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Best Analysis: The American Dream in The Great Gatsby

Posted by Dr. Anna Wulick | May 12, 2016 11:00:00 PM

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The Great Gatsby is a tragic love story on the surface, but it’s most commonly understood as a pessimistic critique of the American Dream. In the novel, Jay Gatsby overcomes his poor past to gain an incredible amount of money and a limited amount of social cache in 1920s NYC, only to be rejected by the “old money” crowd. He then gets killed after being tangled up with them.

Through Gatsby’s life, as well as that of the Wilsons’, Fitzgerald critiques the idea that America is a meritocracy where anyone can rise to the top with enough hard work. We will explore how this theme plays out in the plot, briefly analyze some key quotes about it, as well as do some character analysis and broader analysis of topics surrounding the American Dream in The Great Gatsby.

 

Roadmap

  1. What is the American Dream?
  2. The American Dream in the Great Gatsby plot
  3. Key American Dream quotes
  4. Analyzing characters via the American Dream
  5. Common discussion and essay topics

 

Quick Note on Our Citations

Our citation format in this guide is (chapter.paragraph). We're using this system since there are many editions of Gatsby, so using page numbers would only work for students with our copy of the book. To find a quotation we cite via chapter and paragraph in your book, you can either eyeball it (Paragraph 1-50: beginning of chapter; 50-100: middle of chapter; 100-on: end of chapter), or use the search function if you're using an online or eReader version of the text.

 

What Exactly Is “The American Dream”?

The American Dream is the belief that anyone, regardless of race, class, gender, or nationality, can be successful in America (read: rich) if they just work hard enough. The American Dream thus presents a pretty rosy view of American society that ignores problems like systemic racism and misogyny, xenophobia, and income inequality. It also presumes a myth of class equality, when the reality is America has a pretty well-developed class hierarchy.

The 1920s in particular was a pretty tumultuous time due to increased immigration (and the accompanying xenophobia), changing women’s roles (spurred by the right to vote, which was won in 1919), and extraordinary income inequality. The country was also in the midst of an economic boom, which fueled the belief that anyone could “strike it rich” on Wall Street. However, this rapid economic growth was built on a bubble which popped in 1929. The Great Gatsby was published in 1925, well before the crash, but through its wry descriptions of the ultra-wealthy, it seems to somehow predict that the fantastic wealth on display in 1920s New York was just as ephemeral as one of Gatsby’s parties.

In any case, the novel, just by being set in the 1920s, is unlikely to present an optimistic view of the American Dream, or at least a version of the dream that’s inclusive to all genders, ethnicities, and incomes. With that background in mind, let’s jump into the plot!

 

The American Dream in The Great Gatsby

Chapter 1 places us in a particular year – 1922 – and gives us some background about WWI.  This is relevant, since the 1920s is presented as a time of hollow decadence among the wealthy, as evidenced especially by the parties in Chapters 2 and 3. And as we mention above, the 1920s were a particularly tense time in America.

We also meet George and Myrtle Wilson in Chapter 2, both working class people who are working to improve their lot in life, George through his work, and Myrtle through her affair with Tom Buchanan.

We learn about Gatsby’s goal in Chapter 4: to win Daisy back. Despite everything he owns, including fantastic amounts of money and an over-the-top mansion, for Gatsby, Daisy is the ultimate status symbol. So in Chapter 5, when Daisy and Gatsby reunite and begin an affair, it seems like Gatsby could in fact achieve his goal.

In Chapter 6, we learn about Gatsby’s less-than-wealthy past, which not only makes him look like the star of a rags-to-riches story, it makes Gatsby himself seem like someone in pursuit of the American Dream, and for him the personification of that dream is Daisy.

However, in Chapters 7 and 8, everything comes crashing down: Daisy refuses to leave Tom, Myrtle is killed, and George breaks down and kills Gatsby and then himself, leaving all of the “strivers” dead and the old money crowd safe. Furthermore, we learn in those last chapters that Gatsby didn’t even achieve all his wealth through hard work, like the American Dream would stipulate – instead, he earned his money through crime. (He did work hard and honestly under Dan Cody, but lost Dan Cody’s inheritance to his ex-wife.)  

