How who reach economic prosperity are never
How do both F Scott Fitzgerald and Frank Norris in The Great Gatsby and McTeague respectively, present the death of the American dream as the desire of wealth has corrupted the foundations of it?American author James Truslow Adams defined the American dream as a ‘better, richer and happier life for all our citizens of every rank.’ This national ethos gave millions of immigrants hope as they arrived in the United States leaving economic hardship and religious persecution in their home countries in search of opportunity and freedom. This freedom meant that any citizen regardless of ethnicity or socio-economic background has equal opportunity to succeed if they work hard enough to achieve their goal. For many, economic prosperity is the epitome of the American dream as with opportunity individuals can work hard to secure a comfortable and happy life for their family. The American dream is deeply ingrained in American culture as a simplistic and idyllic goal that can be achieved through hard work and perseverance. However, satirical novels such as Frank Norris’ McTeague and F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby highlight the frailties of this dream as the pursuit is presented as ultimately destructive, both morally and socially. In my essay, I will argue that both texts present the death of the American dream as the acquisition of wealth and provides not happiness but corruption and destruction. The initial pursuit of wealth causes individuals to lose sight of morals as they abandon values such as family and marriage in place of the love of material possessions and money. The sexualisation of money by female characters epitomises this abandonment of values as money usurps the role of the husband. In theory, the American dream can provide the foundations of a Utopian society, but it can never be achieved as individuals who reach economic prosperity are never satisfied with the wealth they possess as their greed corrupts them as they strive for more. The death of the protagonists signifies the death of the American dream as both characters are killed by the obsession of their dream. Norris and Fitzgerald imply the need for social reform through the symbolism of water as society needs to be cleansed from the corruption and greed associated with wealth. The pursuit of economic prosperity in both texts has a destructive effect on society, as individuals to lose sight of morals rejecting traditional values of family and marriage.F. Scott Fitzgerald’s classic novel, The Great Gatsby, highlights the moral collapse of society in the Jazz Age as the younger generation rejected the rigid traditions of their parents, in search of freedom and prosperity. Frederick Lewis Allen states that in the post-war period, “There had been a very widespread and very natural breakdown of traditional restraints and reticences and taboos.” Many saw this breakdown of traditional restraints as a collapse of the moral foundations in American society, as the younger generation rejected values of family and love in search of economic prosperity. In pursuit of wealth James Gatz rejects his family heritage and adopts the white American persona of Jay Gatsby, in order to achieve the American dream, “his parents were shiftless and unsuccessful farm people–his imagination had never really accepted them as his parents at all.” This rejection highlights the moral collapse of society as fueled by greed and misguided ambition he loses sight of the true American dream. A integral part of the American dream is family life, as the purpose of achieving economic prosperity is to provide a stable and comfortable life for your family. Not only does Gatsby lose sight of familial love, but he also corrupts the idea of true love as he longs over the vieux riche Daisy Buchanan, “Her voice is full of money.” (GG,76) The metaphor reinforces that Fitzgerald’s novel is a ‘romance of money’ as it can be argued Gatsby never loved Daisy just the status and materialistic privileges of wealth. Jay Gatsby’s constant longing for Daisy symbolises the non-fulfilment of the American dream as he fell in love with her wealth and status, which the nouveau riche can never truly achieve. Therefore, his longing is representative of economic ambition as opposed to real love which he abandoned on his pursuit of the American dream. The abandonment of traditional values in place of wealth is hyperbolised in the novel McTeague as Frank Norris uses personification to sexualise Trina Sieppe’s interaction with gold. In the opening chapters of the novel, Trina Sieppe is a sweet and submissive woman who falls in love and marries a simple dentist, McTeague. Trina wins five-thousand dollars in a lottery and invests this money into Uncle Oelbermann’s business, receiving monthly interest from it. The harrowing transformation of character is evident when Trina withdraws four hundred dollars from the business, “this is very irregular, you know, Mrs. McTeague.” The withdrawal of her money from an economically stable business reflects Trina’s disillusionment and declining mental