Casting Doubt Upon the American Dream in The Great Gatsby
The Great Gatsby' is set in the Jazz Age of America, the 1920s which have come to be seen as a bubble of extravagance and affluence which burst with the Wall Street Crash in 1929. Fitzgerald wrote the book in 1925, and in it he explores the fundamental hollowness which characterized the Age as he saw it, and casts doubt upon the very core of American national identity - the American Dream.
The American Dream is a concept elegantly simple and yet peculiarly hard to define. At the root of it is the sense that America was created entirely separate from the Old World; the settlers had escaped from the feudal, fractious and somewhat ossified nations of Europe and been presented with a chance to start anew - "a fresh green breast of the new world." From this blank slate, those first idealistic settlers had created a society where "all men are created equal" and everyone had the chance to do the best for themselves as they could. Let us examine the passage from the Declaration of Independence from which that quote is taken:
"We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed with certain inalienable rights, and that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness."
A fine and daring ideal in the 18th century, and at the heart of what America hoped that it stood for. 'The Great Gatsby' examines how this dream existed in the early 20th century and whether or not it had been accomplished. The American Dream permeated all of society, and so every one of the characters in the book is in some senses a reflection of the world envisaged by Jefferson and Washington, and even before them by those first people fleeing to a new life in the New World.
When we examine the characters in the book we can immediately see that they are not all born equal. Daisy and Tom, and to some extent Nick, are born into a rich, 'old money' environment which is symbolized in the novel by the established wealth of East Egg - a place of glittering "white palaces". Gatsby and the Wilsons are not 'old money', and despite Gatsby's wealth we get the impression throughout the book that through all his parties and social events he is trying to join that old clique, but never succeeding in elevating himself to the "distinguished secret society" of Tom and Daisy.
Interestingly, neither Tom nor Daisy appear to have been made happy by this money....