In short, things do not turn out well for our dreamers in the novel! Thus, the novel ends with Nick’s sad meditation on the lost promise of the American Dream. You can read a detailed analysis of these last lines in our summary of the novel’s ending.

 

body_bubble.jpgThis novel is just one very large burst bubble.

 

Key American Dream Quotes

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. (1.152)

In our first glimpse of Jay Gatsby, we see him reaching towards something far off, something in sight but definitely out of reach. This famous image of the green light is often understood as part of The Great Gatsby’s meditation on The American Dream – the idea that people are always reaching towards something greater than themselves that is just out of reach. You can read more about this in our post all about the green light. The fact that this yearning image is our introduction to Gatsby foreshadows his unhappy end and also marks him as a dreamer, rather than people like Tom or Daisy who were born with money and don’t need to strive for anything so far off.

 

Over the great bridge, with the sunlight through the girders making a constant flicker upon the moving cars, with the city rising up across the river in white heaps and sugar lumps all built with a wish out of non-olfactory money. The city seen from the Queensboro Bridge is always the city seen for the first time, in its first wild promise of all the mystery and the beauty in the world.

A dead man passed us in a hearse heaped with blooms, followed by two carriages with drawn blinds and by more cheerful carriages for friends. The friends looked out at us with the tragic eyes and short upper lips of south-eastern Europe, and I was glad that the sight of Gatsby's splendid car was included in their somber holiday. As we crossed Blackwell's Island a limousine passed us, driven by a white chauffeur, in which sat three modish Negroes, two bucks and a girl. I laughed aloud as the yolks of their eyeballs rolled toward us in haughty rivalry.

"Anything can happen now that we've slid over this bridge," I thought; "anything at all. . . ."

Even Gatsby could happen, without any particular wonder. (4.55-8)


Early in the novel, we get this mostly optimistic illustration of the American Dream – we see people of different races and nationalities racing towards NYC, a city of unfathomable possibility. This moment has all the classic elements of the American Dream – economic possibility, racial and religious diversity, a carefree attitude. At this moment, it does feel like “anything can happen,” even a happy ending.

However, this rosy view eventually gets undermined by the tragic events later in the novel. And even at this point, Nick’s condescension towards the people in the other cars reinforces America’s racial hierarchy that disrupts the idea of the American Dream. There is even a little competition at play, a “haughty rivalry” at play between Gatsby’s car and the one bearing the “modish Negroes.” Nick “laughs aloud” at this moment, suggesting he thinks it’s amusing that the passengers in this other car see them as equals, or even rivals to be bested. In other words, he seems to firmly believe in the racial hierarchy Tom defends in Chapter 1, even if it doesn’t admit it honestly.

 

His heart beat faster and faster as Daisy's white face came up to his own. He knew that when he kissed this girl, and forever wed his unutterable visions to her perishable breath, his mind would never romp again like the mind of God. So he waited, listening for a moment longer to the tuning fork that had been struck upon a star. Then he kissed her. At his lips' touch she blossomed for him like a flower and the incarnation was complete. (6.134)

This moment explicitly ties Daisy to all of Gatsby’s larger dreams for a better life – to his American Dream. This sets the stage for the novel’s tragic ending, since Daisy cannot hold up under the weight of the dream Gatsby projects onto her. Instead, she stays with Tom Buchanan, despite her feelings for Gatsby. Thus when Gatsby fails to win over Daisy, he also fails to achieve his version of the American Dream. This is why so many people read the novel as a somber or pessimistic take on the American Dream, rather than an optimistic one.  

 

...as the moon rose higher the inessential houses began to melt away until gradually I became aware of the old island here that flowered once for Dutch sailors' eyes--a fresh, green breast of the new world. Its vanished trees, the trees that had made way for Gatsby's house, had once pandered in whispers to the last and greatest of all human dreams; for a transitory enchanted moment man must have held his breath in the presence of this continent, compelled into an aesthetic contemplation he neither understood nor desired, face to face for the last time in history with something commensurate to his capacity for wonder.

