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The Corruption of the American Dream

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The Corruption of the American Dream


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            The beginning of the American dream is traceable to the end of the Second World War which marked the rise of the United States as the most powerful nation in the world. From then on, the American power has been equated with cultural power. The beginning of the rise to fame and power of the United States was also followed with a rise in the country’s cultural affluence and influence world over (Kochan, 2007).

Within this context, any talk about the American culture would also entail the topic and concept of the American dream, which is considered as a major element in the national identity of the Americans. The decline of the American dream is due to the its corruption for the reason that people have equated it to the pursuit of wealth and materialism instead of happiness and self-fulfillment.

History and Definition of the American Dream

            At the onset, the American Dream is defined as the myth of the New World.

This is because America has long been known as the new world of new beginnings and new chances because of its history as the country where many emigrants and expatriates from Europe settled. The settlement is said to be driven by the proliferation of tyranny, corruption, and social divisions in the Old World (Kochan, 2007). The term originated from the book The Epic of America by historian James Truslow Adams (1931) where he refers the concept as equated to a better, richer, and happier life. He also emphasized that the American dream is a dreamland where “life should be better and richer and fuller for every man, with opportunity for each according to his ability or achievement” (p. 401 cited in Kochan, 2007, p. 2).

            In Safire’s Political Dictionary, the concept of the American dream is mentioned in 1893 by Katherine Lee Gates when she wrote in America is Beautiful that it is “the patriot dream that sees beyond the stars” (cited in Safire, 2008, p. 17). Additionally, it is also noted that as early as 1860, it was already mentioned by Archibald Macleish where he said the American dream is the “liberation of humanity” and the “the freedom of man and mind” (cited in Safire, 2008, p. 17). To others like that of historian Matthew Josephson who stresses the connection of the American dream to opportunities, the best embodiment of the American dream would be the rags-to-riches stories. The definitions and interpretations are vast. However, it is agreed upon by many that the American dream is a combination of freedom and opportunity (Safire, 2008). Even the American Constitution also has its own interpretation of the concept. It is the guarantee of “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” (cited in Kochan, 2007, p. 1). The Constitution protects these rights and privileges as the heart of the American dream (Kochan, 2007).

The Corruption of the American Dream

            However, the American dream has come to mean something else in the mainstream level which is dangerous because it has become the common and popular meaning. The popular meaning has become “to go to the West and become a millionaire.” It has now been conceived to mean not the success and happiness that was originally anticipated by its early proponents. It has now become the opposite of what it should be. Its primary concern now is how to become rich really quick (Kochan, 2007). When the American dream is supposed to result into self-fulfillment that one could ever achieve when one would make most of her or his natural abilities, it is now the opposite. It partly aims money and comfort in life, but for the most part, it was achievement and dignity. However, this has not been true for many. The American dream, especially after the Depression years in the United States, has become nothing but the pursuit of wealth and all the glamour that it can provide (Gross, 1998).

The Decline of the American Dream in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “The Great Gatsby”

            American Literature is said to be, for the most part, all about the American dream. F. Scoot Fitzgerald, as a matter of fact, is most famous for his portrayal of the decline of the American dream. His novels are always based on the concept of class differences and class struggle. In addition, he is considered as the first writer who has discovered and made known to the Americans the existence of class. In particular, The Great Gatsby is considered to represent the best in the author. It is even said that he has struggled by its title alone, and he has revised it over and over again for several times (Boon, 2005).

            The novel is a story of a poor boy who, in a pursuit of a dream, has transformed himself as an image of success. According to Peltzer, while The Great Gatsby is a story of an individual in the name of Jay Gatsby who has worked his way to wealth in order to woe and marry the woman that he loved, it is in itself a story of America. The aspiration of Gatsby is considered the American dream. Whenever he succeeds, he brings along the success to the whole of the United States. The same is true for his failures. More than a story of a poor boy that falls in love with a rich girl, it is also a commentary on inequality, class, and wealth (Pelzer, 2000).

