In the decade after the end of the Great War, the world was in shambles. Though relatively untouched by the devastation, America, along with the rest of the world, experienced a reactionary period against the brutal war, during which materialism flourished alongside the economy. The result was an era known as the Roaring Twenties, a cultural revolution that emphasised entertainment rather than functionality.
However, this veneer of excitement was underscored by the most important idea of the time – the American dream, the idea that all people have equal opportunities in life. Unfortunately, as people soon realised, the American dream was just that – a dream. The following disillusionment with society and life was reflected in the modernist works of the time, arguably the most significant of which was F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby.
Nick Carraway, a young man from Chicago, moves to the “new-money” district of West Egg in New York, hoping to become a bondsman. Instead, he finds himself reconnecting with his “old-money” cousins in East Egg, Tom and Daisy Buchanan, as well as befriending the mysterious and even wealthier Jay Gatsby. The tale of Gatsby’s fabulous parties on the Long Island Sound is underscored by Gatsby’s obsession with his old love, who turns out to be Daisy Buchanan. Over the course of the novel, Gatsby uses Nick to reconnect with Daisy, but it is when Gatsby is closer than ever to achieving his dream that it is all torn away from him, and Fitzgerald’s message of the unattainability of the American dream shines through.
This theme appears in various other characters as well, most notably in George and Myrtle Wilson. George, a destitute auto shop owner, dreams of running a successful business and of having a woman who loves him. He is foiled in the former because though he dreams of selling Tom’s blue coupé, Tom’s reluctance to sell it to him leaves him despairing for the future. He is also let down in the latter, considering that his wife, Myrtle, is Tom’s mistress. She, in turn, dreams of marrying Tom and therefore ascending to the upper class, but her hopes are fatally crushed in the novel’s chilling climax.
In The Great Gatsby, Fitzgerald writes his characters to each reflect a different section of society that aspires to achieve the American dream, ultimately concluding that no such thing exists or is attainable. Interestingly, the novel’s focus on the detrimental effects of materialistic culture and the relentless pursuit of the American dream lends itself to foreshadowing the Great Depression, which only proves Fitzgerald’s claim – the American dream is dead.
– Mahak M.