I lived at West Egg, the—well, the less fashionable of the two, though this is a most superficial tag to express the bizarre and not a little sinister contrast between them. [...] Across the courtesy bay the white palaces of fashionable East Egg glittered along the water, and the history of the summer really begins on the evening I drove over there to have dinner with the Tom Buchanans. Daisy was my second cousin once removed, and I'd known Tom in college. And just after the war I spent two days with them in Chicago. (1.14-15)
Nick sees two kinds of America: the hard-working Chicago, part of a "Middle-West" culture; and the "white," fashionable East Egg. Nick may be able to make it in the Middle-West, but he's not cut out for East Coast life.
I decided to call to him. Miss Baker had mentioned him at dinner, and that would do for an introduction. But I didn't call to him, for he gave a sudden intimation that he was content to be alone—he stretched out his arms toward the dark water in a curious way, and, far as I was from him, I could have sworn he was trembling. Involuntarily I glanced seaward—and distinguished nothing except a single green light, minute and far away, that might have been the end of a dock. When I looked once more for Gatsby he had vanished, and I was alone again in the unquiet darkness. (1.152)
We never see Gatsby's version of America directly; we just get glimpses of it through Nick's narrative and through ephemera like his childhood notebook. But, judging from the way he's staring across the water, Gatsby has a pretty spectacular vision.
The Carraways are something of a clan, and we have a tradition that we're descended from the Dukes of Buccleuch, but the actual founder of my line was my grandfather's brother, who came here in fifty-one, sent a substitute to the Civil War, and started the wholesale hardware business that my father carries on to-day. (1.5)
Nick self-deprecatingly punctures the illusion that his family comes from nobility—but instead, he makes himself into another kind of nobility: a family that actually has achieved the American Dream of wealth and respectability through hard work.
"Meyer Wolfsheim? No, he's a gambler." Gatsby hesitated, then added coolly: "He's the man who fixed the World's Series back in 1919."
"Fixed the World's Series?" I repeated. […] "Why isn't he in jail?"
"They can't get him, old sport. He's a smart man." (112-118)
This New America may not have room for pure-hearted dreamers like Gatsby, but it certainly does have room for corrupt, smarty-pants criminals like Meyer Wolfsheim.
He was balancing himself on the dashboard of his car with that resourcefulness of movement that is so peculiarly American—that comes, I suppose, with the absence of lifting work or rigid sitting in youth and, even more, with the formless grace of our nervous, sporadic games. This quality was continually breaking through his punctilious manner in the shape of restlessness.
He was never quite still; there was always a tapping foot somewhere or the impatient opening and closing of a hand. (4.12-13)
Gatsby is one version of America—the resourceful, athletic, restless young nation striving to make itself better. The problem is, America as Nick sees it isn't like that anymore. It's beaten down, like George Wilson; or it's rich and careless, like Tom. Does that make Nick the happy (or unhappy) medium?
"If it wasn't for the mist we could see your home across the bay," said Gatsby. "You always have a green light that burns all night at the end of your dock." Daisy put her arm through his abruptly, but he seemed absorbed in what he had just said. Possibly it had occurred to him that the colossal significance of that light had now vanished forever. Compared to the great distance that had separated him from Daisy it had seemed very near to her, almost touching her. It had seemed as close as a star to the moon. Now it was again a green light on a dock. His count of enchanted objects had diminished by one. (5.121-122)
When Gatsby and Daisy finally get together, the dream vanishes. Does this mean that the American Dream has to stay forever a dream? That it loses its meaning if we actually achieve it—or that, once we achieve it, we find out that it wasn't so great to begin with?
And as I sat there brooding on the old, unknown world, I thought of Gatsby's wonder when he first picked out the green light at the end of Daisy's dock. He had come a long way to this blue lawn, and his dream must have seemed so close that he could hardly fail to grasp it. He did not know that it was already behind him, somewhere back in that vast obscurity beyond the city, where the dark fields of the republic rolled on under the night. Gatsby believed in the green light, the orgastic future that year by year recedes before us. It eluded us then, but that's no matter – to-morrow we will run faster, stretch out our arms farther...and one fine morning– (9.149)
If there's anything more American than apple pie, it's the belief in self-improvement: that we're all capable of achieving our dreams, if we just hope and work hard enough. Unfortunately for Gatsby, that dream ends in tragedy.
That's my Middle West – not the wheat or the prairies or the lost Swede towns, but the thrilling returning trains of my youth, and the street lamps and sleigh bells in the frosty dark and the shadows of holly wreaths thrown by lighted windows on the snow. I am part of that, a little solemn with the feel of those long winters, a little complacent from growing up in the Carraway house in a city where dwellings are still called through decades by a family's name. (9.121-122)
This is one of the few times we see anything rural in The Great Gatsby—Nick dismissing the "wheat" and "prairies" of what we'd call the mid-west. But the wheat and prairies he's dismissing are partly the basis of American wealth. All that money they spend on the East Coast has to come from somewhere.
One of my most vivid memories is of coming back West from prep school and later from college at Christmas time. Those who went farther than Chicago would gather in the old dim Union Station at six o'clock of a December evening, with a few Chicago friends, already caught up into their own holiday gayeties, to bid them a hasty good-by.
I remember the fur coats of the girls returning from Miss This-or-That's and the chatter of frozen breath and the hands waving overhead as we caught sight of old acquaintances, and the matchings of invitations: "Are you going to the Ordways'? the Herseys'? the Schultzes'?" and the long green tickets clasped tight in our gloved hands. And last the murky yellow cars of the Chicago, Milwaukee & St. Paul railroad looking cheerful as Christmas itself on the tracks beside the gate. (9.120)
Nick may be from Chicago, but it sounds like all the rich people send their kids off East to prep school. What is it about the East in comparison to the West? Are the two regions really that different?
Most of the big shore places were closed now and there were hardly any lights except the shadowy, moving glow of a ferryboat across the Sound. And as the moon rose higher the inessential houses began to melt away until gradually I became aware of the old island here that flowered once for Dutch sailors' eyes – a fresh, green breast of the new world. Its vanished trees, the trees that had made way for Gatsby's house, had once pandered in whispers to the last and greatest of all human dreams; for a transitory enchanted moment man must have held his breath in the presence of this continent, compelled into an aesthetic contemplation he neither understood nor desired, face to face for the last time in history with something commensurate to his capacity for wonder. (9.182)
Now this is a passage to linger over. Before any big houses or valleys of ashes or even lost Swede towns, America in the "Dutch sailors' eyes" was a green, empty land. (They'd apparently never read 1491.) This vision of possibility is the same vision that Gatsby has—but it's no longer possible.