The Great Gatsby Quotes About the American Dream – Expert Analysis

June 25, 2023

If you ask someone to tell you what The Great Gatsby is about, there’s a good chance they’ll say – “the American Dream.” They would be correct – kinda. If you read the book in high school (or pretended to) you probably remember that the protagonist, Jay Gatsby, has “made it.” He owns a hydroplane and a cream-colored Rolls-Royce and throws lavish, booze-soaked parties at his mansion. (Or maybe you just remember the glamorous party scenes in Baz Luhrmann’s film version.) In other words, from a material standpoint, it certainly seems like Gatsby is the epitome of the American Dream. This article is going to look at some quotes in The Great Gatsby about the American Dream.

Before we get too far into how the book presents the American Dream, let’s take a moment to review the plot. Our narrator is Nick Carraway, a 29-year-old veteran who has just arrived in New York to learn the bond business. Nick rents a tiny house next to Gatsby’s mansion and ends up being invited to one of his parties. The reader soon learns that before he shipped out for WWI, Gatsby had met and fallen in love with Nick’s cousin Daisy.

The Great Gatsby – Quotes About the American Dream (Continued)

Unfortunately, Daisy got married (to the brutish Tom Buchanan) while Gatsby was fighting overseas. Gatsby asks Nick to arrange a meet-cute with Daisy, who is torn between her love for her husband and her love for Gatsby. In a series of unfortunate events, Daisy ends up accidentally killing Tom’s mistress, Myrtle Wilson. Myrtle’s husband blames Gatsby, goes to his mansion, and shoots him in his swimming pool. He then turns the gun on himself. Drama! (If you’re interested in other themes in The Great Gatsby, check out this article.)

Now that we remember the plot, let’s talk a little about what we mean when we say the “American Dream.”

What is the American Dream?

In her article for The Guardian, Sarah Churchwell explains how the American Dream has changed over time. As Churchwell points out, F. Scott Fitzgerald most likely encountered the term “American Dream” in a 1925 Vanity Fair article discussing the value of education. The author of this article, Walter Lippmann, argued that access to college should not be exclusive to the upper classes. In other words, individual potential should not be limited by one’s social class. (This concern with social class is clearly present in The Great Gatsby.) 

However, it was only in the early 1930s that the term “American Dream” became widely known. After the stock market crash of 1929 and the economic depression that followed, there was much discussion in America about what constituted a good life. The idea of an explicit American Dream was offered by Eric Truslow Adams as a response to the economic hardship of the 1930s. For our discussion, it is important to note that Adams’s definition of the American Dream is not connected to material wealth. That is, while every American deserves “a better, richer and happier life,” Adams complains that “the pure gold of this vision has been heavily alloyed with the dross of materialistic aims.”

Quotes – The Great Gatsby and the American Dream (Continued)

It is precisely this intersection of class mobility and materialism that animates The Great Gatsby’s treatment of the American Dream. The novel is concerned both with the intrinsic worth of every individual, but also with the American tendency to conflate “the good life” with materialism. Let’s look at some quotes that illustrate this tension.

How Does Gatsby Represent the American Dream?

It turns out that Jay Gatsby hasn’t been entirely honest with Nick. While he initially presents himself as a moneyed “Oxford man,” we eventually find out that Jay Gatsby was born Jay Gatz to poor farmers in North Dakota. We also find out that Gatsby has made his millions through less than legal means. All this aside, it’s important to remember that the sole reason Gatsby has accumulated such obscene wealth is to win back Daisy’s love. Recall the first time Nick sees Gatsby walking near the beach:

“But I didn’t call to him, for he gave a sudden intimation that he was content to be alone—he stretched out his arms toward the dark water in a curious way, and, far as I was from him, I could have sworn he was trembling. Involuntarily I glanced seaward—and distinguished nothing except a single green light, minute and far away, that might have been the end of a dock.”

Of course, this green light is the light at the end of Daisy’s dock just across the bay. So, while it’s tempting to say that Gatsby’s American Dream is just about money, it’s more than that. Gatsby’s dream is to win back Daisy – money is just a means to this end. Remember, when Gatsby first wooed Daisy five years before, he allowed her “[to] believe that he was a person from much the same strata as herself—that he was fully able to take care of her.” In other words, Gatsby’s American Dream is not money per se. Rather, he dreams of becoming the kind of (rich) person that Daisy could marry. Clearly, part of the American Dream in The Great Gatsby is a dream of class mobility. (All my quotes come from The Project Gutenberg eBook.)

When is a kiss more than a kiss? 

It’s worth looking back at the first time Gatsby kisses Daisy to understand the origin of Gatsby’s American dream. He meets Daisy five years before the events of the novel while stationed in Louisville, Kentucky. We read that,

“His heart beat faster as Daisy’s white face came up to his own. He knew that when he kissed this girl and forever wed his unutterable visions to her perishable breath, his mind would never romp again like the mind of God. So he waited, listening for a moment longer to the tuning fork that had been struck upon a star. Then he kissed her. At his lips’ touch, she blossomed for him like a flower and the incarnation was complete.”

