Thesis: Great Gatsby -- the Great American Dream

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¶ … Great Gatsby -- the Great American Dream, the Great American Lie

I've got a man in England who buys me clothes. He sends over a selection of things at the beginning of each season, spring and fall."

He took out a pile of shirts and began throwing them, one by one, before us, shirts of sheer linen and thick silk and fine flannel, which lost their folds as they fell and covered the table in many-colored disarray. While we admired he brought more and the soft rich heap mounted higher -- shirts with stripes and scrolls and plaids in coral and apple-green and lavender and faint orange, and monograms of Indian blue. Suddenly, with a strained sound, Daisy bent her head into the shirts and began to cry stormily.

They're such beautiful shirts," she sobbed, her voice muffled in the thick folds. "It makes me sad because I've never seen such -- such beautiful shirts before."

F. Scott Fitzgerald, the Great Gatsby, Chapter 5,

One of the most telling scenes in F. Scott Fitzgerald's the Great Gatsby is when Gatsby is finally united with the great love of his life, Daisy Buchanan. He can finally reveal his true feelings for her and explain that she is the reason that he worked so hard, made so much money, and strived to better himself. He came from nothing, and now he is 'something' because of his feelings for Daisy. Despite his efforts to style himself as an East Egg playboy, Jay Gatsby has been working hard all of his life albeit illegally as a bootlegger to get enough money to buy a house on fashionable Long Island, to prove himself worthy of Daisy's love. He gives her a tour of the house and shows Daisy his "beautiful shirts." Gatsby attempts to show that he is worthy of Daisy by demonstrating that he can buy material goods. The shirts are new, but they are bought by 'a man' (like Jeeves-like Edwardian valet) from England, an old nation.

At the sight of Gatsby's desperate efforts, the married Daisy cries, seemingly talking about the shirts rather than what she 'really' feels. On the surface, the scene suggests that Daisy regrets her choice of marrying the oafish Tom Buchanan. However, by the end of the novel the reader realizes that Daisy and real feeling are not synonymous, despite Gatsby's idealization of her as a person. Daisy is just as superficial as everyone else in West and East Egg. Gatsby's version of the American Dream is founded upon criminality and lies, just as his shirts are manufactured versions of real culture and European, 'old money' social status. And just as false is the real morality of beautiful Daisy. Daisy is fascinated by materialism and the surfaces of things, which is why she married Tom. Daisy strokes the shirt as if it is an extension of Gatsby himself, and really it is -- it is a false version of English gentility that Gatsby also tries to mimic by calling Nick Carraway, Daisy's cousin, "old sport" in an attempt to ingrate himself into a social class that he cannot. The American dream, that "everyone" can pursue and realize "his chosen goals" regardless of race, ethnicity, social class or origins is revealed again and again to be a lie in Fitzgerald's novel -- and even the final goal of capitalism and respectability, as exemplified in Long Island society is a lie (Pearson 682). Gatsby cannot fit in, and the reader wonders why he wanted to fit in, in the first place.

The Great Gatsby underscores the lies of the American Dream, namely that money can buy social class, and also that accruing more social class is a meaningful thing to strive for. The racism and anti-Semitism of Daisy's husband, the Princeton graduate and football star Tom Buchannan, is just as ugly as Gatsby's trafficking in illegal liquor. While it is said that Gatsby 'made himself up,' in terms of his aristocratic persona, the lies of the American dream in regards to the ability to escape one's class, religion and race are also condemned by the narrative. This is particularly evident in the persona of Tom, who begins the book openly anti-Semitic and then during the final confrontation with Gatsby: "Tom attempts to use invidious ethnicity as a weapon, a device to demean his rival. He begins the key exchange by attacking Gatsby on the basis of social class ('Mr. Nobody from Nowhere'), but it is not sufficient to express the depths of his distaste, and Tom quickly converts his assault into a racial one by associating Gatsby with miscegenation. 'Nowadays people begin by sneering at family life and family institutions, and next thing they'll throw everything overboard and have intermarriage between black and white'" (Slater 53). This type of prejudice about up -- and coming social interlopers seems to belong to the England from which Gatsby buys his shirts, and underlines the complex barriers to rising in social status America, as well as the false and crude class of people Gatsby himself is idealizing.

Fitzgerald's technique throughout the novel has been described as a kind of counterpoint, of character, setting against setting, and one plot against another to demonstrate for the reader the moral change and ethical growth of his narrator, Nick Carraway. Nick begins by believing in and admiring Gatsby, thinking it is impossible to pretend to be someone who says 'old sport' and gives such lavish parties in East Egg. His "development follows what is usually a three-fold pattern of contrasts. Almost invariably, his valuation of characters, places, and scenes is based, first, upon their social classifications, then upon their individual worth, and, finally, upon their significance in moral and ethical terms," where Nick finally realizes the mendacity of his society as well as Gatsby and begins to admire Gatsby for who Jay 'really' is, on some level -- as a good man of a humble background who tried to change himself, although he failed and pursued an ignoble goal through ignoble means (Mellard 853). The evolution of Nick's consciousness is an effective way Fitzgerald expresses his book's larger project of exploring what it means to better one's self in America. Fiction is juxtaposed against reality, the fiction of Gatsby's Ivy League education and his assumed Britishness, contra-posed against the reality of Gatsby's new wealth, symbolized in his shirts and opulent, over-the-top house. Daisy's beauty is counterpointed with her husband's crassness, but then is shown to be a part of the same sort of social prejudice and veneer of respectability. This technique of counterpoint and blending of reality and fiction also highlights the lies of the American Dream.

The Great Gatsby is still powerful today because of the way in which it depicts how Americans seek to use achieving material success as a substitute for spiritual fulfillment. Gatsby truly believes that if he has 'enough' in terms of money and prosperity, he can find love. This dream is not particular to Gatsby, it dates back even before the founding of America, through Horatio Alger, back to Poor Richard: "Gatsby gets his idea of how to achieve the American Dream from Benjamin Franklin's autobiography...Mr. Wolfshiem shows Nick an old book of Gatsby's which has a daily schedule in the back of it. Gatsby thought he could improve himself" like Franklin (Taylor 1). Fitzgerald compares his quest for Daisy, not to a romantic ideal, but to an explorer seeking, the "green breast of the new world" suggesting Gatsby's dream of rediscovering Daisy to the explorer's discovery of America and the promise of a new continent (Millet 2004). On the new continent of East Egg, however, Gatsby is still the same inside, just as the false social set of Daisy remains the same. The green of his cash cannot… [END OF PREVIEW]

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