The Great Gatsby is a novel that illustrates the society in the 1920’s and the associated beliefs, values and dreams of the American population at that time. These beliefs, values and dreams can be summed up be what is termed the “American Dream”; a dream of money, wealth, prosperity and the happiness that supposedly came with the booming economy and get-rich-quick schemes that formed the essential underworld of American upper-class society. This underworld infiltrated the upper echelons and created such a moral decay within general society that paved the way for the ruining of dreams and dashing of hopes as they were placed confidently in the chance for opportunities that could be seized by one and all. Scott Fitzgerald illustrates the American Dream and the “foul dust” or the carelessness of a society that floats in the wake of this dream. By looking at each character and their situation and ambition it can be seen that the American Dream was not limited to one social class or type of person, that it was nation wide and was found within everyone.
From the position as narrator the reader has access to the thoughts and feelings of Nick Carraway more than any other characters; but this same position also reduces the effectiveness of the reader as a judge of character because he is presented in a biased way compared to others. With that said, it can be seen that Nick suffers greatly from his experiences in New York. His regard for human decency is ruined and he leaves with his hopes dashed and a disgust at how the materialism that runs rampant throughout his social class is capable of ruining lives and dreams. Nick, as with all characters is a believer in the American Dream because even he moves East to work in the bond business – then a booming industry. Because of the actions of his cousin Daisy, her husband Tom and the beliefs held by his love interest in the novel Jordan, Nick is finally privy to how the dreams and values held by all these people overrun their sense of sensible behavior and how the general society caused their personalities to be affected this way.
The transformation between James Gatz and Jay Gatsby is an example of how people can transform themselves according to their ambition for wealth and prosperity. The use of illegal activities to gain Gatsby’s wealth is alluded to in the book; this shows the extent of how the American Dream circumvented the moral revulsion and pushed people who were crazy about money into crime – driving the moral standing of wealthier citizens into the ground. To Gatsby, his dream was symbolised by Daisy; Gatsby even says that her voice sounds like money, a direct correlation between Daisy and the wealth and happiness that Gatsby would supposedly enjoy if only he could have married Daisy but could still enjoy if he had married her five years later. His pursuit of happiness with Daisy was the ultimate cause of the degradation of Gatsby’s morals and realistic dreams. This is because he held an unrealistic view of life and how he could recreate the past. His dreams had distorted reality to the point where when his rationality realised that the image of life and of Daisy did not coincide with the real life version his mind did not grasp that perhaps the dream had receded to the point of no return, consequently his dreams helped to result in the devastating end that was the finish of The Great Gatsby.
This difference in Gatsby’s mental image and the real image of daisy was due to the incompleteness of daisy’s character. Her rendering of the American Dream included fun, comfortable living with money and influence. To do this her marriage choices were limited to men with money, preferably with old inherited money, the type that prestige accompanies. The reader can see that Daisy is a superficial character who considers happiness more of a physical state than a mental state by the scene when she is talking about her daughter and what she said when she was born: “that’s the best thing a girl can be in this world, a beautiful little fool”; this shows how Daisy thinks about life and how happiness can be bought by not being aware and presumably by having money and being fooled with it. The results of her dream and the methods she used to accomplish her dream led to the unhappiness of her marriage, when she again tried to capture happiness whilst still keeping her dream in front of her it ended in the tragedy that The Great Gatsby depicted. If Daisy had indeed been concerned with happiness, as was implied throughout the novel, then she would not have been as concerned with money as she obviously was – she would have waited for Gatsby to come back from the war and not have married Tom; a decision based on her thoughts of what her life should have been life and a decision that cost her her happiness. The moral decadence and carelessness of the American dream is also illustrates accurately in Daisy in the situation of the killing of Myrtle and her abandonment of Gatsby just before and after his death. The fact that she ran over Myrtle without stopping and did not have the bravery to tell Tom shows how Daisy was always thinking of herself and of her own comfort rather than the safety, wellbeing and feelings of others.
Whilst Tom’s interpretation of the American dream does involve money it is not his prime concern as it is with many of the other characters. His dream also concentrates of power, gained through the prestige that is associated with old money. His self-confidence and utter belief in his superiority are an example of how he thinks about himself in relation to all other people, especially ones of a lower social class. Tom’s dream of power and superiority led to his moral decline that contributed to Tom ruining his marriage with Daisy and ultimately her wishes of having a truly happy marriage. Not only did his lack of morals affect Daisy and her happiness it also fostered the situation of Gatsby’s and George’s death which was the ultimate example of how the effects of the American dream caused society to change their morals and exhibit actions that were detrimental to society in general.
Myrtle, as almost a coconspirator with Tom, is to blame for the unhappiness of her own marriage with George and Tom’s marriage with Daisy but the latter would already have been unhappy because of Tom’s former indiscretions. Her dream of riches and of belonging to a social elite blinded her from the chance that perhaps she could have tried to make her marriage with George work and hence achieve happiness, though this can be doubted generally because it can be said that a woman with personality and ambitions such as myrtle could hardly have been happy with a “spiritless” man like George. Supposedly she married George because she thought he was a gentleman, something that the social elite traditionally value; though only if he is also rich enough to belong there in the first place. Because myrtle’s personality is so strong it would have indeed been easy for her aspirations for her style of living to corrupt her values and so open the door for the ruining of her dreams. This ruination indeed happened because of the man she fell in love with, Tom, and what he stood for – money, power and materialism.
George, as a complete opposite to myrtle, turned to a more introvert person as a consequence of his style of living in the garage. Towards the end of the novel the reader may question his state of mind because of some of his actions toward myrtle, especially his opinion towards the eyes of the T.J. Eckleberg advertisement, whilst it is obvious to the reader that they do indeed represent God or at least the fact that the moral decay is being subtly observed it could not be obvious to the characters of the book (except George). This could be because they were indeed far too busy gallivanting around New York with their lack of morals and the behavior that was the The Great Gatsby. Despite the fact that George did not belong to a church he became religious towards the end of the novel, perhaps as a reaction to the behavior of his wife and the depression that would have been associated with both that and the failings of his business. His dreams are not well documented in the novel, apart from the obvious dream of money and making a profit of his business, this obvious dream was in fact ruined because of the fact that not everyone could get rich (the basis of the American dream) and the immoral behavior of his wife and the rest of the characters.
As another contrast to all of the aforementioned characters Jordan’s immoral behavior does not directly lead to any of the situations in the novel, whilst she did encourage Daisy to have an affair with Gatsby she could not be blamed for the deaths or the unhappiness of any of the other characters. Jordan can be viewed as a representative of general society as she does display many immoral traits (Such as moving the ball illegally during one of her tournaments and being more than slightly hypocritical when she talks about careless people, saying she “hates careless people” when she admits that she is one.) that contribute to the overall ethical decay within the American aristocracy.
Fitzgerald shows that in the social classes that were represented in The Great Gatsby there is a running theme of how the American dream affects all of the characters, they each have their own aspirations for their own life but more often than not they revolve around money and the effects that wealth has on their style of life. Because of the tragic events within the The Great Gatsby and the fact that the characters who are still alive at the end of the novel, bar Nick, are not drastically altered by their experience lend to the view that the 1920’s and 1930’s or the Jazz Age held a society of people who were ruled by materialism and trivial and depthless beliefs and values.