The Representation of American Dream and Modernity through the Images of Visual Culture in Fitzgerald's "The Great Gatsby"

Academic Paper, 2019

23 Pages, Grade: 2,0



Table of Contents


1. The Era of Modernism
1.1 The Golden 20s and Modernity
1.2 Modernism Movement
1.3 The Rise of the American Dream
1.4 The Great Gatsby in front of its Time

2. Case Study
2.1 Symbols of Visual Culture in The Great Gatsby
2.2 Close Reading
2.3 Narrative Situation: Nick as Narrator
2.4 Narrative Situation: Style and Content

3. The Great Gatsby's reception in. film


Works Cited


F. Scott Fitzgerald's novel The Great Gatsby (1925) is without any controversy a classic of its time and still finds reception in scholarships and films. Due to current issues like class inequality or the pursuit of wealth, “Fitzgerald's masterpiece has never been more relevant” (The Guardian “Gatsby and the American Dream”). Written during the Golden 20s, the novel is set in a time in which social and political norms were transformed drastically. On the one hand this generation celebrated wealth and economic success, but on the other the loss of norms and traditions stamped this time. The majority of people moved to the modernized city, driven by the Dream of Success.

The Jazz Age embodies the social and cultural changes associated with the modernism movement, which counts any literary production from the interwar period that discusses the issues of modernity (Baym 13). A society that experienced the breakdown of norms and beliefs wanted to anticipated from former rules also in writing and focused “realist expression[s]” (Le Fustec 79) of their environment. Likewise, modernity and inventions, as well as the belief in the American Dream are mirrored critically in literature of that time. As a result of inventions, the visual culture, i.e. culture expressed through images, became increasingly established. This also shows up in contemporaneous literary production through the agglomerated use of symbols.

The belief in the great American Dream encouraged generations of Americans to pursue their hopes and go further, despite race or social standards. Though, the experience of failure likewise affected people's dreams. As a matter of historical and cultural criticism, The Great Gatsby perfectly captures the contradictions of that time, when it tells the story of a young male who believes in the Self-Made Man and enters upper class just to reacquire his early love Daisy. Yet, it shows in how far ideal and realisation of the Dream diverge (De Roche 48). According to The Guardian, even today, the phenomena of the failing the American Dream is called “The Great Gatsby curve”.

Not only in terms of content but also stylistically this novel represents modernity and thus, modernism. There is a break to existing narrating norms, such as the accumulated use of symbols that determine the novel. Since The Great Gatsby is retrospectively narrated by first-person narrator Nick Carraway, a judgement of the reader is required, just according to Tyson's Reader-Response Criticism (De Roche 35).

The following essay shall examine the representation of the American Dream and modernity through the images of the visual culture in F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby. Therefor, a historical and cultural background is of necessity to fully understand the literary work. Also the relation between the novel and its time will be discussed. In order to elaborate on modernist writing techniques and the use of symbols, a close reading is given in chapter three. Finally, the reception in film shall be discussed with regard to portrayal of visual images.

1.The Era of Modernism

1.1 The Golden 20s and Modernity

Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby is set in a time era that marked a new caesura: wealth and technologies stamped the time, but also the break of traditions and the loss of norms, resulting the drastic transformation of the social and political landscape. Whilst people celebrated life with excessive parties in accordance with the “Jazz Age”, social values were lost. Linda De Roche describes this era aptly when she says that this generation “was moving toward financial bankruptcy because it was already morally bankrupt (37). Her book The Jazz Age (2015) deals with the historical, social and political changes throughout this time, also providing historical explorations of famous works by F. Scott Fitzgerald or Ernest Hemingway. Those elaborations, supported with extracts from original documents, are exceptionally valuable in order to understand the deeper sense of such literary works.

Certain circumstances like World War I and the new wealth of America's population created a common mentality of success. The huge progress in science was modernizing the country, including new technologies as radios, automobiles, machines and telephones, but also the motion picture which introduced a new visuality. First silent, then with soundtrack film attracted the American society. In the 1920, the audience in movie theatres grew up to ninety million people per week (De Roche xx). With that innovation all the hitherto existing standards seemed to be old-fashioned, especially the young generation wanted distance them from the past (De Roche xvii).

