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Harmful Habits Through the American Dream

By: Sofia Rodriguez

On a fourth cup of coffee and in a large stained hoodie, we examine just one of many teenagers is sitting, wrapped in a blanket, sitting at her desk, ready to stay up all night to work on her frustrating english essay after not making any progress for weeks. The next day she comes into class with a mediocre piece of literature that she is not happy about. This student’s own clouded judgement led to self destructive habits. F. Scott Fitzgerald’s novel, The Great Gatsby, follows a group of characters scattered through different socioeconomic backgrounds as they all strive to accomplish their own versions of the American Dream. All of the characters have a strong affinity for wealth, but all have different motivations and execution strategies in achieving said wealth. Fitzgerald argues in his novel that the American Dream is not a reasonable goal that people should try and achieve because they lose sight of their original goal. In turn, the concept of the American Dream becomes more materialistic, causing harm to themselves and others. 

Through the use of different economic statuses, Fitzgerald demonstrates how the American Dream alters perspectives and causes one to lose sight of his or her original goal. With this new goal that doesn’t include one’s pure intentions, people may go unnecessary lengths to achieve a distorted version of their ideal. Since Myrtle is not feeling content in her current relationship, she tries to find a man who doesn’t need to focus on money so he can pay her more attention. With George, she doesn’t feel strong emotions and chooses to just ignore him. When at the gas station, she “[walks] through her husband as if he were a ghost”(26). This shows that Myrtle doesn’t see George as someone of value, but focuses more on Tom and his wealth. She chooses to overspend Tom’s money because she hopes that his affluence will provide her with the financial comfort she craves. In their apartment that she decorated, “the living-room was crowded to the doors with a set of tapestried furniture entirely too large for it”(29). Although Myrtle originally wanted to find someone who was more emotionally stimulating than George, once she was exposed to money and wealth, she became fixated on it. She does this because she there is nothing to be proud of with her life with Wilson. This causes her to indulge with money when she has the opportunity to do so. Myrtle believes that this will get her closer to her goal of unparalleled wealth and success and therefore her idea of the American Dream. She feels her life is devoid of meaning and, like most of the lower class, thinks that wealth is what she is missing in order to find a purpose and be happy. However, she is using too much money in order to try and achieve this and her original goal of being content in her relationship has faded away. Myrtle’s confused intentions make one feel as if he or she were “to stumble continually” over furniture in Myrtle and Tom’s apartment, showing how she did too much to try and get the feeling of prosperity. In contrast to Myrtle, Gatsby has plenty of money and wealth that he doesn’t know what to do with it. However, he is repeatedly portrayed as trying too hard and to make his success apparent to others. He is attempting to flaunt his American Dream on Daisy in order to catch her attention. In order to receive her approval and recognition, “on week-ends his Rolls-Royce became an omnibus, bearing parties to and from the city,”(39) as he “half expected her to wander into one of his parties, some night”(79). He does unnecessary and extravagant acts for the sole purpose of trying to show off his wealth in front of Daisy. For Gatsby, his dream isn’t limited to wealth, but spans over to the topic of relationships and emotional desires. Gatsby longs for Daisy every day and as a young adult he went to unnecessary and unreasonable lengths in order to get the money needed to try and get her back into his life. He does this by “[selling] grain alcohol over the counter” in order to make money quickly, easily, and illegally(133). Gatsby is desperate to gain money and wealth in order to continue on with his life in a more comfortable fashion. He went from being a law-abiding son of a decent family to breaking the law. Only a deep feeling of necessity for wealth would cause him to go to such lengths in order to have his original goal, Daisy, be his. 

People who strive for the American Dream will never be content with the amount of money or wealth they accumulate. Due to the lengths that they go, however, it is hard for them to recognize that their goal is not obtainable. This is very apparent in Daisy and Tom, a couple who both were born into old money and never had to work for anything financially. Both of them made choices that ended them up in high class social situations, but their relationship was not fulfilling. When talking about Tom and Daisy’s relationship as well as their past, Nick states: “Why they came East I don’t know”(6). This shows how the couple was not satisfied with what they had, so they continued to travel until they came to the East. They have little genuine intent behind their decisions and instead act out of boredom. No matter how much wealth the couple inherits from their family, they are dissatisfied and seek out new experiences in order to compensate for that lack of excitement. According to Nick, Tom and Daisy are not fit for life in the East despite other people living extravagantly around them. They are attracted to the wealth even though they have enough of their own. Nick recounts that “they had spent a year in France for no particular reason, and then drifted here and there unrestfully wherever people played polo and were rich together”(6). By having the couple constantly chasing more wealth, Fitzgerald was able to convey how they were unhappy with what was there for them. This is because the American Dream is an abstract concept; it has never been entirely executed because there is no definite and specific end goal to the dream, and one can never have his or her desired wealth and relationships. We know this is true with Tom because he was never satisfied with just Daisy and was found with “the girl who… got into the papers,” when he got into a car crash during his honeymoon(77). This shows how before his marriage had fully began, Tom was over Daisy and the idea of her as his wife. He gets bored easily and moves on to other women because he doesn’t feel fulfilled with his rich wife and the perfect picture appearance of his life. No amount of different women ever seems to make Tom feel content, showing that his version of the American Dream is not an attainable circumstance. For him, being happy in his relationship as well as having sufficient status and wealth would be his version of success, but since he was always hungry for more than just Daisy, he didn’t let himself be happy with what he had. 