There’s a lot to say about this quote, but what strikes me as particularly important is the contrast between the abstract (“unutterable visions” / “mind of God’) and the concrete (“perishable breath” and “the incarnation”). Some might say that Gatsby is simply overcome by Daisy’s kiss, but I think it’s more than that. This is the moment when the myriad possibilities of Gatsby’s vision for his future collapse into the contingent commitment to loving this particular (rich) person. Gatsby has chosen a finite particular from among the infinitely possible. This is the beginning of Gatsby’s striving – not for money, but for the possibility of becoming something he is not. In some ways, Jay Gatzby is born – “incarnated” – at this moment.

Dreamer or tryhard? 

While Gatsby gets the money, he lacks the habits, manners, and mores of Old Money families. Tom Buchanan mocks Gatsby’s pink suit and his misreading of social cues. Even Nick notes that Gatsby’s “elaborate formality of speech just missed being absurd.” Whatever his aspirations, Gatsby will only ever be a nouveau riche tryhard.

At the same time, Gatsby isn’t the only character in the book who is frustrated by circumstances. Even Tom Buchanan seems like he’s looking for something he can never quite find. We read,

“Why [Tom and Daisy] came East I don’t know. They had spent a year in France for no particular reason, and then drifted here and there unrestfully wherever people played polo and were rich together…I had no sight into Daisy’s heart, but I felt that Tom would drift on forever seeking, a little wistfully, for the dramatic turbulence of some irrecoverable football game.”

The Great Gatsby – Quotes About the American Dream (Continued)

Though the Buchanans are obscenely rich, Tom too is striving after an “irrecoverable” something from his past – something that lies forever out of reach. Like Gatsby, Tom seems to be searching for some vague original identity that he didn’t notice until it was suddenly gone.

Daisy also seems to live in a state of dissatisfaction and disillusionment. When Nick first visits the Buchanan house, he finds out that Tom has been cheating on Daisy. Later that evening, Nick shares a moment alone with Daisy. She tells Nick that when her daughter was born three years prior, she told the doctor that “the best thing a girl can be in this world, a beautiful little fool.” In contrast to this ideal fool, Daisy declares that she has “been everywhere and seen everything and done everything.” She then adds, with “thrilling scorn,” “God, I’m sophisticated!” In other words, Daisy’s “sophisticated” allows her a cynical understanding of how empty her life actually is. However, it’s unclear to her (and to the reader) what would give her a more fulfilling life.

What’s at the heart of the American Dream? 

At its most basic, The Great Gatsby’s presents the American Dream as a striving after something that has been irretrievably lost. There is a moment in the book that shows what is at the heart of this striving. About midway through the novel, Nick is talking to Gatsby after one of his parties. Daisy and Tom left hours before and Gatsby is concerned that Daisy didn’t have a good time. Nick says that “I wouldn’t ask too much of her [Daisy]…You can’t repeat the past,” to which Gatsby incredulously responds, “‘Can’t repeat the past?…Why of course you can’!” This is Gatsby’s dream in a nutshell – he wants to literally recreate the past. Everything he has done – the lying, the wealth, the parties – all of it is Gatsby’s attempt to change the course of events that led him to this present. Nick elaborates on Gatsby’s desire,

He talked a lot about the past, and I gathered that he wanted to recover something, some idea of himself perhaps, that had gone into loving Daisy. His life had been confused and disordered since then, but if he could once return to a certain starting place and go over it all slowly, he could find out what that thing was…

The Great Gatsby – Quotes About the American Dream (Continued)

We can finally see what’s really at stake in the novel’s presentation of the American Dream. While the American Dream is certainly related to social mobility and materialism, it is, at its most basic, a desire to be – to become oneself – outside the influence of contingency. Gatsby’s life was buffeted by forces beyond his control. Born into poverty, and shipped off to war, he was unable to make good on the promise he made to himself when he kissed Daisy. Ultimately, the American dream is an individual’s desire to disconnect the present from the past – to fashion an identity outside of history.

All the characters in The Great Gatsby labor under this desire. Gatsby recreates himself for Daisy, Tom is looking for some lost football game, Daisy mourns her cynical sophistication, and George and Myrtle Wilson dream of going west. Which just leaves Nick Carroway…

Nick Carraway and the American Dream

Where does this leave our narrator, Nick Carraway? How does he understand the striving at the heart of the American dream? The final paragraph of the novel gives us some insight. Nick has decided to leave New York. Before he goes, he stops by Gatsby’s mansion one last time. He lies down on the beach and thinks of Gatsby dreaming about the green light at the end of Daisy’s dock. We read that,

“[Gatsby’s] dream must have seemed so close that he could hardly fail to grasp it. He did not know that it was already behind him, somewhere back in that vast obscurity beyond the city, where the dark fields of the republic rolled on under the night.

Gatsby believed in the green light, the orgastic future that year by year recedes before us. It eluded us then, but that’s no matter—tomorrow we will run faster, stretch out our arms further… And one fine morning—

So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.

This is a perfect distillation of the striving at the heart of the novel’s treatment of the American dream. Nick understands perfectly how Gatsby’s grasping at his dream was always an attempt to recapture what must remain lost. Even more ironic is the fact that the more we struggle toward the “orgastic future,” the more we are carried back to the lost desires and dreams of our past.