The 'American Dream' in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, and Ernest Hemingway's The Sun also Rises

Rebecca Poulter

This essay shows how the work of Earnest Hemmingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald challenge the archetypal conception of the American Dream, and present alternative methods of lifestyle which unify the individual with a greater sense of autonomy.



In his critical work, The American Novel and Its Tradition, Richard Chase contends that “the best American novels achieve their very being, their energy and their form, from the perception and acceptance not of unities but of radical disunities.”[1] This conviction is supported perhaps most potently in the literature of the 1920s, which documents social and economic revolution in light of the financially prosperous decade, which preceded the “spectacular death”[2] of October 1929’s Wall Street Crash. Published between times of warfare, also,  1920s texts expose the tensions of the ‘lost generation’, of which many young people were distrustful of their native country’s moral superiority after seeing many of their peers killed in action during 1917-8. F. Scott Fitzgerald’s novel, The Great Gatsby (1925), documents these social ‘disunities’ in one’s navigation of the skirmish of ‘Old Money’ versus ‘New Money’, most notably how a character’s wealth and historical background informs his sense of identity in America’s modern setting. Meanwhile Ernest Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises (1927) portrays the experience of an American expatriate of the ‘lost generation’, mediating his dual sense of cultural identity and reconciling himself as a transcendental being in the absence of the oppressive “nature of American culture that he is expected to make his own”.[3] In this essay, I will argue that both of my selected texts challenge the archetypal American Dream and present alternative methods of lifestyle which unify the individual with a greater sense of autonomy.

In The Great Gatsby, the eponymous character embodies the model American construct of the self-made man. Satisfying the American Dream’s devotion to the possibility that “anyone, no matter how lowly his origins, could rise and become a success”,[4] Gatsby accomplishes wealth and prestige in a society traditionally dominated by the inheritors of ‘Old Money’. Fitzgerald first reflects this image of the self-made man onto Gatsby through the depiction of the character’s humble beginnings. The author discloses that Gatsby’s parents were “shiftless and unsuccessful farm people”,[5] however the young man possessed "An instinct toward his future glory”.[6] This ambitious inclination inspires Gatsby’s resolution to surrender the roots which define his social standing and realise his own American Dream of (initially) position and prosperity. Gatsby’s elevation through America’s economic divisions indicates a conviction of Richard Chase:

“Jay Gatsby is in origin an archetype of European legend… it is fascinating to observe how, in Fitzgerald’s hands, this legend is modified and in some ways fundamentally changed in accordance with American ideas.”[7]

Indeed, the character’s “enormous sense of his own destiny”[8] motivates a pursuit of success not unlike the Pips and Dick Whittingtons of the traditional English novel – each character seeking their fortune and renewed sense of identity against the prestigious backdrop of The City. Gatsby’s embodiment of the self-made, All-American Man however transforms this traditional persona into modernity. The character’s combined acquisition of a “splendid”[9] Rolls-Royce motorcar, for example, the “colossal affair”[10] of his mansion, and his collection of “such beautiful shirts”[11] illustrate Fitzgerald’s manipulation of the traditionally European legend, and his ability to attach this modernised American idyll to the hero of his novel. Through the allusion to Gatsby’s self-making, then, Fitzgerald subverts a traditional novelistic form, thus Gatsby personifies the 1920s American fable of attaining fortune in spite of ‘lowly’ origins.

Fitzgerald’s presentation of Gatsby’s enterprising nature reflects the emergent fashion of similar characters within the real society of the time. As Henry Dan Piper summarises:

“Almost every Sunday the society columns and rotogravure sections of the New York newspapers carried accounts of the wealthy young Mid-westerners like the Buchanans… The financial sections of the same papers almost as regularly reported the mysterious appearance of Gatsby-like figures who had suddenly emerged from the West with millions of dollars at their command.”[12]

