The Illusory American Dream:
How it Affects Identity in The Great Gatsby and Invisible Man
Madden E. Solomon
Saratoga Springs High School
The objective of this research paper was to compare the protagonists of Ralph Waldo Ellison’s Invisible Man and F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, and each man’s quest to forge an identity in modern New York. After collecting several doctoral theses, databases, and editorials as research materials, I was able to make a connection between the two characters. My findings suggested that the identities and ideologies of both Jay Gatsby and the invisible man were significantly impacted by racism, classism, and consumerism on their respective quests. These themes caused major setbacks in each character’s journey to find a sense of self. They forced painful realizations upon the two, causing them to reevaluate their initial goals. Initially made to feel like anything was possible for them, they fell short on multiple occasions. I came to the conclusion that both protagonists are victims of the false hope brought on by an American Dream’s empty promise.
Keywords: protagonist, American Dream, identity, failure, hope, social, illusion, ideology
Identity has always been one of the major focal points of American literature, around which all other themes revolve. Accelerating industrialization rates during the beginning of the twentieth century changed the traditional conceptualization of identity, due to the new employment opportunities it created. Immediately following the First World War, tradition was abandoned in favor of people beginning to give structure to their own newly formed conventions. The workforce saw rapid growth due to the addition of women, children, and African Americans. As these groups started radical movements pushing for the right to claim their own identities, a lot of what had once been considered indisputable was now being tested. As a result of this, the minds of the American people became liberated to the point where they could believe in anything their judgment led them to. This new freedom led to an identity crisis of sorts, however, as people became overwhelmed by the concept of fulfilling their desires. The modern generation developed an obsession with comfort and accomplishment. This refusal to settle for subpar led to the creation of what has come to be known as the American Dream. According to Johan Akesson of Lund University in his 2018 thesis, “through American literature we can trace the American Dream as a representation of hope and idealism turned into disillusionment, depravity and falsity” (p. 4). Though the original motives behind the formation of the American dream were religious, the focus shifted towards financial and social opportunity as people became more self-indulgent. Nineteenth-century writers like F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote of this in their famed works, The Great Gatsby and Invisible Man, respectively. The protagonists of both novels suffer from an innocent and disastrous belief in the American Dream. It is this harmful belief that becomes a detrimental flaw to the identities of both Jay Gatsby and Ellison’s invisible man.
Among the themes of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s novel The Great Gatsby, Jay Gatsby’s quest for the American Dream is unquestionably one of the most evident. Gatsby creates an entirely new persona for himself, an enticing and illusive host of ridiculously lavish parties, in an effort to win back Daisy, his lost love. As his financial gains continue to grow, quality gradually becomes a lesser concern to him than quantity. Gatsby is an outsider in the eyes of the traditional old money community for this reason, but he sees reuniting with Daisy as his means of overcoming this. When told he cannot possibly change the past, Gatsby replies, “Why of course you can!” (Fitzgerald, 1925, p. 98). As Akesson sees it, “Gatsby’s perpetual hope and idealism are representations of the American Dream’s central components” (2018, p. 10). As Gatsby’s dream crumbles apart, his ambition of social mobility becomes essentially pointless. Also according to Johan Akesson (2018):
“Gatsby’s obsession with Daisy and out-earning her husband Tom to financially and emotionally provide for her illustrates what Carringer defines as Gatsby’s “indomitable idealism” and characterizes a significant element of what constitutes a true American within American literature.” (p. 9)
Gatsby is determined to prove to Daisy that he is deserving of her, and he attempts to do so using any means of novelty or fraudulency necessary. “The Great Gatsby’s version of the American Dream is the eagerness within people to reach towards something that is out of reach – something greater than themselves” (Akesson, 2018, p. 15). The Great Gatsby’s characters represent the suspension of traditional morals and ethics in the modern world, and how this is a result of both the frustrating search for identity and the cravings to possess and to consume. Fitzgerald describes the environment they inhabit as “A new world, material without being real, where poor ghosts, breathing dreams like air, drifted fortuitously about” (Fitzgerald, 1925, p. 168). The language used here by Fitzgerald allows him to express the shallow and materialistic nature of Gatsby’s peers, and how empty it leaves them. Unlike those that surround him, “What motivates Gatsby is not material betterment but the evanescent and the intangible; what satisfies him is confirmation of ‘the unreality of reality'” (Will, 2005, p. 131). He is utterly consumed by the idea of having Daisy, to the point where it is more about chasing a fantasy than reuniting with the love of his life.
