Against the Current
F. Scott Fitzgerald published his masterpiece, The Great Gatsby (1925), the midst of the Roaring Twenties. The novel focuses on the tumultuous life of Jay Gatsby, a self-made millionaire, trying to win back Daisy Buchanan, his first and only love. Throughout the novel, Fitzgerald uses the characters of Nick Carraway, Jay Gatsby, and Daisy Buchanan to exemplify the corruption of the American Dream and deliver a message about society that is still relevant today.
For all outward appearances, Daisy is living the American Dream; however, as the story unfolds, the perversion of her dream becomes apparent. Daisy possesses all the luxuries one could hope for. She is from old money, has a very wealthy husband, a daughter, and lives in a sprawling mansion. Nick visits the Buchanan’s one afternoon and Daisy tells him, “‘You see I think everything’s terrible anyhow… Everybody thinks so- the most advanced people. And I know. I’ve been everywhere and seen everything and done everything… Sophisticated- God, I’m sophisticated!’” (Fitzgerald 17). Some might say the Buchanan’s are living the American Dream. However, Tom, whom she married for convenience, is having a public affair, and the societal norms keep her trapped in her marriage. Divorce was rare at this time in history, and even rarer among high society. On the eve of her wedding to Tom, Daisy drunkenly announces to Jordan, “‘Tell ‘em all Daisy’s change’ her mine. Say: ‘Daisy’s change’ her mine!’” (Fitzgerald 76). At this point, she has received a letter from Gatsby containing a plea for her to wait for him. She wants to call off the wedding but her promise to Tom, the unspoken obligation to her parents, and the societal expectations did not allow for girls like her to run away with men like Gatsby. So, Daisy marries Tom, and two months later he has his first an affair with a chambermaid, sealing Daisy’s fate as an unhappy rich woman stuck in a dysfunctional marriage. The distortion of her dream is further alluded to by her words about her newborn daughter: “‘I hope she’ll be a fool- that’s the best thing a girl can be in this world, a beautiful little fool’” (Fitzgerald 17). Daisy knows girls must be pretty to catch a husband, and ignorant of his actions to remain untouched by his affairs. By illustrating this, Fitzgerald uses Daisy to display one aspect of the immorality of the new American Dream and cautions readers against assuming appearance is reality.
Gatsby, who gives this book its title, has spent his life trying to improve himself so as to be worthy of Daisy. Daisy is subject to the disillusionment and bleak outlooks on life that permeated society after World War I, while Gatsby holds the opposite view. He has “an extraordinary gift for hope” and a “romantic readiness” (Fitzgerald 2) that are the rare, remarkable qualities that lead to his downfall while also highlighting the corruption of the American Dream. Gatsby’s American Dream, which is full of optimism and promise, is Daisy. Gatsby is a self-made man in the most literal sense: he created an identity for himself that he is faithful to until the end. He became wealthy through illegal means, bought a house across from Daisy, and continues to throw extravagant parties in hopes she will wander in. In the final paragraphs of the novel, Nick ponders Gatsby’s dream of Daisy: “He had come a long way to this blue lawn, and his dream must have seemed so close that he could hardly fail to grasp it. He did not know that it was already behind him, somewhere back in that vast obscurity beyond the city, where the dark fields of the republic rolled on under the night” (Fitzgerald 180). Fitzgerald is exemplifying the unreality Gatsby is living in and his disillusionment with the American Dream. Gatsby believes he can remake himself into a man Daisy will approve of. However, he is living in the past: when Daisy loved him and only him, when she was childless, and when she thought he descended from old money. He is chasing an illusionary dream. Gatsby exclaims, “Can’t repeat the past… Why of course you can!” (Fitzgerald 110) which further emphasizes his twisted conception of reality. Daisy’s marriage to Tom was a financial decision with the aim of keeping the pedigree pure, while Gatsby is a newly rich man who was born bourgeois. Daisy will never deign to marry him if she discovers his true station in life. Gatsby has chosen to ignore these facts because he is holding on to the old American Dream of individuals triumphing over their birth origins with hard work. An article titled “In Search of the American Dream” states, “In 1881, the prominent Boston philanthropist Kate Gannet Wells characterized Americanism as, ‘the fixed conviction that one man is the equivalent of another in capacity, and that failure to prove it by results is the consequence of circumstances beyond his control’” (Clark). Gatsby is the victim of this American Dream. He believes with effort and determination, Daisy can be his. However, circumstances beyond his control, in this case, his humble beginnings, prevent him from ‘results’. During the reunion of Gatsby and Daisy in chapter five, Fitzgerald expands the scope of this mindset.Nick observes that “no amount of fire or freshness can challenge what a man will store up in his ghostly heart” (Fitzgerald 96). Fitzgerald is suggesting the attainment of the American Dream is never as brilliant as its conception in the mind was.
