The Demise of the 1920s American Dream in The Great Gatsby

Outwardly, The Great Gatsby may appear to merely be a novel about the failed relationship between Jay Gatsby and Daisy Buchanan. However, the major theme of the novel has much less to do with love than with the culture of the 1920s as a whole. In this article, the various cultural elements reflected in The Great Gatsby which led to the downfall of the 1920s American Dream will be discussed, as well as their implications for the characters in the novel.

During the 1920s, the perception of the American Dream was that an individual can achieve success in life regardless of family history or social status if they only work hard enough. In the book titled “Advertising the American Dream: Making Way for Modernity”, the author Roland Marchand describes a figure that he feels represents the quintessential 1920s man who is living the American Dream. He writes, “Not only did he flourish in the fast-paced, modern urban milieu of skyscrapers, taxicabs, and pleasure-seeking crowds, but he proclaimed himself an expert on the latest crazes in fashion, contemporary lingo, and popular pastimes.” (Marchand) The Great Gatsby is not mentioned once in this book, however it is impossible to deny the resemblance between Marchand’s definition of a twenties man living the American Dream and Fitzgerald’s portrayal of Jay Gatsby, who has risen from a poor childhood to being a millionaire with servants, a huge house, and dozens of friends. Gatsby epitomizes the idea of self-made success; he is successful financially and socially and he essentially created an entirely new persona for himself from his underprivileged past. All of the wealth and status which Gatsby acquired, that while on the surface made his life appear to be the precise definition of the American Dream were actually elements which led to it’s demise.

The culture of the wealthy Americans represented in Gatsby was defined mainly by consumerism and excessive material wealth. Wherever given the opportunity, Jay Gatsby is inclined to ostentation as shown in his flamboyant style of dress, what Tom refers to as his “circus wagon” car, and of course his huge mansion where he throws lavish, drunken parties. In Thorstein Veblen’s “The Theory of the Leisure Class” he writes, “…to gain and hold the esteem of men is not sufficient merely to hold wealth and power. The wealth and power must be put into evidence.” Thorstein Veblen, who popularized the term “conspicuous consumption” which so accurately describes much of what was occurring in The Great Gatsby was trying to convey that the people who had not been raised with money and came into riches and wealth on their on attempted to demand respect and esteem by showing it off through purchases.

The houses depicted in The Great Gatsby are perhaps the most obvious indicator of the relentless competition to declare one’s status, as all of the new rich attempted to outdo one another when it came to the size and amenities of their homes. Gatsby has achieved from the outside what looked like the American Dream, however although he had obtained the material status necessary to give that impression, it still wasn’t enough for him and had to seek reassurance that he in fact was impressive. For example, in Chapter Five, Gatsby says to Nick, “My house looks well doesn’t it? See how the whole front of it catches the light.” (Fitzgerald) In Scott Donaldson’s article, “Possessions in the Great Gatsby” he writes, “The culture of consumption on exhibit in The Great Gatsby was made possible by the growth of a leisure class in early-twentieth-century America. As the novel demonstrates, this development subverted the foundations of the Protestant ethic, replacing the values of hard work and thrifty abstinence with a show of luxury and idleness.” (Donaldson, 8) What Donaldson is implying here, is that the sudden wealth that many Americans began to acquire caused leisure and idleness to replace traditional ethics like hard work as qualities that were admired. None of the characters in The Great Gatsby seemed to care much about hard work once they had achieved their material goals. As part of the “new rich,” Gatsby epitomizes the American Dream at the beginning of the novel, prior to his downward spiral. However, he differs from the other newly rich members of society in that he did not earn his money in an honorable way, and therefore does not have the “hard work” ethic that Donaldson refers to. Part of the main idea of the American Dream was that it was achieved through hard work, and this contradiction between Gatsby’s American Dream-like lifestyle and the means which he achieved it are part of his downfall. The show of luxury and idleness that Donaldson talks about is best shown in Fitzgerald’s portrayal of Gatsby’s home and parties that for Gatsby were merely devices he used in a naïve attempt to win Daisy. Although he loves her, he undeniably also sees her as a material commodity, much the way he views his home. In Ray E. Canterbery’s article, “Thorstein Veblen and The Great Gatsby” he remarks, “Jay Gatsby wants to live with Daisy Buchanan because she is a member of the established American aristocracy of wealth. Gatsby lacks the maturity to realize that Daisy cannot be obtained by money alone and in a vulgar display of conspicuous consumption, he flaunts his nouveau wealth.” (Canterbery) In contrast, Tom Buchanan, who is just as wealthy as Gatsby chooses to display his wealth in a much more subtle way than Gatsby. His East Egg home is more modest than Gatsby’s, and is intended to be a display of breeding and taste, rather than a display of gaudiness and exorbitant amounts of cash to freely dispense. Because of Gatsby’s naivete, he fails to realize that no matter how many garish displays of wealth or fancy parties he throws, Daisy is essentially priceless and will not leave the aristocratic, old money lifestyle which she has become accustomed to through her relationship with Tom.

