The American Dream, the notion that hard work can lead one from rags to riches, has been a main facet of American identity since its beginning. The American Dream is an underlying theme in both The Great Gatsby and Paul’s Case. By definition, American Dream is “the ideal that every US citizen should have an equal opportunity to achieve success and prosperity through hard work, determination, and initiative” (oxford dictionary). However, it’s never been perceived and understood as such. Even now, a time where the longing to live the American Dream doesn’t really exist, the fantasy isn’t viewed that way. When people think of the American Dream they think of a massive home, that houses a married couple that happens to be hopelessly in love, and loads of money and success. The American Dream was originally about discovery, individualism, and the pursuit of happiness. The industrialization of the 19th and 20th centuries initiated the erosion of this dream, replacing it with the philosophy of “get rich quick”. Not only this but the notion of this dream ignores several different circumstances like racism, sexism, discrimination etc. Simply dreaming for this life isn’t going to make it happen. No amount of hard work can change where you come from, and those born into privileged lives know this. Merit and hard work are never enough and so the American Dream falls. Easy money and relaxed social values have corrupted this dream, and the tainted dream soon corrupted the people. Paul, and Jay Gatsby were both victims of this fantasy. Although they both had a longing to live the American Dream, they were after different features of the dream. They had different goals and motives. All the lies, deceit and crime caused by them was triggered by the desire to live out their fantasies. The yearning for a life that wasn’t theirs eventually lead to their own demise.
The Great Gatsby is a highly symbolic reflection on 1920s America as a whole, in particular the crumbling of the American Dream in an era of extraordinary prosperity and material access. Fitzgerald, the author, portrays the 1920s as an era of decayed social and moral values. In The Great Gatsby, the American Dream is supposed to stand for independence and the ability to make something of one’s self through hard work, but it ends up being more about materialism and one’s selfish pursuit of pleasure. The Great Gatsby portrays the shift as a symbol of the American Dreams corruption. It’s no longer a vision of building a life, it’s just about getting rich.
Fitzgerald does a great job of presenting the decline of this dream and the darkness behind it through one of the novels main characters, Jay Gatsby. Jay Gatsby, formerly known as James Gatz, originated from a poor farm family in North Dakota. Gatsby was mainly after the family, and love aspect of the dream. He vowed to become a man of wealth for the sole purpose of winning the heart of the love of his life, Daisy. He built his fortune by taking advantage of the prohibition through bootlegging and built connections with dangerous gangsters such as Meyer Wolfsheim. Despite Gatsby’s great love for her, Daisy chose “old money” and leaves Gatsby to be blamed for manslaughter. Which then leads to the murder of Jay Gatsby. No matter how much love he had for her, and regardless of how much money he had, it didn’t change who he was, and how she viewed him. Gatsby symbolizes the corrupted Dream and the original uncorrupted dream. He sees wealth as a solution to his problems, and reinvents himself so much that he becomes hallow and disconnected from his past and true identity. Yet, Gatsby’s corrupt dream of wealth is motivated by an everlasting love for daisy, and the pursuit to win her over. Gatsby’s failure does not prove the foolishness of the American Dream, rather it proves the foolishness of allowing materialism and corruption to overcome hard work, integrity and true love. In The Great Gatsby, Fitzgerald uses a variety of literary devices and quotes to portray the American Dream. The green light that symbolizes Gatsby’s hopes and dreams for a life with Daisy. Another symbol is the Valley of the Ashes, which represents the ugly consequences of America’s obsession with wealth. Fitzgerald uses these symbols to reveal the deceptive nature of the American Dream.
– “But I didn’t call to him for he gave a sudden imitation that he was content being alone- he stretched out his arms towards the dark water in a curious way, and far as I was from him I could have sworn he was trembling. Involuntarily I glanced seawards-and distinguished nothing except a single green light, minute and far away, that might have been the end of a dock.” (Fitzgerald, 14)
This is the first glimpse of Jay Gatsby and he’s seen reaching towards something far off, something that can be seen but it definitely out of reach. The infamous image of the green light is understood as The Great Gatsby’s reflection on the American Dream, the idea that people are always reaching towards something that is just out of reach. This introduction of a yearning image of Gatsby foreshadows his unhappy end and labels him a dreamer, unlike people like Daisy and her husband Tom who were born with money and don’t need to work for anything that so far out of reach.