And as I sat there brooding on the old, unknown world, I thought of Gatsby's wonder when he first picked out the green light at the end of Daisy's dock. He had come a long way to this blue lawn and his dream must have seemed so close that he could hardly fail to grasp it. He did not know that it was already behind him, somewhere back in that vast obscurity beyond the city, where the dark fields of the republic rolled on under the night.” (9.151-152)

The closing pages of the novel reflect at length on the American Dream, in an attitude that seems simultaneously mournful, appreciative, and pessimistic. It also ties back to our first glimpse of Gatsby, reaching out over the water towards the Buchanan’s green light. Nick notes that Gatsby’s dream was “already behind him” then, in other words, it was impossible to attain. But still, he finds something to admire in how Gatsby still hoped for a better life, and constantly reached out toward that brighter future.

For a full consideration of these last lines and what they could mean, see our analysis of the novel’s ending.

 

Analyzing Characters Through the American Dream

An analysis of the characters in terms of the American Dream usually leads to a pretty cynical take on the American Dream.

Most character analysis centered on the American Dream will necessarily focus on Gatsby, George, or Myrtle (the true strivers in the novel), though as we’ll discuss below, the Buchanans can also provide some interesting layers of discussion. For character analysis that incorporates the American Dream, carefully consider your chosen character’s motivations and desires, and how the novel does (or doesn’t!) provide glimpses of the dream’s fulfillment for them.

 

Gatsby

Gatsby himself is obviously the best candidate for writing about the American Dream – he comes from humble roots (he’s the son of poor farmers from North Dakota) and rises to be notoriously wealthy, only for everything to slip away from him in the end. Many people also incorporate Daisy into their analyses as the physical representation of Gatsby’s dream.

However, definitely consider the fact that in the traditional American Dream, people achieve their goals through honest hard work, but in Gatsby’s case, he very quickly acquires a large amount of money through crime. Gatsby does attempt the hard work approach, through his years of service to Dan Cody, but that doesn’t work out since Cody’s ex-wife ends up with the entire inheritance. So instead he turns to crime, and only then does he manage to achieve his desired wealth.

So while Gatsby’s story arc resembles a traditional rags-to-riches tale, the fact that he gained his money immorally complicates the idea that he is a perfect avatar for the American Dream. Furthermore, his success obviously doesn’t last – he still pines for Daisy and loses everything in his attempt to get her back. In other words, Gatsby’s huge dreams, all precariously wedded to Daisy  (“He knew that when he kissed this girl, and forever wed his unutterable visions to her perishable breath, his mind would never romp again like the mind of God” (6.134)) are as flimsy and flight as Daisy herself.

 

George and Myrtle Wilson

This couple also represents people aiming at the dream – George owns his own shop and is doing his best to get business, though is increasingly worn down by the harsh demands of his life, while Myrtle chases after wealth and status through an affair with Tom.

Both are disempowered due to the lack of money at their own disposal – Myrtle certainly has access to some of the “finer things” through Tom but has to deal with his abuse, while George is unable to leave his current life and move West since he doesn’t have the funds available. He even has to make himself servile to Tom in an attempt to get Tom to sell his car, a fact that could even cause him to overlook the evidence of his wife’s affair. So neither character is on the upward trajectory that the American Dream promises, at least during the novel.

In the end, everything goes horribly wrong for both George and Myrtle, suggesting that in this world, it’s dangerous to strive for more than you’re given.

George and Myrtle’s deadly fates, along with Gatsby, help illustrate the novel’s pessimistic attitude toward the American Dream. After all, how unfair is it that the couple working to improve their position in society (George and Myrtle) both end up dead, while Tom, who dragged Myrtle into an increasingly dangerous situation, and Daisy, who killed her, don’t face any consequences? And on top of that they are fabulously wealthy? The American Dream certainly is not alive and well for the poor Wilsons.

 

Tom and Daisy as Antagonists to the American Dream

We’ve talked quite a bit already about Gatsby, George, and Myrtle – the three characters who come from humble roots and try to climb the ranks in 1920s New York. But what about the other major characters, especially the ones born with money? What is their relationship to the American Dream?

Specifically, Tom and Daisy have old money, and thus they don’t need the American Dream, since they were born with America already at their feet.

Perhaps because of this, they seem to directly antagonize the dream – Daisy by refusing Gatsby, and Tom by helping to drag the Wilsons into tragedy.

This is especially interesting because unlike Gatsby, Myrtle, and George, who actively hope and dream of a better life, Daisy and Tom are described as bored and “careless,” and end up instigating a large amount of tragedy through their own recklessness.

