Death of the American Dream

J.G. Ballard once quoted, “The American Dream has run out of gas. The car has stopped. It no longer supplies the world with its images, its dreams, its fantasies. No more. It’s over. It supplies the world with its nightmares now”. The definition of the “American Dream” is described as the belief that anyone can become successful with hard work and sacrifice. In this case, J.G. Ballard is describing the American Dream as a false hope and believes that the dream is no longer a dream but a lie. Although the values of the American Dream have vastly changed throughout the centuries, many people wanted to get rich fast instead of striving for equality, but in The Great Gatsby, being rich and successful failed completely as we see how Gatsby’s hopes and dreams come to an abrupt end.

Nick Carraway, our narrator in the book, describes Gatsby as “an elegant young roughneck, just a year or two over thirty.” Nick considers Gatsby a roughneck because of the business he was involved in and how he ultimately came upon his wealthy earnings. Nick slowly begins to realize that everything Gatsby has done in his life was for the sole purpose of fulfilling unrealistic dreams of recreating the past. Nick also learns about Gatsby and how he came to be. As Gatsby’s success story checks out, it makes him the posterchild for the American Dream. Throwing lavish parties at Gatsby’s estate was a staple in the rich society of the early Twenties. On a surprisingly rare occasion, Nick was fortunate enough to receive a personal invite to attend one of these spectacular extravaganzas. While in attendance at Gatsby’s estate, Nick searched endlessly for his host throughout the night. Finally, after several hours at the party, Nick spots Gatsby standing in silence, alone in the darkness on his dock. Nick recalls Gatsby as, “He stretched out his arms toward the dark water in a curious way, and as far as I was from him I could have sworn he was trembling. I glanced seaward–and distinguished nothing except a single green light that might have been the end of a dock” (26). Gatsby’s vision of the American Dream may have truly been miles away, across the water reflected by a mysterious green light. As time went on, “Gatsby believed in the green light, the orgastic future that year by year recedes before us. It eluded us then, but that’s no matter–tomorrow we will run faster, stretch out our arms farther…. And one fine morning——” (189). We’re all capable of believing in self-improvement. It’s the belief that hope and hard work can achieve our dreams. Gatsby’s vision failed because ultimately he was never accepted by the “Old Money” society in New York.

Fitzgerald’s message in The Great Gatsby is illusory. No matter how far someone reaches or how far someone chases, it will forever be untouchable. As Gatsby and Daisy try to rekindle their relationship throughout the book, delusions of Daisy cloud Gatsby mind in trying to make sense and justify his own self-image. Birkert states that The Great Gatsby is a cautionary tale against selling ourselves short while “Gatsby was not a fool for dreaming, only for not knowing how dreams intersect with realities” (122-26). Turns out that Gatsby’s dreams leaned more towards fantasy than reality only to have them deflated in the end. Gatsby’s American Dream appeared to slowly diminished throughout the story. “When the dream melted, it knocked the prop of reality from under the universe, and face to face with the physical substance at last, Gatsby realized that the illusion was there” (Bewley 23-47). Gatsby now unwillingly acknowledged that not everything you hope for in life comes to be. He finally concedes that the American Dream is not within his grasp. Unfortunately for Gatsby, time proved to be his ultimate enemy as described by Miller Jr. “Gatsby’s desire is not peculiarly American, but his stupendous self-assurance that he can recreate the past may well derive from the dark underside of the American Dream. But time will run out—as it does on all human dreams and desires and aspirations” (1975). When time officially ran out for Gatsby’s American Dream to set sail, all of his delusions were exposed.

Once again, Miller Jr. emphasizes “The Great Gatsby is deeply rooted in the 1920s, and at the same time appears to provide a commentary on American character and the American dream, it is still something more—something reaching out beyond its time and beyond its place” (1975). Fitzgerald’s message behind the American Dream was that even though Gatsby was wealthy from his own success, he will never have Tom and Daisy’s success. In order to reap the benefits of this kind of success, one must be born into it. On the surface, “Fitzgerald has written a parable on the perennial American theme of outsized dreams and their bitter ruin” (Birkert 122-26). Someone similar to Gatsby can obtain all these hopes and dreams, only to come up short of fully achieving them no matter how hard they work for it.

Society dictated that no matter how successful and established one became, “Old Money” versus “New Money” always prevailed, never allowing outsiders to enter. Gatsby’s unrealistic views on recreating the past and losing sight of his self-image led to his unsuccessful efforts in fulfilling his American Dream. Gatsby’s entire American Dream filled with delusion, false hope, and illusions all came to a bitter end as time proved to be his finally enemy and an eventual cause of his unforeseen early demise.

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