The American Dream is originally about the discovery of happiness, but by the 1920s, this dream has become perverted into this desire for wealth by whatever means; mistaken that money will bring happiness. F. Scott Fitzgerald does not us the words “American Dream” in the novel, The Great Gatsby, but it is evident that he shows the impossibility of achieving happiness through the American Dream. Fitzgerald demonstrates through symbols and motifs the impossibility of the American Dream.

Parties (Motif)

Gatsby throws excessively extravagant parties as evidenced by the number of guests, the lights, the food and the entertainment. For example, the juice from two hundred oranges is extracted every week for his parties. The reason Gatsby throws these huge, flashy parties is all part of his attempt to catch Daisy’s attention; either hoping that she would catch a glimpse of the bright lights across the bay or through word of mouth. However even with the grand scale of his parties, none of his guests seem to know who Gatsby is, some even coming up with ludicrous stories to explain his mystery. Most of these guests are simply there to enjoy the glamour which they believe to be the American Dream. Though when examined closely, corruption is easy to spot. During Nick’s first attendance at Gatsby’s party, he makes this observation. “I looked around. Most of the remaining women were now having fights with men said to be their husbands. … One of the men was talking with curious intensity to a young actress, and his wife, after attempting to laugh at the situation in a dignified and indifferent way, broke down entirely and resorted to flank attacks – at intervals she appeared suddenly at his side like and angry diamond, and hissed: ‘You promised!’ into his ear.”  The husbands are bored and unsatisfied with their marriages while the wives are upset are their husbands’ disregard for them. Furthermore, the guests at his parties only show up as a way to prove their social status and to enjoy what they perceive as the American Dream. No one at the party shows more than a superficial curiosity for Gatsby’s character. This is shown at the end of the novel when no more than a handful of people show up at his funeral where there could have easily been hundreds of people at his parties. This emphasizes the hollowness of the American Dream. 
It is ironic that the whole purpose of these parties is to attract Daisy to Gatsby; it’s all to show her the riches that he has amassed and of what he can offer her. However when Daisy finally comes to one of his parties, she is not impressed. She feels out of place at the party because this is not the lifestyle that she is used to. This shows the impossibility of Gatsby ever achieving his dream because Daisy would never leave Tom for Gatsby because she is so used to the lifestyle that she and Tom share. 
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The first party seen in the novel is the get-together at Tom’s house. When compared to Gatsby’s over-the-top parties, Tom’s party has an understated simplicity to it. This contrasts the new money and the old money of the novel; where the new money feel the need to constantly flaunt their money in an unnecessary way, the established rich are comfortable and graceful in their wealth. This party is thrown out of boredom as it is something for them to do in their mundane lifestyle. Before the party, Tom and Daisy are seen as the ideal couple living the American Dream. They have the money, the beautiful house, a family. However, during the party this illusion is shattered. Tom is excused from dinner to receive a call when it is revealed that the caller is his mistress. Tom is not fulfilled with the American Dream which is why he has an affair. If he was satisfied, he would not feel the need to sleep with someone that is not his wife. This later proves to be the same for Daisy when she is reunited with Gatsby.
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Corruption is further shown at Myrtle’s impromptu party in New York. It also contrasts Tom’s party in East Egg. He is tempered and controlled at his party in East Egg. However, a different side of him, a more volatile side of him is show at Myrtle’s party. Daisy refers to him as a ‘hulking, brute of a man’ which Tom clearly does not like. But he does nothing more than object. When he’s with Myrtle and he dislikes the fact that she is referring to Daisy, he lashes out and hits Myrtle. He is a two-sided character and it also shows a distinction between the upper and lower class. Violence would not have been tolerated in the East Egg. But in New York, with Daisy whom comes from the Valley of the Ashes, he is free and able to lash out physically. Also, the action of Tom hitting a woman shows that he is completely corrupt and something that a gentleman would not do.
All these parties are used by characters for a purpose. This one is used by Myrtle to show off Tom. Tom is her shot at achieving the American Dream and she will do anything to get it. In this case, she uses her sexuality which furthers the theme of corruption.

Cars (Motif)


The American Dream involves people trying to gain wealth and status. And through the desire to obtain this dream, became the significance of cars. Cars were seen as a status of wealth and a sense of new found freedom. In the novel, Gatsby possesses countless cars, one of them being the Rolls-Royce. “It was a rich cream color, bright and there in it’s monstrous length with triumphant hat-boxes and supper-boxes and tool-boxes, and terraced with a labyrinth of wind-shields that mirrored a dozen suns.” (pg.33) The reason his car is yellow is to attract Daisy and to display his achievement of wealthy status. However, there is a conflict with this materialistic view of cars. For example, the conflict arises where Myrtle is struck and killed by a car. This exemplifies irony because Myrtle believes the individual driving the car is Tom. Tom is her ticket to the American Dream and leaving the Valley of Ashes. However, it is ultimately this desire for her American Dream which kills her. 

