Idea Of 'The American Dream' In Novel The Great Gatsby

Often cited as “The Great American Novel”, if any title can live up to that, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s novel The Great Gatsby (1925) is a story that typifies the urban culture of the 1920s. Following the tragic life of Jay Gatsby, a self-made millionaire, the book tells the story of Gatsby’s pursuit to win the heart of Daisy Buchanan, a wealthy and beautiful young woman whom he loved in his youth.

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Whilst universally hailed as a classic nowadays, it was only until the 1950s in which the novel was considered to be a classic. Upon initial release, the novel only sold a disappointing 21,000 copies, less than half the sale of his first two novels “The Side of Paradise” and “The Beautiful and the Dammed”. Today, however, the Great Gatsby is undoubtedly F. Scott Fitzgerald’s magnum opus. Worldwide, the book has sold over 25 million copies and boasts several film adaptations, including the most recent 2013 adaptation, directed by Baz Lurhmann and starring Leonardo DiCaprio, Tobey Maguire, Carry Mulligan.

Overall, as well as capturing the sense of exuberance and wonder behind the 1920s and the idea of ‘The American Dream’, the novel doesn’t fail to acknowledge the immorality and corruption that lurk beneath the glitz and glamour.

Smoke and Mirrors

The eponymous Jay Gatsby, because he is so incredulously unreal. His mansion, expression, demeanor, and outlook all seem to suggest how bizarre the man is, making him incongruous with the social environment that. He strives to be in. Driving around in fast sports cars and hosting big extravagant parties weekly, Jay Gatsby had evidently built a strong reputation in New York. In the film, Luhrmann accentuates Gatsby’s flamboyance through his stark juxtaposition to the rest of the cast. In particular, Lurhmann heavily utilises colour – and Gatsby’s bright yellow car and fluorescent pink suite embody his eccentric nature. The vivid and colourful visuals Luhrmann stylistically employs help translate to a modern audience the bizarre, alluring, and mysterious individuality of Gatsby. Likewise, the origins of Gatsby remain a mystery, and quotes from the novel such as:

“Somebody told me they thought he killed a man once”

“…He was a Garman spy during the war”

Remain a testament to the romantic speculation he inspires. In fact, Gatsby himself does not appear in a speaking role until chapter three in the novel, and it takes a whopping twenty-eight minutes until we’re finally introduced to him in the movie. But, just as the origins of Gatsby provide a dream-like fantasy, his self-imposed image remains just that – a fantasy.

‘The truth was that Jay Gatsby, of West Egg, Long Island, sprang from his Platonic conception of himself. He was a son of God—a phrase which, if it means anything, means just that—and he must be about his father’s business, the service of a vast, vulgar, and meretricious beauty. So he invented just the sort of Jay Gatsby that a seventeen-year-old boy would be likely to invent, and to this conception, he was faithful to the end.’

In Chapter 6, when Nick finally describes Gatsby’s early history, he uses a striking comparison between Gatsby and Jesus Christ to illuminate Gatsby’s creation of his own identity. Most likely, Fitzgerald was inspired by a book written by Ernest Reman entitled The Life of Jesus, which describes Jesus as “Faithful to his self-created dream but scornful of the factual truth that finally crushes him and his dream” – a very fitting description for Gatsby.

Gatsby had dreamt of the ‘American dream’, making his way from rags to riches. He had both literally and figuratively made a name for himself, but at what cost? Whereas the American dream is a myth achieved through sacrifice, risk-taking, and hard work, Gatsby had ascended to aristocracy through the selling of ‘bootlegged’ alcohol in illegal bars known as “speakeasies”. Gatsby had achieved power by sacrificing his identity and dignity.

The Green Light

Image result for the ‘green light’ from The Great Gatsby. Gatsby believed in the green light, the orgastic future that year by year receded before us. It eluded us then, but that’s no matter – tomorrow we will run faster, stretch out our arms farther … And one fine morning – So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.”

