The deconstruction of the american dream in "The Great Gatsby"

Seminar Paper, 2006

19 Pages, Grade: 1.0


Table of Contents

0. The Deconstruction of the American Dream in The Great Gatsby

1. East Egg versus West Egg

2. Representatives of the upper class
2.1 Tom: Brutality unleashed
2.2 Daisy: Is she the real thing?

3. Gatsby's Dream

4. Idealism meets materialism

5. Technology: Cold steel and cold blood

6. Dismantling the American Dream

7. Conclusion

8. Fußnoten

9. Works Cited

0. The Deconstruction of the American Dream in The Great Gatsby

Robert Frost, a contemporary of Francis Scott Fitzgerald, once said that “poetry is a way of taking life by the throat.“ In Fitzgerald's fabulous novel The Great Gatsby, published in 1925,

this seems to be the author's intention, when in a largely poetic tone he depicts life in the so-called “Roaring Twenties“. He took life by the throat and simultaneously pointed at social injustices that were accompanying the economic prosperity of his time. Fitzgerald's masterpiece primarily deals with the American upper class in the 1920s and demonstrates some of the internal processes of “high society."

In the novel representatives of the upper class are engaged in acts of egotism, self-aggrandizement, and heartlessness. Their ubiquitous lack of empathy and understanding for the concerns of others, their downright brutality and self-centeredness pervades the whole storyline and gives prove of the author's rather pessimistic view of what was then going on in contemporary America.

In the center of things stands the character after whom the novel is named: Jay Gatsby.

He is a rather prototypical upstart American who within a short period of time has found ways and means to make a fortune. His wealth is derived mainly from bootlegging and other criminal activities that are left concealed to the reader. At any rate, Jay Gatsby comes in touch with the seducing realm of opulence at a very early stage when aged 17 he encounters destiny for the very first time. The event that would shape his whole life and leave an imprint on his mind is a chance meeting with Dan Cody, a rich mining tycoon, who cruises across Lake Superior in his yacht Tuolomee (named after the gold fields of Northern California1) some day. From this day on Gatsby's life will never be the same: the seed of aspiration has been planted in the young man's heart together with a deep conviction that in the future he might be able to display his wealth in a similarly urbane fashion as Cody did. He is willing to model his life on Cody's and maybe even outstrip him if given the opportunity.

But wealth can hardly be obtained in North Dakota, where James Gatz (who changes his name after the fateful encounter with Dan Cody) grows up. In order for people to make a fortune and turn their lives into a success story as Benjamin Franklin or Abraham Lincoln did, they have no choice but to travel east. New York City is the place to go. Not only does it accomodate scores of rich people who have reached their goals in life, but also does it teem with the glittering splendor of pompous villas, luxurious automobiles, and excessive parties given by and for people who are

“being rich together,“ as the narrator in The Great Gatsby, Nick Carraway, so fittingly – and surely ironically – puts it. This marvellous place becomes Gatsby's home shortly after World War I and it is then that his dubious career starts to take shape. Through the years he assembles a remarkable amount of money and is able to settle down in the trendy neighborhood of West Egg, a part of Long Island (which in fact is seldom mentioned in the novel; Fitzgerald reshaped the whole area into a kind of “earthly paradise“2 and a region of wonder that seems to be taken from a fairy tale rather than from reality). However, his endeavors soon are no longer directed to earning money only, because in the distance there is a green light looming from across the bay from East Egg.

There lives his former love, Daisy Fay, who is now married to Tom Buchanan, a brutal stud who cheats on her most of the time and does not care about her feelings, or anyone else's for that matter. She is the only missing piece in the puzzle of his life and therefore he desperately tries to make her his woman.3

In the end, however, Gatsby finds that money can't buy him Daisy's affection and instead of coming to rest in happy matrimony all that he finds is death; forsaken by his fellow human beings (except for Nick Carraway and Owl Eyes who pay their last respects at his funeral), deprived of the only hope he had clung to, disenchanted with a dream that for years had filled his life with meaning.

It is the divergence between dreams and reality that I will focus on in this paper.

1. East Egg versus West Egg

If you think about the setting of the novel you will find that it takes place in the East,

or more precisely: in the Long Island area stretching from New York's harbor into the northern Atlantic Ocean. Although it is supposedly a “story of the West”4 (as Nick terms it, pointing to the fact that all the main protagonists are originally Westerners), there is a clear emphasis on New York and the East Coast of the United States. The residential areas of East Egg and West Egg are exclusive neighborhoods, geographically separated only by a “courtesy bay”; both of them are egg-shaped islands that strikingly resemble each other [and it might not be entirely inappropriate to be reminded of utopian novels such as Thomas More's “Utopia” instantly (published as early as 1516)]. The state of isolation as well as their inhabitant's wealth make them luxurious outposts of society where people can freely indulge in their extravagant ways of life.

