The Decline of the American Dream as Portrayed by F. Scott Fitzgerald
The novels and short stories of F. Scott Fitzgerald are well-known for the theme of the American dream. It emphasizes the value and meaning of the American dream to most people in the United States. Generally, the concept encapsulates a romantic ideal. It is an image of a new and unsullied dream and promises which everyone is willing to seized (Pelzer 21).Primarily, the heart of the American dream is to guarantee to everyone “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” as mentioned in the speech of former president Abraham Lincoln. However, there is an entirely new popular meaning that has been attributed to it; that is, to become wealthy and rich. Within this frame of thought, the idea of success and happiness to most people has become material aspects of life and things instead of the true essence of the American dream initially contemplated. It can be said that Fitzgerald’s works are commentaries on how this new and prevalent notion on the true nature of the American dream has destroyed all of America’s and American people’s ideals (Kochan 3).
This new version of the American dream is said to be the main culprit of the decline of Americans. Let’s take the example of Jay Gatsby who thinks that the fulfillment of his American dream which are, to fit into the lifestyle of the socialites, to be known as one of the most wealthy persons in West Egg, and to gain the adoration of the wealthy Daisy Buchanan is to throw parties and invite the members of the upper class. Gatsby’s ways and means in reaching his American dream depicts the so called “decline of the west” (Gross et al 9). As a matter of fact, the novel is said to be an allusion to a poem entitled The Wasteland by T. S Eliot which emphasizes the belief that modern civilization has made our lives meaningless because we are too preoccupied with the glamour of material things. It is said that the modern age is an era where spirituality has already been abandoned for the pursuit of wealth and riches (Gross et al. 9).
Fitzgerald emphasized that most of the characters create a conflict between the real and the ideal which eventually created confusion on the virtue of happiness as a consequence of wealth (Pelzer 33). In all of these literary characters, the anticipation of money has made their dreams enervated. Furthermore, it also made people insensitive to the needs and desires of other people around them. Their happiness, self-fulfillment, achievement, and dignity are measured on the amount of wealth that they have or they strive for (Prigozy 53).
Within this context, there is also an implied social differences and stratum established which makes each character aware of the social disparity among groups or class. In The Great Gatsby, Fitzgerald reiterated the fact that “the rich are different from you and me”. The yearning of people to accumulate money and wealth is due to the fact that the disparity is too prevalent that it affected their psyche. In this sense, the American dream has come to mean the desire to achieve all the material things that is necessary for one to belong to the upper class. It is also considered as the ultimate reasons of happiness and purpose of existence which is proved to be wrong by Fitzgerald.
This decline and fall of the American dream will further be elaborated by the novels The Great Gatsby and Tender is the Night and the short stories Winter Dreams and The Diamond as Big as the Ritz. However, the paper shall focus merely to the characters of the stories and their decline and fall due to their wrong and defective interpretation of the American dream. This is an interpretation which leads them to chase and fulfill the American dream by means of accumulating wealth and riches. However, Fitzgerald instilled that this wrong idea and perception should be eradicated for a more sound view which will bring everyone the fulfillment that they wanted by bringing each characters to their doom while in the process of attaining the so called “American dream” of theirs. As a matter of fact, all the literary works end with a failure in the attainment of the American dream such as the death of Jay Gatsby, the futility and alcoholism of Dick Diver, the heartbreak of Dexter Green, and the exile of John Unger.
In The Great Gatsby, the death of Gatsby is a consequence of the intertwining love affairs of Gatsby, Daisy, Tom, and Myrtle. This is now an example of people who in the pursuit of their American dream has disregarded the feelings and thoughts of other people. Myrtle, for one, wants to be with Tom Buchanan because like Gatsby she also yearned to be acknowledged as a member of the upper class. As a matter of fact, when she is with the company of Tom, she transformed into someone “that has undergone a change”. In the words of Nick Carraway: “the intense vitality that had been so remarkable in the garage was converted into impressive hauteur. Her laughter, her gestures, her assertions became more violently affected moment by moment, and as she expanded the room grew smaller around her, until she seemed to be revolving on a noisy, creaking pivot through the smoky air (Fitzgerald 21).” At the same time, Jay Gatsby with his heart still on Daisy strove hard to attain all the material wealth that he thought can woo her. Eventually, he succeeded in creating an affair with her that presupposes that he has achieved the American dream that he wanted and yearned for. But this devotion of Daisy is one that is impermanent, because later on, we will find out in the story that her loyalty is with Tom and not to Gatsby. However, this American dream, though fulfilled, is not a happy ending for the couple. Fitzgerald has to kill Gatsby to reiterate the constant reminder that the kind of American dream that he had all along is a defective one. Because of this defective notion of the American dream, that is, a persistent desire to a accumulate wealth as a means to fulfillment and happiness
Likewise, the novel Tender is the Night is also about the fallacy of wealth and money as things that constitute the American dream. According to Pelzer, money is the root of the social and psychic disintegration of Dick Diver (118). While it is evident in the story that it was Rosemary Hoyt who contributed to the eventual destruction of the protagonist, from an idealistic doctor to a disillusioned alcoholic who loses his ideals and his skills, the very reason of his decline is his inability to reconcile the conflicts of his desire for money and its promise of beauty, and his professional esteem and service and self-affirmative awards (Pelzer 118). His marriage to Nicole is one that is motivated by pecuniary interests. The two of them met each other when Nicole was confined as a consequence of his father’s abuse. They fell in love and married. But the marriage is tinged with controversy. According to the narration of Hoyt: “Dick married Nicole for her money. That was his weakness—you hinted as much as yourself one night (Fitzgerald, 202).” If this is the case, then it could be concluded that the marriage was not bind because of devotion and love which explains the number of infidelities and affairs of Dick with other women. This is again a reiteration on the fact that the desire for money and wealth is fatal to one’s overall well-being. Furthermore, the novel in general is also a critique of the brilliant and the glamorous bourgeois world and money that makes possible people’s irresponsibility and selfishness. All of these contribute to the decline of Diver, the same as situation as Gatsby in The Great Gatsby.