“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. He had thrown himself into it with a creative passion, adding to it all the time, decking it out with every bright feather that drifted his way. No amount of fire or freshness can challenge what a man will store up in his ghostly heart.” (Fitzgerald, 1925, p.152)
Unable to make sense of his emotions when trying to determine where he stands with Daisy, Gatsby is condemned to face the results of his own irrational thoughts and actions. He is unable to accept that the past they shared no longer exists, and they have grown apart to the point of no repair. The loneliness this causes Gatsby can be seen in his lifestyle of elaborate parties. He claims, “I like large parties. They’re so intimate. At small parties there isn’t any privacy” (Fitzgerald, 1925, p. 54). Though he says this to make himself seem hospitable and social, it exposes his true feelings of emptiness. “Nick describes Gatsby as ‘simply the proprietor of an elaborate road-house next door’ because he has spoken with him for a long time and found out that ‘he had little to say'” (Abidi, 2014, p. 52). Throughout the course of the story, Jay Gatsby’s true identity remains shrouded in mystery until his past comes back to haunt him. “Gatsby’s decline began when people started to know about his true past identity. The people who attended his parties were behind the deformation of Gatsby’s present identity through unraveling his true past identity” (Abidi, 2014, p. 51). When the characters of The Great Gatsby begin to identify Jay Gatsby as a fraud, they reject him. “What most disturbs Tom, and clearly troubles Nick, is not just the fact that Gatsby is a mystery but more that he signals the ‘vanishing’ of whiteness into indeterminacy” (Will, 2005, p. 133). Tom insults Gatsby by telling him marrying Daisy would be like a marriage between black and white. Though this comment is more likely metaphorical than racial, it is clear that Tom sees Gatsby as a threat to the purity of the upper class. Barbara Will has stated in her 2005 research that:
“Such concerns over nature of American identity in the 1920s were shared by Fitzgerald himself, whose own politics at the time of writing Gatsby were directed toward immigration restriction and who remained throughout his life suspicious of those who threatened the group to which he felt he belonged, ‘the old American aristocracy.'” (p. 128)
The characters typically written by Fitzgerald have the characteristic go-getter American drive, and possess ideas that convey the paradigms of the American Dream. Even though Jay Gatsby possesses this appropriate American intent, Fitzgerald punishes him for bidding to fit into a world he does not belong in. “Other critics have made similar note of Fitzgerald’s desire in his conclusion to move beyond the indeterminate, skeptical, paranoid, and morally relativistic world he chronicles” (Will, 2005, p. 138). As a result of his foolish belief in the American Dream, Gatsby finds his Daisy always just out of reach, and himself eventually murdered.
When an individual becomes the subject of harmful stereotypes that have built up over time in a social environment, they become depersonalized to the point where they are more of a statistic than a person. Ralph Ellison denotes this in Invisible Man, when his protagonist states, “I might even be said to have a mind” (Ellison, 1952, p. 3). Invisible Man’s opening pages suggest to the reader that the white characters of the novel believe that the protagonist, due to his race alone, is either considerably less intelligent or has a brain too different from their own to be understood. “Invisible Man illustrates how the American Dream includes racial limitations for Ellison’s protagonist, as he is on a quest to find his own identity in a world defined by white power structures and senses that a geographical migration to New York City is the path to walk” (Akesson, 2018, p. 17). These limitations do not discourage the hero of Invisible Man, however, according to David Price:
“Invisible Man’s experience in the South sets him up for another chance at establishing his identity in the North. Invisible Man in moving to North though still holds his idealism and belief in American social and political structures and believes that he is resolved to begin an identity in keeping with his original conception of social mobility and success.” (p. 9).
