The Depiction Of American Aream In F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby

April 28, 2022 by Essay Writer

America. Seen as a land of endless opportunity and liberty, Oxford dictionary defines the American dream as “the ideal by which equality of opportunity is available to any American, allowing the highest aspirations and goals to be achieved.” In the public consciousness, this phrase has become synonymous with the ability to accrue wealth, and class mobility. This is rooted in the US’s capitalist economy, a system that promises the opportunity for anyone to achieve financial success. Money is the key to better quality of life, but the consumer economy has influenced people’s perceptions of their ‘needs’, morphing want for a better life into a desire for excess. In a society where capital defines success, can money make a person happy? Is this fantasy equally accessible to everyone?

F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby explores whether the American dream truly exists. Gatsby is the epitomic ‘rags to riches’ story. His parents were “shiftless and unsuccessful farm people”, but he refuses to accept this fate for himself and departs to pursue his own ‘American dream’. He meets Daisy and becomes infatuated, intent on becoming rich to win her over. Gatsby resents Tom because he has, and is, he’s ever wanted. Despite his efforts, Gatsby will never become the gentleman he desires to be, conveyed by his constant transgressions – he lives in the West Egg, the home of emerging wealth as opposed to the East Egg’s old money. His parties, supposed to allure Daisy, instead attract divorcees, murderers and bums, serving to emphasize the stratification of US society – it’s impossible to truly become upper class. This relates to advice Nick’s father’s advice, that “a sense of the fundamental decencies is parceled out unequally at birth”, and “all the people in this world haven’t had the advantages you’ve had”. Ironically, although the Carraways can recognize that they experience a life of privilege, they fail to acknowledge that this exposes them to better opportunities than others, allowing them to achieve more highly – they believe that they inherently deserve better.

Gatsby’s fixation on the Buchanans’ green light serves as a metaphor for the futile optimism that is the American dream. “Gatsby believed in the green light, the orgastic future that year-by-year recedes before us”. Even if it seems just out of reach, success remains unattainable for the American public. This taints even his pursuit of Daisy, becoming another possession to attain. “Her voice is full of money”, he comments. She’s inseparable from wealth such that it has become a part of her physical body. However, even for Buchanans wealth isn’t fulfilling. On the surface, their lives couldn’t get better – they have everything they could ever want and more. Yet, their lifestyle is unsatisfying – they both seek fulfillment in extramarital affairs, conveying that how wealth is accrued doesn’t influence happiness, but the innate hollowness of such a superficial definition of success does. Nick dicloses “James Gatz – that was really, or at least legally, his name.”

To achieve the ‘dream’, Gatsby abandons his identity, loses his sense of self. Once finally successful, he’s nothing but his wealth, living only in the imaginations of others. Edwin Fussell suggested that Gatsby is corrupted “by values and attitudes that he holds in common with the society that destroys him.” He’s synonymous with America and its people’s hopes for success. It becomes obvious through Gatsby’s struggles that even when ‘success’ is reached, it isn’t fulfilling, nor does it bring happiness. Martin Scorsese’s The Wolf of Wall Street conveys a modern interpretation of this. Jordan Belfort, a young stockbroker, becomes engulfed by the desire to accrue an infinite abundance of money, leading to wild amorality and gross excess. An aural bridge transitions the advertisement for Stratton Oakmont (his firm) into chaos to first introduce this. A long shot depicts the office in a frenzied craze, throwing little people at targets. This irony sets the tone for the film, supported by listing – “I own a mansion, a private jet, six cars, three horses, two vacation homes and a 170-foot yacht.” – of Belfort’s material possessions. His exorbitant drug use reflects a need to quell his conscience, the constant desire for “more, more, more”.

