American Dream or American Nightmare? About F. Scott Fitzgerald's "The Great Gatsby"

Term Paper, 2016

12 Pages, Grade: 2,3



“There was music from my neighbour’s house through the summer nights. In his blue gardens men and girls came and went like month among the whisperings and the champagne and the stars.” (p.41) A quote from FitzgeraldThe Great Gatsby.The reader gets the impression of a roaring party, a roaring life, someone’s fulfillment ofThe American Dream.But did the protagonist, Gatsby, dream this vision of his American Dream or was he stuck in his expectations of a better life and therefore too blind to realize that it had become a Nightmare?

It is important to analyze this question because at the beginning, the novelThe Great Gatsbyseems to tell a story about a typified American Dream, a young man who was able to escape poverty and living a high-class lifestyle. But after all it cannot be easily determined if it is a story that represents the American Dream or if the Dream he had changed into a Nightmare.

In the following, a short outlook about the American Dream in general will be given, the definition and the meaning of the American Dream. Secondly, the topic of the American Dream regarding the Great Gatsby, the achievements and Gatsby's desire for a better life, will be analyzed. Thirdly the contrariety of the American Dream, the American Nightmare in the novel will be presented with specific symbols that play an important role, his failure and the price he had to pay for his dream.

2.“The American Dream“ – Meaning and Definition

The term of specificAmerican Dreamwas first mentioned in 1931. It appeared in the bookThe Epic of Americaby James Truslow Adams, where he refers to

[T]he American Dream of a better, richer, and happier life for all our citizens of every rank, which is the greatest contribution we have made to the thought and welfare of the world. That dream or hope has been present from the start. Ever since we became an independent nation, each generation has seen an uprising of ordinary Americans to save that dream from the forces which appeared to be overwhelming it

(Adams 1931:viii)

Furthermore Adams amplifies in the Epilogue of his book “theAmerican 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.”[1]To paraphrase this information, Adams explains that every human being is able to achieve a wealthy lifestyle if they work hard enough to fulfill their dreams. This dream formed and will always form every American citizen and is therefore “the most immediate component of an American identity”[2].

Today the American Dream is coined by great success, materialism and becoming rich very quickly. But in its origin sense the American Dream was not restricted to materialism.[3]This implies there is more than just one American Dream, Cullen explains “there is nooneAmerican Dream. Instead, there are many AmericanDreams,their appeal simultaneously resting on their variety and their specificity.”[4]Therefore the American Dream is specific for every person but as a result the aims mainly connect to the same Hopes and Dreams. The well-established Dream is Freedom, the pursuit of happiness and equality for every mankind, as written down in the Declaration of Independence,[5]which forms the center of the primary idea of the American Dream. The fulfillment of happiness consists for everyone in different ways.

Health, success, family and, or in addition, freedom. Because of the big selection of various needs, the American Dream cannot be defined by one over-all Dream. Therefore one is able to split of the primary idea of the origin Dream in several prototypical parts. “the most familiar American Dreams: that of upward mobility, a dream typically understood in terms of economic and/or social advancement.”[6]

But, not onlyupward mobilityis a very prototypical part of the American Dream also“homeownership”[7]was, or rather is, still a big part of the overall American Dream. However the American Dream is not limited to its materialism but stretches out to humanity and equal right for everyone and in specific terms for black people.

And even Martin Luther King Jr. said “I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.”[8]

Nevertheless a lot of people dream the quite superficial Dream offame and fortune “nowhere does this dream come more vividly into focus than in the culture of Hollywood-a semi-mythic place where, unlike in the Dream of Upward Mobility, fame and fortune were all the compelling if achieved without obvious effort.”7

The American Dream is not just a myth that built the nation in the past, but is a power that still forms and creates the American identity today. It gives the American citizen a feeling of belonging , a feeling of community. “Yes, We Can!” the most famous term by Barack Obama, which represents the idea of the American Dream, everything is possible if you work hard enough for it. However Obama makes use of the American Dream in his election campaigns quite often.

This is what the people I've met believe about the country they love. It doesn't matter if they're Democrats or Republicans; whether they're from the smallest towns or the biggest cities; whether they hunt or they don't; whether they go to church, or temple, or mosque, or not. We may come from different places and have different stories, but we share common hopes, and one very American dream.

Barack Obama (2003)

The Myth of the American Dream is not just about a better and happier future but also it gives faith to everyone who believes in the Dream to continue and try again even if you fail. If you have faith you can dream on.