health as she believes that wealth provides happiness, but instead it turns her into a “driven, ravaged, obsessive miser.” As a consequence of her obsession with wealth, Trina’s love for McTeague rapidly diminishes as all she loves is money, “one evening she had even spread all the gold pieces between the sheets, and had then gone to bed, stripping herself, and had slept all night upon the money.” (M,269) Frank Norris’ sexualisation of money encapsulates this abandonment of love in place of wealth as the sensual act takes place on the bed. Traditionally the bed represents marriage and union, thereby Norris’ sexualisation of gold reflects how Trina’s acquisition of wealth has caused her to abandon love for McTeague. The symbolism of the bed in relation to wealth and rejection of traditional values is also used in Baz Luhrmann’s film adaptation of The Great Gatsby (2013.) When Jay Gatsby is reunited with his long lost love, Daisy Buchanan, he shows her his impressive collection of tailored shirts, “They’re such beautiful shirts, she sobbed, her voice muffled in the thick folds.” (GG,58) In his reinterpretation of this scene Baz Luhrmann places Daisy on a bed covered in shirts, as just in McTeague wealth is personified through its sexualisation. This scene highlights Daisy Buchanan’s shallow character as she doesn’t love Gatsby, only the financial security and material possessions that his vast wealth can provide. The Sexualisation of money is taken literally through the character of Myrtle Wilson as she opportunistically becomes Tom Buchanan’s mistress in order to escape her life with automobile garage owner George Wilson. This adulterous affair reflects the moral disintegration that the pursuit of wealth has caused as she betrays her husband as he was unable to provide her with the lifestyle she feels she is entitled to, “I married him because I thought he was a gentleman … I knew right away I made a mistake. He borrowed somebody’s best suit to get married in.” (GG,22) In this age of unprecedented material indulgence Myrtle Wilson even commodifies love, as she equates love with economic worth and the possible social opportunities that her sexuality can bring. Conversely, Frank Norris’ use of naturalism suggests that wealth does not bring opportunities as Trina’s acquisition of wealth sees a environmental regression into poverty, David Baguley states that in naturalism, “the fiction feels inevitably drawn towards death, disintegration and dissipation.” The assimilation of environmental regression and the symbolic golden molar highlight the disastrous effect of greed as Trina’s corruption and greed make McTeague lose faith in the true American dream. One thing that remained constant for a while despite the descent into poverty was McTeague’s golden molar, “It was the Tooth–the famous golden molar with its huge prongs–his sign, his ambition, the one unrealized dream of his life.” (M,111) The molar for McTeague represents the American dream as it symbolises prosperity and a thriving business, its presence regardless of the couple’s living condition implied hope for a brighter future. Therefore, when McTeague is forced to sell the golden molar he is pushed into the ultimate state of desolation as he has no job and now no ambition. The American dream for McTeague is destroyed as Trina’s economic manipulation made him realise that family and economic prosperity does not bring happiness, as wealth has destroyed everything he held dear. The disastrous effects of capitalism in McTeague, act as a critique of the harsh economics of the Gilded Age. John D. Rockefeller’s Standard Oil monopoly epitomised this ruthless capitalism in the period as his amoral business approach meant that in order to reduce competition he would crush rivals out of business, leaving them unemployed. Trina can be compared to Rockefeller as she used her ‘unnecessarily severe’ economic tactics were ultimately destructive as she aimed to maintain the absolute power that wealth has brought her. The destructive effect of material wealth and indulgence is presented ironically through the symbolism of the colour yellow in The Great Gatsby. Traditionally in literature, the colour yellow symbolises happiness, vibrancy and money, however, F Scott Fitzgerald closely associates the colour with destruction and amorality. This reflects that the acquisition of wealth does not guarantee satisfaction and happiness as often it leads to a moral decline. The destructive effect of wealth is epitomised by Daisy Buchanan’s murder of Myrtle Wilson in the Valley of the Ashes, “She ran out ina road. Son-of-a-bitch didn’t even stopus car … It was a yellow car.” (GG,88) Myrtle Wilson’s unfortunate murder at the hands of Jay Gatsby’s yellow Rolls Royce embodies the disillusionment of the American dream. Myrtle Wilson stepped out onto the road believing that Tom Buchanan had come to rescue her from George Wilson, however, this confusion results in her being killed in a hit and run by Daisy Buchanan. The death scenario acts as a critique of the American dream as Myrtle thought that it would rescue her from a