Corruption of the American Dream

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Updated: Mar 28, 2022
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The Great Gatsby is a story of a man’s quest for an unachievable goal based off the social and economic repercussions around the 1920’s. Although Gatsby’s journey to win over Daisy came to a screeching halt with his death, his life story of wealth along with the other characters represented the corruption of the original American Dream derived from Benjamin Franklin’s Autobiography. Fitzgerald used West Egg (new money) and East Egg (old money) to show the growing divide between “old money” and “new money”, and used Gatsby himself to show that “riches” from the American Dream idea in which anyone can go from rags to “riches” was not necessarily the only thing necessary for a happy and successful life.

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Benjamin Franklin first introduced the American Dream in his Autobiography. He told the story of going from nothing to something, the story of rags to riches. The difference between him and Gatsby was how they got to their riches. The original idea from Franklin was that in order to amass such riches, one must perfect all the different virtues and parts of their lives so they can be a “perfect” human. Gatsby however represented the exact opposite; he represented a time in which crime accumulated wealth and a time in which all riches weren’t the same. Gatsby and Nick both fought in World War I which ended in 1918. The end of WWI marked a time of major economic growth in America especially because of the skyrocketing trend of the stock market. This lead to a lot of people (typically those who just came back from the war) being given the opportunity to fairly easily make a lot of money. This idea of “easy money” greatly differed from Franklin’s idea that hard work equals success. With the new booming stock market, and exponential rise of national wealth, more people than ever were able to make a fortune no matter their economic or social background. Although the idea of many striking it rich seems appealing, it did not equal acceptance among those with “old money”. People such as Tom who came from wealth, had a top tier education, and got all his money from family and previous ancestors rejected those such as Gatsby’s who worked for their riches. Then in 1919, when the 18th amendment was passed which prohibited all “intoxicating liquors”, a new underground black market was developed to satisfy those craving alcohol. People such as Wolfsheim and even supposedly Gatsby made great amounts of money from selling bootlegged alcohol at the price of social rejection for illegal paths to riches. However Fitzgerald used this as a way to represent the 1920s as a time of dirty crime, dirty money, and raging alcohol-fueled parties.

The idea itself of the American Dream is simple: anyone can come to America, become rich, and live a happy, successful life. Franklin’s view on this involved perfecting yourself in a step by step process based off pursuing happiness while the American Dream in The Great Gatsby is a more corrupted and decayed version of this. In the 1920s, wealth did not equal satisfaction and the evidence for this is Gatsby himself. He worked with Wolfsheim in organized crime, supposedly sold bootlegged alcohol and made a very large sum of a money doing so. Despite his wealth, and his lavish lifestyle, he never accomplished his American Dream. He lived in America, became very rich, yet was never truly happy nor considered himself fully successful because he never won over Daisy. This was a direct consequence of the corruption of the American Dream. Because so many people became rich through illegal means or even legal yet easy means, the divide between old money and new money became more and more evident, and carried larger consequences. The consequence for Gatsby turned out to be not having Daisy and his own death. His lifelong dream for Daisy that he constantly tried to make a reality never came true because of his crime and his new money. Daisy was a very dependant girl, relying on her significant other to provide for her and since Gatsby gained his wealth illegally, she didn’t feel comfortable settling down with no 100% guarantee that money will stay there forever. His economic instability and informal lifestyle derived from dirty money was something that she couldn’t spend the rest of her life with. She resorted to Tom because of his economic stability and more traditional lifestyle. She found she was able to manipulate Tom enough so that she could live the rest of her life with both financial and social security. She chose elegant tea parties over Gatsby’s raging parties and in the end she was happy. Her choice of Tom and old money showed Gatsby how corrupted the American Dream became. It showed that having a happy and successful life was more complicated than making money in any way possible.

The people who worked for their money in pursuit of happiness and the American Dream never did fully accomplish their dreams because of the few with old money. They rejected people like Gatsby who made money “easily” or illegally when ironically making money “easily” is more admirable than doing nothing at all and inheriting it. However that itself shows how corrupted the American Dream became and how it became an unachievable downhill spiral for anyone who attempted it. Gatsby spent his life attempting to accomplish it yet he ended up being murdered for in way, pursuing it. Fitzgerald perfectly showed how the divide between old money versus new money, as well traditional versus relaxed lifestyles created such an obstacle for anyone trying to make nothing into something based off Franklin’s original American Dream.

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Corruption of the American Dream. (2019, Mar 13). Retrieved from