The 1920s in America, also known as the
roaring twenties, was a period in America defined by both prosperity and
sanguinity. It was a time when most people rejected the laws of prohibition, as
well as his or her moral standards, and a time when self-indulgence dominated
the ethical compass of civilization. It was a time that embodied the desired American
Dream, but also changed the definition of what the American dream entailed. F
Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby,
written and set during this time of corruption and pursuit of wealth, “presents
Fitzgerald’s view of the most important moral choice a person can face: whether
to live a life of virtue and moral discrimination or squander wealth on
physical pleasures and abuse power” (Mizener, 76). The novel is a fictional
story about a man named Jay Gatsby who is chasing this new American dream and
is a man who fully indulges in the society-wide race to becoming wealthy. Gatsby,
born to an extremely poor family, knew that to change his life and try to win
back the woman he loved after five years, he had to change his whole life and decided
to pursue a fraudulent career managing drug stores, which sell alcohol to
become the man he thought Daisy longed for. Daisy, his one true love that he
met during the war, left him to marry Tom Buchanan, a man who inherited his
fortune, is equal to Daisy in social standing and represents the morally sane
old money society throughout the novel. Gatsby, having become rich by false pretences,
represents the new money society in the novel, and his actions reflect the time
period. The newfound immoral definition of the American dream transformed by
the roaring twenties in Fitzgerald’s The
Great Gatsby is explored through Gatsby’s corrupt journey to the upper class,
his motivation, Daisy, and his gift for hope and effectively illustrates how
these aspects ultimately led to his demise.

The former James Gatz was born to a poor
farm family in North Dakota who he never fully accepted as his true family. He
aspired to change his life in any way possible to pursue a prosperous life such
as one the American dream offers as he constantly has wishes of having
completely different parents. When the opportunity presented itself in front of
James’ eyes, he seized it. “Jay Gatsby” emerged the day that James Gatz, at
seventeen years old, rowed out to Dan Cody’s yacht to warn him that a “wind
might catch up and break him up in half an hour” (Fitzgerald, 104). Having
saved him, “There was irony in the fact that Dan Cody’s yacht should represent
a first glowing vision of ‘all the beauty and glamour of the world'”
(Parkinson, 110). Cody, after Gatsby’s insight, became both his mentor, and his
best friend and for the next five years, he was Cody’s steward and secretary.
After Dan Cody died, Gatsby was supposed to receive his inheritance according
to the will, but the family intervened and cheated him of all his money and
kept it for themselves. Gatsby, left with nothing and back to having no money,
has to find a way to prosper, so he took advantage of the time period of
prohibition and made a fortune by bootlegging and created connections with
gangsters including Meyer Wolfsheim. He served as Wolfsheim’s reputable front
man as he “replaced the perception of a gangster as a lowlife with an image of
an upscale, stylish, wealthy figure” (Pauly, 41). Gatsby longed to be
prosperous and achieve the American dream and was willing to do anything to get
there, even if it ended in him being classified by the West Egg society as a
killer, gangster, or German spy. It is very possible that because of the biased
narrator and both Gatsby admirer and friend, Nick Carraway, the readers are
unable to see the true mystery behind Jay Gatsby and never truly find out what
exact side-business he is committed to. Nick is one of the few characters that
truly cared for Gatsby, so his assessment of Jay is objective, and his story
telling is tainted with his own perceptions of the people around him. For
example, Thomas H. Pauly, in his essay entitled “Gatsby is a Sinister
Gangster”, writes:

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Nick simply cannot conceive that Gatsby
would exploit others to achieve his objectives – nor that Nick’s own innocence
and propriety might have carried Gatsby elsewhere to dispose of his bonds… Is
Gatsby, as Nick assumes, one of the last romantics wholly dedicated to the love
of his life, or is he perhaps as Nick never really considers, a devious
criminal who pursues his business with the same evasion and intrigue shown in
his plotted reunion with Daisy? Of course, it is quite possible that he could
be both. To see Gatsby as both lover and gangster would demand that this figure
be recognized as having more in common with the criminal Meyer Wolfsheim than
Nick ever allows (Pauly, 51).