Fitzgerald conveys how this is a universal concept as lower class individuals like Myrtle and George still value wealth and material as the only paths to happiness. The couple, although unhappy with their marriage, both had a similar goal of getting out of the Valley of Ashes and being comfortable and wealthy. Their hometown is described as a place where people “move dimly,” because it is full of men and women who want more, but do not have the opportunities and means by which to achieve it(23). When Tom and Nick stop by the gas station George owns, the mechanic asks them “When are you going to sell me that car?”(25). This proves how Mr. Wilson has little interest in Tom and his well being, but his only focus is on how he can get more business. There is no way for George to feel joy in his current situation because he presumes that his first priority should be the gas station and shop, not his wife. This shows how wealth is the only way for people to become happier and more able to care for themselves and others. While in New York City with Tom, Myrtle changes multiple times, and Nick notes that, “with the influence of the dress her personality had also undergone a change”(30). With access to wealth, Myrtle becomes an entirely different person who acts happier and brighter with the addition of nice items in her life. Because of her economic status, she does not have the ability to buy a nice dress on her own, so she relishes in the feelings she gets when wearing it around Tom. This proves Fitzgerald’s claim that humans believe they can only be happy when accompanied by feelings of prosperity. 

While trying to achieve the American Dream, people end up hurting themselves and others due to their clouded judgement. Near the beginning of the book we can see this when Tom, Myrtle, Gatsby, and others are at the apartment in the city and Myrtle starts to get on Tom’s nerves by repeatedly yelling the name “Daisy” at him. He is angry that she is making it apparent that he isn’t fulfilled in either of his relationships; one gives him status and one gives him emotional satisfaction. Tom ended up “[breaking] her nose with his open hand,” showing how he is desperate to achieve the perfect life but is not able to, so he hurts one of the people closest to him(37). Due to his unclear judgement, Tom acts rashly and violently towards Myrtle because his intent and actions are misaligned. This argues Fitzgerald’s message that when people are too focused on an end goal, they disregard those around them. Similarly, when Myrtle runs in front of Gatsby’s car, she is completely blinded by the idea of Tom and how she believes she needs him more than George. She doesn’t slow down to realize that it isn’t her lover driving the car, and ends up killing herself trying to obtain her idea of the American Dream. After getting hit, it seemed that “she had choked a little in giving up the tremendous vitality she had stored so long”(137). Myrtle’s only motivations were wealth and measurable success. Her lust after these unattainable goals is what ultimately sent her to the grave. The word “choked” puts the American Dream in a violent light that makes readers aware of just how harmful it can be. Contrasting this with describing Myrtle as having “tremendous vitality” highlights that she was so blinded by the idea of wealth that she lost track of what she was giving up in order to try and achieve it. Fitzgerald is using this to comment on how humans will allow a superficial concept, such as money, to dictate their lives, quite literally. He also is able to convey this idea through Nick, a character who readers don’t get much of a taste for. His relationship with Jordan is greatly overlooked for the most part because he never considered her a priority of his, and so let a great opportunity slip through his fingers. At the end of the novel, Nick says: “angry, and half in love with her, and tremendously sorry, I turned away” when talking about how he leaves Jordan(177). This is an example of someone hurting both themselves and the person whom he “half…love[s]” because Nick stretched himself too thin trying to better his own life. He paid no attention to his feelings for Jordan and when Nick recognized them he let their possible future together disappear. Fitzgerald argues through his characters that because of the distortion of one’s intentions, they may end up hurting people they care about while trying to achieve the American Dream.

By utilizing different characters and situations, Fitzgerald depicts how the American Dream is able to wreck lives. This is because of the unhealthy relationships people have with wealth and the acquisition of it: it is either something very familiar to them so they are desensitized to it, such as Daisy and Tom. On the other hand there are people who don’t know how to deal with it, such as George and Myrtle. Fitzgerald poses a statement regarding the misfocused priorities of the average American and calls the reader to action about reevaluating what one puts at the center of his or her own life.

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