F. Scott Fitzgerald’s classic of American fiction, The Great Gatsby, paints a vivid portrait of the failure of the American Dream in the early 20th century. The modernist classic, which would not achieve critical success in Fitzgerald’s lifetime, has come to be known as one of the most influential American novels of all time. Part of the reason for The Great Gatsby’s enduring legacy are the complex themes Fitzgerald weaves into the narrative, ones that accurately reflect the societal norms of the 1920s. The plot centers on entrepreneur Jay Gatsby and his love for a married woman, Daisy Buchanan. Gatsby uses his acquaintance, the protagonist Nick Carraway (also Daisy’s cousin), to get closer to Daisy, a woman he had sought for many years. Through Gatsby’s tragic pursuit of Daisy, Fitzgerald reveals the decadence of the American Dream, illustrating how its major premises are based on a lie.
By portraying various celebratory social events throughout the plot, Fitzgerald symbolizes the shallow vanity of the American Dream and its corrupt nature.
The first major celebration Fitzgerald uses to show the decadence of the American Dream occurs when Tom Buchanan and his mistress Myrtle invite Nick to their hideaway apartment on 158th Street in New York City to drink and have fun. Clearly, Tom is cheating on his wife Daisy, so the entire scene has an intentionally odd and disrespectful feel to it, especially since Daisy is Nick’s cousin (though Tom does not seem to care). The way that Tom and Myrtle carry on in public as if nothing is wrong, or that they do not have anything to hide, makes the reader feel the impact of Fitzgerald’s portrayal of the decadence of the American Dream and the loss of morals that accompany its decline. The celebratory scene is cut short by Tom’s violent behavior, as he strikes Myrtle out of anger when she keeps repeating Daisy’s name, as shown here: “‘Daisy! Daisy! Daisy!’ shouted Myrtle. ‘I’ll say it whenever I want to! Daisy! Dai—’ Making a short deft movement, Tom Buchanan broke her nose with his open hand” (Fitzgerald 41). The brutal violence of this scene cuts short any merriment that the characters might have enjoyed. The cheating, coupled with the violence against women show the reader that, even though Tom is rich and has achieved the American Dream, at his core he is a corrupt and morally degenerate character.
The second celebration comes at Gatsby’s mansion on the West Egg. Fitzgerald sets the mansion on the West Egg to illustrate the difference between those coming from “old” money versus “new.” The wealthy families living on East Egg, such as the Buchanans, have already been rich. Wealth has been in their heritage for many generations. On the other hand, those who live on West Egg, like Gatsby, are the nouveau riche (newly rich), or those who have recently come into money. This distinction becomes important in the text since the newly rich are typically looked down upon by those of “old” money. In The Great Gatsby, this sets up a direct conflict between Daisy and her husband Tom, and Gatsby. When Gatsby invites Nick to his weekly party, it becomes an outlandish celebration of unnecessary wealth, and it is obvious that Gatsby is merely showing off (in the hopes that Daisy will come to his house). In many ways, this first major celebration is emblematic of the decadence of the American Dream and the unstable foundation on which it is based. For example, in this first big celebration, Fitzgerald illustrates the wasteful nature of Gatsby’s wealth, as shown by this quote from the text: “At least once a fortnight a corps of caterers came down with several hundred feet of canvas and enough colored lights to make a Christmas tree of Gatsby’s enormous garden. On buffet tables, garnished with glistening hors-d’oeuvre, spiced baked hams crowded against salads of harlequin designs and pastry pigs and turkeys bewitched to a dark gold” (Fitzgerald 44). Through Nick, Fitzgerald makes the reader feel the ridiculousness of the affair and its wasteful extravagance, which the reader gathers from Nick’s ironic tone and description of the circus-like proceedings.
The final “celebration” of note that displays Fitzgerald’s symbolic treatment of the American Dream comes at Gatsby’s funeral, which provides a deep contrast to the abundance of Gatsby’s party filled with his “friends.” One would think that, as popular as he was in life, Gatsby would also be popular in death—however, this is not the case. Those same people who came to Gatsby’s parties to drink his alcohol and eat his food did not care enough to show up for his funeral, leaving Nick to mourn his friend alone with Mr. Gatz. The entire funeral scene is bleak and depressing, showing how shallow Gatsby’s “friends” actually are, as they cannot be bothered to attend the man’s funeral. Here, Fitzgerald points out the hypocrisy of those characters living the American Dream; with all their wealth and status, they do not have a shred of decency or respect for the dead. Even Daisy fails to show up at the funeral, underscoring the fact that she is just like the rest of them, basically a shallow individual lacking an inner moral code, as Nick himself notes here in this quote from the text: “I tried to think about Gatsby then for a moment, but he was already too far away, and I could only remember, without resentment, that Daisy hadn’t sent a message or a flower. Dimly I heard someone murmur ‘Blessed are the dead that the rain falls on’ (Fitzgerald 183). In this scene, Nick is too tired and disillusioned to feel much anger toward Daisy for not showing up to the funeral. At the end, he sees through her materialistic character and recognizes that wealth and status have corrupted her nature, just as it has with everyone else in the novel. Through the funeral scene, Fitzgerald makes the statement that the American Dream is corrupt and in decline, as the people who have achieved it, i.e., Daisy, Tom, and Gatsby, are the most morally corrupt characters in the novel.
In The Great Gatsby, Fitzgerald uses the different types of celebrations to show the decadence of the American Dream. The people in the novel who have achieved the American Dream have lost all sense of themselves and lack a moral compass to guide their actions. Tom flaunts his mistress in public and abuses women. Gatsby earned his fortune through illicit means and uses people to get what he wants. Even Daisy is shallow and stays with Tom because she does not have the courage or desire to take a chance for a more meaningful life. For these characters and the superficial celebrations of their wealth, the American Dream is not an achievement as much as it is a tool of power and manipulation. Nick Carraway is the one character in the novel who seems to be guided by something other than greed and petty desire. Through the various parties that Gatsby and Tom throw, Fitzgerald makes it a point to show the fallacy of the American Dream.
- Fitzgerald, F. Scott. The Great Gatsby, Scribner, New York, 1925.