With the Death of Gatsby, Came the Death of the American Dream

This post will contain spoilers, you have been warned.

Gatsby turned out all right at the end; it is what preyed on Gatsby, what foul dust floated in the wake of his dreams that temporarily closed out my interest in the abortive sorrows and short-winded elations of men.

Do you ever have those books you read in school that stuck with you? Be it by Orwell, Shakespeare or anyone. The book that really resonated and stuck with me was The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald. I read this book as part of my higher English course, so I read it for the first time more than 5 years ago now – and have read it countless times since.

The book centres on a group of characters from around New York and Long Island in the 1920’s and is narrated by Nick Carraway, a young man trying to make his own way in Long Island, after having moved there from Minnesota. Whilst in Long Island he is struck by the exuberant wealth he sees where he lives on West Egg. In the 20’s, Long Island was seen to be separated into two eggs, West and East – these kept separate those who had only recently come into money (West) and those who had inherited it (East). Nick’s rented house in Long Island is overshadowed by the grandeur of the titular character’s home: it is the house belonging to Jay Gatsby.

Symbolism is at the very heart of this short novel – even Gatsby himself becomes a symbol of the long-forgotten American dream. Gatsby was not born rich, but used nefarious means to create his astonishing wealth, with bootlegging and organised crime. But Gatsby was not aspiring to riches for his own purposes, he wanted to impress Daisy – a woman so self-absorbed she could not even look after her own daughter (though perhaps this is for the best as she wanted her daughter to be a “pretty little fool”, just like her mother). Gatsby bought his massive mansion as it was directly opposite Daisy’s house on East Egg, with a green light on the end of her dock which Gatsby is first seen reaching out to.

The green light is another metaphor for Gatsby’s extraordinary gift for hope, Gatsby reaching out to it showing him striving towards his goal. Eventually, just prior to Gatsby’s demise, the green light on the end of the dock has gone out – his hope has been lost.

Little has a character in literature angered me so much as Daisy Buchanan. She proclaims to love Gatsby (alongside her husband, but he’s another issue by the point this comes up in the novel), yet allows him to take the blame for running over Myrtle Wilson, Tom Buchanan’s mistress whilst she was driving the car. She is ultimately to blame for Gatsby’s death, and doesn’t even recognise this. She is vile.

With the mention of Myrtle Wilson in the previous paragraph, I must point out another symbol which is very clear in the book (so clear in fact, the picture is at the top of this post) – the eyes of Dr T.J. Eckleburg. A faded sign in the Valley of the Ashes, keeping a watchful eye out on everything which occurs under his glare. To me, they strike me as a symbol for the eyes of God (which occurs to George Wilson also, on his way to find the driver who killed his wife). This lack of concrete significance in other characters contributes to the unsettling nature of the image. Thus, the eyes also come to represent the essential meaninglessness of the world and the arbitrariness of the mental process by which people invest objects with meaning.

Speaking of his demise, there has been little in fiction which has devastated me so. It is testament to Fitzgerald’s writing that in 9 chapters, he could make me cry over the death of a character. Gatsby did not deserve to die for something he did not do. The wrong person was blamed and his life was cut out before he had a chance to do things his way, with the woman he loved. I don’t think Gatsby’s death will ever not make me well up, no matter how many times I read the novel, it’s devastating.

All in all, the novel is quite a striking denouncement that the American dream is over. It can be reached by those who’s fathers have garnered the riches for them (Tom Buchanan), or if you have had to work your way up, there is no way this can be done through normal means (shown by Gatsby’s bootlegging). With Gatsby’s death, came the death of the American dream. Of all the characters in this book, he appeared to be the only one with any sense of life – Nick was only along for the ride and did not proffer any suggestions of his own. And without this sense of life and living every moment – even just to get the girl of his dreams and run off into the sunset – the American dream can never be reached. All Gatsby wanted in life was to be happy, and he wound up dead in his pool to keep his love from harm.

If you haven’t read this book and I have spoiled it for you, I am really sorry. It is still worth a read as you may take something totally different from its message. I love this book despite it’s cynical nature, and I hope everyone else does too.
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One thought on “With the Death of Gatsby, Came the Death of the American Dream

  1. Gatsby truly was a tragic hero. I too love this book and it was the cynical nature of it which informed my world view for many years. A great post.

    While at school, it was the works of George Orwell that really hit home for me. Thankfully I discovered him outwith the confines of the classroom which allowed me to fully embrace his work on my own terms. Winston Smith another tragic hero, or perhaps more of an unlikely one. But it is perhaps in his essays and works of non-fiction where Orwell truly finds his voice.

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