Gatsby’s home was mainly for show; it features a tower for no particular reason, as well as a marble swimming pool and acre upon acre of manicured lawns and gardens. Like his house, Gatsby’s parties are mainly for show as well. The extravagance of this society is shown in Gatsby’s parties in the flashiness, extreme quantity of illegal alcohol, and the volume of guests attending – most of whom only want to be near him because of his wealth. Gatsby puts huge sums of money into these parties yet does not seem to enjoy hosting them at all. In an article by Jennifer Fjeldstrom, she writes, “It is easy to see that the guests at Gatsby’s party are completely unable to exist independently of each other, for all of these people are similarly trying to become a part of the rich set.” (Fjeldstrom, 38) The guest at Gatsby’s parties were all attempting to achieve the American Dream that they believed Gatsby was privy to, they all wanted to be a part of the upper class lifestyle. It seems as if the guests at Gatsby’s parties did not realize that he was still lacking when it came to the American Dream as well. Gatsby’s life looked perfect from the outside, however he felt a deep void that he believed only Daisy could fulfill.

Gatsby however had trouble even believing himself that he truly fit in with the upper class Long Island society. In the Donaldson article previously referenced he also wrote, “The outsized house, together with the lavish parties and the garish clothing, the automobiles and the aquaplane, represent his attempt to establish himself as Somebody, or at least not Nobody.” (Donaldson, 11) Gatsby believed that in order to fulfill his own concept of the American Dream he needed to win Daisy’s love, and to do that he would need to “establish himself as Somebody.” After Daisy finally attends a party at Gatsby’s mansion and he senses their relationship beginning to sour, Gatsby fires his employees, stops throwing parties, and allows his house to deteriorate, representing the beginning of his lifestyle’s decline as well. The day after the car accident when Nick goes to visit Gatsby, Fitzgerald describes the deterioration of the house just since Gatsby fired his servants. It says, “There was an inexplicable amount of dust everywhere and the rooms were musty as though they hadn’t been aired for many days.” This discussion between Nick and Gatsby in this scene shows the origins of Gatsby’s decadent lifestyle. Gatsby’s attempts to win Daisy’s affection through obtaining material possessions, the extravagant home, the fancy clothing and cars changed the American dream from the pursuit of happiness into a quest for mere wealth. This was Gatsby attempting to establish himself as somebody. In order to earn Daisy’s affection he would have to be a “Somebody” or in the terms of the book, “old money.” Even if Gatsby had just as much money or more than Tom, he could never break through the barriers which the “old money” people put up to keep outsiders like Gatsby away.

Automobiles also played an important role in the culture of the 1920s, as well as an important role in the lives and deaths of several characters. At the time the novel was set, the automobile was still a relatively new technology, and just beginning to become important in the culture of wealthy Americans. To the rich characters in The Great Gatsby, the automobile was not so important as a mode of transportation as much as it had importance as a commodity. Just like a house, or a lavish party or anything else which Gatsby or the Buchanan’s may spend money on, a car was simply another way of displaying the massive amounts of wealth which they had available. For example, Gatsby has his own chauffeur, yet he still has a station wagon and an expensive Rolls Royce that he uses as well. In Lauraleigh O’Meara’s article, “Medium of Exchange: The Blue-Coupe Dialogue in The Great Gatsby” she points out that for the most part in the novel, the appearance of the car is much more important than it’s practicality. She writes that several of the phrases which Fitzgerald uses to describe Gatsby’s car have a strong resemblance to the advertising used during that period. Gatsby’s Rolls-Royce was “…a rich cream color, bright with nickel, swollen here and there in its monstrous length with triumphant hatboxes and supper-boxes and tool boxes, and terraced with a labyrinth of windshields that mirrored a dozen suns.” (68) O’Meara writes, “Gatsby’s ‘splendid car’ delineate an expensive and unique commodity, not an efficient means for travel.” This attitude towards transportation is very in concordance with the attitude the characters, especially Gatsby have towards all material possessions. Gatsby likes to make a spectacle with his purchases, whether it is his clothing, his home, or his automobiles.

