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What is the main point of The Great Gatsby?

What is the main point of The Great Gatsby?

Society / Education

Dreams. Everyone has their own dreams, and often they are the visions that make life worth living.

However, there are times when, no matter how hard we may try, no matter how much we believe, a dream is unattainable. Jay Gatsby and Myrtle Wilson, in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, exemplify the idea of living the life of a dreamer, pursuing with vitality their respective dreams in 1920s New York.

Photographic portrait of F. Scott Fitzgerald
F. Scott Fitzgerald‘s romance and life-long obsession with socialite Ginevra King informed the plot of the novel. King was fêted in the press as among Chicago’s most desirable debutantes and inspired the character of Daisy Buchanan.

Although the two do not let their past obscure their vision, pursuing relentlessly the life they desire, Fitzgerald argues that no matter how hard they may try, those who start from the bottom will always return to the dust. Examining the vitality that both Gatsby and Myrtle hold in the never-ending pursuit of their dreams in addition to the idea of poverty and its portrayal through dust in The Great Gatsby, we see that these two characters lack a central part of living in 20th century American society: an understanding of class. As Gatsby and Myrtle pursue their dreams grounded in Old Money, those being a life with Daisy and one with Tom, respectively, they fail to understand that no amount of power, and no amount of material gain, can transcend class. 

Gatsby is the ultimate dreamer.

Moreover, creating a new life for himself as he seeks to reclaim a long lost love; nevertheless, the novel reveals that the facade he carefully builds to bring himself power was worthless from the start. As the novel comes to a close, Nick reflects on Gatsby’s life, on his own, and on the lives of dreamers that came before them. He speaks directly to the vision that Gatsby holds so close, and internalizes it as something that forever took the shape of an illusion. Nick argues that Gatsby’s new life in West Egg was powerless in the pursuit of a life with Daisy; throughout the journey, Gatsby failed to realize that his dream was “already behind him,” obscured by the dust of his past.(162)

Nick’s reflection encapsulates the grave misunderstanding that both Gatsby and Myrtle Wilson undergo as they chase their respective dreams; material gain does not have the power to transcend class, deeming powerless their attempts erase history with wealth. In a moment where Gatsby still renders a life with Daisy plausible, he feels the need to keep watch over her, waiting outside of the Buchanan house until she is soundly asleep; he is keeping a vigil of his dream, his everything. Nick leaves Gatsby to his own devices, sending him further into his illusion; Gatsby, in reality, was “watching over nothing.”(130) His dream, the motive behind his creation of a new life for himself, became never grounded in reality. Gatsby fails to understand that no life, no wealth, and no power has the ability to transcend the boundaries of class. 

What is the main point of The Great Gatsby?

As we come to recognize Gatsby’s dream, we must not only examine the specific parts of his identity that he fails to acknowledge but also the lack of understanding that gives him the false hope he needs in continuing to pursue a life with Daisy.

In describing the presence of Gatsby’s past in the novel, images of dust are important in maintaining that poverty leaves an indelible mark, remaining with a person no matter how much they may change.

Moreover, as it pertains to Gatsby, the symbol furthers the idea that, because of his lower-class beginnings, his dream was behind him from the start.

Tom Buchanan argues, as he describes the ways in which Gatsby left his mark on Daisy and Nick, that Gatsby’s presence, and his pursuit of a life with Daisy,  “threw dust into [their] eyes.” (160) In this sense, Gatsby carries his past, or the dust, as a fundamental facet of his character; while he may be able to grow out of poverty financially, he can never erase this aspect of his life. The name, the mansion, the cars: all part of the wealth that will, in his opinion, carry him to a life with Daisy.

Photograph of the Plaza Hotel
The confrontation between Gatsby and Tom occurs in the twenty-story Plaza Hotel, a château-like edifice with an architectural style inspired by the French Renaissance.
Detroit Publishing Company, photographed and published between 1900 and 1910 – This image is available from the United States Library of Congress‘s Prints and Photographs division under the digital ID det.4a22209. This tag does not indicate the copyright status of the attached work. A normal copyright tag is still required. See Commons:Licensing for more information.
A dry plate negative of the Plaza Hotel in New York City circa 1910 by the Detroit Publishing Co. This photograph is in the public domain.

However, Tom’s description reveals that no amount of material gain can erase his “penniless” past, an innate aspect of his life. (133) Looking forward, Gatsby’s past is specified again as he is driving with Daisy toward New York City; in the moment he seems to be closing in on his dream, yet, as he flies by Wilson’s garage in Tom’s coupé, he passes in a “flurry of dust.” (110)

While one may argue that the dust simply represents an inherent aspect of the Valley of Ashes. However, the description can be taken further.

It reveals that, even in a moment where Gatsby is with the girl of his dreams. Furthermore, a moment where his hard work paid off, the dust of the past is all that can become seen. Gatsby’s roots are the blanket that covers his dream, the layer that money cannot remove. In the moment, Gatsby’s dream, his life with Daisy, covered by the dust in their wake; nothing Gatsby can do, and no amount of material gain, can transcend the boundaries of class. 

