The American Fallacy

A synthesis essay focusing on the ideas expressed in The Great Gatsby by F Scott Fitzgerald — focusing on the modern day American dream

3 years ago

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America faces an unprecedented identity crisis in 2021. From the BLM movement to the capital riots to the COVID-19 pandemic, American society faces a painful reckoning between past and present—a dangerous precipice of uncertainty as manifested by widespread partisanship and individualism. Racial equity and wealth inequality are hot-button topics ranging from social media to the halls of Congress. Yet, America’s current state of crisis and conflict is not new and was presaged 100 years ago. While the drafting of the Constitution and the Civil War were both pivotal moments in the larger scope of American history, the most significant re-evaluation of society in modern times can be seen in the aftermath of World War I. Moving into an era of decadence and materialism, aptly dubbed “The Roaring Twenties”, people searched for an emotional and philosophical outlet to capture this distinct post-war spirit of a nation reeling and recovering from the atrocities of war. No fictional work is more reflective of this transitional period than the landmark publication of The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald.  Although on its surface he tells a tale of a divided New York City and the consequences of hopeless love, Fitzgerald’s most lasting contribution is redefining the national ethos of the “American Dream” through the story of Jay Gatsby. Modern media continues to support Fitzgerald’s themes in multiple formats, from Alexia Oldini’s American Dream to Mike Myatt’s Self-Made Man. Through The Great Gatsby, Fitzgerald lays bare the fallacy of the American Dream, from its sense of false hope and promise to the crushing reality of inequality and selective opportunity. Taken together, these values demonstrate a nation grappling with a disconnected ideal and false rhetoric, a struggle which lives on today.

Firstly, The Great Gatsby lays a critical eye on the pervasive false sense of hope imbued within the American Dream. This is represented in Gatsby’s unachievable desire of being with Daisy. For him, Daisy represents the ultimate prize, his life-long calling and fundamental goal. The entire novel revolves around his endless yet fruitless pursuit: his glamorous parties, his shroud of mystery, and his illegal affairs. Nick’s realistic commentary serves as a counterpoint against Gatsby’s blind idealism, creating a sense of internal tension that resonates throughout the novel. This is further displayed through the unceasing symbol of the green light, to which Nick narrates: “Gatsby believed in the green light, the orgastic future that year by year recedes before us. It eluded us then, but that's no matter—tomorrow we will run faster, stretch out our arms farther” (Fitzgerald 180).

Just like Gatsby sees nothing but the constantly tempting “green light”, the American Dream is powerfully seductive to those unfamiliar with its harsh reality. It is simultaneously compulsively appealing yet forever elusive to the immigrants and under-privileged who lack its numerous prerequisites.Alexia Oldini’s short film American Dream captures this nuanced duality: Mae comes to New York City with the dream of becoming a failed singer and ends up fulfilling this stereotype as an employee in a nail salon; her idealism morphs into despondency. For Mae, all it took was one fateful night and a bit of unfortunate adversity to derail her entire plan. This is the story not just of Gatsby, or Mae, but for millions of first-generation immigrants looking for their share of the American dream which never comes to fruition. When Bo asks Mae about her career as a singer and if she has any auditions, Mae responds “not yet… but I saved some money, I’m going to start looking tomorrow” (Oldini). Mae’s story shows how the American dream is often cloaked in falsehood and myth —the kind that lures Mae and Gatsby alike towards an impossible achievement where they are continually “looking tomorrow” (Oldini).

Oftentimes, not only is the process unrepresentative of reality, but even the ideal is too. Daisy, who first appears as the rare picture of beauty and grace in contrast to a city of un-refinement, is ultimately revealed to be nothing more than materialistic and shallow. As Gatsby describes at the end of the novel, “That was it. I'd never understood before. It was full of money—that was the inexhaustible charm that rose and fell in it, the jingle of it, the cymbals' song of it. . . . High in a white palace the king's daughter, the golden girl” (Fitzgerald 120). Here, Gatsby realizes how his love for Daisy, a symbol of the American dream, is inextricably tied to materialism and wealth, and that what he believed to be a righteous love is simply a reflection of his own drive for status. Mae’s reaction to Bo draws a powerful modern day parallel and reinforces this particular flaw of the American Dream. In her naivety, Mae feels immediately drawn to him, a fellow Asian-American immigrant who speaks her language and shows her kindness. However, after the rounds of drinks and dancing, he disappears into the mob of the city, leaving Mae alone and possessionless in the unforgiving environment of New York City. Mae’s tragedy shows how what she imagined as a rare friend and reminder of home was nothing more than an ephemeral glimpse into the American Dream. Both examples serve as a testament to how even the final promise of the American Dream, whether it be Daisy or Bo, rarely lives up to expectation.

