The Decay of a Dream in The Great Gatsby
The central theme of The Great Gatsby is the decay of the American Dream. Through his incisive analysis and condemnation of 1920s high society, Fitzgerald (in the person of the novel¹s narrator, Nick Carraway) argues that the American Dream no longer signifies the noble pursuit of progress; instead, it has become grossly materialistic and corrupt. Fitzgerald¹s novel is structured as an allegory (a story that conceals another story): the terrible death of Jay Gatsby is, by extension, the death of the American Dream.
For Fitzgerald, the true American Dream is characterized by a spirit of perseverance and hope; through these, one can succeed against all odds. This ideal is embodied by the young Gatsby (then James Gatz): he meticulously plans the path by which he will become a great man in his "Hopalong Cassidy" journal and then follows it, to the letter. When Mr Gatz shows the tattered book to Nick, he declares, "'Jimmy was bound to get ahead. He always had some resolves like this or something. Do you notice what he's got about improving his mind? He was always great for that'." The journal exemplifies the continual struggle for self-improvement that once represented the American ideal. In comparing the young James Gatz to the young Benjamin Franklin, Fitzgerald suggests that the American Dream does survive despite the decay of modern society there will always be those guided by an indomitable hope. Modern society, however, has no place for such dreamers: Gatsby¹s passionate desire to win Daisy's love ultimately remains unrealized, and in fact leads to his destruction. Gatsby is first seen late at night, "standing with his hands in his pockets"; Nick says, only half in jest, that he is "out to determine what share [is] his of our local heavens." Nick watches Gatsby's movements and comments:
"He stretched out his arms toward the dark water in a curious way, and as far as I was from him I could swear he was trembling. Involuntarily I glanced seaward -- and distinguished nothing except a single green light, minute and far away, that might have been the end of the dock."
Gatsby's dedication to an ethereal ideal elevates him above his shallow, vulgar contemporaries. His longing for Daisy is like that celebrated by the medieval ideal of courtly love, in which a knight worshipped his lady without any hope of being loved in return; his every action was only for her, and he strove to lead a noble life in the hopes of becoming worthy of her. Daisy is Gatsby¹s ideal: we first see him reaching toward the green light that marks her house in East Egg; in the final days of his life, he waits unwearyingly outside Daisy's house for hours despite the fact that she has already decided to abandon him. Though Gatsby exemplifies the purest elements of the old dream, he cannot help but fail in his pursuit of it, since the woman he loves is a corrupt product of modern society.