Table of Content
2. The roots and main ideas of the American Dream
3. The Corruption of the American Dream in The Great Gatsby
“Long before ‘America’ became a country, it was a continent, and long before it was known to exist as a continent, it was a vision and a dream” (Freese 78). This vision or dream has often been discussed by modernist writers such as F. Scott Fitzgerald. Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby is a novel about the unconditional love of the self-made man Jay Gatsby to a woman that personifies for him true love, success and the ultimate possession. Yet one of the major themes of his masterpiece is not a disenchanting love relationship, but rather the decline and the corruption of the American Dream. In his novel old values that once gave substance and hope to the Dream have been replaced by immoral and decadent pursuits and virtues, which have eventually corrupted the venerable idea of the American Dream. “The Great Gatsby, we are told, is not simply a chronicle of the Jazz Age but rather a dramatization of the betrayal of the naive American Dream in a corrupt society” (Ornstein 54).
It is the thesis of this paper that The Great Gatsby is a comment on the corruption of the American Dream in the Jazz Age of the 1920s, which can be particularly observed in the characters Jordan Baker, Tom and Daisy Buchanan and Jay Gatsby.
A short overview of the main assumptions and characteristics of the American Dream will follow the introduction, in particular taking into account Benjamin Franklin’s ideas on how to achieve success and wealth in the American society and discussing his proposed thirteen virtues in the Poor Richard’s Almanack. Additionally the main ideas that constitute the American dream will be introduced and highlighted. In the third part of the paper these main ideas and Franklin’s recipe for success will be applied to The Great Gatsby and its characters. Here it will be essential to see, to which extent the characters mentioned above comply with the main ideas and characteristics that compose the idea of the American Dream and its way to success and wealth. Lastly, the conclusion will highlight the results and will prove the thesis, which was raised.
2. The roots and main ideas of the American Dream
For centuries the United States of America has been a symbol for hope, religious freedom, economic prosperity and social upward mobility. Millions of settlers have immigrated to the United States, leaving behind their home countries, in the hope to make their personal American Dream come true. This vision is as old as the country itself, going back to the founding fathers. One of the foundations of this vision or of the American Dream can be found in the Declaration of Independence of 1776, where the founding fathers “held certain truths to be self-evident, 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.” (Declaration of Independence 53). Trask summarizes the American dream as follows:
The American Dream consisted of the belief (sometimes thought of as a promise) that people of talent in this land of opportunity and plenty could reasonably aspire to material success if they had adhered to a fairly well-defined set of behavioural rules-rules set forth in a relatively comprehensive form as long ago as the eighteenth century by Benjamin Franklin. (Trask 213).
Benjamin Franklin is indubitably the epitome of the American Dream as he embodies the self-made man. In his lifetime he was a newspaper publisher, author, physicist, statesman and diplomat. Additionally, he has written several essays on how to achieve economic success and social upward mobility. One of his most renowned essays is The Way to Wealth. Here he specifically gave advice or better yet how Trask called it “behavioural rules” (213) on how to become successful and thriving. As prescribed by Franklin there are certain virtues one has to possess, if he or she wants to be successful in life. Amongst others one should avoid being slothful, “Sloth, like rust, consumes faster than labor wears; while the used key is always bright… do not squander time” (Franklin 517). He continues with “If time be of all things the most precious, wasting time must be… the greatest prodigality” (517) and further he suggests “early to bed, and early to rise makes a man healthy, wealthy and wise” (518). Another trait Franklin despised was wastefulness and extravagance. In this regard he warns “Beware of the little expenses; a small leak will sink a great ship” (519-520) and further he persists “fools make feasts, and wise men eat them” (520). Generally he advises to “be industrious and free; be frugal and free” (521).
Besides his recommendations that were given in The Way to Wealth Franklin also suggested thirteen virtues, which would help the individual to improve her or his virtuousness. These are as follows:
Eat not to dullness; drink not to elevation.
Speak not but what may benefit others or yourself; avoid trifling conversation.
Let all your things have their places; let each part of your business have its time.
Resolve to perform what you ought; perform without fail what you resolve.
Make no expense but to do good to others or yourself; i.e., waste nothing.
Lose no time; be always employed in something useful; cut off all unnecessary actions.
Use no harmful deceit; think innocently and justly; and, if you speak, speak accordingly.
Wrong none by doing injuries, or omitting the benefits that are your duty.
Avoid extremes; forebear resenting injuries so much as you think they deserve.
Tolerate no uncleanness in body, clothes or habitation.
Be not disturbed by trifles, or at accidents common and unavoidable.
Rarely use venery but for health or offspring; never to dullness, weakness, or the injury of your own or another’s peace or reputation.
Imitate Jesus and Socrates. (Franklin 1966: 71)