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Gatsby and the American Dream

The character Gatsby and his monomaniacal struggle for progress

The story of America is an exciting one, filled with swift evolution and an amazing energy unprecedented in world history. In America?s short existence, it has progressed from a small collection of European rebels to the economically dominant nation that it is today. Mixed up in the provocative reputation of America is the celebrated ideal of the American Dream, the fantasy of complete independence and self-reliance mixed with the opportunity to attain wealth through one?s labors. On the surface, this reverie seems almost enchanted, offering people the unprecedented prospect of achieving success regardless of one?s race, religion, or family history. The American Dream is exactly what it appears to be; the opportunity of utopia, the ceaseless temptation of pleasure, the undying knowledge that eternal bliss lies just around the corner. But the very nature of this fantasy prevents the enjoyment of the success one has earned, as the temptation is always nagging, always insisting for more progress, urging one to work a little harder and gain a little more. The American Dream destroys any opportunity of complacency; its very essence, the immense libido it inspires and the eternal need for progression that it creates in the hearts of its followers makes any true realization of the mythical nirvana impossible.
F. Scott Fitzgerald?s The Great Gatsby is an immortal illustration of the paradox of the American Dream. The novel begins by describing an intense infatuation with the American Dream. The characters are emphatically American, striving towards the goals of independence and financial success. The story is seen through the eyes of Nick Carraway, a unique narrator in that he gradually becomes increasingly infatuated with the American Dream. He is given the duty of relating the tale of Jay Gatsby, but he is also occupied with surviving in America, achieving financial success through his newly acquired vocation of selling bonds. He is surrounded by wealth, coming from a ?prominent, well-to-do? family and living within the ?consoling proximity of millionaires? (7, 10). Besides this prominent admiration of money, Nick is also impressed with the American quality of independence, conceding that ?almost any exhibition of complete self sufficiency draws a stunned tribute? from him (13). These first few confessions illustrate the atmosphere of the entire novel, an environment in which extravagance was popular and social goals were aimed at achieving wealth and mastering one?s identity.
It is clear that in the beginning, Nick is aware of the presence of the American Dream, or at least the presence of intense ambition in his friends and family. While Nick initially seems to be inexperienced with the idea of the Dream, Gatsby is an expert. Having been born to a poor agrarian household, Gatsby successfully escaped poverty and the fate of his parents. Without any noticeably extraordinary abilities, Gatsby was able to acquire millions of dollars and achieve widespread fame in the matter of a few years. Along with the riches came the opportunity for a reinvention of his identity, which he voraciously exploited; ?the truth was that Jay Gatsby, of West Egg, Long Island, sprang from his Platonic conception of himself? (104).
The financial success of Gatsby implies that he is well aware of the American Dream, that he has mastered his own identity and realized the potential of his labors. Fitzgerald insinuates that Gatsby understands the significance of his accomplishments and the methods used to achieve his success ?
?Out of the corner of his eye Gatsby saw that the blocks of the sidewalk really formed a ladder and mounted to a secret place above the trees ? he could climb to it, if he climbed alone, and once there he could suck on the pap of life, gulp down the incomparable milk of wonder? (117).

