American Dream and Racism in Literature
How it works
It is apparent that the primary theme of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby suggests the decline of the American Dream in the 1920’s. Although that is the distinguished idea throughout the novel, there are other considerable motifs such as the disguised themes of racial and ethnic differences that are debated in Benjamin Schreier’s “‘Race’ and The Great Gatsby’s Cynical Americanism.” This connects with the conception of nativism and belief of becoming a self-made man that is presented in Jeffery Louis Decker’s “Gatsby’s Pristine Dream: The Diminishment of the Self- Made Man in the Tribal Twenties”.
In Scherier’s article the main focus is on the conception of racial and ethnic differences, that were marked throughout the novel by certain characters. “Thus this criticism, which seeks to uncover racial particularities elided in an existential fantasy of universalized American identity, remains constrained by a positivist national fantasy that particular identities can reliably be recognized,” (155) Schreier states. With that he analyzes what other critics have to say about the The Great Gatsby’s engagement with race and ethnicity. He begins with Walter Benn Michaels’, Our America, who rereads the novel as an anxious meditation on racial identity. Michaels suggests that, “Gatsby functions in the book as a figure of the threat of racial admixture” (Schreier 156). He then backs his statement up by providing the following information about Tom in the book, “As the the text’s most transparent register of xenophobic concern, Tom is most overtly sensitive to this threat: ‘For Tom…Gatsby isn’t quite white’” (Schrier 156). Michaels then provides strict evidence from the book when Tom begins to mock Gatsby’s lack of origins- “‘Mr. Nobody from Nowhere,’ (Gatsby 137)” (Scherier 156). Scherier goes on to explain that he does not necessarily agree with all of what Michaels said, “Racist characters alone do not make a racist book, and Michaels has done little to argue that Fitzgerald’s book itself- rather than Tom and, to a lesser extent, Nick and Daisy, and to a more “vulgar” extent, Myrtle Wilson and Lucille McKee” (Scherier 157). Tom Buchanan’s racism is evident from the beginning of the novel, “It’s up to us white people, who are the dominant race, to watch out or these other races will control things” (Gatsby 13). Although it is clear that “race” operates for Tom as an undeniable category, that does not mean that it naturally does for the whole text.
Benjamin Schreier then goes on to analyze a book by, Bryan Washington who also claims that “The Great Gatsby is ‘preoccupied with and intolerant of the racial and social hybridization of America’ (42)” (Schreier 157). Schreier implies that the critics he analyzes are only reducing the novel’s perspective to the group of characters in the book instead of using the novel as a whole to determine the overlying theme about racial and ethnic differences.
This leads to what Jeffery Louis Decker discusses about the masked theme of nativism in The Great Gatsby. Decker analyzes that Tom Buchanan criticizes Gatsby due to his association with Meyer Wolfsheim, who is an immigrant involved in organized crime, unquestionably lowering him to be “less-than white” (Decker 66). “I suppose the latest thing is to sit back and let Mr. Nobody from Nowhere make love to your wife… 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” (Gatsby 137). This somewhat portrays Toms feelings towards Gatsby, but his views toward him are apparent when he counters Gatsby by saying, “You’re one of that bunch that hangs around with Meyer Wolfsheim” and, “I picked him for a bootlegger the first time I saw him, and I wasn’t far wrong” (Fitzgerald 133). Tom’s words apparently suggest his xenophobia against Wolfsheim and how he uses it to tarnish the delicate connection between Daisy and Gatsby.
Decker also makes a point about how Gatsby portrays himself to be a self-made man. “The encounter with Wolfsheim immediately leads to another illustration of Gatsby’s original ambition, one apparently modeled on the prescriptions of middle-class morality. This example takes a page out of Benjamin Franklin’s autobiography. However it mocks the conventions of the self-made man, this illustration ultimately functions to undermine evidence for Gatsby’s virtuous uplift… Unlike young Ben Franklin, who builds up the ‘perfect chapter’ by pondering questions of inner goodness before setting out for a day of hard work (72-73), sixteen-year-old Gatsby’s morning itinerary is conspicuously devoid of moral questions” (Decker 63). Near the end of the novel Nick is introduced to a daily itinerary that young James Gatz listed inside of a dime-novel. These tasks focused more “on the enhancement of self-image” (Decker 63). Although Decker makes a point that Fitzgerald might have been inspired by Benjamin Franklin’s autobiography, Franklin’s schedule consisted of daily tasks that were focused more towards bettering his morals rather than self-image. Another detail that Decker suggests is that Gatsby’s character may have been an derived from characters created by Horatio Alger, who wrote tales of men who came from nothing and slaved their way to great wealth. Despite the fact that Gatsby came from a poor family and worked himself into a rich man who thought he was deserving of Daisy, his reputation of becoming a victorious self-made man was damaged as Tom exposes that he was a bootlegger.
In the first article the audience was informed about racial and ethnic differences found throughout the characters in The Great Gatsby, although that might not have been an overlying within the novel. In the second article the author discusses the topic of nativism and how Gatsby portrays himself to be a self-made man. Overall the readers understand that some of the prominent themes throughout the novel are nativism, the belief of becoming a self-made man, and the racial and ethnic differences.
- Fitzgerald, F. Scott. The Great Gatsby. New York: Scribner, 2004. Print
- Schreier, Benjamin. “Desire’s Second Act: ‘Race’ and ‘The Great Gatsby’s’: Cynical Americanism.” Twentieth Century Literature, vol. 53, no. 2, 2007, pp. 153–181., www.jstor.org/stable/20479804.
- Decker, Jeffrey Louis. “Gatsby’s Pristine Dream: The Diminishment of the Self-Made Man in the Tribal Twenties.” NOVEL: A Forum on Fiction, vol. 28, no. 1, 1994, pp. 52–71. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/1345913.