The Great Gatsby is thus testament to the manner in which traditional class boundaries were reformed, or often completely severed in response to the creation of new money to rival hereditary fortune. Without an established class structure where, as Ruth Prigozy suggests, “the idea of a privileged class comes from British models”,[13] many of the social tensions of the Gatsby decade focus upon the individual’s mediation of the changing economy. This “new wave of instant millionaires”,[14] such as the likes of the novel’s hero thus threatened the dominance of the wealthy, by ascending the social echelons and prompting from the financially established an inevitable condemnation. An example of this in the text is Tom Buchanan’s remark that “I suppose the latest thing is to sit back and let Mr Nobody from Nowhere make love to your wife.”[15] Fitzgerald’s choice of vocabulary here implies Buchanan’s conviction that new money is inferior to the old as it is absent of prestige – characters such as Gatsby are therefore unworthy of familiarity and indeed relationships with the upper-classes. Moreover, Daisy is similarly “appalled” to consider herself as sharing her social standing with the traditionally less affluent inhabitants of West Egg. Fitzgerald describes Daisy as revolted by the location’s “raw vigor” and by the “too obtrusive fate that herded its inhabitants along a short cut from nothing to nothing.”[16] The image of being transported from a lower social standing to apparently ‘nothing’ further reflects this notion that the success which America’s “newly rich people”[17] discover is in fact hollow. The prosperity of those who attain this American Dream of affluence is rendered meaningless in the absence of prestigious historical background.

Chase explains how Gatsby’s motivation for an accumulation of wealth separates him from his similarly affluent counterparts. So far as the hero knows them, “society and its ways… are not ends but means to a transcendent ideal.”[18] Indeed, the purpose for Gatsby’s social elevation is not simply the product of his pursuit of fortune, but that it signifies the ‘means’ by which he can realise his dream that is represented by Daisy Buchanan. Gatsby has “literally patched himself together out of popular ideas”[19], of what the wealthy, All-American man should embody, in order to imply his worth and consequently secure Daisy as his own. This is evident in Fitzgerald’s novel, as the hero’s efforts are interpreted by Nick as “like skimming hastily through a dozen magazines”.[20] Indeed, Gatsby’s “elaborate formality of speech”, and the “strong impression that he was picking his words with care”,[21] all construct the image supposedly deemed worthy of his maiden. This self-characterisation leads Daisy to comment towards Gatsby that “You resemble the advertisement of the man”[22] – ‘the man’, being an indiscriminate metaphor for the fashionable All-American male. Having already embarked on a doomed relationship with Daisy, however, Gatsby’s hamartia is his foolhardy idealism: his adamant refusal to confront the reality of passing time. In a dream world “where past, present and future are all one”,[23] Gatsby believes that “of course” one can “repeat”[24] exact past events and consequently yield a better outcome. It becomes clear, however, throughout the novel that Gatsby’s infatuation is focused not on Daisy specifically, but on the image which she represents; “like a card house”,[25] the dream collapses at the slightest indication of Daisy’s non-fulfilment of the promise she personifies:

“There must have been moments even that afternoon when Daisy tumbled short of his dreams – not through her own fault, but because of the colossal vitality of his illusion. It had gone beyond her, beyond everything.”[26]

Evidently, Gatsby’s ambition usurps the reality of Daisy’s character. There is no evidence of a sexual passion shared between the couple (although Baz Lurhmann’s 2013 adaptation disputes this), thus Gatsby’s adoration appears misinformed; he “does not see her as she is… He sees her merely as beauty and innocence.”[27]  The promise of Daisy draws allusion to the image of a beautiful flower growing natively on the “fresh green breast of the new world”.[28] Gatsby’s dream can therefore be interpreted as a romantic sense of possibility – akin to that of America’s first settlers – which “resides in the unattainable woman who symbolizes the beauty which wealth preserves and protects”.[29] The promise of Daisy is not only Gatsby’s ideal, but indicated the American Dream as a whole; it embodies the “possibilities of this life and eternal life”.[30] Fitzgerald’’s characterisation of Gatsby evidently evokes elements of tragicomedy, as the ridiculousness of the romantic hero’s vision provokes his downfall and ultimate death. The flaw of Gatsby’s aspiration is described by Henry Dan Piper as:

