When individuals fail to live up to their ideals, this is when reality falls short of expectations. The quest to obtain what everyone really wants can be an all-encompassing one, requiring all of their devotion and effort. It is especially painful to see others possess what one cannot have. For the characters in Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, these problems are all too real. Gatsby works for a lifetime to gain back what he feels is rightfully his, while facing the crushing realization that he may be too late.
Fitzgerald uses this futile search to introduce the idea that the idealized American Gatsby fought for what has been corrupted over time. Descriptions of a land of picket fences and middle class freedom are exchanged for one based on greed and lies, where characters will stop at nothing to obtain what they desire. Fitzgerald provides a window into the American Dream and shows that it has become one based on immorality and deception. Although the marriage of Daisy and Tom Buchanan may have been based on love and devotion, it, like the American Dream as a whole, has been corrupted to become disingenuous and predatory.
Tom and Daisy are two people who are content with the somewhat platonic relationship they share. They acquire a child like they would a diamond necklace, a display of affection rather than in the interest of starting a family. One of the first indications that readers receive that the marriage is unhealthy is when Tom interrupts dinner to take a call from his mistress. This event fails to cause a stir in the household and is merely brushed off by Jordan, who finds fault with the annoying time of the interruption rather than its meaning.
Taking on the removed role usually filled by Nick, Jordan comments that Tom’s mistress “might have the decency not to phone him at dinner time” (Fitzgerald 20). In the Buchanan household, which has been relocated several times to escape the bad publicity engendered by affairs, this kind of behavior is to be expected. It shows how even the educated upper class is unable to escape the corruption of American ideals. The general lack of concern for infidelity continues when Gatsby believes that he can turn back the clock and rekindle what he and Daisy once had.
Gatsby not only hopes that Daisy will wait for him, but expects it, scoffing at Nick’s assertion that things have changed over time, and that Daisy is now married and a with a child and therefore uninterested in him: “Can’t repeat the past?… Why of course you can! ” (Fitzgerald 116). Gatsby believes that Daisy will be willing to give up what she has for him. He has built his whole life on the assumption that she will run to his arms and admit that it was he who she truly loved all along.
This attitude of indifference toward marriage is mimicked in the actions of Tom as well as Myrtle Wilson, showing that it may be widely held. Tom takes advantage of Wilson, replying to Nick’s concerns by simply saying that Mr. Wilson “thinks [Myrtle] goes to see her sister in New York. He’s so dumb he doesn’t know he’s alive” (Fitzgerald 30). Myrtle’s ability to easily lie to her husband shows that the marital corruption of the upper class is prevalent in the lower classes as well.
Fitzgerald uses the diverse characters from the removed, yet decidedly elite character of Jordan, to Myrtle, who is poor and unsophisticated yet still sees nothing wrong with cheating on her husband. This shows readers that American values have come a long way from their wholesome origins and are now defined by sedition and adultery. By revealing that Gatsby cannot marry Daisy without a large personal fortune, Fitzgerald shows the flaws in the opportunistic and economically-based class structure of the 1920’s.
Since Gatsby meets Daisy when he is still in the army and penniless, he is unable to marry her. As a result of this obstruction imposed by society, Gatsby must beg and steal his way to wealth. He is forced to go against his family’s ideals, running scam after scam until he has built up a sizeable personal fortune that allows him to follow Daisy. Gatsby allows himself to be corrupted in pursuit of his “incorruptible dream” (Fitzgerald 162) of loving and possessing Daisy. It is in the quest for this dream that Gatsby alienates himself, driving with singular focus toward living up to Daisy.
It is this drive that leaves him friendless at his funeral, causing the Owl Eyed man to remark that though people “used to go there by the hundreds” (Fitzgerald 183), none of these people came for Gatsby, but rather his parties and the atmosphere of his home, all simply the disguise for his courting of Daisy. Ultimately, Gatsby loses everything in his futile mission for Daisy – he lacks friends, meaningful relationships with his family, and most importantly, any other reason to live now that he cannot have Daisy.
Perhaps Fitzgerald feels so passionately about this topic because he had to face the same adversity when he redesigned his own life in order to marry his wife Zelda. Either way, Fitzgerald uses the sacrifices of wealth to reveal the shallowness it has contributed to the meaning of the American Dream. The Buchanans are meant to be symbols for the Eastern elite. Their characterization as careless, shallow people is an indication of Fitzgerald’s poor impression of people on the East coast.
Though initially described harmlessly as people who “drifted here and there unrestfully wherever people played polo and were rich together” (Fitzgerald 10), Daisy and Tom Buchanan are soon characterized much more brutally by Fitzgerald. The picture of the Eastern elite, Tom and Daisy spend their rudderless days in boredom and retreat to East Egg in the summers to escape the city. Although this lifestyle seems to be harmless, if excessive, Fitzgerald shows us that there are great perils to wealth.
As picturesque as the life lived by Daisy and Tom is, it is not without its major faults. After Tom sacrifices Gatsby’s life to protect himself from the rage of Mr. Wilson, deciding to flee rather than face the consequences of he and his wife’s actions, Nick describes the Buchanans as “careless people” who “smashed up things and creatures and then retreated back into their money or their vast carelessness or whatever it was that kept them together, and let other people clean up the mess they had made” (Fitzgerald 188).
Tom and Daisy are unaware of the implications of their actions, and even if they knew the damage they caused, they would not be interested in resolving the conflicts, choosing to remain beautiful fools. Through his affair with Myrtle, Tom enrages Daisy to the extent that she kills Myrtle, whose death leads to Mr. Wilson taking the life of Gatsby, and subsequently his own life. Fitzgerald uses this complex order of events to show the tangled web that Daisy and Tom weave, but also to highlight the ease with which they are able to free themselves from it to escape their mistakes.
Even after all they go through, the two are still able to return to one another with “an unmistakable air of natural intimacy” (Fitzgerald 152). Since the Buchanans have the resources to live on their own terms, they are able to escape the rules of law and of traditional society, overcoming their immense differences to conspire against those around them and for themselves. While the Buchanans live in ignorance of the damage they cause and the superficiality of their lives, Gatsby’s death reveals how a man with far purer intentions can be left without any friends after a life of dedicated pursuit.
Most significantly of all, Nick learns from what he sees in the East. No longer does he feel the “consoling proximity of millionaires” (Fitzgerald 10), but rather he finds that the “East was haunted” (Fitzgerald 185) for him following Gatsby’s solitary death. Fitzgerald makes the conscious decision to focus not on the enjoyable parties and extravagant trips to the city, but centers on the hollow characters of the East and their careless and senseless ways of living.
Fitzgerald uses his work to provide a social commentary on the nature of America and the condition of the American Dream as it pertains to society in the 1920’s. By using characters like Nick as outsiders to the Eastern world of wealth and sophistication, he is able to provide readers with a glimpse into the glamorous life that the Buchanans lead while at the same time yet revealing their flaws.
The inclusion of Gatsby also aids in the creation of the image of the American Dream as one grounded in lies and infidelity. Where some may see the promise of America to be the ability to gain a large estate on Long Island, Fitzgerald shows that this is not enough. He believes that the true dream is the ability to not care about the messes one makes and to be able to leave them to someone else to be cleaned up.