As in The Great Gatsby, the protagonist remains unfulfilled even when wealthy. The ‘dream’ is decidedly less ideal than it appears. He first tastes success by baiting the poor with the opportunity to achieve their own American dream, lying and cheating to sell penny-stocks at 50% commission, even writing a script for his staff. This portrays what critics call ‘the new American dream’: all of the wealth with none of the work. Scorsese aims not for us to like these characters – comedic scenes including Belfort’s first introduction actually mock them – but identifies in the audience a sort of respect. In a society where money is power, his ability to build such colossal wealth is almost admirable. Scorsese as such uses this film to examine the American character. “Stratton Oakmont is America”, Belfort claims; a microcosm of its greed, its hunger for wealth and craving for excess. As in The Great Gatsby, the protagonist attains his affluence by immoral means, but Belfort isn’t as elusive about his ventures as Gatsby, reflecting a cultural shift in our desensitization to ill-gotten gains, almost expected in pursuits of money. Scorsese forces the viewer to face this at the end of the film. “For a brief fleeting moment, I’d lived in a world where I’d forgotten I was rich, and everything was for sale. Wouldn’t you like to know how to sell it?”. This abrupt and direct address of the viewer is affronting and supported by the final shot. Belfort once again challenges a group to sell a pen, and they comply. As the diegetic sounds fade out, the camera pans back to the audience and we’re forced to face them, eye to eye with ourselves. Despite his crimes, Belfort is still somehow spellbinding. People still aspire to be like him, learn his ways, become rich at any cost. Fitzgerald and Scorsese’s texts expose flaws in the so-called American dream and force the viewer to contemplate whether it exists as we have been lead to believe. In witnessing Gatsby and Belfort’s struggles, we’re forced to question – is it worth it? Can we continue to call this a dream if it isn’t satisfying, nor will it bring happiness? It seems that it can never be reached, that no amount of money will ever make one feel satisfied. Fundamentally, the American dream is flawed because it equates wealth with happiness.

Even if achieving the American dream is unfulfilling, we’re forced to consider whether reaching that point is equally likely for all people. Many can’t even dream of the wealth that Gatsby and Belfort accrued. The September 18th, 2017 episode of VICE News Tonight explored how police shootings affect black people, highlighting a group for whom their ‘American dream’ is only safety. The piece captivates the viewer with an aural bridge. “This isn’t about making America great again,” the speaker declares, “America has never been great. It has always been racist; it was built on slave labor.” The passion in his voice palpable, black reveals into a close-up on his face, his emotion evident, establishing that this is a hard-hitting issue. The wordplay is a clear insult towards Donald Trump’s presidential campaign – they don’t dream of a ‘great’ America, but a just one. In a society where their peers have vast privileges, predisposing them to better opportunities and a greater likelihood of financial success, they must first have equality before they can aspire for affluence. Statistics emphasize this power imbalance – nearly 2700 people have been fatally shot by police since 2015, and although there’s been an increase in charges of police for murder and manslaughter, the conviction rate has seen no real change – police shooters still go free. Images of police resources – cars, bikes, weapons and riot shields – contrast that of the clergy, nothing but an orange vest, reflecting this. The police forces vastly overpower the protestors, conveying that in America, even safety is a privilege. A montage of people seemingly unbothered, amused by the protests reinforces this. They’re majority white, and accompanied by the Reverend’s words – this is one of the richest areas in St Louis. This sequence draws attention to the disproportionate distribution of wealth between races. Not only are people of color not afforded the same opportunities as their white peers, but far more are also struggling to overcome social class. Where The Great Gatsby illustrates the struggle of a white man to surmount his background, this piece depicts those who battle that same obstacle, on top of racial prejudice. Shots of American flags being burned symbolize a disconnection with mainstream society – the American dream doesn’t exist for them. A montage, shootings one after another, stresses the multitude of cases. Most moving among these is cell phone footage, people helplessly watching their loved ones dying. This makes the incidents intensely personal while illustrating people too afraid to trust those designated to protect. There’s no resolution to the piece, simply a fade to white, indicative of the ongoing struggle. This text emphasizes how lacking opportunity for some in America is. It’s impossible to believe that a group fighting so hard to feel safe, to exist as equal human beings, truly has the same opportunities for success as their peers. At the heart of the dream’s ideology is class mobility, but the institutionalized economic disparity and prejudice against people of color depicted in this report affirm that it isn’t accessible to all people.


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