“Gatsby… wants it both ways. He must be a Grail Knight as well as a Wall Street tycoon. He expects Daisy to be the innocent maiden in distress waiting stoically for her knight errant. At the same time, he insists that she be a typical ‘popular’ girl – rich, pretty and consequently self-centred and unadventurous. Confused by these conflicting aims and goals, the vulnerable Gatsby is easily betrayed and destroyed.”[31]

Indeed, a prominent motif throughout the novel is that of death – most persistent is the setting of the Valley of Ashes and the “foul dust” that “floated in the wake of Gatsby’s dreams”.[32] Similarly, Tom’s accusation that Gatsby “threw dust in [Nick’s] eyes just like he did Daisy’s”[33] illustrates the collateral suffered in ‘the wake’ of the hero’s fatal romantic delusion. In spite of this however, it is the character’s capacity to possess and strive to accomplish his “incorruptible dream”[34] which “affirms the unique value as well as the limitations of the philosophy of individualism.”[35] Nick’s ultimate faithfulness to Gatsby’s dream transcends the fact that he “disapproved of him from beginning to end”;[36] the dream calls to Nick’s mind the ideal meaning of America itself. The promise of the New World’s power to inspire “a transitory enchanted moment”[37] presents an elusive magic “between two worlds, the one scarcely dead, the other driven by raw energy yet inexorably drifting towards death”,[38] accessible only to those who dare to dream. Gatsby’s pursuit of the ‘green light’ “invokes the poetic appeal of the frontier”[39] and represents the “orgastic future that year by year recedes before us”.[40] It is a metaphor of the American dream itself and acts symbolically as a bulwark against the “rapacity that fuelled the nation’s expansion, destroying the gifts of nature in the process.”[41] Gatsby’s ideal bears no claim on reality, conversely it is the mere reality of having a dream which is both the flaw and redeeming quality of Gatsby’s persona:

“That’s the whole burden of this novel – the loss of those illusions that give such colour to the world that you don’t care whether things are true or false as long as they take part in the magical glory.”[42]

 As Fitzgerald himself summarises, it is this capacity to pursue these ‘illusions’ – the way in which we admire those who entertain their own American Dreams – which occupies the moral heart of his novel, The Great Gatsby. Nick’s comment that Gatsby is “worth the whole damn bunch put together”[43] thus carries significance as it illustrates the hero’s ultimate eclipse of traditional American values in place of his own Romantic ideal.

Ernest Hemingway’s 1926 novel, The Sun Also Rises, documents the experience of American expatriates living in Paris. The novel discusses the theme of identity – how it is constructed and manipulated in terms of the “dual allegiance of the American, who in his intellectual culture belongs to the Old World and the New”.[44] Hemingway’s characterisation of Robert Cohn is the first evidence within the text of this discussion, as Cohn embodies the typical American man, conditioned by his native culture. The protagonist, Jake, observes, “I never heard him make one remark that would, in any way detach him from other people”,[45] thus Cohn is emblematic of the stereotypically American preoccupation with democracy and social unity. This is further reflected in the detail that “If he were in a crowd nothing he said stood out”.[46] In his book, Civilisation and its Discontents, it is Freud who suggests that the American democracy inhibits the development of exceptional individuals; its nature specifically inspires society to “identify with one another rather than cultivate their individual sense of life”.[47] Moreover, Hemingway’s crafting of Cohn’s “funny sort of undergraduate quality”, matched with his “Princeton” appearance[48] and proclivity for polo shirts depicts the character as markedly American. Cohn is thus continuously shunned by his compatriots in Europe, who claim that he makes them “sick”,[49] and demand of him: “Don’t you know you’re not wanted?”[50] This scorn derives from the simple fact that Cohn represents the “pressure for conformity that was possibly the most oppressive feature of American life”.[51] Illustrating Cohn in this manner therefore serves as a subtle means by which the author may confront “the values which were most dear to the self-consciously American hearts of his parents”,[52] and celebrate the birth of individualism in the new frontier that is Europe.