Myrtle Wilson, in a manner similar to Gatsby, fails to recognize that pure material gain cannot erase her roots in poverty as she pursues a life of high class with Tom Buchannan, a life that terminates where she began: the dust. Myrtle plays the role of a dreamer in The Great Gatsby; she sees Tom as an outlet from her life in the Valley of Ashes, yet fails to notice that temporary wealth, while providing for her a period of luxury, does not change the past.

Moreover, focusing on Myrtle’s dream, it becomes evident that she sees a path to class through the accumulation of material wealth.

Myrtle and Tom’s “crowded” apartment filled with furniture “entirely too large for it” reveals a fundamental misunderstanding with which Myrtle is depicted: she flaunts her temporary wealth, yet fails to realize that she undergoes no fundamental change through her affair with Tom.(25) She continues to chase her dream, but she will always return to the dust.

Looking forward, Myrtle’s vitality toward her vision of wealth is not confined to the early stages of her character development; rather, she maintains a dreamer’s attitude until the end.

Following a complicated series of events in which a switch of cars takes place, Gatsby drives through the Valley of Ashes with Daisy, returning from a trip to New York City in his yellow station wagon.

Myrtle, having seen whom she believes to be Daisy and Tom in the same yellow car as they left the garage, “[rushes] out into the dusk, waving her hands and shouting” in an act of despair; in her last moments Myrtle is still chasing down a life with Tom, failing to understand that her actions and vitality alone cannot secure her a position in the upper class.(122) As she is fatally struck by the station wagon, Fitzgerald sets in stone the misunderstanding with which Myrtle grapples in The Great Gatsby: she is ignorant towards the impotence that her actions, and her experiences with Tom, hold in the realm of class. Like Gatsby, her past decides the fate of her dream, as we see that no matter what she did, her blood would inevitably “[mingle] with the dust.” (123) 

George Wilson and his wife Myrtle live in the "valley of ashes", a refuse dump (shown in the above photograph) historically located in New York City during the 1920s. Today, the area is Flushing Meadows–Corona Park.
George Wilson and his wife Myrtle live in the “valley of ashes”, a refuse dump (shown in the above photograph) historically located in New York City during the 1920s. Today, the area is Flushing Meadows–Corona Park.
New York (N.Y.). Bureau of Engineering Fairchild Aerial Camera Corporation (Photographer) – NYPL Digital Gallery — Catalog ID (B-number): b13985741

The American dream.

The Great Gatsby uses the life experiences of characters within the novel to argue that hard work and dedication cannot always lead to success, not always bringing dreams to fruition. Gatsby’s existence in the novel is grounded in the American dream as he dedicates himself to a new life, the life of Jay Gatsby, in his pursuit of love; nonetheless, the novel reveals that, because of his foundation in lower class America, his dream had always been unattainable. Furthermore, he successfully accumulated wealth, sculpting for himself a life grounded in money and power, but could not come to recognize that, in his case, the phrase “anything is possible” did not apply.

In conclusion, through Gatsby’s life, and through his misunderstanding of power in 20th Century America, a fundamental issue within the American dream is revealed: The Great Gatsby argues that the American dream is grounded in class.

As a result, leaving people like Gatsby to “[pay] a high price for living too long with a single dream.” (144) Dreams allow for a life of enchantment, a life toward which we endlessly reach; however, the American dream fails to tell us that green doesn’t mean go for everyone. We may all be able to work toward success, changing the path of our lives to attain our goals in life; however, as dreamers, our fate has been decided, as it is something that we cannot change. 

Written by Thomas Heath
Edith Cummings, a premier amateur golfer, inspired the character of Jordan Baker. A friend of Ginevra King, she was one of Chicago's famous debutantes in the Jazz Age.
Additionally, Edith Cummings, a premier amateur golfer, inspired the character of Jordan Baker. Moreover, a friend of Ginevra King, she was one of Chicago’s famous debutantes in the Jazz Age.
As a result, of International Newsreel Photographer – Vogue magazine, December 1923 — Volume 62, Issue 11 — Page 66 (Internet Archive)
Photograph of Beacon Towers
The now-demolished Beacon Towers partly served as an inspiration for Gatsby’s home.
Unknown author – Spur Magazine, 1920
Beacon Towers, rear (beach side) elevation, in Sands Point, New York.
Photographic of Maxwell Perkins sitting at a desk
Fitzgerald’s editor, Maxwell Perkins, convinced the author to abandon his original title of Trimalchio in West Egg in favor of The Great Gatsby.
New York World-Telegram and the Sun staff photographer – Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division. New York World-Telegram and the Sun Newspaper Photograph Collection.
The Great Gatsby cover art drafts
Drafts of the cover by artist Francis Cugat juxtaposed with the final version. In one draft (first), a single eye loomed over Long Island Sound. In a subsequent draft (second). Cugat expanded upon this concept to feature two eyes gazing over the New York cityscape. In the final cover (third), the shadowy cityscape was replaced by carnival lights evoking Coney Island.
Physical depository: University of South Carolina’s Irvin Department of Rare Books & Special Collections Virtual source: Smithsonian Magazine

What is the main point of The Great Gatsby?

The book cover with title against a dark sky. Beneath the title are lips and two eyes, looming over a city. Cover illustration by Francis Cugat (1893–1981). Published by Charles Scribner’s Sons. – Digitally altered image of the first edition cover for The Great Gatsby.