(24 February, 2016. SPOILER ALERT)
“So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.” There is no doubt that everything born into this world becomes corrupted through time. The sinful nature of humanity seeps into every crevice of our species’ culture. Technology, ideals, passions, emotions, character and art are all distorted almost beyond recognition by the vices, hate, and desires of mankind. Not even dreams are safe from this onslaught. We look forward, believing in the beauty of something, doing whatever we can to achieve our goal, but in the end we forget why we believed in this dream in the first place. Perhaps that which we have fought for, has become corrupted in and of itself, and is no longer worth our desire, but we have become blind in our obsession to hold on to the thing we once dreamed of, even if it is no longer recognizable. F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby explores the corruption of one of the most sought after dreams in history: The American Dream. Through an elaborate allegorical romance, Fitzgerald defines the American Dream before showing its corruption by a materialistic and cynical generation.
Our story is narrated by Nick Carraway, a young, disillusioned veteran of the Great War, entering the bond business in New York during the 1920s. The culture he finds here is radically different from his quiet hometown in the Midwest, full of outrageous parties, moral disregard on all levels, and rampant materialism. Nick moves into a small house on the ‘West Egg’ of Long Island next door to a man named Jay Gatsby, a newly rich man in his thirties with a mysterious past who holds fantastic parties. As Gatsby and Carraway become friends, Gatsby reveals his love for Carraway’s cousin, Daisy, who lives on the other side of the bay, on the ‘East Egg’. Gatsby has been in love with this girl since he first met her, years ago, during the war. Knowing he was too poor for her then, he made it his goal to rise to the top so she could be with him. Gatsby worked hard for a rich old man, hoping to get a share of his inheritance, but when the man died, Gatsby was cheated by the man’s family and was left destitute once again. Desperate to be with his love, he mixed himself up in the world of bootlegging and other sorts of organized crime, lavishing him with riches within a few years. He hosts the grandiose bashes at his home, hoping that this will attract Daisy to his home and perhaps impress her. Gatsby and Carraway are face with a dilemma though. In the time that Gatsby had been rising to the top, Daisy married a man from an extremely rich family and had a child. Every night, Gatsby looks off across the bay, looking at the green light that glows from the docks of Daisy’s home. “”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.” (Chapter 1) As her husband, Tom Buchanan, is very clearly unfaithful and doesn’t seem to care too much about his wife, Daisy allows herself to be swept up in a love affair with Gatsby, which Carraway helps orchestrate. After awhile though, Gatsby explains that he’ll only be satisfied and will run away with Daisy if she declares to Buchanan that she never loved him. When the time comes, Daisy becomes reluctant and is manipulated by Tom into staying with him. Gatsby doesn’t believe this and thinks that Daisy still loves him and always has. He’s even willing to accept responsibility for a crime that Daisy committed and eventually is killed for it. Instead of mourning for Gatsby, Tom and Daisy simply leave and pretend that Gatsby never existed. Gatsby, with all his splendor and power, dies alone with no one but Carraway beside his grave.
It becomes clear that nearly every central character serves as support for the ongoing allegory about the corruption of the American Dream. Nick Carraway is a realistic, cynical character, though he still hopes deep down that the American Dream can be achieved. While his cynicism sometimes creates a sort of depression and general disgust due to his surroundings, it also helps him adjust to this monstrous world. This is shown in his relationship with Jordon Baker, a famous female athlete. He is able to overlook her dishonesty and selfishness, which he supposes can’t be helped, and focus on her vivacity and intensity. As he matures throughout the story, he realizes she isn’t worth it and sees her as she really is: a shallow, self-serving creation of the upper class. It becomes clear that Nick Carraway represents the young generation of the 1920s, skeptical yet hopeful. Jordon Baker represents New York, or perhaps the city’s money-driven lifestyle that abounds there. Nick becomes disinterested in her by the end of the book, showing how he now sees the problem with that sort of existence. The geographical placement is central to this symbolism, with the ‘West Egg’ representing those with money in their family (old money), and the ‘East Egg’ representing those who have become rich on their own (new money). While they both are upper class, the two view each other with disdain. Tom Buchanan epitomizes the people with ‘old money’ with his professionalism, fake intelligence, a clear sense of superiority, and his ability to get what he wants when he wants it. He looks at people like Gatsby with disgust. In his eyes, Gatsby is just a peasant in a pink suit. Daisy and Gatsby symbolize the American Dream and those who have fought for it, respectively. Gatsby spends his entire adult life attempting to have Daisy, first by working honestly, and second by resorting to crime. Gatsby slowly becomes delusional in his desire for her, putting her on a pedestal and making her seem perfect. At first this may seem sweet and loving, but he begins to expect her to do all the things he’s hoped for. Gatsby realizes that his dream isn’t much of a dream anymore, and therefore he wants to pretend nothing has changed in the years they’ve been apart. “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.” Daisy put her arm through his abruptly, but he seemed absorbed in what he had just said. Possibly it had occurred to him that the colossal significance of that light had now vanished forever. Compared to the great distance that had separated him from Daisy it had seemed very near to her, almost touching her. It had seemed as close as a star to the moon. Now it was again a green light on a dock. His count of enchanted objects had diminished by one.” (Chapter 5) This shows how the American Dream isn’t as perfect as we want it to be, and as it has been corrupted by the materialism and classism that Buchanan and his kind fill Daisy’s head with, it will never be the same as he once dreamed it to be. Eventually, Daisy betrays Gatsby, but Gatsby has become blind, and doesn’t believe Daisy would do this. He dies, still obsessed with this dream that has become unrecognizable to all but himself.
Scott Fitzgerald expertly tells the story of the American Dream, its corruption, and the fall of those who search for it. This says a lot about our society and our constant desire for more, not knowing when enough is enough, and our willingness to do anything to achieve our dreams even if the dreams aren’t truly worth it. We see the light across the bay, wanting what is on the other side more than anything, but soon discovering that we can never be satisfied. Perhaps we can learn from this and acknowledge that we should put nothing on earth on a pedestal of perfection, as it will ultimately fail us. But alas, as humans, we will always be guilty of this crime. “Gatsby believed in the green light, the orgiastic future that year by year recedes before us. It eluded us then, but that’s no matter — tomorrow we will run faster, stretch out our arms farther . . . . And one fine morning — So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.” (Chapter 9)