The American dream in "The Great Gatsby" and "The Catcher in the Rye"

essay exploring how unnattainable the american dream is in american literature

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  • Created on: 19-05-11 16:34
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To what extent is the "American dream"
shown to be unobtainable in "The Great
Gatsby" by F. Scott Fitzgerald and "The
catcher in the rye" by J.D Salinger?
This essay attempts to highlight the level that the American dream can be seen as
unobtainable in "The Great Gatsby" and "The Catcher in the Rye" , perhaps the respective
authors' most significant novels, by analysing the dreams, obstacles and fortune of the two
main protagonists from each novel: Fitzgerald's `Jay Gatsby' and Salinger's `Holden
Caulfield'. I aim to show that the American Dream is portrayed as unobtainable in both novels
In 1931 James Truslow Adams, an American historian, defined and termed the `American
Dream' as the pursuit, through honest endeavour, a "better, happier, richer life". Using this
definition we can examine the form, rationality and shortcomings of the two characters'
visions of the American dream.
To Gatsby this vision is symbolised by Daisy Buchannan, often described as the "golden girl"
by critics. In chapter seven it is stated by Nick that Daisy's voice is "full of money". Daisy's
voice calls out to characters in the book in a way that is similar to the power of a Siren song
in Greek mythology. Gatsby so desperately craves a "better" and "happier" life with Daisy but
this statement could suggest that the materialistic nature of Daisy's own American dream
calls out to Gatsby that even to a man with Gatsby's wealth greater material prosperity is an
important part of the dream or perhaps this could be an indication that all manifestations of
the American dream even ones where the dream is as simple as reclaiming a lost love are
fuelled by greed does Fitzgerald suggest that even Gatsby's "incorruptible dream" is in fact
corrupt? Alternatively this statement could be highlighting the fact that despite matching
wealth Daisy and Gatsby are marooned in different sectors of society. The colour gold is
often used in the novel as a metonym for prosperity and wealth: Gold meaning old money
rather than the more modern green printed dollars. A better life with Daisy would mean joining
the upper classes from which previously despite, his painstakingly created facade, he has
been excluded from. Piper (1965) suggests that The Great Gatsby is widely noted for
depicting `a cross section of society' yet it is difficult to place Gatsby anywhere. Every
character however is flawed in Fitzgerald's eyes irrespective if they are from East Egg, West
Egg or The Valley of Ashes and this becomes increasingly visible throughout the text.
Fitzgerald suggests that if Gatsby did make it to the upper class the dream would remain
unattainable after all Tom and Daisy seem thoroughly dissatisfied.
Holden Caulfield's dream is similarly represented by Jane Gallagher but his inability to reach
out to her is more to do with passivity than social or financial barriers. At the start of the novel
we are immediately introduced to a pattern where he contemplates reaching out to Jane but
does not. He repeats, to Stradlater's annoyance that he "Oughta go down and say hello to her
at least." This pattern continues throughout the novel especially at times of isolation. This
passive attitude to achieving his dream is a world apart from Gatsby's obsessive Tenacity in

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This could be to do with the times the novels are set. Both
Texts are set in periods of relative prosperity. Gatsby takes every opportunity including illegal
activity to achieve his goals. In contrast it is widely argued by critics that Holden's Isolation
and disillusionment is a rejection of the consumerism and conformism of the post war era. It
could be argued that Jane follows these conventions, contributing to Holden's Inability to get
her.…read more

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He is also opposed to the class system which he
sees as unfair. "Old Haas went around shaking hands with everybody's parents when they
drove up to school. He'd be charming as hell and all. Except if some boy had little old
funnylooking parents" One of Holden's problems with school is the classism which he
describes as phony.…read more

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