The Changing Role of the American Dream in Fitzgerald's "The Great Gatsby"

Seminar Paper, 2014

16 Pages, Grade: 2.0


Table of Contents

1. Introduction

2. Meaning of the American Dream

3. The Idea and the Values of the American Dream
3.1 The American Dream as a Key Concept in The Great Gatsby
3.2 Did the Values of the American Dream Change?

4. The Dark Side of the American Dream.
4.1 The Deconstruction of the American Dream in The Great Gatsby
4.2 Criticism of the American Dream

5. Conclusion

Works Cited

1. Introduction

This paper aims at providing an analysis of the American Dream with regard to F. Scott Fitzgerald’s novel The Great Gatsby from 1925. It will present an examination of whether the pursuit of happiness and freedom or the pursuit of success and wealth has a higher importance in the novel. By taking this issue into account, the change of the American Dream will be examined. Hence, each section, in particular sections 3.1, 3.2 and 4.1, will concentrate on the question whether the pursuit of happiness and freedom or the pursuit of success and wealth lead to a change in American society.

First of all, the general meaning as well as the idea and the values of the American Dream will be depicted; particularly, the American Dream as key concept for the understanding of American society will be discussed. Therefore, Fitzgerald’s most famous novel from 1925, is important to establish a connection between the values and the changing role of the American Dream in the literature of the United States of America. It will be examined whether the values of the American Dream changed and which aspects are to be considered when regarding these values. It might be significant to see how the American Dream is changing over the course of time. Afterwards, by presenting the dark side of the American Dream, this paper takes a specific look at the deconstruction of the American Dream in The Great Gatsby. Due to this fact, the American Dream is turning into an American nightmare, which will also be investigated. What is also presented in this section is a criticism of the American Dream.

Finally, the question whether the pursuit of happiness and freedom or the pursuit of success and wealth plays a more important role will be answered. The changing role of the American Dream will also be clarified and briefly summarized.

2. Meaning of the American Dream

The American Dream is a national attitude and an omnipresent topic in American literature and history. The concept of the American Dream is rooted in the Declaration of Independence, which was drafted by Thomas Jefferson in 1776 as an American symbol; on the one hand the declaration helps Americans to define their rights, on the other hand it is a definition of America’s identity in the 21st century. It is stated that “all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness” (qtd. in Maier 52). The Declaration is based on the concept of natural rights, i.e. rights from God that cannot be taken away by the government (cf. ibid.). The main purpose of the Declaration of Independence is that this written document “commemorates the birth of the United States” (Viegas 7) and plays an important role in the maintenance of the American Dream.

While a variety of definitions of The American Dream have been suggested, James Truslow Adams was the one who coined the definition of the American Dream in his book The Epic of America. He defines the American Dream as the dream of land in which life should be better and richer and fuller for everyone, with opportunity for each according to ability or achievement. [] It is not a dream of motor cars and high wages merely, but a dream of social order in which each man and each woman shall be able to attain to the fullest stature of which they are innately capable, and be recognized by others for what they are, regardless of the fortuitous circumstances of birth or position. (214)

In Adam’s definition the key features of the American Dream can be recognized. He emphasizes the importance of idealism and that life should be better without all the material things, regardless of social class or circumstances of birth. Some people perceive the American Dream as the pursuit of material prosperity instead of the pursuit of happiness. Therefore, they work many hours in order to get better and bigger cars, houses etc. However, they cannot enjoy their prosperity because of the lack of time. Other people identify the American Dream vice versa, i.e. they lay focus on a fulfilling life in lieu of materialism and financial income. From rags to riches: is it a possible reality or just a myth? Can there be a clear and precise definition of this dream? Since Adams has coined the definition of the American Dream, the meaning of the term has been changing over time. Although it is used in everyday life, people actually have their own definition of the American Dream. Jim Cullen is of the opinion that “its definition is virtually taken for granted” (5). He holds the view that there exist different definitions of this term. Hence, he wants to put forward the thesis that the definition incorporates other expressions as well. Taking Adams definition into account, Cullen argues that the quote “life should be better and richer and fuller” can also be defined in terms of “religious transformation, political reform, educational attainment, sexual expression” (7) etc. and not only in terms of money. Furthermore, Cullen emphasizes the importance of the American Dream whilst pointing out that the “term seems like the most lofty as well as the most immediate component of an American identity, a birthright far more meaningful and compelling than terms like ‘democracy,’ ‘Constitution,’ or even the ‘United States’.” (5). As far as American citizens are concerned, there are various aspects of achieving the American Dream. These aspects are depicted in a recent research called The Invisible Dream by Public Agenda and GALEWiLL (cf. Figure 1). The following figure illustrates certain factors with regard to “the ability to achieve a secure middle-class life but also a potential for greater wealth” (Kroll 2013):

