The Great Gatsby nurtures a pessimistic view of the American dream, exposing underlying issues of racism, misogyny, and immobile socioeconomic classes in post World War one American society that have prevented people from reaching their “green light across the bay.
James Gatz had every nook and cranny of his life planned out from the very beginning. Leaving behind a penniless family and seizing every opportunity to cast off his dirt ridden past at age 18, Gatsby set off to chase a dream he could barely identify or understand. It wasn’t until he met Daisy that he finally constructed a concrete persona of who he wanted to be. As soon as he kissed her, he knew that he “forever wed his unutterable visions to her perishable breath”(pg 134). He was entranced by the “inexhaustible charm”(pg 120) in her “low, thrilling murmur”(pg 9), but even more encaptured by the deep, pulsating notes of money underneath her appearance. Daisy had become a manifestation of Gatsby’s American dream. It was a dream that was as flimsy and capricious as the girl herself and a dream that Gatsby could never achieve due to his socioeconomic background. The 1920s was an era in which the rich got richer, the poor got poorer, and everyone lived off the cigarette smoke, coal dust, and booze. Although Gatsby worked his way up to reside in the circle of the rich, he was always viewed as a West Egger, excluded from the mysteriously haughty residents of old-money East Egg. This separation of the rich can be seen through Tom and Daisy’s reactions of disdain when they attended one of Gatsby’s famously all- encompassing parties. Daisy was appalled by West Egg’s “raw vigor that chafed under the old euphemisms”(pg 107), disgusted by something she could not understand. No matter how hard Gatsby tried to establish himself as an old money- fabricating illustrious backstories and generously doling out his wealth- his true roots will always set him apart from Daisy and Tom, preventing him from ever reaching his American dream. As Fitzgerald skillfully put it, “He had come a long way to this blue lawn and his dream must have seemed so close that he could hardly failed to grasp it. He did not know that it was already behind him. ”(pg 151)
If Gatsby and his greenlight are separated across a bay, countless women and nonwhites in the 1920s would be separated from their dreams by an entire ocean. Their access to the American dream were not only limited by their socioeconomic classes, but also by their sex and skin color. The 1920s were a transformative time for women as they blossomed into independence and solidified their roles in the home, politics, the workplace, and education. The realization that females are just as capable as males at earning an income stems from World War I, when women and girls took up once male occupied jobs in factories. This new generation of young women grew up with freedom in their minds and defiance in their hearts,breaking free of the restrictive boundaries that once held them within the home and forming the identities of flappers.They worked, drank illegal alcohol, partied wildly, and engaged in activities unheard of just five years ago.(Louise. “Women in the 1920s.”) However, their ascent into a higher social status was stunted by the reproachful orthodox views of white males, who feared and disapproved of their newfound liberty. Tom Buchanan, a typical example of an ignorant, close minded white male, expresses his doubts about Jordan Baker’s independent lifestyle of partying and sports: “They[her family] oughtn’t to let her run around the country.”(pg18) Insisting that all women should have a chaperone monitoring every aspect of their lives blatantly shows the traditional views of white males and their fear of being replaced in their position at the acme of American society. As a result, in order to preserve their power, white males tried their hardest to prolong the execution of women’s suffrage and other rights, preventing females of all ages from accomplishing their American dreams of gender equality.
For African Americans, although their participation in the Jazz Age and Harlem Renaissance in the 1920s helped them create their heritage and create a common identity, white supremacy curbed their efforts to completely break free from stereotypes that reinforce racist beliefs. Scared that the society around him is “going to pieces”(pg 12), Tom preaches that “if we don’t look out the white race will be– will be utterly submerged.”(pg 13) and that “it’s up to us, who are the dominant race, to watch out or these other races will have control of things.”(pg 13) Hiding behind the ignorance that white males created all “civilized” things such as art, science, and religion, Tom was bewildered by the fact that other races may rise to equal his dominance. Once again, these ideas illustrate the apprehension white males’ feel about social changes and progression. Even Nick, who boasted that he was “inclined to reserve all judgments”(pg 1), mocked the idea that African Americans could ever match whites in “haughty rivalry.”(pg 69), equating it to something as ridiculous and unbelievable as Gatsby’s story.
Although slightly altered, the American dream is very much alive today; but like Fitzgerald’s world, it is still an intangible aspiration for most people because of the issues of racial stereotyping, gender inequality, and the growing gap between the rich and the poor that plague our society. For example, although women have made significant strides since gaining suffrage in the 20s, they have yet to shatter the glass ceiling that was built by males. Their gender still limits the opportunities and positions they hold in American society. Despite being half of the American population, women continue to be underrepresented in politics; America has had 45 presidents since independence and none of them have been female. In the workplace, women make 80 cents to a man’s dollar and sexual abuse is prevalent on college campuses. However, because people are becoming more and more aware of these problems, bringing them out into the open for debate and actively trying to resolve them, the American dream will never die. Like Gatsby, advocates for feminism, the black rights movement, the abolishment of unfair policies on immigration, and so on will never give up reaching for their green light. As human beings, it is in our nature to aspire for greater things and strive towards improvement. Rather than a destination, the American dream is a series of road signs on a never ending road. It’ll keep changing with the times and our progression, pushing us to work harder, be better, and dream further while always reminding us of our core values and beliefs.
And so we beat on, boats against the current, struggling with the past, but resiliently optimistic for the future. The American dream may never be completely achieved and our society will always have its problems, but as long as we hold on to those dreams and persevere in our efforts to create the ideal community, our green light will never be extinguished.
Benner, Louise. “Women in the 1920s.” Women in the 1920s | NCpedia. Accessed October 25, 2017. https://www.ncpedia.org/history/20th-Century/1920s-women