Cheating (Motif)

Represents the shallow quality of the characters’ lives thus signifying the hollowness of the American Dream. The wealthy have everything but still not happy. However, cheating is not limited to solely the rich class, as it is present in all social classes. All the relationships in the novel contain a motive or purpose. For instance, Tom has an affair to satisfy his boredom, and escape from his relationship at home.
 “I supposed the latest thing is to sit back and let Mr Nobody from Nowhere make love to your wife. Well if that’s the idea you can count me out . . . Nowadays people begin by sneering at family life and family institutions, and next they’ll throw everything overboard and have intermarriage between black and white.” (Pg 123-124) This statement is hypocritical because Tom is cheating himself, but will talk about family morals when his own marriage, and subsequently American Dream, is threatened. On the other hand, Myrtle uses Tom in order to escape the Valley of Ashes and to use him as her path to the American dream of excessive living. Daisy cheats in order to receive the attention and admiration Tom has been neglecting her of. Finally, Gatsby wants Daisy in order to fulfill his American Dream. However he does not realize that he only wants the idea of possessing Daisy, and the image he has of Daisy as the beautiful young girl every man desired before the war.

The Valley of Ashes

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Valley of Ashes represents absolute poverty and hopelessness.
“This is a valley of ashes – a fantastic farm where ashes grow like wheat into ridges and hills and grotesque gardens; where ashes take the forms of houses and chimneys and rising smoke and, finally, with a transcendent effort, of ash-grey men, who move dimly and already crumbling through the powdery air. Occasionally a line of grey cars crawls along an invisible track, gives out a ghastly creak, and comes to rest, and immediately the ash-grey men swarm up with leaden spades and stir up an impenetrable cloud, which screens their obscure operations from your sight. … The valley of ashes is bounded on one side by a small foul river, and, when the drawbridge is up to let barges through, the passengers on waiting trains can stare at the dismal scene for as long as half an hour.” (Pg. 26)
The lower classes who inhibit this region all want to leave but cannot. This illustrates how the American Dream is impossible to achieve. For example, Myrtle dies trying to escape the Valley of Ashes. Also, when Tom visits, it shows the difference between the rich and poor. 
 “Hello, Wilson, old man,” said Tom, slapping him jovially on the shoulder. “How’s business?”
            “I can’t complain,” answered Wilson unconvincingly. “When are you going to sell me that car?”
            “Next week; I’ve got my man working on it now.”
            “Works pretty slow, don’t he?”
            “No, he doesn’t,” said Tom coldly. “And if you feel that way about it, maybe I’d better sell it somewhere else after all.”
            “I don’t mean that,” explained Wilson quickly. (Pg 28)
This confrontation of Tom and George shows how the rich look down on the poor because of the difference in their social status. It represents the moral and social decay hidden by the West, and East Egg. The valley is created through industrial dumping and thus a by-product of capitalism. The people and also the environmental are suffering. Tom, Daisy, and Jordan, with their empty, void lives, are the characters represented as the formless bodies of ashes in the valley of ashes. The ashes are symbols of dead, with more self-centered and arrogant people arising from them. Every generation, the ashes pile distorting the American Dream further.

Sport (Motif)


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Describes the time period 1920; people had a lot of leisure time. The rich who have already achieved the American Dream play a variety of sports to satisfy their boredom. Through sports we are able to see the characters’ true natures. Although sports are meant for leisure and fair play there is still cheating and corruption involved. For example, Jordan cheats during her golf tournament, and Meyer Wolfsheim fixes the world championship, both purely for their own selfish gain.
“When we were on a house-party together up in Warwick, she left a borrowed car out in the rain with the top down , and then lied about it – and suddenly I remembered the story about her that had eluded me that night at Daisy’s. At her first big gold tournament there was a row that nearly reached the newspapers – a suggestion that she had moved her ball from a bad lie in the semi-final round.” This quote describes how Jordan cheated in her golf tournament, and thus illustrating the dishonesty of the rich.