Ellison’s protagonist, as well as other, real-life African-American students of the time period, became restricted by the ideals of mainstream American thinking and a lack of exposure to their own cultural legacies, and felt pressured to abandon their heritage. The protagonist of Invisible Man struggles to grasp his freedom and “visibility” as he battles the defining lines of society to claim his identity. “The invisibility of the narrator is not that of his body but is that of his identity as a unique individual the narrator is speaking about the way that people see him and not the way that he sees himself” (Abidi, 2014, p. 83). The narrator states matter-of-factly, after speaking about his “invisibility,” that he is not a freak of nature, nor of history. What Ellison means to express is that African-Americans, in order to properly seek their identities, must be willing to confront the past in order to influence the future.
“The novel’s early formulations of identity reveal the power of social institutions and historical narratives determined by the dominant culture. Many critics have noted the way the novel responds to American conceptions of identity and in particular Negro conceptions of identity and the relation between the two” (Price, n.d., p. 5).
Ellison’s novel delves into the internal conflict faced by African Americans as they faced pressures to choose their new identities. “African-American disagreement about the way to perceive the past humiliations was at the bottom of controversies about how to view the African American national identity” (Abidi, 2014, p. 79). The Founder represents one African-American view of the American Dream in Invisible Man, which is the hope for justice and equality for the African-American people. “This dream, the protagonist eventually realizes, is impossible to fulfill because of the racist ideology which rules society and defines him solely as African-American and therefore, incompetent” (Akesson, 2018, p. 12-13). Dr. Bledsoe represents the other African-American view of the dream, which is to simply blend into the background of society, even if it means trading self-erasure for acceptance. Bledsoe is considered to be successful by those around him, but he has sacrificed parts of his identity in order to please others. Ultimately, Bledsoe morphs from an idol to a villain in the eyes of the protagonist: “For three years I had thought of myself as a man and here with a few words he’d made me as helpless as an infant” (Ellison, 1952, p. 144). The hope that the protagonist began with has been considerably diminished at this point. “After realizing the complexity of Black Nationalism and its failure in America, the narrator redefines his invisibility to the extent that he retreats from society into hiding and contemplates his own identity” (Akesson, 2018, p. 17). Despite being beaten down by this experience, the protagonist finds hope again upon his introduction to the brotherhood. He is given another chance to create a meaningful identity for himself, working as an orator. It is this position that allows him to connect his academic education to his real-world education, though it does not come without a price. As said by one of the members of the brotherhood, “you must realize immediately that much of our work is opposed. Our discipline demands therefore that we talk to no one and that we avoid situations in which information might be given away unwittingly. So you must put aside your past” (Ellison, 1952, p. 120). Ellison’s protagonist is ready to unravel any development in his identity thus far in order to adopt a premade one. Towards the end of the novel, the protagonist goes through a rebirth that results from his new abilities to accept failure and to appreciate “the beautiful absurdity of American identity” (Ellison, 1952, p. 559).
“Ellison’s hero reaches the conclusion that he cannot view his dream as a political, financial, territorial, or religious prize to be won at the end of the road because this would violate its original promise. His journey shows strong evidence for the failure of the American Dream and the narrator realizes this towards the end of the novel in order to redefine his outlook, and himself, before the novel ends” (Akesson, 2018, p. 18).
The protagonist finally begins to realize that he is in the power of defining himself, and not completely at the mercy of those around him. “His identity is based on an illusory reality, but the alternative is solipsism or a renunciation of society altogether, thus ‘I am what they think am’ playing on the solipsistic Cartesian ‘I think therefore I am.’ Therefore, reality and identity are determined by the community” (Price, n.d., p. 11-12). For an identity to be valid, as is implied by Ellison, it must be created solely by the individual, with minimal outside influence.