The Jazz Age was a time, in which “Anything [could] happen [...]; anything at all.” (44). Also gender roles were redefined since women achieved the right to vote in 1920 and therefor found “political and economic independence”, which they also presented in the way they dressed, shortened their hair, smoked cigarettes and drank “intoxicating liquor” (De Roche xvii). The latter was prohibited since January 1920 due to its harm in society (De Roche 37), however many people started trading alcohol illegally, just as Fitzgerald's main character Gatsby did. Besides, the majority of people moved to the city, such as the first- person narrator in The Great Gatsby temporarily does, where the “fast-industrializing society” (Le Fustec 79) dreamed of wealth and material goods in a world of consumerism. Yet, prosperity was tangible for numerous people, not least by wage raises of 30 percent and low inflation (De Roche xxi).

But as much as the departure into the new was beneficial, also dark sides appeared. There were concerns about a social breakdown, immigration and incorrect political decisions, which were not unfounded considering the following Great Depression and World War II. Opposing voices wanted to hold on to their existing American and Christian values (De Roche 40). The Golden 20s promised a bright future, nevertheless the American society had to learn first-hand that not all of those could be kept.

1.2 Modernism Movement

In order to understand the deeper sense of literary works, one has to understand the time period those are written in. The rise of modernity in the twentieth century correspondingly brought a new cultural movement with it - the modernism. This affected literature, as well as art and music, while counting works that broach the issue of modernity with its consequences on society. Famous writers just as James Joyce and T.S. Eliot published books in this time, but also the famous cubist painter Picasso is a representative therefor. It is the idea of modernism to anticipate from the former rules of writing and to focus on what is rather “abstract” and “non-linear”, which was a completely new way of thinking (Sollors 2). Werner Sollors elaborates on the resulting effects in his work about Ethnic Modernism (2008), in which he connects socio-political changes and the modernism movement with the focus on America's cultural transformation.

A society that experienced failure and loss was longing to authentically create a “realist expression” (Le Fustec 79) of their environment by representing the transformation of society in the modern world (Baym 13). Likewise, the new inventions and technologies of the modern world were mirrored in literature and art, often in a critical manner, so that in fact they are “anti-modern” (Baym 13). In accordance to the absent structures, modernist works consist of fragments and leave out explanations, connections and resolutions (Baym 14). Ezra Pound for instance questions science and urban technology in his short, modernist poem In a Station of the Metro (1913) and T.S. Eliot discusses the moral issues of that time in his famous poem The Waste Land (1922). The latter especially shows similarities to Fitzgerald's Valley of Ashes, which is given an urban but mythic setting (Reynolds viii).

In this time also the visual culture became increasingly established. The daily lives of people were accompanied by visual images and symbols through visual technologies, but also through art. The field of study today analyses the representation of cultural structures, values and behaviour through written and visualized images - in this case Gatsby's tale. Thus, symbols and images are central to modernist writing rather than clear statements (Baym 14).

Although modernism refers to the signs of its time, many of those works were abandoned by society. Jazz music, for instance, was criticized to be “without music and without soul” (Sollors 4) and modernist writings were said to be “irritating” as one has to read the text twice just to understand “simple primary intentions” (Sollors 5). This critique on literature, however, is what authors intended, since it marks a break to a common style of writing.

1.3 The Rise of the American Dream

The beginning of the twentieth century is also strongly influenced by the great American Dream. Leaving WWI behind, the American society experiences a boom and longs for success, which seemingly confirmed the idea of the Dream. Almost everybody was convinced that they ,,could make it“ and be successful, despite race, social standards or wealth, just as James Truslow Adams documents it in 1931.

the American Dream, that dream of a land in which life should be better and richer and fuller for every man, with opportunity for each according to his ability or achievement. [...] a dream of a social order in which each man and each woman shall be able to attain to the fullest stature of which they are, regardless of the fortuitous circumstances of birth or position." (415).

Considering this quote, the great American Dream implies that there is hope and acceptance for everyone. Despite this common belief, a lot of people had to experience failure. The New World became the home of many Europeans who escaped their corrupting political systems and found refuge in a land where hierarchies would not exist (De Roche 47). Also R.W.B Lewis pointed out that people in the New World are “an individual emancipated from history, bereft of ancestry, untouched and undefiled by the usual inheritances of family and race” (qtd. in De Roche 47). Confronting this belief, it soon turned out that the strong feeling of social order remained established and only confirmed that wealth and prosperity contributes to a life that is “better and richer and fuller” (Truslow Adams 415). Therefor the question arises if the American Dream is “an illusion or a reality” (Bachelor 132). The perspective on that is probably determined on one’s social status, yet the belief in the American Dream is actually in dream in itself (De Roche 47). Nevertheless, the “Myth of the self-made man” (Le Fustec 80) encouraged generations of Americans to go further and provided hope - even until today.