Beyond its false allure and misplaced trust, the American Dream also affects people differently and selectively applies best to those pre-positioned for success and achievement within an increasingly narrow category. In Requiem For the American Dream, Noam Chomsky, one of the greatest living intellectuals, explains how he believes the concentration of wealth and power to be the single greatest challenge facing the nation today (Hutchinson). He traces the current state of the nation back to its founding history and the way that democratic institutions counterproductively allow for the decline of class mobility (Hutchinson). The fallacy of the middle class is also seen in Fitzgerald’s 1920 world view. In The Great Gatsby, two distinctly different communities are presented: The wealth of West and East Egg and the poverty of the Valley of Ashes. This middle wasteland, forgotten and out of mind by the wealthy, underscores Chomsky’s conclusion of the institutional barriers to the American dream. As Nick Carroway describes, "It was a few days before the Fourth of July, and a gray, scrawny Italian child was setting torpedoes in a row along the railroad track"(26). Here, Fitzgerald ironically juxtaposes American patriotism of the “Fourth of July” against the poverty and malnourishment of a “gray, scrawny Italian child”. This quote demonstrates how participation in the epitome of the American Dream—the Fourth of July—is inherently skewed to the wealthy who enjoy its benefits while the lower classes simply serve to empower the system. Most importantly, Chomsky explains how this emerging disparity and wealth inequality is not a result of happenstance or natural economics: it is the targeted practices of those at the top. From big bank bailouts to special interest lobbying to a powerful financial sector, Chomsky’s 10 principles of mass concentration of wealth demonstrate a nation trending towards plutocracy, even more so than predicted in The Great Gatsby.

The most concerning of these attacks on the American Dream is undoubtedly the siege on solidarity, Chomsky’s 5th principle. Western society has lost its collective concern for the fellow man and underlying empathy in the same way that Daisy and Tom end up self-serving and individualistic. The American Dream, in its current state, is further diminished by the win-at-all costs mentality that pervades the modern conscience. Mike Myatt, in his essay titled “Self-Made Man”, explains how “today’s “pop leadership” culture seems to encourage personal glorification above all else”, demonstrating how a toxic environment of “pride, ego, arrogance, insecurity, or ignorance” actually runs counterproductive to the ideals of the American Dream (Myatt). While Myatt laments this “watered down rhetoric” and “delusions of grandeur” in today’s society, he differentiates his perspective from that of Alexia Oldini, Noam Chomsky, and F. Scott Fitzgerald in that he presents a possible solution to the current problem (Myatt). He argues that its “it’s really all a matter of perspective – you can either view yourself as part of a hierarchical world sitting at the top of the org chart puffing your chest and propping-up your ego, or you can view yourself as the hub at the center of a large and diverse network” (Myatt).  In essence, Myatt posits that, while Fitzgerald’s dystopian vision of the American Dream certainly still applies today, it does not dictate that the trend is irreversible. Small shifts by those in power towards a more collective, inclusive vision of the future can go a long way towards returning the American Dream to its intended ideals of hope, promise, and opportunity.

Through his portrayal of Jay Gatsby, Fitzgerald reveals the growing materialism and the fierce individualism of American society and, as a by-product, challenges the status quo with a more holistic view of the American Dream. By analyzing the topic through various perspectives and mediums, from Alexa Oldini’s short-film American Dream to Noam Chomsky’s Requiem For the American Dream and to Mike-Myatt’s article Self-Made Man, two universal truths remain unchallenged. The first is that the American Dream represents a false sense of hope and promise to those searching for a sense of opportunity while the American Dream remains shrouded in mystery and uncertainty.  Secondly, the American Dream selectively applies to the wealthy and powerful who have the resources to maintain their position and the ability to attack any perceived threats to what they believe to be their rightful ownership of America’s founding ideals. While the future looks bleak, re-evaluating the rhetoric surrounding the American Dream and engaging in honest discussion about the state of the nation might finally bring Gatsby’s “green light” closer for all to grasp.

Lucas Bernicker

Published 3 years ago