This passage describes the afore-mentioned opportunity of utopia, along with the burdens associated with attaining such happiness. The Dream offers Gatsby the chance to ?suck on the pap of life,? to experience completely and wholly, to ingest and therefore become a part of the ?incomparable milk of wonder.? But in order to experience such fantastic revelations, he must climb to a solitary place, isolated and alienated from the rest of society, completely alone.
Also important about this passage is its context within the novel: this epiphany does not take place during an inspired moment of introspection, or even after an intense life-altering event. No, this realization occurs while Gatsby is with his one true love, Daisy. In what should have been the stereotypical flashback to the conception of their love for each other, the Hollywood style ?first kiss? scene, Gatsby is not staring into the endless depths of his lover?s eyes; instead he is calculating, conniving plans to amass wealth and power. He is preoccupied, distracted by the small glimpse of perceived bliss that dangles in the peripheral, always present and yet never tangible ? Gatsby cannot embrace this ideal, only glimpse it ?out of the corner of his eye.?
Even with the elusive qualities of the American Dream, Gatsby spends the next five years of his life striving to achieve his financial success. Throughout his labors he is inspired by ?a single green light, minute and far away,? always present in his mind and yet always beyond his reach (26). And so Gatsby labored, striving for embellished fantasies that increased in grandeur with every passing day. What he did to make his money is not really important ? Fitzgerald intentionally illustrated Gatsby?s history in a cloudy and ambiguous manner. Fitzgerald was only interested in where Gatsby was in the present, and Gatsby was only interested in where he would be in the future. That is part of the power of the American Dream ? the past is irrelevant; a fabricated history is just as useful as a truthful history. All that really mattered was that Gatsby was completely occupied in reaching for the intense bliss that the American Dream had indelibly emblazoned upon his brain, pointing his entire existence toward achieving his fantastic goal of living happily (and wealthily) ever after with Daisy.
After five years of extremely focused labor, Gatsby was finally in the position to achieve his American Dream. He had the money, the house, the social connections ? everything was in place for him to finally realize his aspirations. And yet, when he finally gets the chance to reunite with Daisy, completely on his own terms, he found no bliss, only disappointment ?
?As I went over to say goodbye I saw that the expression of bewilderment had come back into Gatsby?s face, as though a faint doubt had occurred to him as to the quality of his present happiness. Almost five years! There must have been moments even that afternoon when Daisy tumbled short of his dreams ? not through her own fault but because of the colossal vitality of his illusion. It had gone beyond her, beyond everything. He had thrown himself into it with a creative passion, adding to it all the time, decking it out with every bright feather that drifted his way. No amount of fire or freshness can challenge what a man will store up in his ghostly heart? (101).

The years of living under the shadow his dream, always straining to reach the green light of his bliss had warped his mind. His fantasy of the American Dream had slowly evolved from a modest life with the girl he loved to a perfect existence with an almost mythical princess that embodied all possible ?cardinal virtues,? a Jungian projection of ?every bright feather? in Gatsby?s mind upon the pathetically vulnerable and human Daisy (69).
Gatsby?s discontent only lasts for a short while, and then he is murdered in revenge for an atrocity he never committed. Again, Fitzgerald handles this with a significant vagueness, neglecting to mention anything about Daisy?s reaction to the car accident and murdering of her former lover. With the death of Gatsby, Daisy loses importance in the realm of the American Dream ? the perfect future Gatsby had envisioned is no longer possible, so Daisy is no longer a part of the American Dream. While Gatsby?s presence ceases to exist, that of the American Dream does not ? it alters, but does not disappear.
The novel illustrates this alteration by changing its focus from Gatsby?s fantasies about Daisy to Nick?s labors in finding happiness. With Gatsby?s murder, the baton is passed to Nick, who willingly accepts it in an attempt to realize his own American Dream ?
?Gatsby believed in the green light, the orgastic future that year by year recedes 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? (189).

Fitzgerald uses the term ?us,? which is important in signifying the transition of struggling from Gatsby to Nick. Gatsby spent the better part of his adult life reaching for the American Dream, and now it is Nick?s turn to succumb to the enticing nature of the Dream, to head out ?against the current? in search of the ?orgastic future? that can never be reached. Nick is even aware that Gatsby?s Dream ?was already behind him, somewhere back in that vast obscurity beyond the city, where the dark fields of the republic rolled on under the night,? an unattainable hallucination (189). Even with the cruel realization that attaining the American Dream is impossible, Nick marches forward, occupied only with the task of living his own Dream.
And therein lies the paradox of the American Dream ? the never-ending desire to live out the fantasy created by the Dream is the very force that makes the achievement of the fantasy impossible. By basing his entire existence upon realizing the Dream, Gatsby became obsessed with what he didn?t have instead of enjoying his accomplishments ? always struggling ?against the current,? only to be pushed ?back ceaselessly into the past.? But the Dream is so enticing and powerful that it can influence even the wisest people; Nick realized the folly in Gatsby?s feverous Dream-enticed struggling, yet continues to ?beat on? towards his own Dream. While the Dream itself is a vision of intense prosperity, the phenomenon of the American Dream inveigles people not to prosper, but to endure, because the insistent pressure the dream puts on one to continue to progress will never allow prosperity. The Dream is not a means to an end; rather, it is a way of life, a non-tangible, non-achievable, hyperbolic myth ? a mirage in the desert of eternity, always just one step out of reach.

Works Cited
Fitzgerald, F. Scott. The Great Gatsby. New York: Scribner, 1925.

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