Harold T. McCarthy contends that The Sun Also Rises transcends the definition of “an anti-war tract or a breast-beating for the disenchanted”. Instead the novel is “an exaltation of the masculine principle… and of a people’s spiritual community”.[53] There is no theme more appropriate to exemplify this, as the image of the bullfight and the theme of death which it signifies. Hemingway’s protagonist documents the manner in which the matador confronts fatal threat – dances with it – in order to reflect his own inevitable mortality yet meanwhile assert the autonomy of himself:

“Romero’s bullfighting gave real emotion, because he kept the absolutely purity of line in his movements and always quietly and calmly let the horns pass him close each time. He did not have to emphasize their closeness… he dominated the bull by making him realize he was unattainable.”[54]

The matador’s choice to encounter the fatal possibilities of the bullring indicates a confidence in his own autonomy which is denied through the democratic mass of American culture. McCarthy interprets the bullfight in Hemingway’s novel as an “affirmation of the human spirit”, for it entertains primitive instincts such as courage, grace, and sexuality, which became symbolic for Hemingway as it illustrates “man’s capacity to shape his own existence”.[55] Indeed, acknowledging death is a means by which one can accomplish a sense of his own individuality. In an America which celebrates power en masse, death is obscured, thus the bullfights of Europe present opportunity for Jake and Hemingway alike to indulge their primitive energies and regain a sense of individuality.

Hemingway’s characterisation of the ‘aficionado’ reinforces this theme of rekindled identity, as the bullfight becomes a passion by which man can reacquaint himself with his transcendental being. As Jake summarises, “It was simply the pleasure of discovering what we each felt”[56] which spiritually connects him with similar aficionados and bestows him with a sentiment of illumination impossible to achieve in American society. Indeed, the character of Montoya “smiled as though bullfighting were a very special secret”,[57] meanwhile “it amused [other aficionados] that [Jake] should be American”.[58] Clearly, the passionate experience of the bullfight is typically un-American, as is the notion of having a profound interest in a hobby outside of the status quo. Able to maintain his own sense of individuality away from American culture then, the character of Jake testifies Hemingway's conviction that;

“If you serve time for society, democracy, and other things quite young, and declining any further enlistment make yourself responsible only to yourself, you exchange the pleasant, comforting stench of comrades for something you can never feel other way than by yourself.”[59]

Jake’s status as aficionado is thus his salvation, in a world in which he has supposedly “given more than [his] life”.[60] The novel itself conveys Hemingway’s aspiration to convey “the sense of men’s lives as islands in a stream” as it documents “moments in the process of being”[61] – a notion apparent to the novel’s protagonist through his aficion. Jake consequently appreciates himself as an infinite, eternal being through Hemingway’s deconstruction of American ideals of democracy, unity and death, and consequently he is able to navigate a lifestyle in Europe which spiritually transcends the burden of his horrific physical wounding.

To conclude, both Fitzgerald and Hemingway’s thematic content of their novels demonstrate the tensions experienced within the American society of the 1920s – both on native soil and abroad. The Great Gatsby is seen as a “conscious indictment of the American Dream of success”,[62] as Fitzgerald – through his characterisation of Gatsby’s self-made nature and romantic aspiration – criticises the American upper-middle class’ preoccupation with established wealth. Moreover, Jake of The Sun Also Rises denotes Hemingway’s concerns of a democratic society; smothering dreams of individuality and denying unorthodox passions. It is clear then that both novelists believe that the American Dream is subverted from the original romance of the frontier into something poisonous, reinforcing the notion that “all is vanity except those actions which bring a sense of oneness with natural things”.[63] Gatsby and Jake are thus equivocally portrayed as both the victims and the victors of a society which closes in a “united front”[64] against the social outcast, ultimately providing a challenge of the revered American Dream and what it signifies to the individual of 1920s – and modern day – society.