Gatsby is cast as a Jesus figure, strengthening the idea that fantasy never lives up to reality: “The truth [is] that Jay Gatsby of West Egg, Long Island, sprang from his Platonic conception of himself. He [is] a son of God- a phrase which, if it means anything, means just that- and he must be about His Father’s business, the service of a vast, vulgar, and meretricious beauty” (Fitzgerald 98). Jesus served God by serving others, namely mankind (the “vast, vulgar, meretricious beauty” above). Likewise, Gatsby serves Daisy, his own horrible beauty. He believes his new persona will win him her heart, but it only leads to the woe that later befalls him, with startling parallels to Jesus’s crucifixion. Jesus was undone by his servants, just as Daisy crushes Gatsby’s dream, unbeknownst to him. When taken with the fact that after meeting Daisy, Gatsby “committed himself to the following of a grail” (Fitzgerald 149) - many people believe the Holy Grail is the cup that Jesus drank from at the Last Supper, and the cup that collected his blood during his crucifixion- it becomes apparent Daisy is both his aspiration and his downfall. The idea of Daisy as Gatsby’s savior and hamartia is further emphasized by the passage: “He knew that when he kissed this girl, and forever wed his unutterable visions to her perishable breath, his mind would never romp again like the mind of God” (Fitzgerald 110). By giving himself to Daisy, Gatsby relinquishes the transcendence of his fantasy, and the surrenders himself to the whims of reality which has boundaries, even disappointments. Just as noted before, the truth pales in comparison to the inventions of the imagination.
Nick Carraway is a realist that appreciates the strength of Gatsby’s faith, but also sees the demoralization of society. He comes from an upper-middle-class family in the West and is in the East to learn the bond business. Throughout the novel, the two differing ideals Nick sees at play in Daisy and Gatsby’s lives baffle him: Gatsby has the capacity for extraordinary hope, while Daisy is a shallow, cynical woman. Nick wants Gatsby’s dream to come true, whereby proving the American Dream is not dead but also can see the East is an amoral place full of snobbish, selfish people represented by Daisy. Fitzgerald uses Nick to display the futility of the American Dream.Nick’s dream, in effect Gatsby’s dream, dies in the Plaza Hotel in New York City. When Tom hints Gatsby's fortune is dirty, “he [begins] to talk excitedly to Daisy, denying everything, defending his name against accusations that had not been made. But with every word she was drawing further and further into herself, so he gave that up, and only the dead dream fought on as the afternoon slipped away, trying to touch what was no longer tangible, struggling unhappily, undespairingly, toward that lost voice across the room” (Fitzgerald 134). Gatsby’s fantasy is surely lost at this moment, although only Nick is aware. At the end of chapter seven, Myrtle dies and Nick comes across Gatsby, who is outside the Buchanan’s house because he is afraid Tom will abuse Daisy. Nick observes most people would think Tom and Daisy were “conspiring together” and that Gatsby is “watching over nothing” (Fitzgerald 145). However, Gatsby believes Daisy loves him, so he is willing to take the blame for Myrtle’s murder.Nick, on the other hand, knows Tom will not hurt Daisy and that the Buchanan’s will do anything to protect their reputation. Nick says of the Buchanan’s, “They were careless people...they smashed up things and creatures and then retreated back into their money or their vast carelessness, or whatever it was that kept them together, and let other people clean up the mess they had made” (Fitzgerald 179). Tom divulges Gatsby’s location to George, who then shoots and kills Gatsby and himself. Daisy allows Gatsby to die without thanking him for his sacrifice, or even attending his funeral. The corruption of the American Dream is further displayed when considering Daisy as an American Dream. She is an unmindful, superficial snob, not the type of person to be sought after as the pinnacle of desire. Nick remarks, “...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 sorrows and short-winded elations of men” (Fitzgerald 2). With this biblical reference to dust, Fitzgerald makes it clear the destruction of Gatsby’s dream is the death of Nick’s American Dream. Although Gatsby has actually achieved the American Dream in a sense, its fulfillment is unexceptional because he only wants what has passed. The closing sentences reflect Nick’s perspective on dreams. He reckons, “year by year [they recede] before us… So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past” (Fitzgerald 180). Fitzgerald is claiming our dreams propel us forward while only sinking further into the past; in essence, they are unattainable.
At the end of the novel, Nick observes, “this [is] a story of the West, after all- Tom and Gatsby, Daisy and Jordan and I, were all Westerners, and perhaps we possessed some deficiency in common which made us subtly unadaptable to Eastern life” (Fitzgerald 176). Gatsby, Daisy, and Nick have dreams they carry with them. Gatsby has more hope than Nick or Daisy, but the two of them do have a yearning for something passed. Daisy “[carries] well-forgotten dreams from age to age” (Fitzgerald 135), meaning she continues to love Gatsby despite herself. Similarly, Nick comes East with hopes of becoming a successful bondman, but instead loses his innocence when he witnesses two proofs supporting the aberration of the American Dream. Perhaps what makes Westerners unsuited to the East is the attachment to their anachronistic dreams. By hinting this, Fitzgerald pushes readers to consider their capacity for futile hope and American Dreams in relation to society at present.
The Great Gatsby remains one of the most influential books in American history. Through the use of characters like Nick, Daisy, and Gatsby, Fitzgerald portrays the shift in the American Dream full of promise and opportunity to the cynicism and iniquitousness of the decade following the largest war the world had ever seen. Daisy faces the harsh reality of married life, Gatsby’s own dreams destroy him, and Nick discovers that all dreams are fruitless. In a society that has become more materialistic, Fitzgerald certainly preordained the alterations to American ideals of success.