The Great Gatsby and The Godfather: the Place of the American Dream

Published: 2021-09-22 09:25:10
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The American Dream as Power: The Great Gatsby & The Godfather
One of the most apparent similarities between the two works is found in class status and the rise to power. Gatsby was at one point a lower-class worker who went to war, and who bootlegged his way to the top upon his return. It can be assumed that Don Corleone and the Corleone family were immigrants in the early half of the 20th century, where anti-Italian xenophobia was present in the US. Their rise to power was also found through crime, and Michael Corleone, like Gatsby, also went to war.
Now, the way these works treat this fact – that their respective rise to higher class positions was gained “illegitimately” – differs in some notable ways. In The Godfather, the ascent to power is barely discussed, and the business of the Corleone family is presented as somewhat normative, almost benign (as seen in Don Vito’s rejection of Sollozzo’s narcotics-based proposal). In Gatsby, however, the ascent is hidden for the majority of the work. When revealed by Tom, it is used as an attempt at hurting Gatsby by damaging his reinvented image, one that he created for the purpose of wooing Daisy.This leads me to consider why this difference matters – or, more accurately, how this functions. Why does Gatsby’s rise cause him trouble, whereas the criminality of the Corleone’s isn’t seen as explicitly negative?
I think the works function in the ways they do because of power’s role in each of their stories. In Gatsby, the power that comes with his wealth is utilized for a singular purpose: to win Daisy’s love. His is an upper class that is highly concerned with appearances and social status in ways that the upper class of the mob is not. The class of the mob is not concerned with the social in the same way, and power functions differently in the story of The Godfather.
That Gatsby ultimately fails in the task of winning Daisy’s love is perhaps indicative of the work’s view on the American Dream; that wealth and power cannot save someone. Indeed, this seems to be further echoed in Gatsby’s fate, especially Tom’s role in it.
Because Tom is married to Daisy and lives in East Egg (as opposed to West Egg, west being home to the noveau-riche and East being home to family aristocracy), we can assume that his class position is and has always been that of the upper class. Gatsby’s story is not cut from the same cloth. His having moved into the upper class makes him something of an outsider (this is evidenced by the lack of people at his funeral), and he, the outsider of shaky class position, messed with old money-upper class Tom. Tom stays true to his class – and the nature of power – by framing Gatsby for Myrtle’s death, ultimately causing Gatsby’s own demise. Wealth could not save Gatsby from this fate.
Similarly, wealth could not save Don Vito from the inevitability of his own death via heart attack. (This is something of a minor example, as the primary importance of The Godfather’s ending lies elsewhere, but this is still a consistency between the two works). This is another example of the systemic imposing itself on the individual, other important instances of this being, for example, Sonny’s death (his being killed in Carlo’s betrayal); the killing of Apollonia (the bomb intended for Michael); and Michael’s final assumption of the role of Don Corleone. These do, of course, have elements of individual responsibility to each of them: yes, Carlo is responsible for Sonny’s death, and Michael is responsible for his rise to the mantle of Don. However, when examining the motive behind each of these actions, the incentive for each choice follows the same notion of self-interest. Carlo sells out Sonny because he’ll get ahead with Barzini. Michael orders the killings because he’ll get revenge and assume power. This, I would argue, illustrates something of a systemic understanding of power – that in that notion of self-interest, something itself seen as critical to the American Dream, we see a system unfolding on a larger scale that explains the course of events.
This, I think, is the most important note of similarity between the two stories. Both works are about self-made men, yes, but these commentaries stray from a materialist center; instead, they both offer visions of power in America, and while power functions differently in these two stories, the nature of that power can be read as consistent across the board. Gatsby fails to understand this nature, instead assuming a naive understanding of the American Dream, where a self-made man can win love by diving into the upper class (with all of the underlying materialism that that entails). The Corleones, however, have no illusions of this sort. Their class, and their American Dream, is brutal, violent, and entirely unsympathetic, and though Michael, Sonny, etc. may never articulate this explicitly, it is heavily implied that the Corleones understand this to be the way of the world.
When considering these conclusions, it seems that both The Great Gatsby and The Godfather present somewhat cynical views of America. I would argue that their respective comments on the American Dream are displayed through their portrayal of power in American society – the underlying message being that power will take its course regardless of the individuals involved, and that the only choice a person is presented with is to either move with power, or to move against it. This communicates the notion of the American Dream in that choice is the epicenter of this view, even if it must be acknowledged that there’s something more systemic in the two works, that their commentary is more focused on the big picture movings of social structure.

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