The Poor Gatsby
The American Dream evokes images of the classic middle class family in the midst of suburbia with a car in their driveway and a hearty dinner on the table.
Their white picket fence graces the green grass of their freshly mowed lawn, as their kids throw the football around. Yet the American Dream means so much more than vapid material possessions; it is founded around values of honesty, diligence, and integrity. The American culture cherishes hard work and just actions to rise through the ranks and obtain success. However, in The Great Gatsby, Fitzgerald describes a culture where people are pitted against the system. He portrays New York as a society where no one can overcome the glass ceiling separating social classes without betraying their morals or breaking the law.
If success is the ultimate result of the American Dream, yet it cannot be attained without a few minor infractions here and there, is your pursuit of happiness still a noble cause? Greatness means finding a path to prosperity that keeps your morality intact, despite the odds. In The Great Gatsby, Fitzgerald explores the meaning of true greatness, specifically through the stereotypical ideals of the American Dream, such as honesty, integrity and diligence. Moreover, Nick portrays Gatsby as the epitome of the American Dream, yet Gatsby’s values and his pursuits directly contradict the ideals of the American Dream. Nick argues that Gatsby should be admired for his “romantic readiness”, yet Gatsby’s romantic pursuits border on immoral, deceitful behavior (2). Gatsby spends five years of his life, reaching out towards Daisy’s dock, living his life accordingly, so that one day, he might claim her as his true love. This “romantic readiness” relates to Gatsby’s hopeful, naive attitude towards love (2).
“He had waited five years and bought a mansion where he dispensed starlight to casual moths”, praying one day that Daisy would waltz in, pledging her undying love (78). He was constantly prepared for every possible chance meeting; he stored his library with real books, collected hundreds of gorgeous silk shirts, kept a piano player on standby for music, and a large team of servants to carry out any last minute demands. By finding the love of his life, Gatsby embodies a quintessential part of the American Dream: true love, and, by expressing said value, he demonstrates a degree of greatness. From his meticulous planning, his affection for Daisy is blatant, yet this passion itself lies on immoral grounds, especially since he knows of her marriage to Tom. Gatsby breaks out of his social class to lust after Daisy, depicting the cliched tragedy of the commoner falling for the princess he can never support. When Gatsby and Daisy first met, Gatsby’s uniform disguised his true status in society as a commoner.
“[H]e had deliberately given Daisy a sense of security; he let her believe that he was a person from much the same stratum as herself – that he was fully able to take care of her”(149). This false pretense describes the social situations at the time. In the 1920s, a romance outside of one’s one social class was an unthinkable prospect, and in order to maintain this deceitful affair, Gatsby had to hide his status as a member of the lower class. While elaborating on Gatsby’s and Daisy’s previous romance, Nick narrates, “[e]ventually [Gatsby] took Daisy on a still October night, took her because he had no real right to touch her hand”(149). The right that Nick speaks of is the birthright to marry only within your social class.
Therefore, Gatsby’s social class dictates the pool of candidates from which he can choose his soul mate, yet he finds love outside his social boundaries. However, rather than being fond of Daisy’s dazzling personality, Gatsby was largely attracted to her through the allure of her wealth and her lavish lifestyle. The prospects of living as part of the higher class seemed so refreshing; after a quick glance at the finer life, Gatsby fell into a bottomless hole of greed. During their quaint summer romance, Gatsby describes Daisy as “gleaming like silver, safe and proud above the hot struggles of the poor”(150). As a soldier in training, silver carries a heavier meaning, relating to the utmost bravery and courage found in a man, and by winning Daisy, much like a medal, he will have carried out his duty. Moreover, the “hot struggles of the poor” reflects on the hard manual labor required of the poor, such as plowing and harvest, especially when compared to the light work of the rich (150).
Through this vapid description of Daisy and her wealthy status, Gatsby implies that only financial success could result in holy matrimony with the women he loves. Despite the touching notion of Gatsby’s timeless love, his base attraction to Daisy, a married woman outside his social class, and his pursuit of her through his deceit and lies conveys his lack of morality, thus rejecting the possibility of him being great. Nick asserts that Gatsby’s rags-to-riches story should be admired and emulated as the American Dream, yet Gatsby manages this through illegal business, deluding his guests of his greatness and directly conflicting the treasured American ideal of honesty. Nick narrates Gatsby’s background story with an emphasis on the dedication and commitment required to pull his self up. He pauses and thoroughly describes Gatsby’s schedule for his own betterment, from waking up at six in the morning for exercise, to “study[ing] needed inventions” for two hours after work (104). The schedule that Gatsby writes heavily reflects that of Benjamin Franklin, considered a great icon of the American Dream, yet while Franklin carried through on his schedule and rose through the ranks honestly, Gatsby cheats his way up.
Yet, never in the novel is Gatsby shown or described as doing the activities outlines in his schedule. As readers, we only ever see him throwing wild parties and running his secretive business on the side. In fact, he does not even work regular hours anymore because his extravagant lifestyle has jaded him. Hard work and determination has lost its appeal in Gatsby’s eyes. In an attempt to coax Daisy into falling into Gatsby’s arms once again, Gatsby sets off on a plan to become wildly rich to elevate himself enough so that the pair will live comfortably for the rest of their lives without any complications about their standings. However, Gatsby neglects to consider how this money will come about and, in desperate times, he signs onto illegal business.
While Tom comes from old money that has been in the family for years, Gatsby swindles his way up, primarily through bootlegging and further questionable practices. During their heated fight at the Plaza Hotel, Tom accuses, “‘I found out what your ‘drug-stores’ were.’ He turned to us and spoke rapidly. ‘He and this Wolfsheim bought up a lot of side-street drug-stores here and in Chicago and sold grain alcohol over the counter'”(133). Rather than climbing his way up the socioeconomic ladder through just actions, Gatsby is lured into dishonest work in the hopes of getting rich quick.
