The Promise and Failure of the American Dream in Scott Fitzgerald's Fiction

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Abstract: The Great Gatsby is Fitzgerald's best fictional account of the promise and failure of the American dream because here the congruity of story and style and attitude is most meaningful to the depiction of this theme. Fitzgerald created Gatsby and his myth to be an emblem of the irony and the corruption of the American dream. Fitzgerald was the embodiment of the fluid polarities of American experience: success and failure, illusion and disillusion, dream and nightmare. The exhaustion of the frontier and the rebound of the post war expatriate movement marked for Fitzgerald as the end of a long period in human history, the history of the Post-Renaissance man in America, that he made the substance of his works. Fitzgerald's ideology, a serious criticism on the American Dream, reveals the real nature of American life so that he could find a way to the truth of the American identity.

Key words: American Dream, corruption, success and failure, illusion and disillusion, Jazz Age, ideology, criticism, American identity.

To analyze the core idea of the concept of the American Dream (more precisely its emergence as a prevalent social concern during the 1920s), many relevant factors have to be taken into account and studied. The elements worth of consideration are those responsible for creating, reinforcing, and consequently corroding the phenomenon. Among these the post-war social conditions of the era stand as the most prominent. In other words, a general survey in social history of the twenties would provide a better grasp on the illusions pervading the society. According to Cleanth Brooks (1973):

Historically, the 1920s were not only an age of disillusionment and frenetic excitement; they were also an age of vital creativity and intellectual development..... But the world in which he [Fitzgerald] did immerse himself he reported as faithfully and came to judge as honestly, as he could. If he was relatively ignorant of the great forces that were shaking that world, he did have an acute sense for "felt" history, for the trauma that those forces set up in the unconscious of individuals and of society; it is significant that T.S. Eliot, the author of The Waste Land, was a devoted admirer of The Great Gatsby, Fitzgerald's third and best novel (p. 2284).

Anthony Patch, a character in The Beautiful and Damned (1922) expresses the positive aspect of the twenties' attitude by the phrase, "lustreness and unromantic haven" (p. 41). To agree with Mizener (1963), Fitzgerald probably better than any other writer had depicted his feeling, this vision of a lustrous and romantic haven which seemed "rosy and romantic to us who were young then," and the feeling that when defeat came, "it was because a stubbornly unimaginative society with an incurable preference for a meretricious life prevented people capable of imagining this haven from achieving it" (p. 93).

The Great Gatsby is Fitzgerald's best fictional account of the promise and failure of the American dream because here the congruity of story and style and attitude is closest and most meaningful to the depiction of this theme. According to Sven Birkerts (2006), "The Great Gatsby is, most of us would agree, beautifully self-contained, with all its parts echoing each other and at the same time serving the whole" (p. 3). Here he had a story whose central character not only symbolized his own conflicts and confusions, but made a moving commentary on a period and a country as well. The grandeur and pathos of Gatsby are that his enormous vitality, ambition and power of creation are all lavished on a "vast, vulgar, and meretricious beauty" unworthy of the emotion that cannot discover a worthier ideal. It is notable that the auditors clearly, and even Gatsby dimly, are aware of the corruption "concealing his incorruptible dream" (GG, p. 125). If the feeling of the novel owes a good deal to its author's identification with his subject, its impact owes a lot too to its range, to the fact that Gatsby is not merely a disguise for Fitzgerald. …