Table of Contents
2. The American Dream
4. Gatsby’s success and wealth
5. Gatsby’s reputation in society
“’Who is this Gatsby anyhow?’ demanded Tom suddenly. ‘Some big bootlegger?’”1
At this moment in the novel nobody would have guessed that Tom was right. During the time of Prohibition many newly rich people earned their money from the bootlegging business, selling illegal alcohol out of their back doors. And Jay Gatsby is one of them. But is Gatsby’s economic success nevertheless a realization of the American Dream?
It is important to ask that question because often The Great Gatsby is mainly associated with the American Dream and its typical lifestyle. Parties, money, expensive cars and women dressed in the typical fashion of the “Golden Twenties”. But there is much more behind Jay Gatsby’s story.
How did he make his way up to the top? And how important is wealth, success and his social status really in his opinion? In the following those questions will be given a closer look at.
At first a definition and the history of the American Dream will be given. Then there will be some general information about the Prohibition. The next point is about Gatsby’s wealth and his success with a special focus on his illegal affairs. Afterwards Gatsby’s reputation in society, also concerning his wealth and illegal means will be analysed. At the end the results will be summarized and an answer to the question whether Gatsby’s economic success is a realization of the American Dream, will be given in the conclusion.
2. The American Dream
The idea of the American Dream existed long before the term was first mentioned. In his book The Epic of America published in 1931 the author James Truslow Adams is the first to call it “The American Dream”.2
It all began with the English settlers coming to America in search for a new home and a place to worship God. With the Declaration of Independence being released on July 4, 1776, their hopes of equality, freedom and the pursuit of happiness were made official.
But that isn’t everything behind the American Dream. The American Dream has many faces and it can’t be defined that easily.
In the 1920s when the story of The Great Gatsby is taking place, the American Dream is mainly understood as the possibility for poor people to become rich fast by working really hard. It is mostly the dream of materialistic things, the Dream of Upward Mobility.3
It was a lifestyle just like Gatsby’s that everybody dreamed of: throwing parties, living in expensive houses, driving the most expensive cars etc. It was the dream of success, materialism and wealth.
That hasn’t changed much today.
“In the twenty-first century, the American Dream remains a major element of our national identity.”4
The United States of America are supposed to be a country where anything is possible.5 Freedom, equality and the pursuit of happiness still form the main centre of the dream.
The most widely realized American Dream on the other hand is homeownership.6
The materialistic part of the American Dream has gained importance, everybody wants to live the dream of a wealthy lifestyle.
However, there is this other side of the American Dream which has nothing to do with materialism but with humanity. Every human being deserves equal rights which was and is especially the dream of the black community.
But it is sadly still the most unsuccessful dream. Even today with Barack Obama, a black president leading the United States, it is not realized completely for everybody.
In January 1919 there was a new law introduced to the United States; the Eighteenth Amendment. For some time, there have been attempts and movements to forbid alcohol which has finally been achieved with the Eighteenth Amendment. It made it illegal to sell alcoholic drinks in the United States. With the passage of the Volstead Act in the same year the deal was complete. It was illegal to sell, manufacture and transport alcohol. But people tried almost everything to get alcohol. There was the possibility of home brewing, smuggle across borders or medical prescriptions for alcohol.7
A whole new movement against Prohibition was formed.
“Prohibition, created by the Eighteenth Amendment, was violated widely, the results being the bootleggers, speakeasies, and underworld activities now commonly associated with the 1920s.”8
Prohibition enabled many poor people to get rich trough the bootlegging business. Those bootleggers built their own breweries, brought shiploads of liquor by sea or truckloads from Canada and then sold it out of their backdoors. People did not want to give up on alcohol. Another way to get it were the speakeasies which were illegal shops where you were able to buy liquor. In New York City alone hundreds of speakeasies opened during the 1920s.9
But along with the illegal alcohol came many problems. First of all, the alcohol that was sold in the speakeasies or by bootleggers was cheaply produced and could even be dangerous for your health. Nevertheless, the price you had to pay for it was very expensive. What was also problematic was that the criminals and gangsters became wealthy through the bootlegging business and nobody was able or wanted to stop them. The police and the government became more and more corrupt.10
Amongst others Wolfshiem, Gatsby’s connection to the business, was one of the big gangsters in the Prohibition era. His real life model, Arnold Rothstein was a well-known gambler in the 1920s, known for fixing the World’s Series in 1919.11
Even though there was this movement against it, Prohibition went on for some years. Only with the proposition of the Twenty-first Amendment in 1933 which removed the Eighteenth, the Prohibition came to an end.
