Dreams, Deception, Destruction (Lecture Notes on The Great Gatsby)
…Gatsby turned out all right at the end; it is what preyed on Gatsby, what foul dust floated in the wake of his dreams that temporarily closed out my interest in the abortive sorrows and short-winded elations of men…
We’ve already discussed to some extent the role the American Dream plays in The Great Gatsby and what Fitzgerald’s attitude to it may be. I’d like to explore it further, leaving more open-ended clues for you to think about rather than hard and fast conclusions, but I also want to explore two other themes that may have more significance to understanding Fitzgerald’s take on the American Dream and Gatsby’s dream. These are the role deception plays in the novel and the almost unnoticed role of destruction. What I propose to you is that deception is connected to how the characters see and act upon their own American Dream and that the pursuit of the wrong dream ends in destruction. Destruction is a dramatic word here so I need to explain when I use the word I do not mean the common definition of what happens in war or natural disasters where everything is wiped out.
Destruction takes on the connotations of meaning death or the ruin of one’s life when the dream fails. Perhaps I mean both at the same time. I leave that for you to figure out.
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As you have recently learned, dreams are at the heart of the novel. We see several characters who have dreams for their life and private ambitions in one way or another and Fitzgerald seems to imply these sort of dreams are the American Dream each is seeking. For George Wilson, the dream is a successful gasoline station and providing his wife Myrtle with the kind of life she wants, though he does not come across as a hard worker and seems to lack the imagination and dedication to make his business a good one. For Myrtle, the dream is one of consumerism: having the money to shop and buy and live a kind of lavish lifestyle she imagines out of the movie star magazines she likes to read. For Jordan, it seems to be her career as a professional golfer, though it seems she does not take it that seriously. While she is a good player with some fame, the scandal of having cheated in one game suggests a lack of seriousness and dedication, or more likely reveals she plays for money. The reader has the impression she spends too much time in New York hanging out on Daisy’s all too comfortable sofa or socializing at Gatsby’s parties rather than practicing. For “Nick it is the independent life a successful career in New York City as a seller of stocks and bonds can give him and not the family business. His experience in World War I seems to have altered his view of the American Dream, perhaps making him skeptical of it or making him a little cynical as when he states “… I came back [from the war] restless. Instead of being the warm center of the world, the Middle West now seemed like the ragged edge of the universe–so I decided to go East and learn the bond business. Everybody I knew was in the bond business, so I supposed it could support one more single man” (C.1).
TASK 1: What is the common thread that unites these character’s individual American Dream? How would you characterize each character and their dream? Explain below.
The largest dream is Gatsby’s and if you wonder why Fitzgerald calls him the Great Gatsby it is because of his dreams. You have already recorded his dream in your notes and in the timeline posters of his life and I hope you have noticed how his life is so wrapped up in his dream that it is impossible to separate the man from the dream. This is what separates him from everyone else in the novel who has some kind of dream. He dreams big and is audacious in trying to achieve it. You should note that he constantly adjusts his dream to his situation in life, notably after the dream, in whatever form it happens to be in at the time. His boyhood dream written scratched out in pencil in an old Hopalong Cassidy novel “Rise from bed 6.00 A.M. / Dumbbell
exercise and wall-scaling . . .6.15-6.30 / Study electricity, etc . . . 7.15-8.15 / Work . . . 8.30-4.30 P.M. / Baseball and sports . . .
4.30-5.00 / Practice elocution, poise and how to attain it . . . 5.00-6.00 / Study needed inventions . . . 7.00-9.00” reveal a desire to escape the poverty of his “shiftless” parents through the kind of hard work they did not dedicate themselves to doing. From Dan Cody, he received an entirely new education of what the American Dream can be: the lavish and free use of wealth to entertain himself. Gatsby’s intelligence and his work hard gain him the trust of Cody but when the promise of money at Cody’s death is taken away from him he finds himself back in poverty. The only thing to do is what many poor young men did. They joined the army and prepared to go off to Europe and the First World War, know then as the Great War. It seems his dream is once again on hold until he meets Daisy. It was common for wealthy families to entertain the young men training for the war and Daisy and her world of parties and dresses and cars and romance changed his dreams again. His looks and charm begin to attract her and now his dream is Daisy. But the war stands in his way of trying to achieve it and so he does the only thing he can do to win her — he lies.
The mysteries and gossip that float through the conversations of the guests at Gatsby’s parties, speculations scented in champagne and uttered in whispers or secret insights establish the theme of deception in the novel. We have already met it in its
most noxious from, Tom’s affair with Myrtle and Jordan’s revelation to Nick in chapter one of Tom already having a series of past affairs. Tom seems to manage his little secrets the way he played rugby and polo to push and bully his way through the other players for a score, playing the role of the gifted athlete but doing nothing more substantial that just getting his way. In a sense, if we return to our earlier class conversation about how inherited wealth corrupts the American Dream then Tom Buchanan is the Platonic conception of it. The ancient Greek philosopher Plato proposed that everything that can be created by the hand of man is an imperfect representation of the original perfect vision of it. So when a craftsman makes a chair or an architect builds something new, their idea is based on a perfect, imagined conception of what they are creating — its Platonic conception. But the problem with deception is the very falseness of what it creates.