Both Ellison’s protagonist and Fitzgerald’s Gatsby, throughout their corresponding novels, periodically find themselves on the cusp of social mobility, only to be beaten down. The characters’ identities become defined by hope and failure, success as well as loss. Ellison’s protagonist, though he possesses the ambition and perseverance necessary to become successful, is disillusioned by the discrimination and irrationality that surrounds him. It prevents him from realizing and fulfilling his potential. Gatsby as well finds himself disillusioned, though by different means. He is blinded by his obsessive love for Daisy, and also by the illusion he has created for himself as a sham to fit into high society. These two factors combined send Gatsby into a frenzied pursuit of wealth. His thoughts and actions become completely dictated by the facade he is living under, eventually leading him to his own demise. Gatsby is never able to come to the same realization that Ellison’s hero finally comes to. He is never able to conclude that the American Dream is simply a misleading and unattainable fantasy, but that you can come close by learning to define your own identity.
Abidi, A. (2014). The Quest for Identity in Francis Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby and Ralph Waldo Ellison’s The Invisible Man. (Doctoral dissertation, University of Oran, Oran, Algeria). Retrieved from https://theses.univ-oran1.dz/document/TH4257.pdf
Abdelwahid Abidi’s The Quest for Identity in Francis Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby and Ralph Waldo Ellison’s Invisible Man claims that in the age of Fitzgerald and Ellison, the ideals that America built as the basis of its identity were being challenged, due to new movements towards equality for various social groups. Abidi goes on to explain how the two authors address the issue of identity crisis that occurred during this time, as people struggled to understand their places in the new America forming. He observes that both Ellison’s protagonist and Fitzgerald’s Gatsby, throughout their respective novels, constantly find themselves on the cusp of social mobility, only to be beaten down. The characters’ identities become defined by hope and failure, success as well as loss.
Akesson, J. (2018). The Failed American Dream? Representation of the American Dream in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s the Great Gatsby and Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man (Doctoral thesis, Lund University, Lund, Sweden). Retrieved from http://lup.lub.lu.se
Johan Akesson’s The Failed American Dream? Representation of the American Dream in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby and Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man states that use of the American Dream in American literature has become a tool for depicting individuality. Akesson examines the symbol of the American Dream in both novels, focusing in particular on Fitzgerald’s representation and criticism of the consumerism of the 1920’s, and on the themes of invisibility and racism presented by Ellison in Invisible Man. The essay also considers the relationship between the protagonists of both novels and the liberal, capitalist American ideology, concluding that both protagonists suffer from a naïve and fatal belief in the American Dream. This harmful belief becomes a detrimental flaw to the identities of both Jay Gatsby and Ellison’s protagonist.
Ellison, R. W. (1952). Invisible Man. New York, USA: Random House.
Fitzgerald, F. S. (1925). The Great Gatsby. New York, USA: Scribner.
Price, D. (n.d.). Shaping Identity in an Illusory World: Why Man is Invisible in the Modern World of Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man Editorial. Retrieved May 25, 2018, from Academia website: http://www.academia.edu
David Price’s Shaping Identity in an Illusory World: Why Man is Invisible in the Modern World of Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man explores how the unnamed protagonist of Invisible Man develops and changes his views throughout the course of the novel. These views develop into behaviors that characterize him and establish his identity, as he adjusts from Southern living to finding his place in the North. Price goes on to explain how the protagonist’s perspective on his own identity is completely subjective, based on an “illusory reality” that influences his social consciousness. The way the protagonist reflects on his own persona is completely dependent on his surroundings, as he is led to believe that he is whatever he is told to be.
Will, B. (2005). “The Great Gatsby” and the Obscene World. Retrieved from JSTOR database.
Barbara Will’s “The Great Gatsby” and the Obscene World reveals F. Scott Fitzgerald’s social biases, and delves into how this shaped the characters he wrote about in his novels, particularly in The Great Gatsby. Will provides relevant insight into how historical events during Fitzgerald’s time, such as mass immigration, affected his ideologies. She goes on to explain how this in turn birthed Jay Gatsby, a mysterious protagonist whose identity has been completely forged in order to fit in with the expectations of high society. Will claims that Gatsby’s struggle to feel accepted, and his eventual murder, are Fitzgerald’s way of punishing Gatsby for attempting to become a part of a world he does not belong in. This revelation sticks Gatsby with the identity of an unwelcome immigrant, his achieved standing muddled by a past he cannot erase.