The American Dream is an endless onion. One will find endless layers of the American dream onion to peel back in order to grasp for an unattainable center. Only tears will be achieved from this endless peeling of the onion’s layers. F. Scott Fitzgerald believed this metaphor to be true and that is evident in his Novel The Great Gatsby and his short story “Winter Dreams.” The illusion and the empty promises of the American dream is exploited by Fitzgerald in his Novel and short story by his exemplary use of symbols, his ability to depict greed and corruption within his characters, and his depiction of the balance of hope.
Fitzgerald has an incredible ability to use symbols within his writings to serve as a deeper meaning. In The Great Gatsby the green light and valley of ashes both represent the illusion of the American dream in a different way. After Nick Caraway had visited his wealthy cousin Daisy and her husband Tom Buchanan, he returned to his West Egg house and noticed his neighbor, Gatsby, reaching for something. Nick “glanced seaward – and distinguished nothing except a single green light, minute and far away, that might have been at the end of a dock,” (Fitzgerald GG 21). Gatsby is reaching out for this green light because he believes it brings him closer to Daisy. Gatsby thinks that if he could just have Daisy, his quest for the American dream would be complete. Fitzgerald uses symbolism to show the unattainability of the American dream with this “minute” “green light” far in the distance by portraying the American dream as always one step ahead and how there is always one more thing to add to the dream.
Later in the novel Tom insists that Nick come with him to the Yale club, but they end up departing from the train at an unknown city to Nick. This unknown city was called “the valley of ashes – [which was] as fantastic farm where ashes grow like wheat in ridges and hills and grotesque gardens; where ashes take the forms of houses and chimneys,” (GG 23). Again Fitzgerald uses the literary device, symbolism, to have the valley of ashes represent or symbolize the unavoidable corruption that comes with the rich’s indulgences on material wealth and empty pursuit of the American dream. A common theme throughout The Great Gatsby was that the American dream is an illusion; the valley of ashes fortify this ideal by showing that no matter the wealth or status they still leave behind “ashes” or scum to be raked up by those below them. With the green light representing the unattainability of the American dream and the valley of ashes symbolizing the corruption of it, Fitzgerald makes the overall illusion of the American dream evident.
Just as in Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, there were two prominent symbols in his “Winter Dreams”: Judy’s Boat and Golf Balls. Towards the middle of the short story everything seems to be going right for Dexter. Everything was going perfectly for Dexter, “for once, he was magnificently attune to life and that everything was radiating a brightness and glamour he may never know again [but then] […] two white streamers of cleft rolled themselves out […] drowning out the hot tinkle of the piano in the drone of its spray,” (“WD” 242). Just as Dexter has reached what appears to be the pinnacle of the American dream, a new luxury “streams” by “drowning out” all previous success to make room for this new empty pursuit. Fitzgerald’s motif that the American dream is just an illusion is reiterated when he uses a boat, driven by Judy, as a symbol for dissatisfaction that a materialistic life can lead to.
While Dexter is pursuing wealth and respect, he ends up golfing with his old boss, Mr. Hart, and a few other respectable gentleman when an unexpected event occurs. Someone is the distance calls out “Fore,” “and as they all turned abruptly from their search a bright new ball sliced abruptly over the hill and caught Mr. T.A. Hedrick in the abdomen,” (Fitzgerald “WD” 241). Although in Fitzgerald’s version of the American dream there is no real threat of physical violence, the golf ball hitting Mr. Hedrick alludes to the aggression that lurks below the surface of the rich and luxurious life style. Fitzgerald uses the “bright new ball” to represent the shiny luxury of the wealthy life style, while the ball hitting Mr. Hedrick represents the inevitable, less glorious side of the American dream in “Winter Dreams.” Fitzgerald, having Judy’s boat represent the dissatisfaction that the American dream brings and the bright white golf ball represent the aggression that lies beneath the surface of the wealthy life style, is clearly able to use symbolism to show the illusion of the American dream.
Tom and Daisy Buchanan from The Great Gatsby are used by Fitzgerald to exemplify the emptiness of the pursuit of the American dream. Tom Buchanan has everything a man could want, money, a good looking wife, and respect from others, but his mistress always gets in the way of his ultimate happiness. Tom’s wife, Daisy, had a “face [that] was sad and lovely with bright things in it, bright eyes and a bright passionate mouth,” while Tom’s mistress, Myrtle, was a “thickish figure of a woman […] faintly stout, but she carried her surplus flesh sensuously as some woman can,” (GG 9, 25). Tom has what some consider a trophy wife with “lovely,” “passionate,” and “bright” features while his mistress is basically fat with her “surplus flesh” and “thickish figure.” Fitzgerald uses these two characterizations to show how the pursuit of the American dream is an empty one because no matter how much perfect one’s life may be there is still always something more to add.
Later when Jordan suggests that they plan something to do, Daisy Buchannan runs into an internal dilemma. “‘All right,’ said Daisy, ‘what’ll we plan?’ she turned to me helplessly: ‘what do people plan?'” (GG 11). The word “helplessly” sums up Daisy’s situation, for she has all this money and all this time yet she knows not what to plan for a simple afternoon. Fitzgerald uses Daisy as an example of why the pursuit of the American dream is unfulfilling by showing Daisy as helpless even with the phenomenal amount of money she has. Tom and Daisy Buchanan are examples used by Fitzgerald to annunciate the illusion of the American dream by showing them as people who need more once they have it all and as people that have it all, but are not able to do anything with it.