[1] Richard Chase, ‘The Broken Circuit: A Culture of Contradictions’ in The American Novel and Its Tradition, (Baltimore and London: The John Hopkins University Press, 1980) p.6-7

[2] F. Scott Fitzgerald, ‘Echoes of the Jazz Age’ in The Crack Up, <>  [accessed 21st May 2014]

[3] Harold T. McCarthy, ‘Hemingway and Life as Play’ in The Expatriate Perspective: American Novelists and the Idea of America, (Cranbury, New Jersey: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 1974) p.143

[4] Henry Dan Piper, ‘The Great Gatsby: Finding a Hero’ in F. Scott Fitzgerald: A Critical Portrait, (London: The Bodley Head Press, 1966) p.123

[5] F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby, (New York: Oxford University Press, 2008) p.78

[6] Ibid.p.79

[7] Richard Chase, ‘Three Novels of Manners: The Great Gatsby’ in The American Novel and Its Tradition, p.162-3

[8] Ibid. p.163

[9] F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby, p.55

[10] Ibid. p.8

[11] Ibid. p.74

[12] Henry Dan Piper, ‘The Great Gatsby: Finding a Hero’, p.114

[13] Ruth Prigozy, ‘Introduction’ in The Great Gatsby, xxxiii

[14] Ibid. xix

[15] F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby, p.103

[16] Ibid. p.86

[17] Ibid. p.103

[18] Richard Chase, ‘Three Novels of Manners: The Great Gatsby’, p.165

[19] Ruth Prigozy, ‘Introduction’, xxvii

[20] F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby, p.53

[21] Ibid. p.40

[22] Ibid. p.95

[23] Henry Dan Piper, ‘The Great Gatsby: Finding a Form’, p.148

[24] F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby, p.88

[25] Ibid. p.90

[26] Ibid. p.76

[27] Richard Chase, ‘Three Novels of Manners: The Great Gatsby’, p.165

[28] F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby, p.143

[29] Ruth Prigozy, ‘Introduction’, xxii-iii

[30] Ibid.

[31] Henry Dan Piper, ‘The Great Gatsby: Finding a Hero’, p.124

[32]F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby, p.6

[33] Ibid. p.142

[34] Ibid. p.123

[35] Henry Dan Piper, ‘The Great Gatsby: Finding a Hero’, p.125

[36] F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby, p.122

[37] F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby, p.143

[38] Ruth Prigozy, ‘Introduction’, xxxiv

[39] Richard Chase, ‘Three Novels of Manners: The Great Gatsby’, p.164

[40] F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby, p.144

[41] Ruth Prigozy, ‘Introduction’, xxii-iii

[42] F. Scott Fitzgerald, Letter to Ludlow Fowler, August 1924; Correspondence of F. Scott Fitzgerald, 145.

[43] F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby, p.122

[44] Richard Chase, ‘The Broken Circuit: A Culture of Contradictions’ in The American Novel and Its Tradition, p.11

[45] Ernest Hemingway, Fiesta: The Sun Also Rises, (London: Vintage, 2000), p.39

[46] Ibid.

[47] Harold T. McCarthy, ‘Hemingway and Life as Play’, p.151--2

[48] Ernest Hemingway, Fiesta: The Sun Also Rises, p.39

[49] Ibid. p.90

[50] Ibid. p.124

[51] Harold T. McCarthy, ‘Hemingway and Life as Play’, p.147

[52] Ibid. p.139

[53] Ibid p.147

[54] Ernest Hemingway, Fiesta: The Sun Also Rises, p.145-6

[55] Harold T. McCarthy, ‘Hemingway and Life as Play’, p.137

[56] Ernest Hemingway, Fiesta: The Sun Also Rises, p.115

[57] Ibid. p.114

[58] Ibid. p.115

[59] Ernest Hemingway, Green Hills of Africa, (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1935), p.148-50

[60] Ernest Hemingway, Fiesta: The Sun Also Rises, p.27

[61] Harold T. McCarthy, ‘Hemingway and Life as Play’, p.138

[62] Henry Dan Piper, ‘The Great Gatsby: Finding a Hero’, p.124

[63] Harold T. McCarthy, ‘Hemingway and Life as Play’, p.152

[64] Richard Chase, ‘Three Novels of Manners: The Great Gatsby’, p.114



Rebecca Poulter


brightONLINE student literary journal

18 Nov 2014