The American Dream in The Great Gatsby

The American Dream in The Great Gatsby

As mysterious as Gatsby is, we know he’s after one thing throughout The Great Gatsby. His goal isn’t necessarily Daisy, either, but what Daisy comes to represent. The American Dream is as elusive a concept as Gatsby himself: shrouded in false promises, enigmas, and the pain of loss. How is the American Dream in The Great Gatsby portrayed, and what can the reader take away from the fall of some of these characters?

The Green Light

Perhaps the most iconic example of the American Dream in The Great Gatsby is the symbol of the green light: “Gatsby 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.” This is a recurring symbol of Gatsby reaching for something he’ll never be able to attain. It represents the divide between Gatsby’s new money, and the old money traditions that he wants to break into to woo Daisy. Of course, his failure costs him the girl of his dreams and his life, but more importantly, it shows the illusory nature of the American Dream.


The Setting

Gatsby throws lavish parties in an effort to win Daisy over and make friends. They’re great, but it’s obvious how outrageous and over the top they are. These parties mimicked those of the 1920s: overconfident and lacking real substance. Situated between two disasters, WWI and the great depression, the 1920s were a time of strange confidence in America, where, despite intense racial and socioeconomic tension, people believed things could change for them. The American Dream felt closer than it ever had before. Yet, like the green light at the opposite side of the water, none of what was promised to people coming to America could obtain what they wanted.


Gatsby and Others

No one would admit it (besides maybe Tom), but there’s a clear divide between the old money characters and, well, everyone else. Mixing with old money didn’t guarantee you were to be accepted in the upper echelons of society. That’s why the American Dream to many of these lower-crust characters is always a pursuit. Dressing to impress, doing everything right, and still not earning what’s rightfully yours. Within the rigid class system, only those who were already elite claimed the American Dream as their own. Yet Gatsby tries anyway because of his belief in change.

The American Dream in Gatsby was destined to be out of reach for everyone, except those already at the top. This is the driving force behind Gatsby’s actions: that even just a chance at Daisy and a better life was enough to keep trying. Unfortunately, Nick recounts that this attitude ends in nothing but ruin.