Tom and Daisy live a very phony lifestyle characterized by restlessness — living in different cities, spending their money on travel and shopping, purchasing or renting expensive mansions they have no intention of really living in for very long. They entertain themselves and produce nothing. Their wealth, and its continued flow into Tom’s bank accounts, is from the hard work of family members and ancestors whose hard work produced great wealth. Theirs is the American Dream achieved at its highest pinnacle. At least for some, but in the novel it is the idea of achieving or being a part of other’s great wealth that Fitzgerald explores. The result of Tom and Daisy’s life is one gigantic deception, specifically their self-deception of their own lives and their marriage. Tom’s affairs are his form of entertainment. For Daisy, it is money. Tom’s money takes her around the world, gives her beautiful clothes and homes and friends and a life of ease, of nothing to do but sit on a sofa and be beautiful. Money is so much a part of her world that her voice is full of it. Gatsby realizes this in Chapter Seven when everyone is at the Buchanan’s house on that hot, hot day,
Gatsby turned to me rigidly:
“I can’t say anything in his house, old sport.”
“She’s got an indiscreet voice,” I remarked. “It’s full of –” I hesitated. “Her voice is full of money,” he said suddenly.
That was it. I’d never understood before. It was full of money–that was the inexhaustible charm that rose and fell in it, the jingle of it, the cymbals’ song of it high in a white palace the king’s
daughter, the golden girl. . . .
Here is Daisy and the sweet, lovely deception that she is to herself and to others, as Gatsby realizes if only for a moment.
But Gatsby himself is a deception, the grandest deception in the whole novel. Though it may of had its beginnings earlier in his life, it comes into existence during the time of hard work before he meets Dan Cody. Nick tells us,
. . . 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 meretricious1 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. (C.5)
The man he imagines himself to be is the juvenile image of a man who can do anything, achieve anything and that was his goal, his dream — to achieve great things. But Nick sees it as a self-deception on the part of Gatsby, that in reality young James Gatz dream was a “vast, vulgar, and meretricious beauty.” It begs the question though if this characterization is completely true or not. Was Gatsby great in a real way, a way that becomes lost in the gossip and deceptions of his life story?
Not all of his story was deception, though the way Gatsby himself presents it to Nick it seems it is. He leaves Louisville and Daisy for the war leaving only a promise to return. At the war he proves himself a hero, he does attend Oxford (England did offer free college education to any soldier after the war). And what we learn about him from Meyer Wolfshiem is certainly true.
Gatsby accomplished what he set out to do but for that last piece, the reason for the dream: Daisy. For our purpose, however, we need to understand the role his deception plays in the novel and its connection to his dream.
TASK 2: Does Gatsby have the wrong dream? Was his dream from Dan Cody wrong? (consider how Cody is similar to Tom and Daisy) What his dream to repeat the past and have Daisy once again wrong? Explain below.
Central to the idea of a corrupted American Dream is the destruction it causes to people’s lives. Think of what you learned about the recent college admissions scandal and how it was fueled by excessive wealth and how it corrupts the idea that admission to college is based on merit — that with hard work and dedication anyone can be admitted to university for what they do and not for who their parents are. Now consider what Nick tells us about Tom and Daisy,
1 apparently attractive but having, in reality, no value or integrity
“They were careless people, Tom and Daisy- they smashed up things and creatures and then retreated back into their money or their vast carelessness or whatever it was that kept them together, and let other people clean up the mess they had made.” (C.9)
The quote that opens this lecture alludes to this characterization of Tom and Daisy and their role in the novel, both as people as corrupters of the American Dream. Nicks disgust at the opening of the novel at “what preyed on Gatsby, what foul dust floated in the wake of his dreams” reveals his motivation for telling Gatsby’s story. Yes. Gatsby’s dream may have been self-deception on his part and was achieved through criminal activity but it was his American Dream to repeat the past by recapturing those summer days in Louisville with Daisy and all the promise those days held for a love and a life he could only dream of. Yes. His parties were more like a visit to Universal Studios than anything else, more illusion than reality so that they can be said to symbolize his dream. But did he deserve to die because of it? Because of all the deaths that happen in Chapter Eight, this theme is worth exploring in greater depth and there is more I can say about it, but it is time to turn it over to you. What is the real corruption of the American Dream? Why does this corruption lead to so much destruction in the novel, so many ruined lives?
TASK 3: How are Tom and Daisy the “foul dust” that preyed on Gatsby’s dream? On George Wilson’s dream? And on Myrtle Wilson’s dream? What is the significance of this destruction to the novel as a whole? Explain below.