Gatsby and the American Dream

Jay Gatsby and the American Dream

F. Scott Fitzgerald’s novel The Great Gatsby is a glimpse into the elite social circles of Long Island society during the prosperous period of the 1920’s. In this decade a class of "new rich" was born, and the class of "old rich" enjoyed continued prosperity. Gatsby showcases the conflict between the two groups, as the newly rich tried to carve a place for themselves in the exclusive social circles of those who inherited their wealth. The book concerns itself with Jay Gatsby’s attempt to transcend social boundaries and enter this exclusive circle, to live the American dream of betterment. Fitzgerald shows that this dream has been made corrupt and unattainable by the hunger for power and insecurities of the often immoral old rich. Despite living in such a prosperous time, it is impossible for Gatsby, originally a poor man from North Dakota, to be accepted in privileged society.
In the first chapter of the novel the reader is introduced to the narrator Nick Carraway and to many of the story’s central characters, all of which come from privileged backgrounds. It is only at the end of the chapter that we meet Jay Gatsby. Nick observes him walking alone in the early evening:
Something in his leisurely movements and the secure position of his feet upon the lawn suggested that it was Mr. Gatsby himself, come out to determine what share was his of our local heavens…he stretched out his arms toward the dark water in a curious way…I glanced seaward—and distinguished nothing except a single green light, minute and far away… (Fitzgerald 25-26)

This passage is extremely symbolic of Gatsby’s character, and his fated inability to have what he wants most. His expansive mansion makes it clear that financially, Gatsby is very well off. He throws lavish parties every weekend, and his wealth appears limitless. As he strolls through his property he seems to have an air of confidence, until he spies the distant green light across the bay. The light is from the dock of Daisy Buchanan, and symbolizes everything that is unattainable to Gatsby, despite his financial rise.
Daisy and her husband Tom are both from privileged families, much like Nick. Daisy is a former love interest of Gatsby’s from the war that he has spent years trying to find again. Daisy represents not only love, but also the key Gatsby needs to enter the elite social circle he has spent his life aspiring to. "Her voice is full of money" (127) he tells Nick, illustrating the difference between working for one’s fortune, and inheriting it. Gatsby has spent the majority of his life bettering himself, as is seen in his daily schedule found by Nick and Gatsby’s father later in the novel. "Jimmy was bound to get ahead. He always had some resolves like this or something. Do you notice what he’s got about improving his mind? He was always great for that" lamented Mr. Gatz (182). He has become very wealthy on his own account, rising from almost nothing, to a level of extravagant affluence. Gatsby loves Daisy, but it seems her ability to progress him socially that is most attractive to him. Gatsby believes in his dream, and will follow it at any cost.

The inability of Gatsby to fulfill his dream of climbing the social ladder is chiefly due to the contempt held by the old rich towards the new rich. Daisy’s husband, Tom Buchanan represents the attitudes of many of the old rich at the time. He is constantly worried about losing power, of losing dominance, as is demonstrated by his reading of "The Rise of Colored Empires" (17). Tom feels threatened by Gatsby, and insists on investigating his background hoping to prove him a fraud. The same investigation occurs at Gatsby’s parties, where his own guests gossip and make monstrous assumptions on how he built his fortune, even while they are enjoying his hospitality. Two girls prattle on about whether or not he was a German spy and whether he has killed in cold blood before, while others are surprised to find that his vast library is not for appearance only (48). When Tom and Daisy arrive at one of Gatsby’s parties Tom is immediately condescending.