            It is set while the United States was enjoying the glittering wealth of the Jazz Age. Jay Gatsby was formerly known to many as James Gatz. When he was in the military, he had the privilege of meeting elites like that of Daisy Fay. He madly fell in love with her. In addition to his aspirations of becoming wealthy for the sake of his own success, he has already dreamt of becoming rich in order to fully belong and enjoy the world that Daisy dwells. His whole life has been devoted wholly to possess his dream which is Daisy. Eventually, they became engaged, but after a while, Daisy had to break their relationship to marry a certain Tom Buchanan. After this tragic experience, Gatsby devoted himself to amass a fortune by becoming a bootlegger and a stock-sharper. When he was rich enough, he transferred to West Egg across the bay where the couple lives. Night after night, he devoted himself in throwing fancy parties hoping that he would lure Daisy to come back to him. However, he failed. His next move was to seek the aid of Daisy’s cousin Nick Carraway to organize a reunion where he could have a chance to meet and possess her again. This attempt turns out to be successful; Jay and Daisy have an affair for a moment of time. However, this was not enough for Gatsby; he wanted to reclaim their past, and he wanted Daisy to forget about Tom. In other words, he wanted daisy only for himself. However, this did not happen because Daisy fails him for the second time. Because of these, namely the maintenance of an elicit relationship with a woman who is married to another man and the pursuit for excess wealth and glamour by throwing all the unnecessary parties, Gatsby set the motion to his death and his decline. He has fallen as a victim to a dream that is unattainable in a reality where materialism and moral corruption play a great role (Pelzer, 2000).

            Gatsby’s dreams, as already mentioned earlier, embody the American dream of the rest of the United States. It is the desire to pursue one’s wildest dreams and to challenge the unknown adversary that impedes the fulfillment of that dream. Like Gatsby, the American dream is a romantic notion that requires a leap of faith and a future that is attainable if we only ran faster than we can. It is a promise of wealth that is highly seductive in a nation saturated with excess consumption and materialism (Knights & McCabe, 2003).

            This version of the American dream has become the very reason of the Americans’ decline. In this kind of pursuit, self-fulfillment, achievements, and dignity have now been measured in terms of money, riches, and comfort that every person can afford. In this sense, The Great Gatsby is an example of a story where American dream has lost its real meaning because the pursuit of happiness is wholly equated to the pursuit of wealth and the possession of wealth. In particular, the pursuit of wealth, though thought to be the only way towards the realization of the American dream, is found out to be doomed. For instance, the Buchanans, who had their wealth ever since they were born, were characterized as empty, bored, and unhappy people. Gatsby, on the other hand, who has worked his way to achieve wealth, acceptance, and love, ended up in his own tragedy—which is his death. In other words, the distorted idea of the American dream, which is to adore the material things as the most important things in life, leads them to a downward path (Gross, 1998).

The Decline of the American Dream in the Contemporary Society

            While The Great Gatsby is the classic epitome of the decline of the American dream, the contemporary version of it is embodied by the flock of immigrants in the United States for the last century. From 1880’s to the 1920’s, there have been millions of Italians and Jews that migrated in the United States seeking for a better life. Believing that they could also claim and pursue the American dream for themselves, these poor, semi-skilled, and non-English speaking foreigners settled in the urban areas of the United States. However, this has been not easy for them. Many of them have suffered cruelty and indifference. Their children were forced to work in their teens. There have been a number of cultural conflicts, clashes, and family strife. Although experiences may not be true to everybody that comes to the United States, there can never be any denial on the existence of these conflicts and suffering for a particular period of time. As a matter of fact, these have been chronicled in many works of literature such as Bread Givers by Amzia Yezierska, Jews Without Money by Michael Gold, and The Fortunate Pilgrim by Mario Puzo (Avery, 1981).


            As observed, the reason behind the tragedy of every pursuit of the American dream is the betrayal of the American dream itself. Where the American dream is supposed to be the pursuit of happiness, self-fulfillment, and dignity, it has become the pursuit of material happiness which is wealth and glamour. If it is otherwise such as that of Gatsby’s, then life has become “a barren wasteland in which nothing of value can thrive” (Peltzer, 2000). Because of this, the true essence of the American dream can never be realized.


Avery, E. (1981). In Limbo: Immigrant Children and the American Dream. Melus, 8 (4), 25-31.

Boon, K. (2005). F. Scoot Fitzgerald. New York: Marshall Cavendish.

Gross, M.J. (1998). Understanding “The Great Gatsby”: A Student Casebook to Issues, Sources,

            And Historical Documents. Michigan: Greenwood.

Knights, D. & McCabe, D. (2003). Organization and Innovation: Guru Schemes and American             Dreams. Berkshire: Open University Press.

Kochan, S. (2007). The Great Gatsby and the American Dream. Munich: GRIN Verlag.

Pelzer, L. C. (2000). Student Companion to F. Scott Fitzgerald. Michigan: Greenwood.

Safire, W. (2008). Safire’s Political Dictionary. Oxford: Oxford University Press.


Cite this The Corruption of the American Dream

The Corruption of the American Dream. (2016, Aug 16). Retrieved from https://graduateway.com/the-corruption-of-the-american-dream/

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