working-class life and the material possessions would provide solace and comfort but instead it caused destruction. Reflecting how the American dream did not produce an idyllic society of hardworking achievers but instead a morally abundant society controlled by capitalism.The location of Myrtle Wilson’s death plays a symbolic role in Fitzgerald’s critique of the American dream as the Valley of Ashes infers death and decay. The Valley of Ashes is an inescapable road that occupies a liminal space between the affluent West Egg and East Egg. The working-class Myrtle Wilson’s death in this liminal space reasserts social determinism as she is unable to achieve her American dream and escape the wasteland, instead the reader is reminded of the destructive effects of a society consumed by capitalist greed. This destruction is encapsulated in Baz Luhrmann’s film adaptation of The Great Gatsby, in Myrtle Wilson’s death scene. In the film when Myrtle is struck by the yellow Rolls Royce her body is flung up in the air, the scene then fades out to the glaring eyes of Dr TJ Eckleburg’s billboard. The assimilation of death and capitalism in this scene is symbolic as it reflects the death of the American dream as surrounded by the billboard is nothing but failing businesses and dust.Myrtle’s death reflects the potentially destructive effects of the pursuit of wealth as it was unable to provide her with comfort. However, The death of the nouveau riche protagonists, Trina Sieppe and Jay Gatsby, signifies the death of the American dream as both characters are killed by the obsession of their dream. The symbolism of water in both deaths signify a need for social reform as society is unable to function when consumed by greed and immorality. Just like Myrtle Wilson, Trina Sieppe died believing that wealth could provide comfort but instead she is punished her avarice and economic manipulation as the wealth she accumulates consumes her, “The fingers of her right hand had swollen as never before … she had nevertheless gone on about her work on the Noah’s ark animals, constantly in contact with the ‘non-poisonous’ paint.” (M,262) The ironic infection symbolises the destructive effects of the American dream as its pursuit becomes dangerous when greed and corruption take place of ambition. The intertextual references to Genesis 6 closely associate capitalism with sin and corruption, as in the biblical story God flooded the Earth as punishment for its corrupt ways. Trina’s occupation producing Noah’s ark toys foreshadows her eventual punishment as her avarice had caused total destruction, “the pool of blood in which she lay face downward.” (M,282) Therefore, the water imagery evokes the flood in Genesis 6 as Trina’s transgressions were punished. In a similar way, the symbolism of water is used throughout The Great Gatsby as it is suggestive of cleansing and purification. When James Gatz leaves home in search for freedom and wealth he rescues millionaire Dan Cody, from drowning in the sea,”it was already Jay Gatsby who borrowed a row-boat, pulled out to the Tuolomee and informed Cody that a wind might catch him and break him up in half an hour.” (GG,61) The interaction with water in this scene symbolises the baptism of his American person, Jay Gatsby, as he is cleansed of his immigrant background. The oncoming tumultuous conditions foreshadow the destructive effects of his pursuit of economic prosperity. At the conclusion of the novel, Gatsby is shot by George Wilson, believing it was Gatsby who was driving the car that killed his wife. When shot Gatsby falls into his pool, “There was a faint, barely perceptible movement of the water as the fresh flow from one end urged its way toward the drain at the other.” (GG,103) The descent into the water in death acts as another purification as he is cleansed from the sin and corruption that his materialistic and immoral lifestyle brought. Also, society is cleansed through Gatsby’s death in water as the materialistic indulgences of the nouveau riche saw the moral decay of society. Both McTeague and The Great Gatsby act as a harrowing prophetic warning for the consequences of pursuing the American dream with the wrong intentions. The deaths of the protagonists reflect the need for drastic social change as society had become too consumed by greed and misguided ambition that the moral foundations of society had collapsed. These ‘prophecies’ came true in the shape of the Great Depression as the illusion of wealth from the Gilded Age and the Jazz Age came crashing down. The Great Depression was an economic decline in America brought on by the stock market crash in October 1929 that left over 20% of the population unemployed. Elected in 1933, Franklin D. Roosevelt, aimed to bring America back from the Great Depression to a prosperous global economic powerhouse. His ‘New Deal’ aimed to fix the wrongs of the previous administration and in many ways succeeded as he temporarily stabilised the banks. However, the American dream by this point had died for millions of Americans as economic factors meant that prosperity was became unattainable and elusive.