Texts that criticize the present are imperative to highlighting its shortcomings. “The Great Gatsby” written by F. Scott. Fitzgerald criticizes the materialistic and self-centered views of 1920s America that is obsessed with grasping the “American Dream”. A dream that is supposed to mean anybody from anywhere can make it. However, Fitzgerald shows this is not the case. The message about the corruption of the “American Dream” is still relevant today nearly 100 years after the text was written. Fitzgerald criticizes the “American Dream” through settings and symbols such as: the green light, the clock, dust, the Valley of Ashes and the Eggs.
“The Great Gatsby” is set in 1920s New York during the “Roaring 20s” also known as the jazz age. Morals were looser, skirts were shorter and alcohol outlawed, of course this did not stop its consumption however. In fact, selling illegal alcohol is what makes Gatsby rich. People of the time were moving away from the Judeo-Christian values that had bound their parents. Looser morals were also in part due to the horrors experienced by people in WW1. “The Great Gatsby” follows the story of Gatsby, a “Mr. nobody from nowhere” and his rise to riches.
One important setting that Fitzgerald uses to point out the shortcomings of the “American Dream” is the Valley of Ashes. It is half-way between New York and the Eggs, where Gatsby and other wealthy people live. All the waste from the city is dumped there, “The Valley of Ashes- a fantastic farm where ashes grow like wheat into ridges and hills”. It is home to characters such as George and Myrtle Wilson, George owns a failing garage business and is described as: “So dumb, he doesn’t even know he’s alive”. Myrtle on the other hand is having an affair with the rich Tom Buchanan, in the hopes that he will whisk her away to some fantasy land where all her needs will be met. The Valley of Ashes is a place of broken dreams. It is the dumping ground of New York, a metaphorical purgatory where life has no meaning and disappear the only currency. It is a setting, however it is also a symbol of unchecked materialism and a disposable society, where those without wealth are nothing and rejected to the ash heap. Wilson exemplifies this; he owns a failed business in the place of failure in the hopes that he would someday become rich. This is why Myrtle marries him, believing that he will someday become rich and once she realizes he is doomed to fail she has an affair with someone who is rich.
Dr TJ Ekleburg is another example of how the Valley of Ashes is symbolic of the death of dreams. Ekleburg was a failed eye doctor whose massive billboard looms over the valley of ashes - “The watchful eyes of Dr. TJ Ekleburg’’. The eyes and Wilson further point out the shortcomings of the “American Dream”, Fitzgerald criticizes the “American Dream” through the Valley of Ashes and what the characters within are symbolic of. It represents the moral and social decay that results from a materialistic society and the divide between social classes, the rich indulge themselves in meaningless leisure while the poor struggle to turn a dime. It represents the poor such as Wilson who live among the smothering ashes and capitalist greed of the aristocracy of “Old Money” America. Fitzgerald criticizes this greed, highlighting its impacts through the Valley of Ashes. He shows us that not everyone in America is destined for wealth. This “American Dream” people speak of is just that, a dream that people from the valley of ashes as well as those of the time who lived in similar conditions were unlikely to reach. The idea of reaching this “American Dream” can be seen in other novels of the time such as Steinbeck’s “Of Mice and Men ‘’ in which two low class American men attempt to become rich by working the land in America’s dust bowl. It is through criticism of authors such as Fitzgerald and Steinbeck that we can draw insight about both the present of the 1920s and also our present nearly 100 years later.
An important symbol that Fitzgerald uses to criticize the failings of the “American Dream” is the green light. Through its use Fitzgerald shows us that obsession with unrealistic expectations is a recipe for disaster. The Green light sits at the end of Daisy’s dock, directly across from Gatsby. It symbolizes Gatsby’s desire to have Daisy: “ As I sat there brooding on the old, unknown world, i thought of Gatsby and his wonder when he first picked out the green light at the end of Daisy’s dock…” “… his dream seemed so close he could hardly fail to grasp it.” The audience knows that his dreams are all an illusion however Gatsby believes if he tries hard enough they will come true. The green light also highlights how everyone is a product of their past, Gatsby included. You can never change your history however your history can change you. In proverbs 18:20 it says: “You will have to live with the consequence of everything you say” - Gatsby fails to see this. “ He believed in the green light the orogastric future that year upon year reduces before us.” He believes that he can be accepted into America’s aristocracy however this is simply not possible. Gatsby is nothing, he is the made up desires of a 17 year old James Gatz, a façade of everything the young Gatz believes is perfect. Gatz has been forced to live out the lie of Gatsby for so long he has lost his sense of self, he is doomed because of his obsession with the green light. Through the use of the green light Fitzgerald again criticizes the motive of the “American Dream” highlighting how appearance is different from reality. As much as Gatsby tries he will never truly “make it” in American society because he was born poor. This highlights the corruption of the “American Dream” because Fitzgerald shows that only those who are already rich or born into “Old Money” are the only ones who will be seen as “respectable” and successful people.