In Fitzgerald’s “Winter Dreams” his main character, Dexter, supplemented by Judy Jones, is used to demonstrate the hapless hunt for the American dream. Toward the end of the story, as Devlin is talking with Dexter, Dexter makes a discovery. Dexter discovers the miserable state in which his once lover, Judy, lives when Devlin says, “Oh, Lud Simms has gone to pieces in a way. I don’t mean he ill-uses her, but he drinks and runs around,” (“WD” 253). Judy Jones is seen earlier by most as a magnificent unattainable object, but now she is shown “by Fitzgerald as Judy Simms, a mom who has a drunk as a husband. Fitzgerald shows that eventually all of Judy’s ills as a person caught up to her; therefore, using Judy’s character development he shows that however high one gets on the quest for the American dream, the downfall is that much harder.
Once Dexter has made this immense discovery about Judy, he has a period of reflection. Dexter “had thought that having nothing else to lose he was invulnerable at last — but he knew that he had just lost something more, as surely as if he had married Judy Jones and seen her fade away before his eyes,” (“WD” 254). Judy was the unattainable object that Dexter had given up on achieving, yet when Devlin told him that her looks had “faded,” felt as if he “had married Judy Jones and seen her fade away before his eyes.” Fitzgerald uses the fading of Judy Jones as the equivalent to the fading of the American dream for Dexter; therefore, Fitzgerald is showing how the American dream is an illusion by showing how it alluded Dexter and faded right “before his eyes.” Fitzgerald’s characters, Dexter and Judy, provide examples of his theme of “Winter Dreams” that the American dream is an illusion.
Fitzgerald believes that hope must be balanced, but believes that the quest for this balance is ultimately a lost cause; he shows this by showing the two extremes of the balance in his two characters from The Great Gatsby, Gatsby and Tom. When Tom is visiting Wilsons garage to pick up Myrtle he comments on the scenery. “‘Terrible place, isn’t it,’ said Tom, exchanging a frown with Doctor Eckleburg,” (GG 26). Tom’s exchange with Doctor T. J. Eckleburg and the valley of ashes indirectly shows his lack of hope and faith. Gatsby, an extremely hopeful person, would look at the scene of the valley of ashes and think of a way to improve it for a profit, but because Tom was born into money he looks upon Doctor Eckleberg and the valley of ashes without hope and with a “frown.” Fitzgerald points out Tom’s lack of hope to provide contrast to Gatsby’s extreme hope and to show that Tom’s lack of hope proves that the American dream is not able to be achieved.
The final sentence of Fitzgerald’s novel is stated by Nick. Nick says, “Gatsby believed in the green light, the orgastic future that year by year receded before us,” (GG 180). Gatsby was on Fitzgerald’s extreme side of hope. He had so much hope for the future, the wealth, and the American dream that he ended up losing all of it, including his own life. Fitzgerald uses Gatsby’s extreme ability to hope as a lesson to the reader that too much hope for the American dream will lead to illusion and despair. Fitzgerald shows that the American dream is merely an illusion by showing the two extremes of hope between Gatsby and Tom and how it leads to either death or an unsatisfying life and how the balance in hope is inevitably unachievable.
Fitzgerald again shows the need for unachievable balance in hope with Dexter and Judy in “Winter Dreams.” At the beginning of part two, the way in which Dexter lives his life is explained. Dexter “often […] reached out for the best without knowing why he did it-and sometimes he ran up against the mysterious denials and prohibitions in which life indulges,” (“WD” 240). Fitzgerald explains Dexter’s blind faith and incompressible hope with which he lived his life. This hope ended up leaving him to deal with the “denials” and “prohibitions,” of life; therefore, showing of how extreme hope can lead to “denial” and despair is Fitzgerald’s way of depicting the illusion of the American dream.
At the end of section four, while Judy is attempting to persuade Dexter to come back to her, she does something unexpected. Dexter was shocked when, “Judy began to cry quietly to herself. He had never seen her cry before,” (“WD” 251). This is the first time that Judy shows any compassion or signs of emotion, which is used by Fitzgerald to show the consequence of her complete lack of hope. Judy’s lack of hope is shown because she was born into money, she has no want or hope for anything. Fitzgerald is showing that once it seems that she has achieved the American dream it is ripped from her because the American dream does not exist. Because both extremes of hope lead to bad things, Fitzgerald shows that balance is necessary, but unachievable.
Through Fitzgerald’s writings he dissects the American dream and exploits its empty promises with is spectacular use of symbols, his ability to depict the greed and corruption within his characters, and his depiction of the balance of hope. The American dream is an endless onion: it will be peeled by those seeking its core, but only to find tears. Gatsby, Tom, Daisy, Dexter, and Judy believed in the endless onion, the orgastic future that year by year receded before them. So they beat on, boats against the current of their own tears, borne back ceaselessly into the past and other vegetables.
Fitzgerald, F. Scott. The Great Gatsby. New York: Scribner, 2003.
Fitzgerald, F. Scott. “Winter Dreams.” F. Scott Fitzgerald: The Short Stories. Ed. Matthew Bruccoli. New York: Scribner, 1989. 236-255.