In other words, income inequality and the vastly different starts in life the characters have strongly affects their outcomes. The way they choose to live their lives, their morality (or lack thereof), and how much they dream doesn’t seem to matter. This, of course, is tragic and antithetical to the idea of the American Dream, which claims that class should be irrelevant and anyone can rise to the top.

 

Daisy as a Personification of the American Dream

As we discuss in our post on money and materialism in The Great Gatsby, Daisy’s voice is explicitly tied to money by Gatsby:

"Her voice is full of money," he said suddenly.

That was it. I'd never understood before. It was full of money--that was the inexhaustible charm that rose and fell in it, the jingle of it, the cymbals' song of it. . . . High in a white palace the king's daughter, the golden girl. . . . (7.105-6)

If Daisy’s voice promises money, and the American Dream is explicitly linked to wealth, it’s not hard to argue that Daisy herself – along with the green light at the end of her dock – stands in for the American Dream. In fact, as Nick goes on to describe Daisy as “High in a white palace the king’s daughter, the golden girl,” he also seems to literally describe Daisy as a prize, much like the princess at the end of a fairy tale (or even Princess Peach at the end of a Mario game!).

But Daisy, of course, is only human – flawed, flighty, and ultimately unable to embody the huge fantasy Gatsby projects onto her. So this, in turn, means that the American Dream itself is just a fantasy, a concept too flimsy to actually hold weight, especially in the fast-paced, dog-eat-dog world of 1920s America.

Furthermore, you should definitely consider the tension between the fact that Daisy represents Gatsby’s ultimate goal, but at the same time (as we discussed above), her actual life is the opposite of the American Dream: she is born with money and privilege, likely dies with it all intact, and there are no consequences to how she chooses to live her life in between.

 

Can Female Characters Achieve the American Dream?  

Finally, it’s interesting to compare and contrast some of the female characters using the lens of the American Dream.

Let’s start with Daisy, who is unhappy in her marriage and, despite a brief attempt to leave it, remains with Tom, unwilling to give up the status and security their marriage provides. At first, it may seem like Daisy doesn’t dream at all, so of course she ends up unhappy. But consider the fact that Daisy was already born into the highest level of American society. The expectation placed on her, as a wealthy woman, was never to pursue something greater, but simply to maintain her status. She did that by marrying Tom, and it’s understandable why she wouldn’t risk the uncertainty and loss of status that would come through divorce and marriage to a bootlegger. Again, Daisy seems to typify the “anti-American” dream, in that she was born into a kind of aristocracy and simply has to maintain her position, not fight for something better.

In contrast, Myrtle, aside from Gatsby, seems to be the most ambitiously in pursuit of getting more than she was given in life. She parlays her affair with Tom into an apartment, nice clothes, and parties, and seems to revel in her newfound status. But of course, she is knocked down the hardest, killed for her involvement with the Buchanans, and specifically for wrongfully assuming she had value to them. Considering that Gatsby did have a chance to leave New York and distance himself from the unfolding tragedy, but Myrtle was the first to be killed, you could argue the novel presents an even bleaker view of the American Dream where women are concerned.

Even Jordan, who seems to be living out a kind of dream by playing golf and being relatively independent, is tied to her family’s money and insulated from consequences by it, making her a pretty poor representation of the dream. And of course, since her end game also seems to be marriage, she doesn’t push the boundaries of women’s roles as far as she might wish (read more about Jordan, the role of women in the 1920s, and marriage over at her character page).  

So while the women all push the boundaries of society’s expectations of them in certain ways, they either fall in line or are killed, which definitely undermines the rosy of idea that anyone, regardless of gender, can make it in America. The American Dream as shown in Gatsby becomes even more pessimistic through the lens of the female characters.  

 

body_lens.jpgFocusing the lens on the women is predictably depressing.

 

Common Essay Questions/Discussion Topics

Now let's work through some of the more frequently brought up subjects for discussion.

 

Was Gatsby's dream worth it? Was all the work, time, and patience worth it for him?

Like me, you might immediately think “of course it wasn’t worth it! Gatsby lost everything, not to mention the Wilsons got caught up in the tragedy and ended up dead!” So if you want to make the more obvious “the dream wasn’t worth it” argument, you could point to the unraveling that happens at the end of the novel (including the deaths of Myrtle, Gatsby and George) and how all Gatsby’s achievements are for nothing, as evidenced by the sparse attendance of his funeral.

