The American Dream As The Central Idea Of The Great Gatsby

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Following the end of WWI, the 1920s brought around an abrupt economic boom within America. After having lived through the depravity of WWI, the American society saw the 1920s as an opportunity to indulge. The 2013 film adaptation of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s 1925 novel, The Great Gatsby, is an exhilarating movie that depicts the narrative of American Dream hopeful, Nick Carraway, as he becomes increasingly entangled in the lavish lives of New York’s most elite. The film utilises Fitzgerald’s perception of America during the 1920s to explore the rapid cultural changes the country experienced including; segregation, the growth of consumerism, the effects of the alcohol probation and the American Dream, thus allowing for the film to be analysed through a historical perspective.

As is the case with many novels, authors’ works are often influenced by personal experiences. Fitzgerald is no exception to this trend, in fact some would say that The Great Gatsby is almost biographical in the way in which it reflects his life. Most strikingly, the character of Jay Gatsby is seemingly based off Fitzgerald, whom also fell in love whilst serving in the military to a girl named Zelda Fitzgerald. Much like Daisy, Zelda was exceedingly materialistic and so Fitzgerald worked towards achieving a decadent life that she would approve of. He idolised the rich and became consumed in his extravagant lifestyle, however, he gradually became critical of how excessive and morally empty it was. This is similar to Nick’s progression throughout the film, as despite initially taking to his new lifestyle, he eventually sees the damage that it brings upon others and himself. Nick’s narration during Myrtle’s party scene of him being “within and without, simultaneously enchanted and repelled by the inexhaustible variety of life”, is an expression of his internal conflict in being attracted to the rich lifestyle, whilst also being adverse its superficiality. This is emphasised by cross cuts between an intoxicated Nick and his hallucination of another more well put together Nick, whom silently judges the role that he plays in the party, from the sidewalk. The contrast that the cross cuts show between Nick’s confused face and his hallucination’s judgemental expression, furthers this idea that Nick is unsure of the new persona he has taken on. It is scenes like these and stark parallels between Fitzgerald, Nick and Gatsby that makes The Great Gatsby into a film that in hindsight, represents Fitzgerald’s regret in himself and others for pursuing a lavish, but shallow lifestyle.

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The 1920s was dubbed as being the Jazz Age, due to the rapid rise in the popularity of jazz, a common music genre that is featured throughout the film. With jazz having originated from African American culture, the majority of jazz musicians were African American, the popularity of which conflicted with the political ramifications of segregation. Staying true to the nature of its time period, The Great Gatsby reflects the racist attitudes and anxieties of the white American population during the 1920s, specifically through the character of Tom Buchanan. Tom is the embodiment of white privilege and prejudice towards African Americans, as shown through his dialogue which expresses his admiration for the white supremacy book “The Rise of the Coloured Empires”. It should also be noted that African American people are hardly ever shown socialising with white people, or in positions of power. Instead they are often depicted as living in the slums of The Valley of Ashes, or placed out of focus in the background of the Elite’s lives, as servants. Additionally, the costume of African American characters are often a uniform of some sort, symbolising how they are under another persons’ authority, rather than their own. This divide between black and white is further emphasised during a scene in which Nick and Gatsby drive over the Queensboro Bridge and observe a wealthy group of African Americans being driven by a white chauffeur in an expensive car. To a modern day audience, the close up shots of Nick’s bewildered face and his mental narration of him being “impossibly confused” and not knowing “what to think” is quite troubling, as it clearly shows that racism was so deeply rooted into American society that it made a wealthy black person into an anomaly.

One of the central ideas of The Great Gatsby is The American Dream, an ideal which states that through hard work, anyone can achieve success. However, what started off as a noble cause became corrupted by a number of factors mentioned in the opening sequence of the film. The first factor was the unprecedented rise of the stock market during the 1920s, which transitioned America into an era of wealth and materialism. The American society became fixated on owning the fastest automobiles, the largest homes and throwing the most decadent parties, as demonstrated by Gatsby’s extravagant parties. Additionally, the prohibition on the sale of alcohol backfired drastically and instead inspired the rise of organised crime and made millionaires out of bootleggers, as symbolised by the successes of characters such as Meyer Wolfshiem and Gatsby, whom greatly benefitted from the prohibition. The businesses that these characters run are a literal embodiment of the word “underground” as the set in which these two characters hold business meetings in, is the underground basement of a barber shop. It is this greed, social climbing and blood money that was used to obtain wealth, which corrupted the nobility of the American Dream.

The corruption of the American Dream is further conveyed through Gatsby’s own ambitions. On the surface, Gatsby’s rise to fame is an emblem of the American Dream as it proves that a poor upbringing can be escaped through hard work. However, Gatsby’s ultimate dream of loving Daisy is corrupted by his criminal connections, Daisy’s aggressively materialistic lifestyle, and the divide between old money, new money and the lower classes, which is symbolised through the film’s three settings of East Egg, West Egg and the Valley of Ashes. Gatsby’s inability to be accepted by the most elite due to his humble beginnings, shows that social mobility is simply an illusion. This idea is reinstated by how Daisy and Tom suffer no consequence for their destructive actions, instead it is only those from the lower classes such as Gatsby, Myrtle and George that experience loss. Nick’s final narration of the green light being an “orgiastic future that year by year recedes before us,” shows that the American Dream will always be a dream and never a reality.

The Jazz Age, an era that was built upon the resultant wealth from WWI, made its exit at the turn of the new decade transitioning America into the bleakness of the Great Depression. As a result of having spent the decade celebrating America’s new found wealth by exploiting the luxuries of life, the party abruptly ended when Wall Street Crashed, driving the economy to the ground and the population into poverty. Though Fitzgerald could not have possibly predicted such a turn of events, both the film and the novel of The Great Gatsby holds a clear message that the country’s rampant appetite for luxury would ultimately result in societal instability and moral corruption. 

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