The American Dream is what drives the characters in F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby. The American Dream is the firmly held belief that everyone has the opportunity to achieve their goals and become rich and prosperous if they only work hard enough. What is it about the American Dream that never seems to satisfy? The ideal American Dream is not so realistic. The characters of The Great Gatsby cannot grasp the concept that The American Dream is an illusion because not everyone can get what they want if they work hard.
Jordan Baker seems to have everything going for her. She is a famous golf-player who is wealthy and thin, but she is not happy with what she has. She will do anything in order to win. She will do anything to be right all the time. Nick describes Jordan as "incurably dishonest. She wasn't able to endure being at a disadvantage, and given this unwillingness I suppose she had begun dealing in subterfuges when she was very young in order to keep that cool insolent smile turned to the world and yet satisfy the demands of her hard jaunty body" (63). Jordan is not satisfied with her life because she is not honest. She knows that her success is fickle and that it can leave at any moment because it was not built on hard work towards The American Dream.
In contrast, Myrtle Wilson does not have many material items. She has a loyal husband, but Myrtle wants everything else. Myrtle looks at the East Egg folks with envy and a little bit of animosity. She doesn't understand why they get to live The American Dream while she is stuck in "They Valley of Ashes" with her poor husband. She feels that she deserves more; she feels she deserves Tom, his money, power, and influence.
Another character who believes he deserves more power and influence is Tom Buchanan. Tom is already powerful, rich, and has a beautiful daughter and wife. Tom is not satisfied with that. The American Dream to him means he deserves more. One woman is not enough for Tom; he wants two. He also feels that he gets more power because of his mistress Myrtle. Because Myrtle is of a lower class, he has complete power over her. Myrtle depends on Tom to get her into a better society, closer to The American Dream. Tom knows this and he eats it all up, but he never lets Myrtle rise above her station. Tom acknowledges his need for more when he says, "I love Daisy too. Once in a while I go off on a spree and make a fool of myself, but I always come back, in my heart I love her all the time" (138).
Tom also feels that he needs more excitement in his life. This is one reason that he takes on a mistress. Tom's insatiable appetite for more is apparent to many people, including Nick. Nick states, "Tom would drift on forever seeking a little wistfully for the dramatic turbulence of some irrecoverable football game" (10). Tom is lost to his above average life because of his obsessive behavior towards always having more than anyone else. "Something was making him nibble at the edge of stale ideas as if his sturdy physical egotism no longer nourished his peremptory heart" (25). Tom's need to feel superior is making him more paranoid of someone becoming better than him. This includes his wife, Daisy.
Daisy is rich, beautiful, has a daughter, and a husband. But she can't seem to decide who she wants: Gatsby or Tom. Daisy always craves more attention. She has learned ways to manipulate others so that they pay more attention to her. "I've heard it said that Daisy's murmur was only to make people lean toward her;" (13). Everyone that looks at her thinks she embodies The American Dream, but she doesn't feel the same way. Daisy has learned ways to manipulate others to get her way.
Daisy was aware of her charm and she used it to the best of her ability to secure her lifestyle. "Her voice is full of money,' he [Gatsby] said suddenly. That was it. I'd never understood before. It was full of money – that was the inexhaustible charm that rose and fell in it, the jingle of it, the cymbals' song of it – High in a white palace the king's daughter, the golden girl" (127). When Daisy and Tom come together, nothing but destruction is left behind. "They were careless people, Tom and Daisy – they smashed up things and creatures and then retreated back into their money or their vast carelessness or whatever it was that kept them together, and let other people clean up the mess they had made" (187-188).
One "creature" that Daisy and Tom "smash up" is Gatsby. In a sense, Gatsby best embodies the American Dream because he has humble beginnings and works in order to raise his station. He has a dream, a desire, to find the girl he loves; and that is what motivates Gatsby. But Gatsby also represents the fallen American Dream because he does not succeed in acquiring everything he wants even though he works very diligently at his goal, Daisy. Many times throughout the text a green light is mentioned. The green light symbolized envy, jealousy, longing, and in a sense, the American Dream. The green light represents Daisy and Gatsby's longing for her. "Gatsby believed in the green light, the orgiastic 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).
Gatsby's representation of the broken American Dream gives irony to the novel because he is the only one that actually works for his station. "Possibly it had occurred to him that the colossal significance of that light had now vanished forever – His count of enchanted objects had diminished by one" (98). If he couldn't reach The American Dream, who can? "He [Gatsby] must have felt that he had lost the old warm world, paid a high price for living too long with a single dream – A new world, material without being real, where poor ghosts, breathing dreams like air, drifted fortuitously about" (169). Gatsby was the only one who truly believed in the power of the American Dream. He honestly believed that his efforts and his dreams would pay off in the end.
Gatsby's fatal flaw is that he believes in his ability to achieve the American Dream. This is revealed in a conversation between Nick and Gatsby:
"I wouldn't ask too much of her," I ventured. "You can't repeat the past."
"Can't repeat the past?' he cried incredulously. Why of course you can!'" (116).
Gatsby's downfall is the fact that he believes that things can go back to the way they were.
The obsession with the American Dream leads to heartache and betrayal. It leads to destroying others in the path in order to get to the goal. Nick's father is quoted on the first page. He says, "Whenever you feel like criticizing anyone,' he told me, just remember that all the people in this world haven't had the advantages that you've had'" (5). If the characters would have listened to this advice, they would have realized all the great things that they have and several lives would have been spared. "Life is much more successfully looked at from a single window, after all" (9). Gatsby truly looked through life from one window. His window was Daisy, but she failed him. The American Dream failed him. He failed himself. The problem with the American Dream is that it never fulfills, it never satiates, it never satisfies, and it leaves a trail of heartache in its wake.
Fitzgerald, F. Scott. The Great Gatsby. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1995.