4. Gatsby’s success and wealth
At first sight Jay Gatsby looks like the perfect ideal of the American Dream. The rags-to-riches motif behind his character is a typical example for someone who achieved his dream. But did he climb the conventional way up to the top?
“There was music from my neighbour’s house through the summer nights. In his blue gardens men and girls came and went like moths among the whisperings and the champagne and the stars.”12
Gatsby appears to be one of the richest and most known people living in New York City. His parties in West Egg are beyond famous. And he cares a lot about his reputation and his wealth or at least, so it seems.
But on the other hand Gatsby lives in a completely delusional world. What he tells people or lets them believe about himself is mostly not true. And it seems like the rumours going about him at his parties do not bother him much.
“’Somebody told me they thought he killed a man once.’ A thrill passed over all of us. The three Mr. Mumbles bent forward and listened eagerly. ‘I don’t think it’s so much that,’ argued Lucille sceptically; ‘it’s more that he was a German spy during the war.’ One of the men nodded in confirmation. ‘I heard that from a man who knew all about him, grew up with him in Germany,’ he assured us positively. ‘Oh no,’ said the first girl, ‘it couldn’t be that, because he was in the American army during the war.’”13
In fact, he even tells some people himself that he is an Oxford man.14 Nick is the only one Gatsby confides in about his true past. But also not from the beginning.
It is difficult for Gatsby to be honest about his past because he doesn’t want Nick or anybody else to think that he is just some nobody.15 The identity of Jay Gatsby which he built up himself is so important to him that he even lies to the closest people in his life.
The truth is that Jay Gatsby wasn’t always the fabulous, rich man he is now. He was born as James Gatz and grew up in a poor environment in Minnesota, his parents being unsuccessful farm people.16 He left home very young.
“For over a year he had been beating his way along the south shore of Lake Superior as a clam digger and a salmon fisher or in any other capacity that brought him food and bed. His brown, hardening body lived naturally through the half fierce, half lazy work of the bracing days.”17
But it appears that Gatsby is lucky as that is the point in his life where he meets Dan Cody, a fifty-year-old millionaire who becomes Gatsby’s role model. For five years he sails the world with him, working for him in different positions until Cody passes away.
Gatsby started a whole new life, he invented himself new. That is basically the idea behind the American Dream.
He always worked hard for his success. It took him three years to earn the money for his house in West Egg.18
Even when Gatsby was very young, back in 1906, still living with his parents, he tried to do everything to become successful. After Gatsby’s death his father shows Nick a list Gatsby wrote back then listing his plans for a day including amongst other things
1 F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby, Stuttgart: Reclam, 1995: 146
2 Jim Cullen, The American Dream: A Short History of an Idea That Shaped a Nation , New York: Oxford University Press, 2003: 4
3 Cullen 2003: 60
4 Cullen 2003: 60
5 Cullen 2003: 5
6 Cullen 2003
7 Dalton Gross/ MaryJean Gross, Understanding The Great Gatsby: A Student Casebook to Issues, Sources and Historical Documents, Westport, CT: Greenwood, 1998: 36
8 Mary Dillard, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, Piscataway, NJ: Research & Education Association, 1994: 4
9 Gross 1998: 36
10 Gross 1998: 36
11 Richard Lehan , The Great Gatsby: The Limits of Wonder, Boston: Twayne, 1990
12 Fitzgerald 1995: 56
13 Fitzgerald 1995: 63
14 Fitzgerald 1995: 60
15 Fitzgerald 1995: 94
16 Fitzgerald 1995: 133
17 Fitzgerald 1995: 133
18 Fitzgerald 1995: 123