In The Great Gatsby, Fitzgerald illustrates how the desire for wealth and materialism compels the corruption and decay of the American Dream. Each individual has a different interpretation of what the American Dream entails; however, it is usually based on ideas of self-sufficiency, freedom, and a desire for something greater. The old dreams of earning money and starting a family gradually turned into a materialistic vision of having a big house, a nice car, and a relaxing life. Many people believe that expensive material items are an indicator of high success.
Jay Gatsby, a character in the novel, is a self-made man who earns his money by illegal means. He surrounds himself with luxurious possessions in an attempt to buy the affection of Daisy Buchanan. According to Michael Sandel, you can’t buy friends. He says that “Somehow, the money that buys the friendship dissolves it, or turns it into something else” (Sandel 94). The “something else” however, is what Gatsby ends up creating.
He creates a corrupt relationship with Daisy that is based on her greed and affinity for materialistic goods.
The dreams held by the characters of The Great Gatsby are easily corrupted by their quests to obtain money, high social status, and expensive materialistic goods. The American Dream is a one concept of the good life. Sandel believes that in the good life, people from every different social class interact and cross paths, coming together for a “common good” (203). This is not necessarily the case in Fitzgerald’s novel. The portrayal of East Egg, West Egg, and the valley of ashes emphasize the difference between classes. East Eggers are at the top of the social ladder, while the inhabitants of West Egg cannot seem to reach them.
The working-class lives in the depressing area dubbed the “valley of ashes”. Nobody works together, and nobody is interested in a larger, communal goal. Everyone has their own individual dreams and they are very selfish about obtaining them. Everybody has their own idea of a good life; their own American dream. Gatsby’s dream is inspired by Daisy, whom he met while he was in the military. She is everything that Gatsby strives for; her voice is full of money, as Gatsby describes it (120). Gatsby was so enthralled by her, that he based his life on winning Daisy over.
At first glance, Gatsby doesn’t seem like an immoral man, but when you see through his illusion, he is. He has very corrupt and immoral ways of obtaining his wealth. He takes advantage of the prohibition and sells alcohol on the black market, in what Sandel would call a market transaction (45). Yet Sandel might say that Gatsby is essentially coerced into bootlegging; that in his extreme desperation for Daisy, he’s willing to do anything to obtain the wealth that he desires in order to impress her, even if it means breaking the law. Although Daisy at first seems very sweet and kind, she is undoubtedly very cold-hearted and selfish.
This is the corruption that can be caused by vast amounts of wealth. She is a manipulator that measures every action against the effect it will have on her pocketbook and reputation. Daisy is careless, and her careless actions eventually result in Gatsby’s death, of which she shows no concern. She lets him take the blame for her unintentional murder of Myrtle Wilson. She has an affair, but never planned on leaving her husband. She never could have been with Gatsby because of his lower social status. After she learns of Gatsby’s shady background, she quickly runs back into the arms of her equally self-absorbed, corrupt husband.
Daisy and Tom’s marriage further shows their corruption of the American dream. Although they belong to a high social group and have extreme wealth, they are unhappy. Tom is first described as “one of those men who reach such an acute limited excellence at twenty-one that everything afterwards savors of anticlimax” (Fitzgerald 6). Tom and Daisy are both in unsatisfied with life and are searching for something better. They have traveled to France and drifted “here and there unrestfully wherever people were rich and played polo together” (Fitzgerald 6). They are unhappy and bored with life.
Tom seems to be searching excitement, and he finds this by cheating on his wife with Myrtle. The Buchanans’ marriage is full of lies and infidelities, yet they are united through their corruption. After Tom has discovered Daisy’s affair and Myrtle has been killed, their selfishness is shown when they are reunited over fried chicken and two bottles of ale (Fitzgerald 145). After Myrtle and Gatsby are both killed, neither one of them seem remorseful. In fact, they go on a short vacation, which shows of the lack of compassion they have toward others. Nick perceives Tom and Daisy as they really are, heartless and careless. They smashed up things and creatures and then retreated back into their money or their vast carelessness or whatever it was that kept them together, and let other people clean up the mess they had made” (Fitzgerald 179). Tom and Daisy’s actions are an indication of the immoral and corrupting effects that wealth can have on someone. They focus too much on appearance and things of monetary value, while ignoring people’s feelings and lives. Sandel states that “Over the past three decades, markets – and market values – have come to govern our lives as never before” (5).
It seems that in Fitzgerald’s novel, market values governed their lives just as much back in the 1920’s, if not more, that they do in the lives of American’s today. Gatsby, Daisy, and Tom are all corrupted by the desire for wealth and power, and all morals are tossed aside in the quest for the American Dream. The careless, shallow people who live on the Eggs represent the corruption caused by materialism. Gatsby is surrounded by proof of the unhappiness that “success” can bring, as seen especially through Tom and Daisy.
Their marriage is full of lies and deceit, and they are both searching for something greater than what they already have in their own American Dreams. Gatsby is so blinded by his dream that he does not see that money cannot buy love or happiness. Money only leads to corruption. The Great Gatsby is powerful commentary about a materialistic society and the effects it can have on one’s idea of the American Dream.
Fitzgerald, F. Scott. The Great Gatsby. New York: Scribner, 2004. Print. Sandel, Michael J. What Money Can’t Buy: the Moral Limits of Markets. New York: Farrar, 2012. Print.
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