– “…as the moon rose higher the inessential houses began to melt away until gradually I became aware of the old island here that flowered once for Dutch sailors’ eyes a fresh, green breast of the new world. 3Its vanished trees, the trees that had made way for Gatsby’s house, had once pandered in whispers to the last and greatest of all human dreams; for a transitory enchanted moment man must have held his breath in the presence of this continent, compelled into an aesthetic contemplation he neither understood nor desired, face to face for the last time in history with something commensurate to his capacity for wonder.
And as I sat there brooding on the old, unknown world, I thought of Gatsby’s wonder when he first picked out the green light at the end of Daisy’s dock. He had come a long way to this blue lawn, and his dream must have seemed so close that he could hardly fail to grasp it. He did not know that it was already behind him, somewhere back in that vast obscurity beyond the city, where the dark fields of the republic rolled on under the night.” (Fitzgerald, 101)
The final pages of the novel reflect on the American Dream with a mournful, and pessimistic yet appreciative tone. It also brings the reader back to their first glimpse of Gatsby, reaching over the water towards Daisy’s green light. Nick mentions that Gatsby’s dream was “already behind him” meaning, it was always going to be impossible to attain. He still admires the hope Gatsby had for a better life, and his constant reach toward a brighter future.
Paul’s Case focuses more on the aesthetics and glamour features of the American Dream, as opposed to The Great Gatsby. However, wealth remains as a crucial aspect of the fulfillment of their fantasies. Paul’s Case follows the life of Paul, a thin, pale, dreamy adolescent, who deems it necessary to set himself apart from his established surroundings in Pittsburgh. While those around him are concerned about making a living, prospering, and coming “up in the world,” he is attracted to the glamorous world of music, the theater, and art. He longs for the beautiful things money can buy, but he despises the monotonous, cold reality of work and everyday life. Paul, came from a “perfectly respectable” middle class neighborhood known as Cordelia street. Paul’s father and the rest of Cordelia Street believe in values of hard work, family and church. During their free time, they lounge around swapping stories about their bosses, the “captains of the industry” who worked themselves up from scarcity to lead large corporations and live in luxury. Paul resents the boring lives led by the Cordelia Street residents, who believe that if they work hard, they too might live glamorous lives. Despite his hatred towards them, Paul shares the same desire, to become rich and lead a live with no worry. He too likes to listen to “legends of the iron kings”. Despising the “cash-boy stage,” Paul wants the “triumphs of cash-boys who became famous.” Paul’s interest in art and aesthetics ties into his desire to be wealthy and live a glamorous lifestyle. Eventually, Paul does live a life of leisure and beauty, or in other words a week of leisure and beauty. However, just like Jay Gatsby, it wasn’t through true, hard work. Through lies and crime, he gains admittance to what he considers his real home, the New York City high life illustrated by the Waldorf Hotel. There, his “surroundings enlightened him.” In the lap of luxury, Paul realized that “this was what hard work and struggle was all about” and the “money was everything.” Cather, the author, encourages her readers to contemplate whether the American dream of wealth might have corrupted Paul, fostering in him a love of materialism which leads to his ruin. A glamorous ruin at that. When the crime he’d committed was discovered, Paul cannot bring it to himself to return to the “ugliness and commonness” of Cordelia Street and commits suicide by jumping in front of a moving train. Cather’s characterization of Paul is ambivalent, and readers are left to wonder whether Paul freely chose his tragic end or not. While Paul’s isolation from his environment is clear, the reader cannot tell whether Paul’s is a “case” of environmental determinism or of the folly of youth, of a dreamer who died with “all his lessons unlearned.”