However, you could definitely take the less obvious route and argue that Gatsby’s dream was worth it, despite the tragic end. First of all, consider Jay’s unique characterization in the story: “He was a son of God--a phrase which, if it means anything, means just that--and he must be about His Father's Business, the service of a vast, vulgar and meretricious beauty” (6.7). In other words, Gatsby has a larger-than-life persona and he never would have been content to remain in North Dakota to be poor farmers like his parents. Even if he ends up living a shorter life, he certainly lived a full one full of adventure. His dreams of wealth and status took him all over the world on Dan Cody’s yacht, to Louisville where he met and fell in love with Daisy, to the battlefields of WWI, to the halls of Oxford University, and then to the fast-paced world of Manhattan in the early 1920s, when he earned a fortune as a bootlegger. In fact, it seems Jay lived several lives in the space of just half a normal lifespan. In short, to argue that Gatsby’s dream was worth it, you should point to his larger-than-life conception of himself and the fact that he could have only sought happiness through striving for something greater than himself, even if that ended up being deadly in the end.

 

In the Langston Hughes poem “A Dream Deferred,” Hughes asks questions about what happens to postponed dreams. How does Fitzgerald examine this issue of deferred dreams? What do you think are the effects of postponing our dreams? How can you apply this lesson to your own life?

If you’re thinking about “deferred dreams” in The Great Gatsby, the big one is obviously Gatsby’s deferred dream for Daisy – nearly five years pass between his initial infatuation and his attempt in the novel to win her back, an attempt that obviously backfires. You can examine various aspects of Gatsby’s dream – the flashbacks to his first memories of Daisy in Chapter 8, the moment when they reunite in Chapter 5, or the disastrous consequences of the confrontation of Chapter 7 – to illustrate Gatsby’s deferred dream.

You could also look at George Wilson’s postponed dream of going West, or Myrtle’s dream of marrying a wealthy man of “breeding” – George never gets the funds to go West, and is instead mired in the Valley of Ashes, while Myrtle’s attempt to achieve her dream after 12 years of marriage through an affair ends in tragedy. Apparently, dreams deferred are dreams doomed to fail.

As Nick Carraway says, “you can’t repeat the past” – the novel seems to imply there is a small window for certain dreams, and when the window closes, they can no longer be attained. This is pretty pessimistic, and for the prompt’s personal reflection aspect, I wouldn’t say you should necessarily “apply this lesson to your own life” straightforwardly.  But it is worth noting that certain opportunities are fleeting, and perhaps it’s wiser to seek out newer and/or more attainable ones, rather than pining over a lost chance.

Any prompt like this one which has a section of more personal reflection gives you freedom to tie in your own experiences and point of view, so be thoughtful and think of good examples from your own life!

 

Explain how the novel does or does not demonstrate the death of the American Dream. Is the main theme of Gatsby indeed “the withering American Dream”? What does the novel offer about American identity?

In this prompt, another one that zeroes in on the dead or dying American Dream, you could discuss how the destruction of three lives (Gatsby, George, Myrtle) and the cynical portrayal of the old money crowd illustrates a dead, or dying American Dream. After all, if the characters who dream end up dead, and the ones who were born into life with money and privilege get to keep it without consequence, is there any room at all for the idea that less-privileged people can work their way up?   

In terms of what the novel says about American identity, there are a few threads you could pick up – one is Nick’s comment in Chapter 9 about the novel really being a story about (mid)westerners trying (and failing) to go East: “I see now that this has been a story of the West, after all--Tom and Gatsby, Daisy and Jordan and I, were all Westerners, and perhaps we possessed some deficiency in common which made us subtly unadaptable to Eastern life” (9.125). This observation suggests an American identity that is determined by birthplace, and that within the American identity there are smaller, inescapable points of identification.  

Furthermore, for those in the novel not born into money, the American identity seems to be about striving to end up with more wealth and status. But in terms of the portrayal of the old money set, particularly Daisy, Tom, and Jordan, the novel presents a segment of American society that is essentially aristocratic – you have to be born into it. In that regard, too, the novel presents a fractured American identity, with different lives possible based on how much money you are born with.

