Interestingly, Fitzgerald wrote his masterpiece The Great Gatsby in 1924 when he and his family moved to France. With trans-Atlantic displacement and the author’s stage of life, having achieved reputational and monetary success, Fitzgerald was able to reflect on his experience of pursuit of the American Dream and his culture as a whole, a theme that anchors the events of the novel.
It is important to begin our discussion by considering what we mean by the American Dream. Through generations, I believe the definition has changed drastically, but here is a basic definition from Merriam-Webster.com:
“An American social ideal that stresses egalitarianism and especially material prosperity; also: the prosperity or life that is the realization of this ideal.”
Years ago, I believe that social idea tended toward the egalitarian component by which individuals sought a comfortable life for their families and their communities. As time went on, the pursuit of “material prosperity” became the chief objective. People realized their capacity for advancement as individuals, and measured their success in terms of monetary gain, thus sacrificing communal good to outpace their neighbors and even losing sight of the motivation behind this pursuit.
In The Great Gatsby, Fitzgerald offers great insight into the pitfalls of this pursuit. While Nick Carraway’s character offers a great study for this discussion, Jay Gatsby embodies the fall of the American Dream. We learn through Nick that Gatsby, originally James Gatz, came from humble beginnings and forged his way to success. Nick relates:
“I suppose he’d had the name ready for a long time, even then. His parents were shiftless and unsuccessful farm people-his imagination had never really accepted them as his parents at all. 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.” (Fitzgerald, 98)
This passage describes Gatsby’s early conception of the American Dream. He envisioned a future version of himself, an affluent self, and discarded his past self to become this person. Through his endeavors, he remained faithful to bring this person into being. He was regimented in his plan to evolve into Jay Gatsby, creating a stringent schedule and personal goals to tailor himself into that personage (Fitzgerald, 173). He is, by all accounts, successful in becoming Gatsby and all his character entails, except for one missing piece.
As we considered last week, Daisy was part of Gatsby’s dream. Gatsby constructed the image his perfect existence, and believed that Daisy was a part of that. We discussed how she was part of his process of self-actualization, of seeking identity. Another way of looking at Daisy is to think of her as the object of Gatsby’s American Dream. After five years of separation, the two are reunited and Nick reflects on the afternoon:
“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.” (Fitzgerald, 96)
Here we see Daisy-as Fitzgerald’s conception of the American Dream-falling short of what Gatsby believed her and his dream to be. In the end, he cannot win her. After all his toiling, Gatsby finds what he believes to be the missing part of his dream and realizes it isn’t what he imagined it to be, and was not worth the pursuit. All the fame, fortune, and success leave him feeling empty. Incomplete.
Carraway offers a stunning visual of the culmination of the American Dream. While reflecting on his experience, he considers his view of the East as the region of affluence and achievement, and how he took his own turn at pursuing that dream.
“Even when the East excited me most . . . even then it had always for me a quality of distortion. West Egg, especially, still figures in my more fantastic dreams. I see it as a night scene by El Greco . . . In the foreground four solemn men in dress suits are walking along the sidewalk with a stretcher on which lies a drunken woman in a white evening dress. Her hand, which dangles over the sides, sparkles cold with jewels. Gravely the men turn in at a house-the wrong house. But no one knows the woman’s name, and no one cares.
“After Gatsby’s death the East was haunted for me like that, distorted my eyes’ power of correction.” (Fitzgerald, 176)
Because of Gatsby, Nick realizes how the flawed ideals of the American Dream, and gives us this memorable image to embody his realization-a woman completely drunk on success, dripping with jewels, and still, a woman who has no worth in this world because she is not known by anyone.
I think that Fitzgerald hits a powerful note with his observations. It is possible to achieve reputational and monetary success, just as he did with his literary career, but to come to the culmination of his dreams and realize how empty it all is. Every labored step on the path to glory was a waste because one can never reach the pinnacle of success. There is no fulfillment in the actualization of the American Dream.
In our culture, there is a strong push toward the individual experience, the New American Dream. Be all you can be. It’s your life, your journey-make life what you want it to be.
But what is all that you can be? Can this goal be quantified?
How can one determine what one “wants” life to be without some sort of standard to measure success by?
Here, we find our way back to one of the inherent questions of humanity. If the satisfaction level in reaching the end point discounts the journey, then he flaw must be in the motivation for the journey. Hence, what is the purpose of life?
I will not presume to answer this question with a few tidy paragraphs, but instead, turn to God’s word for direction to continue this discussion with a Christian lens.
Firstly, the flawed idea of the American Dream implies that our lives belong to us, that our lives are lived for our own happiness and comfort. When we commit our lives to Christ, we give up our selves. Paul says in Galatians 2:20, “I have been crucified with Christ; it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me; and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave Himself for me.”
When we decide to follow Christ, we relinquish authority and choose to live our days as Christ-an impossible pursuit for our selfish nature, but a goal nonetheless. Jesus is our standard, our benchmark for success in day-to-day life. God doesn’t expect us to reach the pinnacle of Christ-likeness–to do so would be impossible–but His desire for us is to live lives that are characterized by love. Love for God, and love for people.
Fitzgerald, while he did not connect the flawed American Dream with a higher calling to follow Christ, understood that his society was pursuing a goal that could never be actualized because our own satisfaction is insatiable and vapid. In our last discussion, we considered what our “green lights” were, what things we hold up in our lives as the epitome of success. Today, I would like to consider what our lives are characterized by.
When people think of you, how would they describe you?
Perhaps more importantly, what do you desire your life to be characterized by?
With these questions in mind, what steps can we take to live as Jesus lived, to show love in our daily walk? Perhaps it’s something as simple as providing an act of service for someone you encounter regularly, or praying for a friend. Maybe it’s speaking words of encouragement. Let God inspire you with new ways to share in His love, today.
Do you have an idea or question about today’s discussion? Please share your comments below to keep the discussion going!
Happy Reading, Kindred Spirits!