1.4 The Great Gatsby in front of its Time

As any literary production, The Great Gatsby has to be considered in reference to its cultural background (Rippl 1). Fitzgerald's novel mirrors the “contradictions of the 1920s” (De Roche 37), for he could comprehend the conflicts of that time. Born in 1896, F. Scott Fitzgerald was familiar with traditional values and norms, but he also felt the social and political changes that were generated by the World War. Consequently, his literary work illustrates “the spirit of that time” (De Roche xxii) with all the entertaining, but likewise with all the shady sides of the luxurious society. Though, one must keep in mind that historical analysis of literary productions is not objective, neither can it represent the complexity and spirit of a culture properly, still this analysis can form a historical understanding (Tyson 283).

Published in 1925, the peak of the golden time, the novel expresses disappointment towards the belief in a bright future (De Roche 37). James Gratz believed in the dream and thus created himself a new personality in Jay Gatsby, which confronts the belief in the Self­Made Man as he had to become somebody else to find achievement (De Roche 48). Here one can see that the idea and values of the New Adam and the realisation of the American Dream of Success in reality diverge (De Roche 48).

Although Fitzgerald does not particularly write about the great American Dream, there are a lot of images that show a critical engagement with this time. Regarding the plot of the novel, there are several different ways in which the American Dream is represented. Indeed, there are characters that support the idea of the American Dream - even though limited.

Born rich, Daisy has never worked hard to achieve the life she wants, however she was not willing to trade true love for the standards of “her artificial world” (96). Even when she had the chance to elope with Jay Gatsby, whom one may assume she still loves, she rather stays with Tom and his “moneyed aristocracy” (Bachelor 134). Although Daisy herself never worked hard to achieve a better and richer life, she still paid by marrying a man her parents chose for her. Also Nick can be considered as character that succeeded the American Dream. As ‘nobody’ he moved to West Egg, yet he managed to access the higher society and to become a friend of Gatsby. With the death of Gatsby his dream is over too, since his achievements are rather Gatsby-made than self-made.

Jay Gatsby is the ultimate image for the American Dream. Although he grew up in poor conditions (Fitzgerald 63), he succeeded in creating himself a new life with a new identity. Starting as “Mr. Nobody from Nowhere” (83) he finally became one of the richest and best known people in East and West Egg. For him the American Dream was not money and wealth, rather this was a key to win Daisy back, who portrays pure happiness for him. Gatsby does not believe that materialism equals happiness, but he is convinced that he finds satisfaction only through possession. The crucial point here is that Gatsby possibly has reached a new lifestyle, but still he could not reach what for him would be the pursuit of true happiness. The power of money eventually replaced the illusion of an optimistic future - it even changed the capacity of the American Dream, as Gatsby testifies (De Roche 47). Hence, he failed his version of the great American Dream due to his unfulfilled love and finally his death. Whilst the American Dream is optimistic about the future, all the protagonists want to do is to recover the past.

Gatsby's failure criticises the “national myth” (De Roche 47) which started as an ideal and resulted in nonfulfillment. His discourse documents the contradictions of the self­made man, driven by the craving for financial success (Tyson 310). The drama in this novel serves to show the absence of morality, as it contrarily shows the “materialist Buchanans” and the “idealistic Gatsby”, both embodying opposing attitudes (Le Fustec 82). The resulting failure is often examined by the studies of cultural criticism that is concerned by the behaviour and social structures of society (Tyson 2094). Likewise, Claude Le Fustec connects Northrop Frye's literary criticism with literary works of modernism. Although many scholars annotated on Frye, Le Fustec critically examines primary texts and creates a relation between criticism and the cultural background.


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The Representation of American Dream and Modernity through the Images of Visual Culture in Fitzgerald's "The Great Gatsby"
University of Stuttgart
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representation, american, dream, modernity, images, visual, culture, fitzgerald´s, great, gatsby
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Anonymous, 2019, The Representation of American Dream and Modernity through the Images of Visual Culture in Fitzgerald's "The Great Gatsby", Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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