2.1 The American Dream in The Great Gatsby

James Gatz – that was really, or at least legally, his name. He had change it at the age of seventeen and at the specific moment that witnessed the beginning of his career – when he saw Dan Cody's yacht drop anchor over the most insidious float on Lake Superior (p.94)

James Gatz belongs to the long forgotten past of Jay Gatsby, a reality that Gatsby never accepted to be his own or even part of his personality.

Gatsby is described to have “an extraordinary gift for hope,”(p.8) in addition his father explains “'He had a big future before him, you know.

He was only a young man, but he had a lot of brain power here'”, and that is the reason for his pursuit of a better future. He is a mythic character with strength and big significance who typifies the American Dream and can therefore be seen as “an idea, not a character”[9]

Everything began when Gatsby met Dan Cody, who taught him “his singularly appropriate education”(p.97), which was his benefit when he, by chance, met Daisy Fay “the most popular of all the young girls in Louisville.”(p.72-73), during the war. They fell in love with each other but Gatsby knew that he was not able to provide for Daisy's future. His Dream of a future with Daisy arose the moment he kissed her. “He knew that when he kissed [Daisy], and forever wed his unutterable vision to her perishable breath, his mind would never romp like the mind of God.”(p.107) She promised to wait for him but nothing happened as expected. It took them five years to finally meet again, they had lost track of each other and because of her desire for wealth, Daisy got married to Tom Buchanan, a famous polo player who belongs to the old-money society. Over this period of time Gatsby never forgot about Daisy and their future and even though she was married, he never gave up on his dream and the hope of winning her back.

Therefore “The Great Gatsby” by Francis Scott Fitzgerald tells a story about a young man who rose from poor conditions into the new-rich society of Long Island. A story that typified the American Dream. But besides the aspect of becoming wealthy, issues like the pursuit of happiness play a big role in the novel.

The most obvious realization of the American Dream in “The Great Gatsby” is his uprising property. Gatsby was born as the son of “shiftless and unsuccessful farm people” (p.95) in Minnesota but he started to change his own past and therefore his future by creating a new identity.

The truth was that Jay Gatsby of West Egg,Long Island, sprang from his Platonic conception of himself. He was a son of God – a phrase which, if it means anything, means just that – and he must be about His Father's business, the service of a vast, vulgar, and meretricious beauty. So he invented just the sort of Jay Gatsby that a seventeen-year-old boy would be likely to invent, and to this conception he was faithful to the end.(p.95)

Gatsby is always craving for something better in is life and after he met Daisy and fell in love with her, she counts as one of his top priorities. The green light at the end of Daisy's dock symbolizes his vision of their future together, his love for Daisy and his believe that his Dream is closer than ever. “He stretched out his arms toward the dark water in a curious way, and far as I was from him, I could have sworn he was trembling. Involuntarily I glanced seaward – and distinguished nothing except a single green light, minute and far away, that might have been the end of a dock.” (p.24) Furthermore it includes Daisy but not just his desire of their conjoined future but for all his longings – wealth, success and acceptance.[10]So the green light occurs fairly a number of times in the Great Gatsby. For example when Daisy is at Gatsby's house and both of them are standing in front of one of his widows with sight to the other bay where Daisy's house is and Gatsby says “'If it wasn't for the mist we could see your home across the bay,' said Gatsby. 'You always have a green light that burns all night at the end of your dock.'” (p.90) And even at the very end of the book the green light occurs one more time. “Gatsby believed in the green light, the orgastic future that year by year recedes before us.” (p.171)


[1]James Truslow Adams,The Epic of America,404

[2]Cullen,The American Dream – A shot History of an Idea That Shaped a Nation,5

[3]Hook,Fitzgerald and the American Dream,5.

[4]Cullen,The American Dream – A shot History of an Idea That Shaped a Nation,7

[5]Jefferson, Franklin, Sherman, Adams, Livingston,Decleration of Independence,1776

[6]Cullen,The American Dream – A shot History of an Idea That Shaped a Nation, 8

[7]Cullen,The American Dream – A shot History of an Idea That Shaped a Nation, 9

[8]Martin Luther King Jr.,I have a Dream,1963

[9]Audhuy,The Waste Land – Myth and Symbols in The Great Gatsby,1986, 109-122

[10]Kochan,The Great Gatsby and the American Dream,15

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American Dream or American Nightmare? About F. Scott Fitzgerald's "The Great Gatsby"
University of Constance
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Emilie Platt (Author), 2016, American Dream or American Nightmare? About F. Scott Fitzgerald's "The Great Gatsby", Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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