“Old Money” Americans are seen as the only truly “successful” people because it is what they make themselves out to be. This can be seen in the setting of East and West eggs. Fitzgerald uses this setting to show the divide in the upper classes between the “”Old money” east and “new money” west. The green light is on Daisy’s dock in East egg while Gatsby lives in West egg. This is metaphorical of division of classes and the division between Gatsby and his dream, separated by a body of water. West egg also lacks the social graces of the east, Gatsby throws wild parties, buys expensive clothes, books to fill his library and a massive mansion all in the hopes of impressing Daisy and appealing to her “Old money” social status. He wants to be someone he is not, therefore he is doomed. Gatsby can buy all the diamonds in the world and still never be enough to be accepted into the “old money” aristocracy because he was born poor. Fitzgerald criticizes those who see themselves as better than others because they were born into wealth. He criticizes the upper class by showing how hollow and careless they are, “they smashed up things and creatures and then retreated back into their money”. They have money but no soul and will never be able to understand the struggles of people who have to work hard to earn their money such as Wilson or Gatsby. Fitzgerald criticizes the “American Dream” by showing that only the rich will prosper. It looks beautiful on the outside but is rotten at the core.
Another important symbol is that of a clock that Gatsby knocks over in Nick’s house while Daisy is over for tea. Gatsby is nervous, which is why he breaks the clock. Everything he has worked for has led to this moment, she is the accumulation of his dream and it is important everything goes well because he wants to own her. Fitzgerald uses the clock to highlight time and how nobody can fix or repeat the past, when Gatsby knocks over the clock he says “I’m sorry about the clock” while trying to frantically pick up the pieces. Gatsby is delusional because he thinks he can go back in time to when he first met Daisy- “Can’t repeat the past? Of course you can!”. While Gatsby and Daisy did share in what some might call a “summer fling” long ago it is clear that she doesn’t feel the same way she did for Gatsby five years ago, and is now only using him to fill the void of emptiness she feels from Tom’s various affair. He idolizes her, however- “Daisy tumbled short of his dreams- not through her own fault, but because of the colossal vitality of his illusion.” Gatsby has built up such a fantasy image of what she could be that he has unrealistic expectations of her, reality falls dramatically short of this dream. In this way Fitzgerald criticizes the “American Dream” as a fantasy that will never be able to compete with reality. It is a nice idea, however fantasy is far from real. Whom among us can not say they haven’t had an obsession with something or someone? Perhaps it is merely part of the human condition. Like Gatsby we are subject to our desires; perhaps this is what makes Gatsby “Great” and “Worth more than the whole bunch put together” ; he has something to strive for. Perhaps this highlights the failings of the “American Dream” there are those such as Gatsby who still believe in it and will pursue it even if it is a recipe for disaster.
Dust and Ash are important symbols in both the Valley of Ashes and the Eggs that Fitzgerald uses to highlight and criticize the shortcomings of the “American Dream”. They highlight the themes of death and destruction not only of life but of dreams too. For example when Myrtle is killed, “Her life was violently extinguished, knelt in the road and mingled her thick dark blood with the dust” not only is it a symbol of physical death but also a metaphorical death of both Tom and Wilson’s dreams. It’s symbolic of the death of the “American Dream” for most characters in the text, “There was an inexplicable amount of dust everywhere, and the rooms were musty” which shows Gatsby’s dream is dead at this point as it conveys the idea that his house and his ideals have been forgotten as dust usually settles on things no one needs anymore. When Daisy picks Tom over Gatsby his dreams are shattered, he is “watching over nothing” his house has accumulated a lot of dust because without Daisy Gatsby’s “American Dream” is nothing. Through the use of dust and ash Fitzgerald aims to criticize the materialistic views of the 1920s and our modern era nearly 100 years later. Dust and ash can be linked to real world examples of the “American Dream” today, people of today’s society believe that through reaching an excessive amount of money we will be happy, however this is not the case. Our dreams have become corrupted by reaching false ideals, such as how social media has impacted our perception of what the “ideal” lifestyle is like. It shows us that like Gatsby we can strive for a standard of things which are unattainable, even nonexistent. Fitzgerald points out how we will never be able to find true fulfillment in materialistic possessions. Fitzgerald points out that humans can only truly be happy by being true to themselves - “To thine own self be true” - Shakespeare. Perhaps the use of dust is a ghostly reminder that we can never take all our material wealth with us when we die - “For dust you are and unto dust you shall return”- Genesis 3:19. Fitzgerald criticizes seeking happiness in materialism, and shows that it is bound to leave us all disappointed.
In Conclusion Fitzgerald Criticizes the ideals of the present and highlights the short-comings of a materialistic “American Dream” in his novel “The Great Gatsby ‘’. Fitzgerald criticizes the “American Dream” through settings and symbols such as: the green light, the clock, dust, the Valley of Ashes and the Eggs. He highlights how unrealistic it is and how it will never be attained by those who are not born into wealth.