In The Great Gatsby, Fitzgerald argues that the American Dream of social mobility is merely an illusion by describing the yearnings and outcomes of George Wilson, Myrtle Wilson, and Jay Gatsby.
First of all, Fitzgerald presents the character George Wilson as a victim of the rigid social hierarchy in America. George is an honest, hardworking man, trying to make ends meet with his car repairing business. When Tom asks, “How’s business?” he responds with, “I can’t complain” (29). Even though business may be going slow, George doesn’t become discouraged. He remains optimistic because he believes in the American Dream. Upon meeting George, Nick notices “a damp gleam of hope sprang into his light blue eyes” (29). The American Dream seemingly rewards hard work with success and prosperity.
The Puritans instilled this mindset into American culture. Therefore, George does not give up on his business. Despite his persistence and honest work, he and his wife remain trapped in their social class, unable to move up. Later on, George says to Tom, “My wife and I want to go west…She’s been talking about it for ten years” (130). George has been stuck in the same situation for ten years. His love for his wife, however, is admirable. He clearly loves his wife and wants her to be happy. But his failure to do so further strengthens Fitzgerald’s argument of the fallibility of the American Dream. If the American Dream were true, if everybody truly has the opportunity to move up the social ladder, then George Wilson should have been rewarded for his efforts, rather than losing the love of his life. Myrtle, on the other hand, is not as noble as her husband.
Since Myrtle realizes she will never reach the upper class with George, she spends time with Tom Buchanan to experience the wealthy life. The money clearly changes Myrtle’s personality, for her “intense vitality… was converted into impressive hauteur” (35). She acts as if she were truly part of the upper class. For instance, she flaunts around in her new dress and claims, “It’s just a crazy old thing,” when complemented to make the dress seem like it’s nothing out of the ordinary (35). But at the end of the day, Myrtle returns to George and realizes she is still stuck in the lower class, no matter how hard she wishes otherwise,
Fitzgerald also uses Gatsby to show how the honest man is no longer the one who succeeds in society, Gatsby did not inherit his wealth; he came from a humble background. At first, Gatsby appears to be a self-made man, a product of the American Dream. Unfortunately, the reader eventually learns that Gatsby had acquired his wealth through bootlegging and possibly other illegal activities with Wolfshiem (141). Like George Wilson, Gatsby could not reach his American Dream through honest work. When he was younger, Gatsby served as a soldier in the World War, probably the most American and patriotic duty a man can do (80). This, however, couldn’t provide Gatsby with the wealth or the girl.
While Gatsby was overseas, Daisy married the wealthy Tom Buchanan. Daisy’s shallow desire for wealth ultimately influenced Gatsby’s future, for he believed he could not win Daisy’s love if he were poor. As evident with Gatsby’s outcome, wealth gives off the appearance of success, but does not necessarily lead to happiness. Even with Gatsby’s mansion, cars, clothes, and grand parties, Daisy ultimately chooses Tom in the end. After deceptively climbing the social ladder, Gatsby dies without achieving happiness. The pitfalls of these characters demonstrate the lack of social mobility in America.