The short story Winter Dreams is another attempt of Fitzgerald to comment on the idea of modernity and class struggle as fatal to the realization of the American dream. The same as that of Gatsby, the rise to stability and riches of Dexter Green is due to his desire to gain the love and devotion of Judy Jones, the daughter of Mortimer Jones, the golfer that Dexter works for as a caddy. When he was young, he decided to quit his job for the excuse that he is already too old for the job. However, the real reason behind this is his disgust and insecurity with patronizing the upper class. He met Judy Jones when he was 14 and she was 11. When he left his caddy job, he went to become a successful businessman and like Gatsby, still has Judy Jones in his heart. Thinking that he already deserves the love of Judy Jones now that he has all the wealth and money that he aimed for, both of them had an affair. However, it did not last long enough because Jones had other men beside him. In the end, he became one of the most successful businessmen in New York. However, despite these riches and fame that he has already achieved, he still remained to be entangled with the pain that he was not able to marry the woman of her dreams (Fitzgerald 2-7). The story is again another commentary on the issue raised since the beginning of the essay, that of the defective interpretation of the American dream as equated to the importance of wealth and money for one to achieve anything that one desires. In the story, Dexter Green is mistaken in believing that the only thing that he needs to successfully woo Judy Jones is wealth and money which he strove for. However, once again, Fitzgerald was successful in elaborating this wrong notion that will ultimately lead to the protagonist’s decline.
Lastly, the story entitled The Diamond as Big as the Ritz is a story that is so disturbing because not only that the desire for money and wealth leads to the downfall of the characters but also to a more fatal form of selfishness – killing others. The same as the stories already discussed in the earlier examples, this story involves a middle class teenager who was swayed by a classmate to go to their place because he boasted that his father is one of the richest in the world if not the richest. The name of the classmate is Percy Washington whose genealogy is traceable to that of the former president George Washington. There was a time in their family history that they were able to discover solid diamond. They kept it a secret for a long time. In order for them to do this, they devise a plan that whoever visits in their house will be killed including airmen who get strayed in their area. But the same as the preceding stories, John Unger, the protagonist fell in love with a sister of his classmate Percy. They escaped from that point when airmen decided to attack the place of the Washington’s. They were then living a life of an expatriate without money to spend. Percy and the rest of the family decided to explode the place along with the diamond for the reason that they do not want that the treasure be transferred to other possessors (Fitzgerald 1-18). This is the case where utmost selfishness happens. As already reiterated, this is again due to the impaired interpretation of the American dream.
As a conclusion, Bruccoli mentioned that the reason to the characters’ downfall is their betrayal of the true essence of the American dream (86). Gatsby and Green’s means of getting everything that they wanted most specifically the woman that they love is to woo and bask them with all the wealth in the world. Diver’s idea of marriage is a union to which one can satisfy one’s pecuniary interests and needs. Washington’s idea of wealth is to deprive anyone not only of the right to have a good life but also with the right to life. With these fatal and defective notions of the American dream, America will become a place of “a barren wasteland in which nothing of value can thrive” (Peltzer 96). It is because of this kind of environment and attitude that the true essence of the American dream can never be realized.
Brucolli, Matthew Joseph. New Essays on The Great Gatsby. London: Cambridge UP, 1985. Fitzgerald, F. Scott. The Great Gatsby. Hertfordshire: Wordsworth Editions, 1993.
Fitzgerald, F. Scott. Tender is the Night: A Romance. Hertfordshire: Wordsworth Editions, 1994.
Fitzgerald, F. Scott. The Diamond as Big as the Ritz: and other Stories. USA: Courier Dover
Fitzgerald, F. Scott. Winter Dreams. Whitefish: Kessinger Publishing, 2004.
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Issues, Sources, and Historical Documents. Connecticut: Greenwood, 1998.
Kochan, Sandra. The Great Gatsby and the American Dream. Munich: Grin Verlag, 2007.
Pelzer, Linda Claycomb. Student Companion to F. Scott Fitzgerald. Connecticut: Greenwood
Prigozy, Ruth. The Cambridge Companio to F. Scott Fitzgerald. London: Cambridge University