Gatsby’s attempt to seek fulfillment and win Daisy through material accumulation is one of the reasons that the automobile has to do with the demise of the American Dream. Additionally, the deaths of several characters in the book, whether directly or indirectly resulting from an automobile is an important thing to consider when examining how 1920s culture affected the collapse of the American Dream. Myrtle, Gatsby, and George all die because of an automobile accident, even though Myrtle was the only one who was directly killed by the car. Since Gatsby was the owner of the car that killed Myrtle, he ended up being killed by George, who incorrectly assumed that Myrtle’s death was Gatsby’s fault prior to killing himself. In this case, the automobile is no longer a commodity; it is what O’Meara dubs as a “death car.” The automobile is a symbol that Fitzgerald uses to accomplish several different ends.

The most important function of the automobile in The Great Gatsby however is what O’Meara writes near the end of her article. “The cultural obsession with commodities allows an ordinary automobile to transcend its functional purpose to become and embodiment of dreams.” (O’Meara) The automobile leads to the downfall of several characters’ American Dreams in the same way which their inessential homes did. The characters substituted their pursuit of happiness for a pursuit of wealth, believing that wealth would satisfy their dreams and lead to happiness, however lives were lost in the process instead.

In addition to the preoccupation with material wealth that led to the demise of the American Dream, the means which many people in the 1920s obtained the material wealth in the first place plays a large role. The Prohibition movement which coincides with the events in The Great Gatsby enabled many people who otherwise would have never achieved financial success to enjoy a lavish, extravagant lifestyle. Prohibition began in 1919 with the passage of the Eighteenth Amendment. It was believed by many that this movement would encourage moral behavior and discourage crime and disease. After the passage of the Eighteenth Amendment which stated, “the manufacture, sale, or transportation of intoxicating liquors within, the importation thereof into, or the exportation thereof from the United States and all territory subject to the jurisdiction thereof for beverage purposes is hereby prohibited” (U.S. Const. art XVIII, § 1) a business of bootlegging became a prime way for people to make money. There was a massive demand for bootleg liquor, especially among the rich, and many people such as the character of Jay Gatsby, became rich by catering to these people’s needs. To reach his dream of spending his life with Daisy, he attains his millions in the bootlegging business during the time of prohibition. In his article titled Fitzgerald’s “The Great Gatsby”, Nathan A. Cervo writes, “America is the land of opportunity, but all the opportunities that really matter are basically criminal in character, like bootlegging. To spin off from this a bit, it may be truly said that in America, no noncriminal ever becomes rich. By “crime” I mean not only the illegal, but the immoral; that is, breaches of decency, like honesty and trust, and a fair product for a fair price.” While saying that all activities that enable one to become rich in American are illegal is a slight exaggeration, Cervo is right on target when it comes to the instance of Jay Gatsby.

The activities associated with Prohibition led to a decline in the American Dream because the idea of the American Dream is that only virtuous, moral, hard working individuals were rewarded. The bootlegging business during the 1920s came along with a huge increase in organized crime. It was probably because of his connections to bootlegging and through his drugstores that Gatsby met the infamous gambler and racketeer Meyer Wolfsheim, who was most likely based on an actual gambler from that era named Arnold Rothstein. Wolfsheim was a sly criminal who “fixed” the 1919 World Series and when Nick asks Gatsby why he is not in jail for his activities Gatsby just responds, “They can’t get him, old sport. He’s a smart man.” (Fitzgerald, 78) Wolfsheim showed Gatsby’s dark side and the way that his dream was ultimately corrupted. Gatsby was not a fundamentally corrupt man however through his association with dishonest, wayward people he gradually became more like them. In his article titled, “Gatsby’s Pristine Dream: The Diminishment of the Self-Made Man in the Tribal Twenties” Jeffrey Decker writes, “After Gatsby’s own sudden death, Nick approaches Wolfsheim – the deceased’s ‘closest friend’ – for an account of Gatsby’s source of wealth. Wolfsheim’s recollection functions to reconfirm the new threat posed by the immigrant to moral uplift and ethical entrepreneurship. To Nick’s inquiry, ‘Did you start him in business? ’ Wolfsheim replies, ‘Start him! I made him,’ and continues: ‘I raised him up out of nothing, right out of the gutter. I saw right away he was a fine appearing gentlemanly young man and when he told me he was an Oggsford I knew I could use him good. . . We were so thick like that in everything –’ He held up two bulbous fingers ‘ – always together. ’ Wolfsheim’s depiction of Gatsby’s success helps confirm the findings of Tom’s investigation. Not only is Gatsby ‘raised . . . up out of nothing,’ he is ‘made’ not by the sweat of his honest brow but by the black hand of the immigrant gangster.” (Decker) This revelation from Wolfsheim proves that Gatsby really did not fit in with the old rich people like Daisy and Tom. The way he earned his money and the fact that he had at one point been poor is part of what makes Daisy not want to be with Gatsby, and what basically ruins all hope that Gatsby ever had of fulfilling his dream of them being together.

