Parsing the Parables: Why Context Matters

Actually opening up and reading a bible can be a pretty surprising experience for people nowadays. Go ahead and google any phrase involving ‘controversial’ and ‘Christianity.’ You’ll end up with a whole slew of clickbait-esque slogans, from’s ‘Top 5 Controversial Bible Verses With Commentary’ to Buzzfeed’s ‘7 Shocking Bible Verses You Probably Won’t Hear in Church.’ Probably not all that shockingly, the articles aren’t generally very academic.

Now, the lack of sophistication should in no way negate those articles’ relative importance. The fact that people are so startled by the violence, sexism, and slavery found in these verses speaks to the current conception of Christianity. Christians and atheists alike are somewhat justified in only expecting specific topics from the Bible. They’ve rarely seen any others.

I have heard plenty of sermons, attended plenty of theology classes, read plenty of biblical commentary. And I’ve come across an odd misconception related to this ancient text. It’s not just that there are currently misunderstandings of what exactly the Bible does or does not say. It’s that there always have been. On the most basic level, societies have assigned a specific authority to this book — the Book — with the assumption that it means the same thing that it has always meant, that there’s some unchanging base-level authority which has remained constant.

That base authority is, of course, supposed to be God. But such simplified thinking allows several degrees of cultural ignorance: the events that actually happened, the people that wrote the events down, the people that translated the writings, the people that interpreted the translations, and — most importantly — the cultures in which all of this happened.

Lauri Thurén, a writer who knows a whole lot more about the Bible than I do, points out that over time, “the assessments of literary history on early Christian writing have fundamentally changed” (106). In other words, the way we look at biblical texts is not a constant. And this is particularly problematic because the way we interpret the Bible changes the way some people will live their lives. God is supposed to be the base constant of the work, so we ignore how the words themselves have changed over time.

Now, avoidance of such oversimplification means being able to peer outside of our own narrow views and opinions; ignoring how others have thought is to ignore how others will think, and to assume that our current ‘correct’ understanding of a concept is and has always been right. You and I will see the same letters when we read a chapter, but even if you are from the exact same culture and time that I am, I doubt we’ll read quite the same thing. The variable is whether we let our values cloud our reading without considering what has shaped them. Ignoring our personal bias makes it impossible to understand what a text means beyond our own specific reading.

Some make this distinction by foregoing their personal opinions entirely. In “Parables Unplugged” — unplugged, supposedly, from any bias of the reader — Jesus’s stories are explored within a clean framework: the ‘claim’ made by the story, the ‘data’ enforcing the credibility of the claim, and the ‘warrant’ connecting the the story to the facts. Employing this robotic framework takes every bit of individuality out of the reading. It’s an attempt to carry the story back its origin. On this practical basis, the author walks through every parable in Luke.

The end of Luke 5 contains one of those parables where Jesus uses inanimate objects to explain why on earth his disciples are not doing what every other good religious person is doing. In this particular case, a group of Pharisees (the straight-laced high-class Jews) comes questioning why Jesus’s close Jewish followers are not observing the basic tradition of frequent fasting, which was essentially common courtesy for religious people at that point. Jesus has three answers for them: people don’t fast with a bridegroom, people don’t fix old clothes with new clothes, and people don’t fill old wineskins with new wine. And that’s all; I can’t imagine the Pharisees were completely satisfied with such an explanation.

But Thurén breaks it down for them. According to her structured reading of the latter two parables, Jesus presents the ‘warrant’ that “old and new should not be mixed,” based on the ‘data’ that “Jesus’ message means something new,” thus pushing the ‘claim’ that “old rules do not apply to Jesus’ message.” Her academic reading makes historical sense, and moreover is largely agreed upon as the right one. I’ve heard that sermon before, explaining why Christians don’t exactly follow Old Testament rules or why maybe some of those 7 Shocking Bible Verses aren’t so damning after all; because they’re old, and we’re concerned with the new, and Jesus said we don’t want those mixed together. Or our wineskins might break.

But I don’t think the Pharisees were as convinced as Thurén was that “the issue can no longer be simply the disciples’ fasting” (262). They asked Jesus why his followers weren’t obeying the rules of his religion, and he gave them sewing advice. The academic jump Thurén so easily makes between Jesus’s metaphors and old rules not being applicable to his message was not all that easy at the time. Even if the Pharisees were willing to sacrifice their original question for this theological explanation, whether they would agree on Jesus’s meaning is doubtful.

Not even all current academic readings come to the same conclusions. While Thurén has her step-by-step process, Ruben Zimmermann writes on the slew of ways scholars have taken the stories apart before: some create groupings like “a) family, village, city, and beyond; b) masters and servants, c) home and farm,” or “parables of the temple, parables of the land, parables of the economy, and parables of the people” (187) to provide further clarification as to what a parable might mean. Other scholars “distinguish between formal and textual aspects,” from the genre to the number of words to the introductory sentences (185), all to provide a structured basis for coming to a particular conclusive meaning.