Abbildung in dieser Leseprobe nicht enthalten

Figure 1: What is essential to achieving the American Dream? (Kroll 2013)

Eleven factors were given; the participants were asked to assess them for how important each was in terms of achieving the American Dream (cf. Kroll 2013). It is obvious that Americans lay stress on personal factors such as a strong work ethic (86%) and in achieving success: adults who teach honesty, responsibility and persistence (80%) and good schools and teachers to ensure that every child has a fair chance to get a good education (77%). The other rated factors can be seen in Figure 1. Despite the high ratings of individual factors, it can be a hard and demanding way to achieve one’s dream; this is also illustrated by the high mountain which one has to overcome.

This chapter dealt with the meaning and definition of the American Dream in order to have an idea of what this dream is all about. This is essential for the following sections in which The Great Gatsby will play an important role with regard to the American Dream and its key ideas. The research demonstrated that most people see their American Dream in the pursuit of success. The question what the characters in The Great Gatsby are pursuing will be answered in the following.

3. The Idea and the Values of the American Dream

After having found out that there is no suitable definition of what the American Dream represents, the idea and the values of the American Dream in respect of The Great Gatsby will be examined. Maier points out that the American Dream can be seen “as a unique set of values and morals that differentiate America from the rest of the world” (39). In order to illustrate these values, the following chapters will clarify the question whether the pursuit of happiness and freedom or the pursuit of success and wealth is being strived for. Each character in The Great Gatsby has its own American Dream which will be analyzed in the subsequent section. Hence, it will be investigated whether the values of the American Dream have changed.

3.1 The American Dream as a Key Concept in The Great Gatsby

First of all, it is important to know that the novel takes place in “the Roaring Twenties, a time when the country celebrated [] an increasing economic prosperity after World War I” (Phelan 1).

Almost all characters appearing in The Great Gatsby have a certain dream which they pursue in order to fulfill them one day. Starting with the main character, Jay Gatsby, the title character, it is noticeable that he wants to win Daisy back, his past love. When they met for the first time, they had a wonderful time together. His love for Daisy is even expressed by the narrator of the book: it was an extraordinary gift for hope, a romantic readiness such as I have never found in any other person and which is not likely I shall ever find again. (Fitzgerald 6)

These lines clarify that Gatsby sees his American Dream in Daisy, especially in winning her back. Ever since he had been in the U.S. Army during the war, they have not seen each other for 5 years. Although he has got a financial prosperity, he follows the pursuit of love and happiness more than the pursuit of success and wealth. Gatsby does not care about “wealth, or social status, or any of the other pretty things that plague everyone else in this shallow world” (Shmoop 94). Gatsby is the only one who is strongly following his dream, which distinguishes him from the other characters “who have lost the capacity to wonder and to dream” (Matterson 38). That is why he is called the ‘great’ Gatsby. With regard to the definition of the American Dream by Adams, it is noticeable that the dream idealizes “those who are ‘self-made’, as opposed to those who gain wealth and status through inheritance” (ibid. 26). Indeed, Gatsby symbolizes this self-made figure. He is part of the West Egg society, a society where the people have worked hard in order to earn money within a short period of time. Even though Gatsby knows that he is not part of the East Egg society, whose wealth is based on inheritance, he believes that he could win Daisy back by his possessions. Tom and Daisy Buchanan are East Eggers and therefore they live the traditions of high class society. Lockridge puts forward the thesis that Gatsby’s dream comprises three parts: “the desire to repeat the past, the desire for money, and the desire for incarnation of ‘unutterable visions’ in the material earth” (11). It can be argued that Daisy represents all of these parts. Firstly, her house indicates the wealth and status; secondly, Gatsby wants to recapture an experience with her; and thirdly, Daisy represents the ‘material earth’ for him (cf. Matterson 38). Despite the fact that Gatsby cannot repeat the past, his dream can briefly be summarized as “the romantic desire to defeat time which is at the heart of the dream” (ibid.). Abbott underlines Gatsby’s dream whilst pointing out that his dream is not seen as the American Dream of success:


Excerpt out of 16 pages


The Changing Role of the American Dream in Fitzgerald's "The Great Gatsby"
University of Duisburg-Essen  (Anglophone Studies)
A Survey of American Literature
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ISBN (Book)
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582 KB
The American Dream, American, Dream, Great Gatsby, Great, Gatsby, Changing Role, Change, Role, Fitzgerald, American Literature, Literature
Quote paper
Hülya Atasoyi (Author), 2014, The Changing Role of the American Dream in Fitzgerald's "The Great Gatsby", Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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