The 1920s were a decade of rebirth characterised by the founding of the “American
Dream” — the belief that anyone can, and should, achieve material success. The defining
writer of the 1920s was F. Scott Fitzgerald whose most famous novel, The Great Gatsby,
has become required reading for present-day high school students. We study Fitzgerald’s
novel for the same reason we study Shakespeare. The literature composed by both authors
contains themes and morals that continue to be relevant to modern society. As a result,
this novel could have easily been written in modern times. In his novel, Fitzgerald criticises
the American Dream by describing its negative characteristics: class struggles between the
rich and the poor, the carelessness of the rich, and the false relationship between money
The Great Gatsby … describes the failure of the American dream, from the point of
view that American political ideals conflict with the actual social conditions that exist. For
whereas American democracy is based on the idea of equality among people, the truth is
that social discrimination still exists and the divisions among the classes cannot be
overcome (Internet 1). It is impossible for all people to become rich, since wealth is
based largely on social position, and classes prevent the poor from becoming successful.
One things sure and nothings surer / The rich get richer and the poor get — children
(Fitzgerald 101). Myrtles attempt to break into the class which the Buchanans belong to
is doomed from the start. She enters into an affair with Tom, takes on all the negative
qualities of his social group, and not only becomes corrupt and immoral, but she scorns
people from her own class. I thought he knew something about breeding but he wasnt fit
to lick my shoe (Fitzgerald 39). The adulterous behaviour of Myrtle and Tom, as well as
the carelessness of Daisy and Jordan, illustrates the corruptibility of the rich.
Both Tom and Daisy are morally corrupt, having little concern for how they treat the
people around them. Daisy and her husband display their indifference to human values in
episodes involving sexual exploitation and careless violence (Fahey 72). The Buchanans
are not the only shallow ones, Jordan is incurably dishonest and her opinion that It
takes two to make an accident,(Fitzgerald 63) is an attempt to justify of her
thoughtlessness. 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,(Fitzgerald 187) says Nick. Since the wealthy social class which they belong to is
immoral, they can get away with being corrupt; a corruption that comes from a false sense
of security in their money, and the belief they have achived the american dream.
One of the faults in the American dream is that it equates material wealth and
possessions with happiness. However, not everything, nor everyone, can be bought. Nick,
for example, refuses Gatsbys business preposition. But, because the offer was obviously
and tactlessly for a service to be rendered, I had no choice except to cut him off there
(Fitzgerald 87). Also, the owners of the Gatsbys neighbouring houses refused to have
their roofs thatched with straw when the late owner of the mansion offered to pay five
years taxes on their cottages (Fitzgerald 93). On top of that, Gatsby innocently expects
that he can buy anything — especially Daisy. She is for sale, but he doesnt have the right
currency (Fitzgerald xi). His failure to obtain her is Fitzgeralds ultimate criticism of the
unrealistic dream of happiness found in material wealth.
A novel is considered to be good literature not because of the visual impact it makes,
but because of the impact of its themes. The American Dream critiqued in The Great
Gatsby still prevails today as the basis for a successful nation. Thus, while the 1920s
background makes the novel more interesting and certainly more relevant to Fitzgerald’s
audience, it is true that the story could take place at any given moment in time. By
revealing the results of materialism, such as class struggles, the shallowness of the
wealthy, and the false notion that money brings happiness, Fitzgerald shows that the
American Dream of success and money is nothing more than a morally corrupt fantasy.
Fahey, William A. F. Scott Fitzgerald and The American Dream. Toronto: Fitzhenry &
Whiteside Limited, 1973.
Fitzgerald, F. Scott. The Great Gatsby. Ed. Matthew J. Bruccoli. Toronto: Simon &
Schuster Inc, 1995.
Internet 1. http://www.uni-ulm.de/schulen/gym/sgu/gatsb/klaus2.htm. F. Scott
Fitzgerald Centenary Home Page. The Great Gatsbys Theme. Board of Trustees of
the University of South Carolina, 1997.
Internet 2. http://www.clunet.edu/engdept/ad/gatsby2.html. Works of F. Scott
Fitzgerald. Great Gatsby: Chapters 5 – 9. Infonautics Corporation, 1998.
Internet 3. http://www.clunet.edu/engdept/ad/gatsby3.html. Works of F. Scott
Fitzgerald. The Structure of The Great Gatsby. Infonautics Corporation, 1998.