Fitzgerald’s
use of a first person ancillary narrator invites his readers to consider all
possibilities of Gatsby’s contribution, good or bad, to illegal business
affairs. Gatsby had a rough start to his life, but with determination and the
willingness to do anything to become a member of the upper class, he
effectively achieves the new idea of the American dream that was defined by the
roaring twenties.

            A man like Gatsby doesn’t go through
all the hardship and struggle he does to live the American dream without a
driving force to help make it through. When Gatsby was in the war, he met a
woman named Daisy, fell in love with her and never turned back. Everything
Gatsby did whilst on his journey to wealth was with Daisy in mind, “Having
fallen in love with Daisy when he was in training camp near Louisville, he sets
out after the war to become as rich and gentlemanly as Tom so that he will be
worthy to ask Daisy to leave Tom and marry him” (Mizener, 81). Gatsby believes
that if he has just as much money as Tom does, that will make them equal in
Daisy’s eyes and she will return back to him. Fitzgerald effectively creates a
hero out of a criminal because:

He has no friends, only hangers-on, no
intellectual interests, no real concern for people. His entire heart and
imagination are utterly consumed with his romantic image of Daisy Buchanan, a
selfish, silly, giddy creature… What seems to attract him to Daisy is the sense
of financial security that she emanates: she has always been, and somehow
always will be, aboundingly rich. She is the tinselly department store window
at Christmastime to the urchin in the street. Her very voice, as Gatsby puts
it, “is full of money” (Auchincloss, 84).

Daisy,
to Gatsby, represented everything that he realized he wanted in life. She
became the physical embodiment of his dreams and it can be argued that Gatsby
was in love with the idea of being with Daisy more than Daisy herself. Gatsby’s
beautiful mansion and his flashy parties showing off his wealth may create a
façade of him living in the moment, but it is all constructed so that Daisy
will notice him as he “…half expected her to wander into one of his parties”
(Fitzgerald, 84). Gatsby’s house is a prominent symbol of his undying love for
Daisy, as he believes that if she sees his house once, she will fall in love
with it right away and leave Tom, her social equal, for him, “The central role
of Gatsby’s house in his dream of Daisy becomes increasingly clear: it has to
prove to her that he has attained her exclusive world of great wealth and now
has a ‘real right to touch her hand'” (Parkinson, 56). Moreover, Gatsby’s house
in West Egg is right across from Daisy’s located in East Egg; it is so close
that he is able to see the green light at the end of their dock from across the
water. The green light, a symbol that illustrates Gatsby’s longing for Daisy
and his American dream, is so close to him yet so far away at the same time. It
represents the “dream that must have seemed so close that he could hardly
fail to grasp it” (Fitzgerald, 189). In his novel The Great Gatsby, Fitzgerald is suggesting that falling in love
with a beautiful, wealthy, woman justifies years of illegal activity as “His
unblinking indifference to the ugly and criminal aspects of his own nature
serves as the psychic counterpart to America’s historical innocence about the
sources of its own wealth, its tie to the exploitative realities of a fallen
world, which Daisy comes to embody” (Rowe, 91). In Gatsby’s eyes, no matter
what he does, as long as it is for Daisy and leads to her being with him, is
justified because all he is doing is pursuing his long time dream of being back
with the woman he loves. Gatsby and his efforts towards attaining the corrupt
American dream that defined the roaring twenties were inspired by Daisy in an
attempt to bring her back into his life.