Ultimately all of these things- the consumerism, materialism, the cars, parties, and houses, plus the Prohibition movement led to class struggles between the rich and poor, a superficial wealthy class of people, and an inaccurate perception of the relationship between money and happiness. For example, while Tom and Daisy may superficially represent the American Dream, their lack of morals, commitment, and dreams all ultimately contradict that. The perception of the American Dream changed, and the idea that money leads to happiness obviously was not the case for Tom and Daisy. The same is true for Gatsby. His illegal work was all an excuse to earn money and become close to Daisy, however once again, money could not buy Gatsby happiness.

This inaccurate perception was what led to most of the shattered dreams in the novel. Gatsby truly believed that the more material things he had to offer Daisy the better of a chance he had of receiving love in return. The failure of the American Dream in his life is mainly due to his moral decay throughout the novel. Instead of turning into an honorable man after earning his fortune, he turns into a quasi-member of Tom and Daisy’s crowd through trying to live up to the material culture of that decade. He never quite fit in with them but became morally relegated to association with that group. As Fitzgerald writes, “They were careless people Tom and Daisy. They smashed up things and creatures and then retreated back into their money or their vast carelessness or whatever it was that kept them together, and let other people clean up the mess they had made.” (187) Daisy becomes the only important person in Gatsby’s life, and in his efforts to win her love he becomes a careless person just the way she is. When Gatsby and Daisy hit Myrtle with the car, he isn’t even concerned about Myrtle; he is just concerned about whether this will cause problems for Daisy. Gatsby’s quest for happiness through illegal and superficial means ultimately is the cause of his death, and therefore the collapse of his American Dream.

The novel is somewhat of a commentary on the condition of the American Dream in the 1920s. It shows how the American Dream went from an idea that anyone could achieve success in this country through hard work and perseverance, to an idea that one needs to keep accumulating material wealth in the quest for happiness and fulfillment.

It is interesting to note that six years after the publication of The Great Gatsby F. Scott Fitzgerald became obsessed with Marxism. He began reading and encouraging Zelda to read a children’s version of the Five-Year Plan, as well as organizing party meetings and sessions with a local communist in Baltimore. This is mainly an interesting thing to note since The Great Gatsby place so much emphasis on materialism and conspicuous consumption. Fitzgerald’s foray into Marxism several years later shows his concerns over this skewed version of the American Dream that was based more on wealth and possessions and less on hard work and achievement. The fact that he later rebelled against the material 1920s culture shows that he was in fact cautioning against this lifestyle rather than encouraging it.

Donaldson writes in “Possessions in the Great Gatsby,” “…he [Fitzgerald] was persuaded that capitalism was a corrupt and dying economic system.” (Donaldson, 3) Fitzgerald felt that capitalism and it’s offshoots— the excessive homes, cars, etcetera were the demise of the American Dream. The novel shows the possibilities that wealth can create and the irresponsibility that can ultimately ruin it. Additionally, the 1920s was a decade where a lot of cultural and social change was occurring—for example, the automobile and the Prohibition movement. The negative effects of these changes in culture also played a role in The Great Gatsby being less than a positive commentary on the state of the American Dream. More than anything however, what the automobiles, homes, and parties represented were what caused Gatsby’s dreams to be destroyed. All of those material possessions were bought to win Daisy, which Gatsby mistakenly felt would ultimately lead him to happiness and the fulfillment of his American Dream. In the end, Gatsby’s life and the culture surrounding it serves as a cautionary tale about those seeking happiness within the narrow confines of the 1920s American Dream.


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23 thoughts on “The Demise of the 1920s American Dream in The Great Gatsby

  1. I had to write an essay and this helped me very much on understanding the book more and the deeper meaning. Thank You

  2. This is a brilliant article however I feel obliged to point out that Gatsby had no real friends and the money he gained did not acquire him a better social life

  3. “…and Fitzgerald’s portrayal of Jay Gatsby, who has risen from a poor childhood to being a millionaire with servants, a huge house, and dozens of friends.”

    Not True, Nick is barely Gatsby’s friend. So that brings us to a total of half a friend.

  4. ages of the article
    2011 *confusion*
    2012-2014:good actual comments talking about the topic and how it helped them. (btw thank you this did help a lot)
    2015:Inside jokes from the book and commemorative phrases, declining into bad sexually suggestive comments, using names of people in the book. You would think it was all one person, but according to the date and time there was just an influx of this type.

    I have to say this is a wonderful book. You can clearly see that the author was using the story of the book almost as a frame story or medium to represent bigger ideals and topics associated with life and ideals of human beings. If you’re reading this, I hope you have a great day. And although believing in that orgastic future is foolish the only other outlook is the reality and sadness of the world.

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