The green light, at the end of Daisy’s dock, remains both a memorable image and a powerful symbol. A single green light, minute and far away. A single the green light, which simultaneously symbolises Gatsby’s love for Daisy, money, and the American Dream. A single green light with a myriad of different meanings, all of which encapsulate the mystery and motivation behind the millionaire.

Gatsby, like many characters in literature, is obsessed with controlling time. Having dated Daisy in the past, Gatsby not only wants to marry her, he needs her to say that she never loved Tom Buchannan at all as if he can erase the past five years. In fact, in Gatsby’s dream, the glimmering green light in the distance is, to quote Nick:

“Go to Louisville and be married from her house – just as if it were five years ago.“

To which Nick’s response to this idea,

“You can’t repeat the past”

And then Gatsby utters his most famous line,

“Can’t repeat the past? Why of course I can”

Gatsby believes that the key to a beautiful future is a perfect restoration of the beautiful past. However, no amount of money can ever buy back the years gone by, and it’s the unstoppable marching of time, the green light symbolic of his driven ambition to win the heart of his former lover, that guides him towards his inevitable death. We naturally live by suggestion, not calculation. Societies and economies don’t change like machines that function according to known laws. They are more like dreams, which come and go for reasons the dreamer can’t perceive. Over the course of time, as in the era that Fitzgerald portrays and Luhrmann helps translate to a modern audience, the world that has been created by the dream turns out to be an illusion.

To the attentive viewer, this grand illusion that Gatsby presents can be seen all throughout the film. In fact, almost immediately after we’re introduced to Gatsby, it’s apparent to both the audience and protagonist, Nick Carraway, that something feels off about him. In the scene where Gatsby picks up Nick in his famous yellow car to go out to lunch, DiCaprio excellently portrays Gatsby’s grandiosity and studied charm. However, beneath it lies a sadness that is ever-present and readable in his every nuanced expression. Luhrmann exaggerates everything in this scene, and with Gatsby, who is speaking almost as quickly as he is driving, this nervousness is particularly notable. His speech matches that of the novel, and while Nick finds his autobiography doubtful, Gatsby hastily assures him that he is about to meet Meyer Wolfsheim,

“One of New York’s most distinguished businessmen”

Who will New Vouch for [his] good character”

All during lunch at the speakeasy. Wolfsheim repeats Gatsby’s speech in the car nearly verbatim, and it as if he too has studied a script. Luhrmann makes it clear that Wolfsheim has been primed for lunch, and that his narrative is part of a great scheme devised to convince Nick that Gatsby is a respectable man who can be trusted around his married cousin, Daisy.

What follows is a series of events very similar to the novel. However, where the film differs from the novel is the way in which we are positioned to view Gatsby by the end of the story. Like many tragedies, the novel doesn’t shy away from exposing the hamartia of the protagonist, and while the movie by no means hides these flaws or idolises Gatsby, it succeeds in making us empathise with him more.

In his final moments, as the phone rings, we’re greeted to a series of shots which seem to suggest that Daisy is calling. We find out later that this is not the case, and that it was Nick who was calling him. But as the bullet pierces through his chest, Gatsby looks across the bay, towards the green light for one last time, and utters his final words:


A line not present in the novel, but one that has a powerful impact. While Gatsby wasn’t perfect, he had pure intentions – intentions built on love. Whether you’re an average Joe or a one in a million Jay, love remains the universal language we all speak. And although Gatsby may be an outsider, the powerful experience of loving someone is a feeling inside us all.


The Great Gatsby is a tragic love story on the surface, but underneath remains a pessimistic critique of the American Dream. What sank the novel in 1925 is ironically the source of its success today. Fitzgerald challenges the myth of the American Dream, glowing like the green light on Daisy’s dock in the Roaring ’20s. In the character of Jay Gatsby, Fitzgerald caught the contradictions of romantic illusion in the heartless, cynical modern society that tolerated criminals like Gatsby as long as they picked up the check. He’s the attractive, flawed hero, whose death seems a tragedy but is the consequence of his old-fashioned chivalrous gesture to save his princess. Like many before him and since Gatsby was a self-invented personality and with 90 yrs. of perspective Luhrmann sought to reshape the role of Gatsby.    

29 April 2022

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