The Great Gatsby as a description of the failure of the American dream. The Great Gatsby is a concentrated meditation on “the American dream,” understood as the faith that anyone, even of the most humble origins, can attain wealth and social standing in the United States through talent and individual initiative. Fitzgerald explores the compelling appeal of this dream, and the circumstances that render it as deceptive as it is enduring. Fitzgerald’s protagonist is a young man from North Dakota, James Gatz, who changes his name to Jay Gatsby and manufactures a persona “out of his own Platonic self-conception. While in his soldier’s uniform just prior to service in World War I, Gatsby falls in love with Daisy, a beautiful, rich young woman whose voice has “the sound of money. ” After the war, Gatsby pursues Daisy, even though she has by then married a gruff and tasteless man of her own class. Gatsby buys a huge, garish mansion on Long Island near Daisy’s home and tries to impress her and her social set with lavish parties financed, as some of his guests rightly suspect, by the illegal sale of alcoholic beverages.
But Daisy rejects Gatsby’s suit, as her feelings and behavior are controlled by the conventions of her class in ways that the innocent “American dreamer” does not understand. In the end, it is inherited wealth and social standing that determine much more of one’s destiny than is determined by talent and individual initiative, readers of The Great Gatsby are led to conclude. Much of the power of The Great Gatsby derives from Fitzgerald’s having provided readers with an opportunity to simultaneously see through the pretender’s illusions and identify deeply with his aspirations and even love him for having made the effort.
Gatsby himself “turned out all right in the end,” Fitzgerald’s narrator insists. The problem was “the foul dust that floated in the wake of Gatsby’s dreams,” meaning the particulars of American history, the class structure, and all the webs of social circumstance in which an individual’s capacities for hope are embedded. The generic human impulses that drive us to better ourselves often impel us to foolish pursuits, and to ignore the conditions under which our striving actually takes place—but those impulses themselves are to be treasured.