            Gatsby was chasing his version of
the American dream, one that involves himself, his money, and the girl of his
dreams. With a dream so broad, it is no wonder that whatever Gatsby did to try
to win Daisy back would never be enough for her to just abandon the distinguished
upper class life that she has built with Tom. Gatsby does absolutely everything
in his power to get her to leave him, but what Daisy can only view Gatsby as a
symbol of her past whereas Gatsby sees Daisy as the most important part of his
future. For example, “His presumption extends to a belief that he can even
transcend the natural boundaries placed upon human beings. He will win back
Daisy by recapturing the past.  ‘Can’t
repeat the past?’ he Gatsby cried incredulously. ‘Why of course you can! I’m
going to fix everything just he way it was before, she’ll see” (Pearson, 642). Gatsby
is holding onto the past and how things were before she met Tom, but Daisy will
not leave her new life that is defined by the morals of old money for a man
stuck in the past who made his fortune illegally. It is too much of a risk for
her as Tom is her social equal. Gatsby wishes too much for things to return to
normal, and the falling of the clock in his and Daisy’s first reunion after
five long years apart can symbolize this. Gatsby knocking the clock over upon
their first reunion stands as a symbol for Gatsby’s consuming desire to stop
time, as well as his incapability to do so. In addition, Gatsby asks for a lot
from Daisy during his rise to the American dream, so it’s no wonder as to why
Daisy won’t leave her wealthy husband for him. Gatsby, after reuniting with his
true love, sees the future flashing before his eyes as he spends more and more
time with her. While Jay and Daisy are dancing and reminiscing on the past,
Nick thinks to himself, “If only it’d been enough for Gatsby just to hold
Daisy. But he had a grand vision for his life and Daisy’s part in it” (The Great Gatsby). Gatsby couldn’t just
have a temporary affair with the girl that got away, he wished to have Daisy as
his wife and it gets to the point where he begins to push too hard and
ultimately ends up pushing Daisy further away than she was before. He wishes
for the five years apart to just disappear, especially when Gatsby tries to
force Daisy to tell Tom that she never loved him, “‘Oh, you want too much!’ she
cried to Gatsby. ‘I love you now – isn’t that enough? I can’t help what’s
past.’ … ‘I did love him once – but I loved you too.’ Gatsby’s eyes opened and
closed. ‘You loved me TOO?’ he repeated” (Fitzgerald, 139-140). Not even this
admission stops Gatsby from his goal of being back with her. He’s asked for too
much from her and now he has scared her away. It’s no surprise to the readers
that when Tom’s mistress, Myrtle Wilson, gets run over and killed instantly by
Daisy, she doesn’t take responsibility and drives, away, leaving Gatsby to
handle the aftermath, “‘Was Daisy driving?’ ‘Yes, but of course I’ll Gatsby
say I was. You see, when we left New York she was very nervous and she thought
it would steady her to drive – and this woman rushed out at us just as we were
passing a car coming the other way” (Fitzgerald, 150). Of course, Gatsby told
Nick that he will take the blame for the tragedy, and he truly believes that
Daisy will call him in the morning to run away together and escape the
aftershock of Myrtle’s death. Gatsby, focusing solely on his escape with Daisy,
is so set on his version of the American dream that he doesn’t even realize
when it has slipped out of his hands.

            It’s important to realize that
Gatsby has so much hope built up within him, and Fitzgerald makes sure that
readers see and understand this as well. At this point, with the woman he loves
not speaking to him, and the ensuing events to come, the only thing he can truly
rely on in his quest to reach his ultimate American dream is this built up hope
inside him. Nick Carraway’s thoughts and observations of Gatsby heavily
influence that of the readers and he states, “If personality is an unbroken
series of successful gestures, then there was something gorgeous about him,
some heightened sensitivity to the promises of life… He had an extraordinary
gift for hope, a romantic readiness such as I have never found in any other
person and which is not likely I shall ever find again” (Fitzgerald, 6). The
author establishes Gatsby as an exceptionally romantic hero and hopeful
dreamer, and reflects this through Nick’s admiration for him and his inability
to see Gatsby for who he truly is. Gatsby is so sanguine that he was blind
sighted when he learned the lesson that things will not always go his way. There
isn’t a pessimistic bone in Jay’s body and Nick realizes how truly different he
is compared to others. Perhaps maybe, Fitzgerald wanted the readers to see that
Gatsby relies just on his hope in an effort to make the readers feel for him
and see Gatsby as a romantic rather than one who affiliates himself with true
gangsters of the time. To think that Gatsby went through all of this trouble
for, “Daisy, a rather soiled and cheapened figure. It is Gatsby’s ultimate
goal in his concept of the American dream. However, he falls victim to his own
preachings” (Pearson, 642). At that point in time, Gatsby should have given up
his pursuit of Daisy, but it is his longing to live the American dream that
keeps pushing him on. He did so much for her, so he truly has hope that she
will come to her senses, but “The American dream is not to be a reality, in
that it no longer exists, except in the minds of men like Gatsby, whom it
destroys in their espousal and relentless pursuit of it. The American dream is,
in reality, a nightmare” (Pearson, 645). Gatsby relied so heavily that his
dream would become a reality, that when it came time to let go of the dream and
stop hoping for it to happen, the inevitable happened and his dream drifted
further away and he met his fate.

