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Best Analysis: The American Dream in The Great Gatsby (Part 1)

Posted by Dr. Anna Wulick | Jan 1, 2018 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

 

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, tax evasion or state tax avoidance, 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 mentioned 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

In this section we analyze some of the most important quotes that relate to the American Dream in the book.

 

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.

 

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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's, 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 affected 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.

 

What’s Next?

Ready to continue exploring this topic? Get more analysis and discussion of the American Dream in part 2 of this series!

 

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Dr. Anna Wulick
About the Author

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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