” The valley of ashes was a sad, barren, gray place where those who couldn’t quite accomplish the rags-to-riches dream lived. “This is a valley of ashes – a fantastic farm where ashes grow like wheat into ridges and hills and grotesque gardens; where ashes take the forms of houses and chimneys and rising smoke and, finally, with a transcendent effort, of ash-grey men, who move dimly and already crumbling through the powdery air.” (pg. 28) At the time, those living in the valley of ashes aspired to be wealthy because that was the dream. Though living in the valley of ashes probably wasn’t ideal, it was something. Many people today are looking for something, for anything to live in. Today, the valley of ashes has become the dream for many Americans or those who have immigrated to the United States.

Gatsby and his friends lived lavish lives. They owned fancy cars, lived in ornate houses, and spent their time partying. Gatsby hosted extravagant parties in hopes of seeing his wealthy former lover, Daisy. “‘It was a strange coincidence,’ I said. ‘But it wasn’t a coincidence at all.’ ‘Why not?’ ‘Gatsby bought that house so that Daisy would be just across the bay.’” (pg. 77) The parties Gatsby held at his mansion were over the top–enough to draw anyone’s attention. He would spend extraordinary amounts of money for each party, just to be noticed by his former girlfriend. “The lights grow brighter as the earth lurches away from the sun and now the orchestra is playing yellow cocktail music and the opera of voices pitches a key higher. Laughter is easier, minute by minute, spilled with prodigality, tipped out at a cheerful word.” (pg. 43) Gatsby had no worries about the consequences and the amount of money he spent because, hey, he was living the American Dream. More recently, for many, affording an apartment can be tough from month to month.

Not only do some fear that they won’t be able to pay for their homes, but they fear that they may be deported from their homes and families; people that have worked hard to immigrate to the United States and who have worked even harder to maintain jobs and build families here. The fear is incredibly real, as described by an article in the Washington Post. The article tells the story of a mother who was deported without warning, leaving her children and husband. The article exudes the fear and loneliness that comes from deportation by writing, “Her kids returned to their Phoenix home, but it suddenly felt different, empty… Their father — who allowed himself to be photographed but asked not to be identified by name because he, too, fears being deported — looked to his right at the dinner table, where his wife, ‘Lupita,’ would usually sit…” In the book, Gatsby seemed to have had it all– wealth, extravagant parties, a mansion– but more recently “having it all” for many means the reassurance that there will be a house and a family to come home to at night.

The Great Gatsby represents how many viewed the American Dream during the early 1920s. However, due to the rise of the Great Depression in the early 1930s, The Great Gatsby did not sell many copies when it was first published in 1925. The book didn’t become popular until mid-World War II, 20 years after the book was first printed. At the time of publication, many people were not interested in reading about the upper class while they were struggling. This shows how quickly the idea of the American Dream can change. When the book was published, the idea of the “dream” was nearly outdated. The ever-changing American Dream makes me wonder how it may change in the near and distant future. Though I know the dream will fluctuate over time, I am hoping for improvement sooner rather than later.


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