The ideals of the American Dream deplore the idea of making it to the top without playing by the rules, and by directly defying these treasured values of integrity, Gatsby does not embody greatness. Though Nick applauds Gatsby for his “heightened sensitivity to the promises of life”, Gatsby lived a life laden with secrets, never divulging his true, acquisitive self to his companions (2). During his initial description of Gatsby, Nick claims Gatsby has this “heightened sensitivity to the promises of life, as if he were related to one of those intricate machines that register earthquakes ten thousand miles away”, meaning Gatsby was overly aware of what was happening around him and responded accordingly (2). By relating him to an earthquake sensor, Nick establishes Gatsby’s melodramatic tendencies, implying that he responds to the situation with tenfold what it requires. When Gatsby falls in love with Daisy, rather than turning away when Daisy originally turns him down, he spends the next five years of his life, working to achieve equal social and financial status to her to justify their love. Once he gives it his all and still fails, Gatsby has nothing to retreat into; he throws his heart into this one dream.
If Gatsby is as aware of his surroundings as Nick suggests, he might have paused to question his motive and reconsider if his pursuits are sensible. By neglecting to reevaluate the situation as the days wore on, he let his American Dream of attaining Daisy’s love consume him. Furthermore, when Nick first attends one of Gatsby’s parties, he finds that no one understands Gatsby’s background; in fact, few people have ever met the man. As a result, his guests gossip and spread wild rumors about their host, mainly about his brooding nature. A young woman claims, “One time he killed a man who had found out that he was nephew to Von Hindenburg and second cousin to the devil”(61).
A man contradicts, “[I]t’s more that he was a German spy during the war”(44). All of these accusations stem from Gatsby’s antisocial behavior. For a man who throws such large, lavish parties, Gatsby seems particularly shifty and worried, partly because all it takes for his palace to collapse is one person who pulls off his mask and uncovers him for whom he really is by asking the right questions. As someone who constantly worries about being dethroned, Gatsby never takes the risks that are central to the American philosophy; by neglecting this key value, he is not great. Additionally, despite Gatsby’s attention to detail concerning his colossal mansion, it betrays him, expressing the true, fictitious nature of his character. As Nick nestles into his quaint cottage behind the towering construction of Gatsby’s opulence, he distinguishes the manor as “a factual imitation of some Hotel de Ville in Normandy”, connecting the house to Gatsby’s meticulous planning (5).
Just as Gatsby’s house disguises itself as something with historical and cultural roots, Gatsby hides behinds his money as a facade of the glitz and glamour of the higher class. Despite Gatsby’s extensive research in fooling his guests, Nick Caraway, a visitor from the Midwest, can see through his thinly veiled attempt at originality. Moreover, he describes the “colossal affair” as “spanking new under a thin beard of raw ivy”(5). Ivy is a symbol of well-established families or institutions, and behind this small smattering of ivy, the house has little to hide behind to convince visitors of its long-standing history. Unfortunately, contradicted by the “spanking new” nature of the mansion, the house stands to seem eerie similar to those of the higher class, yet when one looks closer at the detail, they see the truth of its origins (5).
By assuming the personality of some childhood dream, Gatsby lacks the courage to let people see him as his true self, a commoner with dreams of making it rich in New York. Without the basic courage to reveal his hopes and dreams and values, Gatsby does not embody greatness. Rather, he feigns greatness. Though Gatsby lives a life of “heightened sensitivity”, he ultimately separates himself from his past and presents a fictitious persona instead for his reputation’s sake (2). Though Gatsby pursues his twisted Dream and defies the cherished American ideals, Nick claims that his greatness should be celebrated, despite his desperate attempts to woo a married woman whom he has no right to touch, his illegal business, and the deceitful life he leads behind his mask of money. Nick adds, “Gatsby turned out all right at the end; it is what preyed on Gatsby, what foul dust floated in the wake of his dreams” (2).
First of all, George Wilson violently murders Gatsby in a fit of mistaken revenge. Gatsby did not turn out all right in the end; he died young with no one to hold. The foul dust Nick speaks of discusses those who take their lives for granted and neglect the consequences of their actions, specifically referring to the ash heaps that resulted from their extravagant lifestyles. As Gatsby takes on Tom in a struggle for Daisy, Gatsby naively believes he has a chance of success yet soon realizes his fatal mistake, as Tom represents the foul dust that eventually leads to Gatsby’s untimely demise. When we initially hear of Gatsby, Nick writes, “If personality is an unbroken series of successful gestures, then there was something gorgeous about [Gatsby]” (2).
However, it seems to me that the majority of Gatsby’s successful gestures ultimately fail. Gatsby’s dream to finally hold Daisy in his arms for the rest of his life shatters before his eyes when Daisy refuses to tell Tom she never loved him. From the viewpoint of his spectators, he appeared to be at the height of success. He finds the money. He gets the girl, albeit briefly.
Nonetheless, he dies alone. The love of his life absconds with her husband. His business associate, the man who bestowed these riches upon him, decides his business deserves higher priority than his memory of Gatsby. The Great Gatsby solely entertains his father at his funeral, along with Nick and Owl Eyes. Whereas he gained and lost so much in his short lifetime, he ultimately dies with what society grants him as his birthright and departs in a simple funeral, contrasting to his garish lifestyle.
Despite the lives he affected with his grand, ostentatious parties, he has but few to cherish his memory. For someone rumored to be so great, he certainly has little to show for it.