America has been labeled “The land of opportunity,” a place where it is possible to accomplish anything and everything. This state of mind is known as “The American Dream.” The American Dream provides a sense of hope and faith that looks forward to the fulfillment of human wishes and desires. This dream, however, originates from a desire for spiritual and material improvement. Unfortunately, the acquisition of material has been tied together with happiness in America. Although “The American Dream” can be thought of as a positive motivation, it often causes people to strive for material perfection, rather than a spiritual one. This has been a truth since the beginnings of America, such as the setting of F. Scott Fitzgeralds novel, The Great Gatsby, which is an example of this set in the 20s. The characters in this novel are too fixed on material things, losing sight of what is really important.
The characters in The Great Gatsby take a materialistic attitude that causes them to fall into a downward spiral of empty hope and zealous obsession. Fitzgerald contrasts Jay Gatsby and Nick Carraway to display how the materialistic attitude of the 1920s leads many to hopeless depression and how materialism never constitutes happiness. Fitzgerald uses Jay Gatsby, a character who spends his entire adult life raising his status, only to show the stupidity of the materialistic attitude. Rather than hard work, Gatsby turns to crime and bootlegging in order to earn wealth and status to get the attention of Daisy Buchanon, a woman he falls in love with five years earlier. “He Gatsby found her Daisy excitingly desirable. He went to her house There was a ripe mystery about it, a hint of bedrooms upstairs more beautiful and cool then the other bedrooms It excited him too that many men had already loved DaisyIt increased her value in his eyes” (155-156). Gatsby falls in love with everything about Daisy. It is not only her that Gatsby desires, it is her riches and possessions as well. The fact the many other gentlemen want Daisy simply increases her worth in Gatsbys eyes. All of these things are the reasons Gatsby “commits himself to the following of a grail” (156). The grail symbolizes a quest for perfection, the perfection of himself in others eyes. James Gatz works his entire adult life to win this woman, to achieve this unrealistic dream of his. Fitzgerald uses the word grail to suggest that for Gatsby, marrying Daisy is a type of a religious quest. Yet, truthfully, Daisy herself is not the key, but the increase in status that she would bring him and the illusion that she carries with her. He had thrown himself into it the dream decking it out with every bright feather that drifted his way” (101). Gatsby is much more in love with the idea of Daisy, not the reality of who she is. He wants everything she has and stands for. Gatsby wastes his entire adult life trying to achieve this idealistic dream.
Indeed he loves Daisy, but through his fantasy he builds her up to be someone she is not. Lost in his idealistic world, he molds his images of her into a perfect specimen. Nick Carraway comments, “There must have been moments when Daisy tumbled short of his dreams, not through her own fault, but because of the colossal vitality of his illusion”, yet he refuses to acknowledge these moments” (101). His state of reality is so greatly altered that he cannot believe she is not the absolute perfect woman he so desired five years ago. Jay Gatsbys obsession with Daisy gives him a false illusion of her, much like the illusion of the American dream, both representing inevitable disaster. F. Scott Fitzgerald clearly uses Jay Gatsby to represent the materialistic attitude of the 1920s. Literary critic Marius Bewley suggests that Jay Gatsby is ” The mythic embodiment of the American Dreamthe terrible deficiencies are not so much the private ones of Jay Gatsby, but are those inherent in contemporary manifestations of the American vision itselfGatsbys deficiencies of intelligence and judgment bring him to his tragic deatha death that is spiritual as well as physical. But the more important question that faces us through our sense of the immediate tragedy is where (these deficiencies) have brought America”. This state of perfection that people so desperately want to achieve is the very reason why American society is dysfunctional. People are blinded by this hopeful result of their lives, they allow the present to escape their grasp.
