As we have already mentioned, the mood and tone for moral corruption in New York City was prime in the 1920s and while it may seem there are the rich and the poor, class distinction among the rich plays an important role in the novel. Gatsbys success will only carry him so far because of a dividing line that exists between the new wealth and the old wealth. This is best depicted with the West and East Egg sections that divide individuals according to their wealth. Gatsby, regardless of how much money he makes, cannot hold a candle to the old wealth of the community in which Tom and Daisy live. Tom comes from an “enormously wealthy” (6) family and when he moved to the rich East Egg, he “brought down a string of ponies from Lake Forest” (6). The Buchanans home is “more elaborate” (7) than what our narrator Nick could ever have dreamed, observing it is a “cheerful red-and-white Georgian Colonial mansion, overlooking the bay. The lawn started at the beach and ran toward the front door for a quarter of a mile, jumping over sun-dials and brick walks and burning gardens” (7). The issue of wealth distinction did not seem to matter to Gatsby because that was not part of his thought process. His mind is completely consumed with attaining wealth and his version of the American Dream. The distinction is significant to the context of the novel because it represents the major difference between Gatsby and the Buchanans. The distinction being how wealth is attained – a matter more important to the ones that acquire wealth the old fashioned way as opposed to those who earn it differently, as Gatsby did. Tom realizes this difference and cannot wait to capitalize on it, holding no reserves when it comes to his opinion, or Gatsby, for that matter. Tom does not believe Gatsby is truly an Oxford man, a point-of-view he bases on the fact that the man wears a “pink suit” (124) and he declares Gatsby a cheat, claiming, “A lot of these newly rich people are just bootleggers” (110). To confirm any suspicions, Tom looks into Gatsbys past for any additional ammunition that might come in handy for an attack and exposes the fact that Gatsby is a “common swindler” (136) in front of everyone. Selling alcohol over the counter was only one of his “little stunts” (137), according to Tom. This scene is crucial to the novel because it reveals something to Daisy that she did not know before and it also reveals something to us that we do not want to know. When Tom goes digging into Gatsbys life, his only goal is to destroy Gatsby because he was of the new wealth and was not good enough to sit and dine with him and those like him. When Daisy must confront this issue about Gatsby, she does not handle it very well because Tom has opened her eyes to the vast difference between that from which she comes and from where Gatsby comes. Once this light shines on the truth, Tom knows that any affair will be over because Daisy loves her money too much to let it go. This is difficult because it represents the fall of the man that comes so close to his dream.
This American Dream fails and Fitzgerald captures how this type of failure can occur with Gatsbys life and times. Inge observes that Gatsbys story “deals symbolically with the failure of the American dream of success” (Inge), focusing on the “possibility of rising from rags to riches through industry, ambition, self-reliance, honesty, and temperance” (Inge). However, there is something wrong with this dream and those possibilities primarily because it is a myth of sorts. Inge states that within this myth “lies the genesis of what impels Gatsby” (Inge). Gatsby is inspired by “childhood dreams of a Franklin or a Thomas Edison… And the tradition that every American boy could make a million dollars or become President” (Inge). The irony, of course, is that while “imitating the great American moralists, Gatsby rises to be a rich and powerful criminal” (Inge). However, it is Gatsby that allows us to see how great the dream can become and how quickly it can fade away. Edwin Fussell maintains that the novel has “two predominant patterns, quest and seduction” (Fussell 291). To consider the America Dream from this perspective, it becomes all too clear.
Fussell writes that the quest is a “search for romantic wonder” and the quest is “flight” (291). This flight moves away from “normality, from time, from fate, and the conception of limit” (291). In a sense, we can see how the dream becomes too big for itself. Gatsby has his own set of problems that blow his dream completely out of proportion and make it, in a sense, something somewhat unattainable. Yet, this does not prevent him from trying. If we keep this same perspective, we can see how Gatsbys dream is the symbol for the decline of everymans American Dream in the sense that the spoils of excess only ruin what might have been simple, pleasurable, and clean.
Characters as Vehicles and Victims of Decline in the Great Gatsby
More than anything, the characters in the Great Gatsby represent social positions first. Their positions establish their primary ways of thinking and set the mood and tome for their behavior. Nick and Gatsby were soldiers in World War I and they represent the pristine cosmopolitan point-of-view as well as skepticism that many soldiers faced after returning home. Jay Gatsby, our tragic hero, is what Inge refers to as the “American arch-romantic” (Inge), because he seems to just miss everything. He “lacked the wealth and timing” (Inge) that he needed to get the girl in the end. As we have already discussed, Gatsby suffered from dreaming a dream that simply could not come true. Nick referred to it as “incorruptible” because Gatsby simply would not accept anything else. This is part of Gatsbys tragedy, says Inge, and “Not since Don Quixotes pursuit of Dulcinea has literature seen such a noble, heartbreaking, and impossible quest” (Inge). Indeed, the passion that drives Gatsby is simply incredible, as it never seems to reach a place where it might slow down. Instead, it maintains a steady pace in the novel, even when we know that the dream will not come true. It is this inability to let the dream go that Gatsby becomes a great romantic – regardless of other questionable aspects of his character. The decline of the American Dream begins and ends with the life of Jay Gatsby because he unveils the tragedy that lies beneath the corruption and naivety. The dream of Daisy is a symbol of the American Dream in that Gatsby will never believe that he cannot have it and he will stop at nothing to get it. In a moment of realization, Nick writes, “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” (Fitzgerald 98). Here we see that Nick can see the futility of it all. He is close enough to see the folly and he is just far enough away from it to see the damage it has already done. Gatsby has corrupted himself in order that he might touch this dream and thus, the decline of his dream began with the dream itself.
The decline of the American dream is brought to life with Gatsby because he is so human in everything he does. His excess is the result of the American Dream because he suddenly becomes aware that he has money. Gatsbys extravagance discloses much about the decline of the American Dream. As with most notions of the American Dream, it begins with the home. We read that Gatsbys home is enormous and has “Marie Antoinette bedrooms and Restoration salons” (93) as well as a “Merton College Library” (93). In addition, his restroom is adorned with a “toilet seat of pure dull gold” (94) and he has closets stuffed with suits that are crafted by a “man in England… who sends over a selection of things at the beginning of each season, spring and fall” (94). Gatsby is achieving part of his dream when is able to show off his home to Daisy and he will use every opportunity to his advantage. As he escorts Daisy through his home, he makes sure he points out that he keeps it “full of interesting people, night and day. People who do interesting things. Celebrated people” (92). Here we see how he is connecting that dream to himself through celebrities and very important.