The Great Gatsby is F. Scott Fitzgerald’s 1925 modernistic portrayal of the fallibility of the American dream. Jay Gatsby, a migrant from the Midwest, rises to the top through questionable methods and is in pursuit of a dream that lives in the past: recapturing the love of the now married Daisy Buchannan. The characters in the novel are presented to the reader through the filter of the unreliable narrator Nick Carraway. Carraway is unreliable because he is no more immune to the American dream or its victims than any of the other inhabitants of East Egg and West Egg. Gatsby’s disillusionment emerges when he realizes how truly vapid and superficial a woman Daisy has turned out to be. Despite this Gatsby is ever persistent, and often delusional, in his quest and, as a result, becomes a target for literary critics. But are these critics opposed to Gatsby himself or to the fairytale implausibility of the American dream that The Great Gatsby serves as a catalyst for?
Personally I, throughout my life, have changed my own opinion of the novel and title character as time has progressed. As an adolescent, Fitzgerald’s undiscerning reader, I found myself adoring Daisy, the great lengths with which Gatsby pursues her, and the Jazz Age to be terribly romantic and tragic. Years later, armed with life and scholarly experience, I found myself finding the plausibility of The Great Gatsby and its characters to be less likely and became enamored with the aesthetics of the novel, much like critic Kimberly Hearne. As I complete my final year of undergraduate study (and tenth year of reading the novel) I find myself questioning my judgment of The Great Gatsby yet again: Are the motives behind Gatsby’s American dream pure? Practical? What is Fitzgerald saying about America through his novel? I then questioned how I arrived at these conclusions: Had my progression hardened me to the point that I am now skeptical of the American dream? Has my stance of Gatsby changed? Simultaneously I speculated that literary criticism as a whole, as it developed and changed throughout time from 1925 to 1935, 1965, etc., might have also changed its predominant opinion of The Great Gatsby.
Despite my speculation—which I later found to be incorrect—in my paper, and through the utilization of sixty years of criticism, I will set out to prove that it is not the decade that has determined reception of The Great Gatsby in relation to the American dream concept, but instead the critical approach used. To demonstrate this I will exhibit patterns in particular methods of criticism used, applying time-related synthesis when appropriate, and demonstrate whether or not overall reception was the same for each school of thought. For example, the historical approaches of Michael Green and Jeffrey Louis Decker, written six years apart in the 1980s and 1990s, both reject the destructive concept of the American dream that validated Manifest Destiny and Nordicism. A more intricate comparison arises between reader response critics John Fraser—who is entirely unconvinced by Fitzgerald’s approach to the American dream or the credibility of his characters as heroes—and, thirty-two years later, Jeffrey Rubin-Dorsky—who in the 1990s finds Gatsby to be a totally credible character. Both critics use the same approach but arise at very different conclusions about Gatsby and the American dream. Other interpretations that I will present are Marius Bewley’s 1954 psychoanalytic approach aimed at Gatsby’s illusions, Gerhard Joseph’s 1965 poststructuralist approach to the egg imagery in the novel and its relation to the American dream, Roger L. Pearson’s 1970 religious interpretation of Gatsby as a failed prophet of the American dream, and Kimberly Hearne’s 2010 stylistic interpretation of the American dream in The Great Gatsby. My contribution to this critical discussion will be this synthesis of criticism and my argument that it is the concept of the American dream—a notion that Fitzgerald did not create and even exposed for all of its flaws—that so many critics abhor, not Jay Gatsby.