The novel The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald depicts the decay of the American dream. The novel, set in 1922, follows the lives of the upper class—of the aristocracy, as embodied by Daisy and Tom, and the new rich, as embodied by Jay Gatsby. The novel demonstrates the decay of the American Dream from discovery and the pursuit of happiness to becoming about the pursuit of wealth and materialism, resulting in the moral corruption through the main characters—Jay Gatsby, Daisy Buchanan, and Tom Buchanan. Each of these characters are seeking a dream or a better life but are prevented by their own or each other’s moral failings. In this literary analysis, the author shall analyze the moral corruption of the characters in The Great Gatsby and demonstrate how they represent the decay of the American Dream.
Jay Gatsby is introduced as a man of extravagance and wealth. He is known for the lavish parties he throws and no one is quite sure of how he came about his wealth. Gatsby represents the new rich that emerged after World War I. Gatsby started out as a poor boy from Rural Dakota (Fitzgerald, 1925). He has always wanted to be wealthy. But when he met Daisy in Louiseville, his goals changed. Gatsby lied to Daisy about his background because she would not marry a poor man. Before Gatsby left Louiseville, Daisy promised to wait for him. But while Gatsby was studying in Oxford after serving the military, he learns that Daisy married Tom Buchanan (Fitzgerald, 1925). Since then, Gatsby dedicated his life to acquiring money to impress and win Daisy back.
Gatsby’s goal in life changed from simply becoming wealthy to love. However, he thought that he needed to become wealthy to earn Daisy’s love. Gatsby not only strives to make himself rich but also reinvents himself from James Gatz to Jay Gatsby (Fitzgerald, 1925). Then, he achieves his goal by participating in organized crime. He is part of the illegal distribution of alcohol and trading in stolen securities (Fitzgerald, 1925). For a short period, he does regain Daisy’s love. However, toward the end of the novel, when Tom Buchanan confronts Gatsby about his intentions for Daisy and his illegal dealings, Daisy somehow feels a connection for Tom. In the end, Daisy chooses Tom over Gatsby, thereby rendering Gatsby’s dream dead.
Gatsby’s dream seems noble enough at first as he is seeking love. However, in the process of attaining it, he sacrifices his morality. He partakes in illegal dealings in order to gain wealth quickly. His love for Daisy further blurs his morality as he had an extramarital affair with Daisy, and then was willing to take the blame for the death of Myrtle Wilson. One may argue that Gatsby was corrupted from the beginning or is destined for moral corruption since his main goal was to become rich. However, it is also true that a part of his moral failings was inspired by Daisy who engaged in an extramarital affair with him.
Daisy Buchanan, along with her husband Tom, represents the aristocracy. Daisy embodies the extravagance of the Jazz Age. She is depicted as materialistic and frivolous. From the beginning, she made it clear to Gatsby that she only wanted to marry someone rich. Despite promising to wait for Gatsby, she goes on to marry Tom Buchanan who is of an aristocratic family (Fitzgerald, 1925). Throughout the novel, she does not appear to care about much than wealth and material things. She even appears to be indifferent toward her daughter. Although she did appear to have genuine love for Gatsby, but she is unable to sustain this or stay loyal to Gatsby. Her fickle nature ultimately takes over when she suddenly feels that she loves Tom once again while Tom confronts Gatsby in New York.
Daisy Buchanan represents the moral indifference of the upper class during the time. For instance, the upper class continued to attend Gatsby’s luxurious parties despite the prohibition and despite the speculation that Gatsby’s businesses are illegal. Daisy’s ultimate moral failing occurs in chapter 7 when she runs over Myrtle Wilson but does not take responsibility (Fitzgerald, 1925). Daisy took but a second to recollect herself then proceeded to drive again (Fitzgerald, 1925). She allows Gatsby to take responsibility for the accident, and Gatsby later on pays the ultimate price for her carelessness.
Daisy Buchanan only cares about money and material wealth. She does not consider the consequences of her actions. As proof of her moral indifference, after the accident and Gatsby’s death, she and Tom does not attend Gatsby’s funeral and moves without leaving a forwarding address (Fitzgerald, 1925). It is evident in this move that Daisy, as is Tom, is indifferent enough to be able to leave a crime and start their life again elsewhere.
Tom Buchanan exhibits pride and greed throughout the novel. It is evident that his character is driven by these two forces. As Nick Carraway observes, Tom is constantly chasing the high that came with being a famous football star in his youth (Fitzgerald, 1925). He appears to be chasing the high again by playing up his wealth and power and engaging in an extramarital affair with Myrtle Wilson (Fitzgerald, 1925). He is proud of the fact that he has a mistress. He revels in the privilege afforded to him by his aristocratic background that he remains uncritical even of racism.
Tom believes that he is genuinely better than everyone else, and that is the root of his moral failings. He believes that his race—the white race—should remain dominant because they are superior (Fitzgerald, 1925). He also believes that the East Egg, where the old rich live, is better than the West Egg where the new rich live. As a result of his unchecked and undeserved privilege, he is also prone to aggression. Fitzgerald demonstrates this when Tom erupts in anger at Myrtle and breaks her nose.
Tom’s character represents the patriarchal, elitist class that dominated most of Western society. Tom is not concerned with morality because he has never had to face the consequences of his immoral actions. He remains married to Daisy despite having had an affair; he does not face backlash from hurting Myrtle; and later on, he does not feel any remorse or guilt for the death of Myrtle Wilson or Jay Gatsby. His stature lets him do things without consequences or even guilt.
Although Jay Gatsby also exhibits moral corruption in his own way, he, along with the other members of the lower class in the novel—Myrtle Wilson and George Wilson—fall victim to the moral failings of those in the upper class. Jay Gatsby did make immoral decisions in his life, but in the end, his wealth was not able to save him like Tom and Daisy Buchanan’s wealth saved them. The Great Gatsby depicts the decay of the American Dream as the upper class turned it into the frivolous pursuit of wealth and extravagance. The American dream is lost in the upper class just as jay Gatsby got lost in Daisy’s frivolous charms and extravagance.
Fitzgerald, F. Scott. (1925). The Great Gatsby. Charles Scribner’s Sons.