Eyes of T.J. Eckleburg

Another dominant symbol within this novel is the billboard eyes of Dr. T.J. Eckleburg. The eyes symbolize the loss of spiritual values in America. The billboard was erected to promote the business of an optometrist in Queensborough – the eyes symbolize the growing commercialism of America – life in America is all about making money, a lot of money as evidenced by the wealth of people like Tom Buchanan – a man’s success is measured in terms of how much money he is worth, not on what kind of person he may be morally. The billboard, like the spiritual values of America, is neglected – “But his eyes, dimmed a little by many paintless days, under sun and rain, brood on over the solemn dumping ground.” The old-fashioned values of America, which Nick Carraway returns to reconnect with in the mid-West are completely absent from the East, God seems to have abandoned America, leaving only Dr. T.J. Eckleburg behind to stare down with his empty eyes on people who have abandoned their spiritual values in the quest to achieve material wealth.
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Moreover, the eyes also symbolize the corruption of America’s people. The eyes of Dr. T.J. Eckleburg stare down on the main characters as they pass underneath the billboard on their way into New York City where Tom carries on his adulterous affair, where Gatsby drives Nick to meet Wolfshiem, the man who fixed the World Series, where Daisy rushes off to find a few thrills with her over, Gatsby. The eyes seem to frown down on these characters, Wilson equates T.J.’s eyes to the eyes of God. He recounts to Michaelis what he says to Myrtle after discovering his affair, “‘and I said “God knows what you’ve been doing, everything you’ve been doing. You may fool me, but you can’t fool God!”” However, Michaelis tries to point out to him that “It’s just a billboard.”
Lastly, the eyes also suggest the hollowness of the American Dream. There is this idea that a person who comes from humble origins could achieve the Dream if they are willing to work hard and take advantage of opportunities. This is seen in Gatsby and Myrtle where they bootleg and commit adultery respectively. However, the frowning eyes of Dr. T.J. Eckleburg look down on the Valley of the Ashes as if to say that the American Dream is one big lie – the American Dream produced wealth for some (like Gatsby), but for the majority of people, their hopes for gold is just like the ashes. The reality is that not everyone can have as much money as the Buchanans have – for every Buchanan, there are thousands of Wilsons. The idea that everyone can live the dream is just a dream. For most, life is the nightmare of the Valley of the Ashes which the Eyes frown down on all day long.

The Green Light


The green light at the end of Daisy’s dock is a significant symbol within the book. To Gatsby, the green light represents his dream, which is Daisy. To attain her would be completing Gatsby’s American Dream. The first time the green light is seen in the novel is also the first time Nick sees Gatsby. Fitzgerald writes, “…he stretched out his arms toward the dark water in a curious way, and, far as I was from him, I could have sworn he was trembling. Involuntarily I glanced seaward – and distinguished nothing except a single green light, minute and far away…” The green light is described as ‘minute and far away’ which makes it appear impossible to reach. This will prove to be true for Gatsby. The green light also represents society’s desire and the seeming impossibility of achieving the materialistic American Dream.   

Further into the novel, it is revealed that Gatsby desire for Daisy is also his desire for the past. Five years ago, when Gatsby first meets Daisy and they fall in love, Daisy was the representation of status and wealth.
She was desired all the young men and for Gatsby to attain meant that he was the most worthy. In Norman Holmes Pearson's critical essay Reading a Novel--The Great Gatsby he describes what Daisy means to Gatsby, "She seemed to be the representation of what he yearned for: the platonic essence, the noumenal as he saw it through the phenomenal metaphor. She shone before him like silver, and he rode toward her as a knight rides toward his lady. And like America itself, with its Franklininan image of a society in whic there were no absolute barriers and a man could become what he wished to become, Daisy gave him the green light to move agead. Only it took money to buy the car to join the traffic." Here, Pearson likens Daisy to a tropy as "a knight rides toward his lady. She is meant to be the token of his success. He reinforces the idea that green light represents Daisy which is his dream. He uses the metaphor of traffic lights, where if he wishes to drive toward the green light, first Gatsby will need the money to buy a car. Which is ultimately what he does. He amasses this wealth to use in his pursual of Daisy.
However now when he desires Daisy, he also desires the past that he shared with Daisy. At the end of the novel Nick concludes the book with these words, “Gatsby believed in the green light, the orgastic future that year by year recedes before us. It eluded us then, but that’s no matter—tomorrow we will run faster, stretch out our arms farther. And then one fine morning—  So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.” This describes Gatsby’s inability to move on from the past. Everything he does in the novel is to try and recreate the past. In this metaphor, Gatsby tries to goes against the currents—or time—to reach the green light or his dream. And as in the quote, the green light which represents his dream, ‘recedes’ like waves year by year.