The Ambiguity of the American Dream. Two Differing Views in Literature about New York City

Term Paper 2016 14 Pages

American Studies - Literature


Table of Contents

1. Introduction

2. Main Part
2.1 The American Dream and New York in The Great Gatsby
2.2 The American Dream and New York in “The New Colossus”
2.3 The Ambiguity of the American Dream and New York

3. Conclusion

4. List of Works Cited

1. Introduction

The American Dream is one of the most essential myths in American history. To this day its meaning and value are a vital part of American culture, but since it is such a powerful and influential concept, it is also the object of manifold interpretations, which at times turn out to be opposing.

In my paper, I will compare the different ideas on the American Dream in F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby and Emma Lazarus's poem “The New Colossus”. While Fitzgerald presents a rather negative view of the American Dream, leaving us with the notion that although we know that we must eventually fail in trying to achieve our goals, we still keep on trying. Lazarus on the other hand presents the reader with the positive side of the American Dream and New York when she says that everyone is welcome, no matter what their background is, everyone has a chance to achieve a better life in the city. This shows that in a way New York was a symbol for the American Dream, because for many the city stood for a better life and the possibility to achieve your dreams during the time when these two works were written. Lazarus includes everyone in her poem, whereas Fitzgerald leaves out real success stories and different races are portrayed negatively.

Therefore, it can be said that although both might present parts of the ‘reality’ of the American Dream and its impact on society, they still offer very narrow and incomplete images of it, since both of them stay focused on specific (also subjective) views of this myth and the city of New York. In order to show this, I will first analyze The Great Gatsby and the idea of the American Dream Fitzgerald presents in it. Then I will describe Emma Lazarus’s role in the shaping of the American Dream and how her words also partially oppose reality. I will then continue to analyze the ambiguity of the American Dream and New York as a city of dreams, fascination and new beginnings, but also of failure and lost hopes as it is presented in The Great Gatsby and in Lazarus’s poem .

2. Main Part

2.1 The American Dream and New York in The Great Gatsby

To understand the depiction of the American Dream we first have to define the common understanding of what the term means and its impact on people. Oxford English Dictionary gives a short definition: “The ideal that every citizen of the United States should have an equal opportunity to achieve success and prosperity through hard work, determination, and initiative”.

In the novel, this ideal of the American Dream is represented by Gatsby himself, who decides at an early age to make an effort to ‘climb the social ladder’. He wants a better life than the one his parents can provide for him, so he invents his own identity.

For a while these reveries provided an outlet for his imagination; they were a satisfactory hint of the unreality of reality, a promise that the rock of the world was founded securely on a fairy’s wing. (75)

Fitzgerald’s way of describing the young James Gatz’s hopeful dreaming already shows the fascination, but also obsession the American Dream evokes in him and so many others. James Gatz leaves his old life behind and devotes his whole life to living the American Dream:

He aspired towards something whose definition eluded him at first, but he caught at what symbols America offered him. Jimmy Gatz could begin to be a new man by taking on a new name for his true identity. (Holmes Pearson 27)

Throughout the novel we get the impression that although Gatsby has actually achieved his goal of getting a better life and living the American Dream, he is never satisfied with what he has. As soon as he meets Daisy he gets the taste of something even bigger, namely the status she incorporates, the status of a person from the upper-class who never had to work for her wealth, who just had it since she was born (Fitzgerald 115). For Gatsby, Daisy becomes a commodity whose sign-exchange value he needs to obtain, as Tyson explains: “She is the symbol of the identity he wants to acquire and of the imaginary past he wants to substitute for his actual past; […]” (47).

The American Dream is also connected to New York in the novel. The East Coast seems to have an almost magical influence on the characters. Gatsby and Nick come to New York in order to start their new lives and in Gatsby’s case also to finally become rich. At the beginning, New York is a place far away from home, a place where they can start again. It is described as having an “adventurous feel” to it, as a restless place, constantly filled with all kinds of people, as an enchanted, but nevertheless also dark and lonely place (42). The attraction of this mysterious city becomes very clear when Nick thinks: “’Anything can happen now that we’ve slid over this bridge,’…’anything at all…’ Even Gatsby could happen without any particular wonder (51)”.

New York is depicted as incorporating the “promise of all the mystery and the beauty in the world” (51). And it is clear that many people have gone there with their wishes of “non-olfactory money” (51), inviting us to forget how Gatsby has actually succeeded in amassing his wealth. There is not only one, good side to the city and the American Dream, there is not only the promise of a better life and of success, because it is nothing the city grants you, it is something you have to achieve on your own. Through the ambiguity of the city as a place of corruption and fascination, possibilities and failures, the connection to the American Dream and the decay of morality becomes even clearer.

Nevertheless, Fitzgerald gives a narrow picture of the American Dream. At the end we are left with a more negative impression of the feasibility of the American Dream, because real success stories are left out entirely. Instead, we get Gatsby’s dream of a better life that has in the end turned into a nightmare, because he could not get enough. We are presented with the notion that although the American Dream makes us believe that everyone can make it and everyone has a chance, it eventually turns out to be a lie, because no matter how hard you try to fit in, there is always another boundary that keeps you from really succeeding, and you are always kept from becoming ‘equal’. But we still keep on trying, we still get obsessed with a vision of ourselves that we want to become reality, although we actually know that it is impossible. Gatsby exemplifies this, as he believes in something that lured him in first, but did not give him what he wanted to achieve, it rather left him with an insatiable desire as the last lines of the novel suggest (140). Schreier also underlines this negative view on the American myth, namely the ambivalence between the desire to achieve the American Dream and the knowledge of the impossibility of what one desires in The Great Gatsby:

The novel closes with the frustrating coincidence of Gatsby’s earnest desire and Nick’s skeptical knowledge; its concluding image of identification is actually one of dispossession, as Nick is left haunted by what Gatsby couldn’t achieve even as he tries to hide this irreparable failure behind an idealized national image. (143)

Fitzgerald also hardly mentions different races, he focuses on white males who came from the Mid-West. If different ethnic groups or races are described, then they are not presented in a positive manner, as for example the Jew Meyer Wolfsheim or the scene on the Queensboro Bridge show (51). About the negative description of Wolfsheim, Nowlin explains that he, “functions as a trope around which the novel’s motifs of disillusionment, corruption, lost belief, infidelity, overmastering ambition, and unbridled materialism organize themselves (54)”.



ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
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511 KB
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Institution / College
Johannes Gutenberg University Mainz
F. Scott Fitzgerald The Great Gatsby Emma Lazarus The New Colossus



Title: The Ambiguity of the American Dream. Two Differing Views in Literature about New York City