In short, I think the novel disrupts the idea of a unified American identity or American dream, by instead presenting a tragic, fractured, and rigid American society, one that is divided based on both geographic location and social class.

 

Most would consider dreams to be positive motivators to achieve success, but the characters in the novel often take their dreams of ideal lives too far. Explain how characters' American Dreams cause them to have pain when they could have been content with more modest ambitions. 

Gatsby is an obvious choice here – his pursuit of money and status, particularly through Daisy, leads him to ruin. There were many points when perhaps Gatsby could have been happy with what he achieved (especially after his apparently successful endeavors in the war, if he had remained at Oxford, or even after amassing a great amount of wealth as a bootlegger) but instead he kept striving upward, which ultimately lead to his downfall. You can flesh this argument out with the quotations in Chapters 6 and 8 about Gatsby’s past, along with his tragic death.

Myrtle would be another good choice for this type of prompt. In a sense, she seems to be living her ideal life in her affair with Tom – she has a fancy NYC apartment, hosts parties, and gets to act sophisticated – but these pleasures end up gravely hurting George, and of course her association with Tom Buchanan gets her killed.  

Nick, too, if he had been happy with his family’s respectable fortune and his girlfriend out west, might have avoided the pain of knowing Gatsby and the general sense of despair he was left with.

You might be wondering about George – after all, isn’t he someone also dreaming of a better life? However, there aren’t many instances of George taking his dreams of an ideal life “too far.” In fact, he struggles just to make one car sale so that he can finally move out West with Myrtle. Also, given that his current situation in the Valley of Ashes is quite bleak, it’s hard to say that striving upward gave him pain.

 

The Great Gatsby is, among other things, a sobering and even ominous commentary on the dark side of the American dream. Discuss this theme, incorporating the conflicts of East Egg vs. West Egg and old money vs. new money. What does the American dream mean to Gatsby? What did the American Dream mean to Fitzgerald? How does morality fit into achieving the American dream? 

This prompt allows you to consider pretty broadly the novel’s attitude toward the American Dream, with emphasis on “sobering and even ominous” commentary. Note that Fitzgerald seems to be specifically mocking the stereotypical rags to riches story here - especially since he draws the Dan Cody narrative almost note for note from the work of someone like Horatio Alger, whose books were almost universally about rich men schooling young, entrepreneurial boys in the ways of the world. In other words, you should discuss how the Great Gatsby seems to turn the idea of the American Dream as described in the quote on its head: Gatsby does achieve a rags-to-riches rise, but it doesn’t last.

All of Gatsby’s hard work for Dan Cody, after all, didn’t pay off since he lost the inheritance. So instead, Gatsby turned to crime after the war to quickly gain a ton of money. Especially since Gatsby finally achieves his great wealth through dubious means, the novel further undermines the classic image of someone working hard and honestly to go from rags to riches.

If you’re addressing this prompt or a similar one, make sure to focus on the darker aspects of the American Dream, including the dark conclusion to the novel and Daisy and Tom’s protection from any real consequences. (This would also allow you to considering morality, and how morally bankrupt the characters are.)

 

What is the current state of the American Dream?

This is a more outward-looking prompt, that allows you to consider current events today to either be generally optimistic (the American dream is alive and well) or pessimistic (it’s as dead as it is in The Great Gatsby).

You have dozens of potential current events to use as evidence for either argument, but consider especially immigration and immigration reform, mass incarceration, income inequality, education, and health care in America as good potential examples to use as you argue about the current state of the American Dream. Your writing will be especially powerful if you can point to some specific current events to support your argument.

 

What’s Next?

In this post, we discussed how important money is to the novel’s version of the American Dream. You can read even more about money and materialism in The Great Gatsby right here.

Get complete guides to Jay Gatsby, George Wilson and Myrtle Wilson to get even more background on the “dreamers” in the novel.

Like we discussed above, the green light is often seen as a stand-in for the idea of the American Dream. Read more about this crucial symbol here.

 

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Dr. Anna Wulick
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Anna scored in the 99th percentile on her SATs in high school, and went on to major in English at Princeton and to get her doctorate in English Literature at Columbia. She is passionate about improving student access to higher education.



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