However, their state of separation indicates not only a geological rift but also an ideological one: Whereas East Egg is home to an already established class of wealthy people, the West Egg community is largely constituted by the so-called “nouveau riche” who have gained a fortune through their own efforts and by the labor of their hands. They do not belong to the caste of aristocrats who hand down their wealth and power from one generation to the next. Instead, they have “sprung from their Platonic conception of themselves”5, and had to toil hard in order to reach their high state of prosperity and reputation. The newly rich profit extensively from the booming economy of the twenties which enables them to make large amounts of money in double-quick time and climb the social ladder with an amazing speed. If a man (or woman) was ambitious enough and put all of his energy into an economic venture, there was a good chance he (or she) could finally make his (or her) dreams come true. The national myth of the American Dream, the rise “from rags to riches” as praised by writers like Horatio Alger, necessarily meets with opposition from the older upper class whose representatives hold that although ambitious upstarts may be able to hoard up a treasure they cannot possibly level up with them culturally or intellectually.

In Fitzgerald's novel it is made sufficiently clear that these two groups mix about as well as oil and water and will always be anxious to maintain a distance. Living side by side and talking to arrivistes at eye level seems to be downright unthinkable for members of the American upper class. They cannot accept them as equals. This is basically why both parties are located on islands in the sea, within visibility of each other, but always separated by a sharp dividing line.

The Great Gatsby elaborates on the destructive powers emanating from the conflict between these rivalizing social classes which are so similar in terms of prosperity, but at the same time so incompatible as far as their distinctive mentalities are concerned. Both groups meet with such an aggressive opposition that peaceful coexistence seems to be altogether out of the question;

instead, at the end of the novel we find Jay Gatsby floating dead in his swimming pool, and Nick Carraway, his neighbor, making up his mind to go back home to the western regions of his childhood and adolescence. Only Daisy's and Tom's lives remain more or less intact, because their attitudes differ from those of others. In that they expose a peculiar trait of character which makes them worthy East Eggers: selfishness.

Fitzgerald's characters of course are more than just individual figures; they have an exemplary function in pointing to the mindless upper class existing in the 1920s and should therefore be conceived of as a bundle of patterns that have shaped U.S. society at that time. We will therefore have a closer look at the life conditions of the Buchanans before we move on to an analysis of the tragic flaw that ultimately leads to Gatsby's downfall and death.

2. Representatives of the upper class

In the novel's expository first chapter all of the main characters are introduced, among them Tom and Daisy Buchanan. We learn that they had spent a year in France “for no particular reason”6

(as Francis and Zelda Fitzgerald did7). Nick Carraway, the narrator of the story, is a cousin of Daisy's, although he has not seen the Buchanans for years and admits he “scarcely knew [them]

at all.”8 Shortly after the war he had spent two days with them in Chicago. Many years have elapsed until they meet again at the Buchanan's house, a Georgian Colonial-style mansion located in the ritzy community of East Egg, where the established rich have created a suburban playground to match their expensive tastes and caprices.

2.1 Tom: Brutality unleashed

We learn that Nick's relative is a subjugated wife and the mother of a little girl. Her husband is a brute who treats her disrespectfully and does not even abstain from physical violence. In the conversation with their guest Tom interrupts his wife repeatedly and blurts out aggressively again and again. It is with an effort that Scott Fitzgerald tries to convey to his readers that Tom's and Daisy's relationship has come to an end. Therefore, it does not take long until the neatly devised facade maintained at the beginning of Nick's short visit comes crashing down, revealing a tense situation within the little family. Daisy confides to her cousin that Tom did not even attend the birth of their daughter. She describes her condition at that time as “utterly abandoned.”9

This incident shows that Tom does not care much about other people's feelings. Due to his lack of morality he managed to cheat on his wife continuously without having the slightest qualms. Jordan Baker, a famous golfer and friend of the family, bluntly tells Nick that “Tom's got some woman in New York.”10, as if these news were common knowledge.

All in all Tom was very disfavorably crafted by Fitzgerald; his selfishness and carelessness are obvious from the very beginning and form a gross contrast to Gatsby's tenderness and thoughtfulness later in the novel (Gatsby being a so-called “gentleman hero”11). Considering the fact that he is such a reckless person, his angry talks about civilization take on a rather ironic dimension: Tom argues that “civilization's going to pieces” because the white race is infiltrated by people belonging to non-Nordic races. In his point of view, the Anglo-Protestant culture that has produced “science and art, and all that” (he doesn't get any clearer than that) is endangered from outside - an apprehension that to a certain extent is shared by Fitzgerald himself when in a letter to Edmund Wilson he complains about what he calls “the Negroid strain”12.


Excerpt out of 19 pages


The deconstruction of the american dream in "The Great Gatsby"
University of Freiburg  (Englisches Seminar)
Modernism and the American Fiction
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ISBN (eBook)
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Great, Gatsby, Modernism, American, Fiction
Quote paper
Tobias Rösch (Author), 2006, The deconstruction of the american dream in "The Great Gatsby", Munich, GRIN Verlag,


  • guest on 4/17/2012

    good analysis

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