The Great Illusion What is the American dream? If you were to look up the definition, you would see it defined as “a life of personal happiness and material comfort as traditionally sought by individuals in the U. S. 1” The question of whether or not the American dream is an illusory goal is explored throughout the novel, and with Fitzgerald’s markedly bleak conclusion on the achievement of the American dream, many readers are left skeptical. Can this life of personal happiness and comfort ever be truly achieved? Is there a certain element of illusion that goes into any supposed fulfillment of this dream?
More importantly, what is the price that must be paid in our attempts at achieving this dream? The ethos of the American dream is perhaps most clearly portrayed in the character arc of the titular Jay Gatsby. Rich, charming, and gifted with an “extraordinary gift for hope” (2), Gatsby has achieved the American dream – or so it seems. A self-built man, Gatsby surrounds himself with lavish parties, modern sports cars, and tailored suits. However, beneath the extravagant exterior, no one knows who the real Gatsby is. Speculations about his background never cease, but in general, “those who accepted Gatsby’s hospitality… aid him the subtle tribute of knowing nothing whatever about him” (61). Born into a poor family, Gatsby spends his whole life trying to make a name for himself, a task he eventually succeeds in through the illicit but highly profitable bootlegging business. He appears to have it all – friends, wealth, social status – but these are all gains based on lies.
Not only does he lie about his origins, telling Nick that he’s “the son of some wealthy people in the Middle West” (65), but even the vast riches that he’s acquired for imself are nothing but the fruits of dishonesty. Daisy Buchanan, a product of the Roaring Twenties (the time of economic prosperity that forms the context of The Great Gatsby), is also blinded by illusion. Surrounded by wealth from a young age, Daisy leads a privileged lifestyle that has instilled in her an air of carelessness when it comes to dealing with real-life issues. After the birth of her daughter, she comments, “I hope she’ll be a fool—that’s the best thing a girl can be in this world, a beautiful little fool” (17).
This personal philosophy that it is best for a girl to be a “beautiful little fool” is one prevalent in many of her decisions throughout The Great Gatsby. Instead of facing her love for Gatsby, she marries Tom, an aristocrat with a penchant for infidelity. When she is confronted by Gatsby five years later, she plays the “beautiful little fool” yet again by blindly remaining with her unfaithful husband. Ultimately, she turns a blind eye to the reality of her poor decisions when it comes to love, and remains forever preoccupied with the hope of finding happiness in the lap of luxury.
The protagonist, Nick Carraway, despite describing himself as “one of the few honest people that [he has] ever known” (59), is not entirely free from the illusions that plague Daisy and Gatsby. He sees through the lies and fanfare that Gatsby surrounds himself with, but cannot help desperately wanting to believe that Gatsby is really who he says he is. “[l]nclined to reserve all judgements” (1), Nick ends up making the biggest judgment of all towards the end of the book when he turns to Gatsby and declares, “They’re a rotten crowd. .. You’re worth the whole damn bunch put together” (154). Nick recognizes the avarice characteristic to the upper-class, yet exempts Gatsby from his judgment. He believes that Gatsby’s motives are more morally upright than most, as Gatsby is driven by love rather than greed. “[S]imultaneously enchanted and repelled by the inexhaustible variety of life” (35), Nick may be one of the clearer thinkers in the novel, but he is unable to recognize Gatsby’s love for Daisy as a form of greed in itself.
A world of excess and personal comfort constantly beckons the characters of Gatsby, Daisy, and Nick; spurred on by all that glitters, they “beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past” (180). Daisy continues to be the “beautiful little fool,” Nick mourns the loss of a man he barely knew, and in many ways Gatsby remains the boy with a dream, the one with “no comfortable family standing behind him,[who is] liable at the whim of an impersonal government to be blown anywhere about the world” (149).
All three of these characters yearn for happiness, but in their attempts at finding contentment amidst material gains, they come up heartbreakingly empty. No matter what it seems on the outside, the personal happiness and comfort so strongly tied to the achievement of the American dream is never fully realized. Fitzgerald’s grim portrayal of the American dream leads readers to the conclusion that perhaps the American dream is just that – an American dream.