Fitzgerald introduces a place by the name of “The Valley of Ashes”. It is a depressing locality far away from the glamour and wealth of the East and West Eggs. This dumping ground is half way between West Egg and New York. The Valley of Ashes is a symbol of the empty existence of a low society. Fitzgerald uses this slum as an example of the failure of the American Dream. He criticizes the corruption of the American dream. What was once for Thomas Jefferson-a belief in self-reliance and hard work, has become what Nick Carraway calls “The service of a cast, vulgar, and meretricious beauty” (180). This energy might have gone into the pursuit of morale and self worth, rather than materialism and shallow fortunes. Things like love and relating to another human being is completely overlooked in the pursuit of power and a very showy, but fundamentally empty form of success.
All the characters in this novel are caught up in materialism except for one, Nick Carraway, the narrator and the observer. Nick sees all the evil that goes on, and it is not until about the end of the novel that he realizes he does not want to be any part of it. Right before Gatsby is killed, Nick says goodbye to him, turns to walk away, then pauses, turns back and shouts ” Theyre a rotten crowd, Youre worth the whole damn bunch put together ” (162). This is a very special moment where Nick reveals to the reader that although he disapproves of Gatsbys materialism, his tasteless pink suits, his love of a woman as shallow as Daisy, and his pathetic efforts to win her back by showing off what he has rather than who he isGatsby is not part of “the foul dust”. His “incorruptible dream” has something pure and noble about it, which sets him apart from the others. Tom, Daisy, Jordan,–they belong to the “rotten crowd” because they are selfish, materialistic, and cruel. They do not have spiritual values or compassion. Nick realizes that Gatsby is better than them because of his total dedication to a dream. Nick also comes to the realization that “They were careless people, Tom and Daisythey smashed up things and creatures and then retreated back into their money or their vast carelessness, or whatever it was that kept them together, and let other people clean up the mess they had made” (187). Nicks decision to leave the east is tied up with his reaction to “careless people”. He does not want to become that way himself. He is now rid of Tom and the world Tom represents, and can return to a world of principles and traditions in the Midwest.
Nicks final thoughts are stated at the end of the novel where the story is summed up. The novel is transformed from a story of a small group of people at a moment in time to a portrait of an entire nation. It is Nicks last night in West Egg and he has walked over to Gatsbys mansion, letting the houses melt away in his imagination, he thinks of what this island must have looked like to the Dutch sailors seeing it for the first time in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries: as a new world–pure, and unspoiled. Nick calls it “a fresh green breast of the new world” (189). It finally hits Nick at the end that men have always been dreamers. The idea of America as a land of infinite possibilities was so magnificent then, that man was “face to face for the last time in history with something commensurate to his capacity for wonder” (189). The landits physical beauty and its apparently limitless horizonswere worthy of the dream. For Gatsby the green light at the end of Daisys dock symbolized the same American dream that drove the Dutch sailors to the new world. Gatsby believed in the dream, and Nick Carraway will always love him for it. Nick will also always know the importance of human beings in his life; and not material things.
Placing Nick as an observer, Fitzgerald is able to successfully show the reader how foolish it is to value material items over spirituality. The Great Gatsby is not, just a book about the 1920s. It is a book about America, its promise, and the betrayal of that promise. F. Scott Ftizgerald writes his best novels during the 1920s, in which he examines the evils of the time; he recognizes the consequences that accompany the actions of the characters who act on such vices, and wrote about them. This is a novel about what happens to the American dream in the 1920s, a period when the old values that give substance to the dream are corrupted by the vulgar pursuit of wealth. The very definition of materialism implies unhappiness because without spiritual values there cannot be true and lasting fulfillment.
For although this novel captures the romance and glitter of “The Jazz Age”, it is more fundamentally a sad storythe portrayal of a young man and his tragic search for happiness. It is shameful that this country is built with such hope and positive motivation, but that the dark side of humanity turns it into such a selfish country. America, the land of opportunity, has unfortunately turned into an economic battle. Society is so worried about being the best, people surpass pure happiness. “There is only one success: to be able to spend your life in your own way, and not to give others absurd maddening claims upon it. Christopher Darlington Morley (1890-1957)