            Gatsby’s fixation with the
achievement of the warped concept of the American dream in the roaring twenties
ultimately led to his demise. He was so consumed with the idea of having Daisy
that he didn’t even realize when his true loved drifted out of his reach. Gatsby,
after witnessing Myrtle’s death and losing Daisy, was still so worried about
Daisy that he didn’t even realize that his own death was slowly approaching.
Tom, with the means to rid of Gatsby of his life once and for all, told
Myrtle’s husband, Patrick that it was Gatsby’s yellow car that killed his wife.
He focused on his dream for so long that he forgot to live his life the way he
should have, but when Myrtle’s husband killed him:

Daisy doesn’t send a message or a flower;
Mr Gatz is bemused; Woflsheim is sentimental; Klipspringer is already
continuing his parasitical life elsewhere; one of the men who had enjoyed
Gatsby’s hospitality says he deserved all he got; Nick experiences the valley
of ashes. Only Owl-eyes, the bespectacled guest at Gatsby’s first party who
showed an ‘unusual quality of wonder’ arrives to join him Nick in the
blessing of the dead and to add a modern benediction. (Parkinson, 112)

No
one around Gatsby came to mourn his passing, except for Nick. The people he
interacted with were either criminals or people who didn’t care enough to show
up and pay his or her respects to his life. Daisy couldn’t even bring it upon
herself to visit at his funeral, it goes to show how much Gatsby did for her
but she still didn’t accept his ways. These types of people are an accurate
representation of the era, the corrupt time of the 1920s where people only focused
on their self-indulgence. Gatsby’s admiration for Daisy was beyond the point of
an obsession; it completely took over his life and he let it, “Gatsby’s love
for Daisy is more than ‘personal’. It is a passion permeating his entire life
as well as his self-image” (Parkinson, 111). The woman he loved ended up
completely abandoning him in his death, meaning that his efforts to win back
the love of his life had failed and he died still believing that he could hold
her in his arms forever. Gatsby lived his life pursuing the ideal American
dream that was far out of his reach due to the fact that he is a criminal and
was motivated for the wrong reasons. He decided to be worried about the wrong
things in his life and he ultimately paid the price for his life of crime and
immorality, “Gatsby in many ways… the end product of the American dream, the
grotesque embodiment of what America can offer its ambitious young” (Lehan,
108-109). Daisy could never live up to the image and fantast that Gatsby
created of her. He asked for too much in the end as he was strictly focused on
reliving the past with her. The American dream is different in every person’s
eyes, that is why, “As a prophet of the American dream, Gatsby fails –
miserably – a victim of his own warped idealism and false set of values”
(Pearson, 645). He fell victim to his dream and paid for it with his life.

The transformation of the definition of
the American dream in the roaring twenties is illustrated in F Scott
Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby by
Gatsby’s journey to the upper class, his motivation, Daisy, his gift for hope
and explores how these ideals led to his demise. Gatsby’s dream was
unattainable because it never truly existed. He was in love with his memories
and the idea of loving Daisy because it was so easy for him. The version of the
American dream that was reachable to Gatsby was only in his grasp because of
his illegal business selling alcohol during the prohibition age. Gatsby was
doomed from the start because the American dream he chased was built off of
corrupt means in the first place. All of the measures he took to get him close
locked in his fate. Unfortunately, it was Gatsby who was the living example of
the false American dream, “In the end the most that can be said is that The Great Gatsby is a dramatic
affirmation in fictional terms of the American spirit in the midst of an
American world that denies the soul. Gatsby exists in, and for, that
affirmation alone” (Bewley, 102). Fitzgerald created Gatsby as an example for
the readers to see that pursuing a dream through corrupt means will never work.
The American dream is supposed to be a goal of those who work hard in their
daily jobs and wish to live a prosperous life, but The Great Gatsby is an instance of what will happen when it becomes
a greedy dream about materialism and the self-centred search for pleasure.
Fitzgerald’s novel shows how the ideals and beliefs of the immoral roaring
twenties changed the meaning of the American dream.