The Great Gatsby, a novel by F. Scott Fitzgerald, is about the corruption of the American Dream, and the downfall of those who attempt to attain its illusionary goals. As the novel shows, the 20th century is a moral wasteland and a corruption of the original idealistic American Dream of the past. Fitzgerald’s moral wasteland is shown physically in the valley of ashes scene of the novel. This ‘dismal’ and ‘desolate’ wasteland exists side-by-side with the white and unreal dream of Daisy and her world.
Even the colors of this landscape have correlations to Daisy: the yellow of Dr. T. J. Eckleburg’s spectacles and the brick of the houses on the street is a color of decay, but also of riches like sunlight and gold. Also, the ashes in the valley form figures (to Nick) which disintegrate at the slightest puff of wind. Gatsby is incapable of recognizing the ashes of what Daisy represents and takes her emptiness for substance. Although Nick sees the moral desolation of the Buchanans’ world, Gatsby cannot and tries to find in this world a dream worth holding on to.
As shown in Gatsby’s parties, nothing is tethered to reality; there is laughter without amusement, ‘enthusiasm’ between strangers, friends without friendship, and life without meaning. Gatsby’s dream is that through wealth and power, one can acquire happiness (Daisy). Throughout the novel we see that Gatsby cannot see that the past is over and done with and he therefor can have no chance with Daisy. He is sure that he can capture his dream with wealth and influence. Nick attempts to show Gatsby the folly of his dream and tell him that he cannot relive the past, but Gatsby confidently replies, Yes you can, old sport.
There are many connections between Gatsby’s dream with the American Dream. A big part of both is the pursuit of material things and both have a touch (or more than a touch) of unreality about them. The American dream used to be self-betterment, wealth, and success through hard work and perseverance or luck, pluck, and virtue, as Alger would put it. However, in the modern era, all that changed. The American Dream shrunk from self-betterment, wealth, and success through hard work and perseverance to ‘success’ through wealth by any means possible, just as Gatsby’s dream, his Platonic conception of himself, shrunk into Daisy.
The corruption of the American dream can be illustrated by how Gatsby came by his fortune. Through his dealings with organized crime, he didn’t adhere to the original American Dream guidelines. His very dishonesty that allowed him to get the wealth and connections to be near Daisy is also the very thing that would make it impossible for him to live in Daisy’s world or she in his. In effect, pursuing his dream without thought to honesty or morality, Gatsby guaranteed that his dream would not come true. This is true also of the American Dream.
Those who try to attain the American Dream without thought to honesty or morality are doomed to have their dreams remain unattainable or, if they achieve wealth, to have the dream become meaningless due to their very immorality (like Jordan’s cheating takes the meaning out of her ‘wins’). Also, in the novel all the immoral and dishonest people (Tom, Daisy, Jordan) have all the money. This concept of the corruption and destruction of the American Dream is also physically illustrated by how the ‘fresh, green promise’ of the world was displaced by the ‘gloomy’, ‘gray’ Valley of Ashes.
The Great Gatsby illustrates how the pursuit for happiness through materialism cannot be successful without accompanying morality. Cut off from their mid-West traditions and ethics, the characters in the novel live in a sort of sick parody of the American Dream. They cannot be truly happy because they lack the inner reserves for such an emotion. This parallels modern society’s rootlessness and accompanying corruption of the American Dream. Without something to believe in, to hold on to, we can not attain anything of genuine worth.