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Kenneth Kang -- Monday, April 21, 1997 -- English -- Second Draft

Not the American DreamImages of Desolation

Loneliness, desolation, and isolation are fears felt by all, from the youngest child to the courageous hero and the wise elders of our culture. Perhaps because this is ingrained into our DNA, people seek companionship and a place where they can belong. In The Great Gatsby, F. Scott Fitzgerald forges the conflict between the characters and their desolate environment. The narrator, Nick Carraway, Tom and Daisy, Myrtle Wilson, and his friend, Jay Gatsby, all seek some form of companionship and some place where they can feel that they fit in. A sense of belonging, at least in America, had always been the American Dream where one could start off as an unskilled laborer and amass great fortunes. Accumulating riches and materialism became the key focus in the 1920s. However, by the unfulfilled destinies of the characters in The Great Gatsby, F. Scott Fitzgerald rejects the American Dream and finds that wealth or the pursuit of it is not the sole determination of success.

Moving from the Western United States, Nick must find new friends and meet new people. He had left "the middle-west [which] now seemed like the ragged edge of the universe" (7). Settling in New York as a bond agent, Nick comments, "It was long for a day or so..." (8). Escaping from the plain Midwest, he searches for some feelings of importance and belonging by pursuing financial wealth in New York, the "center" of life and culture in the U. S. Although he knows that his distant cousin, Daisy, and her husband, Tom, are living in the East Egg, he "scarcely knew [them] at all" (11). He could not escape his restlessness in the Midwest just by moving to the East. Meeting and falling in love with Jordan Baker, Nick feels for a moment that he is accepted and needed, but differences between their values wind up leaving Nick in the same position he was before. In the end, Nick is left alone, Gatsby dead, Tom and Daisy off somewhere, and Jordan engaged to another bad driver. His experimentation in the pursuit of happiness led him to New York as a bond agent and taught him about people like Gatsby, Myrtle, Tom and Daisy. But when all the good times were gone, he was left alone again. For Nick, the American Dream was a failure.

Myrtle Wilson, Tom's mistress, is motivated by her desolate environment and seeks some escape.

Fitzgerald describes the ash heaps around the Wilsons' home, using words like "ghastly," "dimly," and "crumbling" which all suggest some state of decay, of some desolation (27). To further create a mood of isolation, "a sort of compact Main Street ministering to [the only building in sight] and contiguous to absolutely nothing" makes this area a "desert" (29). Tom comments, "It does her good to get away" (30). From these ash heaps, Myrtle might have aspired to be like the mythical phoenix, rising from the burning remains of itself and taking off in flight. To this end, being in favor with rich Tom Buchanan would allow her to experience high culture, live comfortably and at the same time, gain companionship. Although her efforts succeed for a while, the nature of her relationship, a mistress, is fleeting and ends in her death; thus her American Dream of "rags to riches" never comes.

James Gatz, Jay Gatsby's legal name, was once a salmon fisher on Lake Superior but had made a goal for himself to leave his desolate and boring job and become Jay Gatsby (105). His dad comments, "Jimmy was bound to get ahead. He always had some resolves like this or something" (182). The American ideals of a rich young man were perfectly set for Jay Gatsby. The sense of importance and belonging would come to him with his fortunes. Gatsby took his first steps to his ideal plan when he became a trusted servant of Mr. Cody. Although he also was isolated, rejecting women and alcohol, he was closer to his goals of leaving his life as a fisherman (107). Reflecting his wish to become a respected and admired man, his lavish parties in his West Egg mansion seemed to run without a host. Guests, both invited and uninvited, rarely see him; rumors circulate about the source of his money. Preferring to keep his origins secret, Gatsby claims, "I am the son of some wealthy people in the middle-west--all dead now" (69). His introspection would not impede his ideal, just as long as he would complete his meticulous plan for conquering the American Dream and finally being an important part of America. Desiring to fulfill his dreams, Gatsby bought his enormous mansion to impress the final element in his plan to join the upper class society, Daisy. His efforts to win her heart fail as his source of fortune, bootlegging alcohol in Prohibition America, is revealed. With the loss of Daisy, the solitude that Gatsby had almost imposed upon himself during his way up on the socioeconomic ladder, caught up with him, and even in death, Gatsby fails to escape it. For his funeral, "nobody came" and only his father, Nick, and "the man [who had been] marveling over Gatsby's books..." attend (182, 183). Gatsby created for himself a desolate world with many riches but without a home, a place to feel welcomed, his vision and his conception of the American Dream shattered.

Tom and Daisy also seem to be searching for some "warm center of the world" (7). Nick recounts the pair's drifting "here and there ... for no particular reason" (10). Wealthy beyond comparison, Tom randomly interjects, "Civilization's going to pieces" (17). It would seem that Tom feels powerless and alone drifting in the world. What would be a perfect existence for many, is a desolate and dreary life for the one who lives it. He seeks out women, trying to balance some excitement and consistency in his life. However, his habit always seems to uproot both him and Daisy and require that they start over. Ironically, Daisy who married Tom to settle down couldn't really put roots down and have a stable life. Fitzgerald destroys and casts down the American ideals of a wealthy marriage and shows an imperfect and troubled union.

Obviously, the author does not see wealth, one of the tenants of the "rags to riches" stories, as a benevolent possession. Fitzgerald refuses to accept Tom and Daisy's "fulfillment" of the ideal American marriage.

Gatsby, Myrtle, Tom and Daisy, and Nick all feel in some way or another alone, and they pursue some method of escape. In each situation, Fitzgerald showed that the American Ideals led to failure: earning money as a bond agent, marrying the wealthy, acquiring wealth in less than honest means, and inheriting wealth. Trying to understand the failures of him and his friends, Nick remarks, "perhaps we all possessed some deficiency in common which made us subtly unadaptable to Eastern life" (184). Through examination of Nick and his friends, Fitzgerald suggests that the American dream is incompatible for many because of subtle flaws intrinsic to human nature. Somehow, all of Nick's, Myrtle's, Tom's, Daisy's, and Gatsby's dreams are never quite fulfilled. As they drifted in search of some way of finding that "rainbow connection," Fitzgerald underscores in The Great Gatsby that we likewise drift in the oceans of society to find our place.