Debates on what Jesus meant in Luke 5 range from the small-scale reading of this parable to a large-scale perspective on how much of the entire Bible remains relevant. And that second argument is further broken down into whether we should only follow the rules that Jesus restated, or continue to follow all rules except for those Jesus changed. Even within the conceptual reading of the parable, disagreements range all over the place. Some have popular sway now, in a time when most Christians very easily set aside the more conservative sets of biblical codes; and some have been much more popular in the past, notably the far more strict (and profitable) reading favored in the Catholic church’s heyday in Europe.

Those readings are all hugely based on context. The society in which I read the parable today is not the society in which my great-great-great-grandparents read it, and theirs isn’t the one in which their ancestors read it either. Who read it, and when they read it, changed what they read.

And the possibilities are endless. Put the text in front of someone unfamiliar with the Bible without the name Jesus, and chances are they would wonder at the advice they just got on when to fast, something they probably never do, how to fix their clothing, something they probably never do, and how to decide what to put in their wineskins, something they probably never do. Taken without a little theology the passage is remarkably irrelevant. I absolutely wouldn’t care about it if I hadn’t been told it means something more.

And that highlights the danger of all these uninformed interpretations. I was told that this string of sentences about old and new possessions helps to determine how much of the Bible I should listen to. That’s a pretty weighty decision, considering the sort of claims it makes throughout, from the very irrelevant and ignored — “Thou shalt not wear a material mixed of wool and linen together” (Deuteronomy 22:11) — to the incredibly relevant and written on protest signs — “Thou shalt not lie with mankind, as with womankind; it is an abomination” (Leviticus 18:22). The decisions Christians make about whether to follow those rules are important today. If they’re going to make them based on Luke 5 and other passages like it, understanding this variability becomes absolutely paramount.

The problem we’re hitting here is the difference between what the Bible is meant to be and what the Bible is.

It is meant to be the timeless text central to its religion, meant to be the word of God always present to guide those on earth.

What it is is a book. And it carries with it all the flaws big old books intrinsically bear, and even more because of the nature of this specific text. Nowhere will you find a book more discussed, more studied, more translated, more interpreted. The Bible has been through an awful lot: the stories themselves hold a huge amount of history, and many were passed around orally for quite some time before being written down. Then they were narrowed down into which specific books would be included in the final draft, then translated from Ancient Hebrew and Greek into hundreds of modern languages. Every step of the way, more interpretations emerged, more specifications arose for how it should and must be read to truly follow the word of God.

The vague background assumption that the way we read the Bible now is how it always has been and always will be read becomes dangerous with the potency of the text. If Person A reads the passage and decides that it means nothing in the Old Testament is relevant, Person B reads the passage and decides that it means both testaments are important in different situations, and Person C reads the passage and doesn’t think it relates to the Old Testament at all, there will be disagreement. If all of them fervently believe that their reading is the true word of God and refuse to consider the other views, the fight gets ugly. Moreover, they might all still be wrong.

The original importance of the text has to be taken into account for interpretation here; where and when and by whom it was written changed what ended up on those pages and should, at the very least, help decipher the original intentions. But words and context are changeable. Expecting one and only one reading to be foundationally and undeniably correct provides grounds for arrogant fundamentalism, which can help people use the Bible to justify next to any opinion. There are a lot of words in that book, words that have traveled very far, and if people look hard enough for their interpretation, they will be able to find it; how out of context and how twisted it is depends on them.

To step back and understand what is really being said means moving away from these bafflingly quick readings. I wouldn’t scroll through one of Derrida’s texts, grab the sentence “Writing is no more valuable… as a remedy than as a drug” just because it agrees with me, and then forcefully argue that anyone who doesn’t think that’s what Derrida believes is wrong. It’s out of context, out of place; that’s an oversimplification of an issue as multi-layered as that of the Bible, but the principle of the thing still stands. Where words came from and what we use to interpret them are key to what conclusions we come to. Explaining the contexts behind those interpretations can help move us away from our bias to understand why other people think how they do. Debate can then shift from unexplained perception to justified reason about what the Bible might actually be explaining.


Works Cited

Thurén, Lauri. “The Parables as Persuasion.” Parables Unplugged: Reading the Lukan Parables in Their Rhetorical Context, Augsburg Fortress, Publishers, 2014, pp. 249–344,

Zimmermann, Ruben. “Reading and Analyzing Parables.” Puzzling the Parables of Jesus: Methods and Interpretations, Augsburg Fortress, Publishers, 2015, pp. 183–210,

Imitating Chuck Klosterman, particularly in “Death by Harry Potter” (
An earlier draft of this essay was read by Emma Lezberg and Joelle Troiano.

Lyrics as Literature

Last month, the New York Times proclaimed that a committee of Norwegians had “dramatically redefined the boundaries of literature” by offering a Nobel Prize to musician Bob Dylan. To the shock of some and the approval of others, the choice “[set] off a debate about whether song lyrics have the same artistic value as poetry or novels” (Sisario). Disbelief at the negativity of the reactions was compounded when many critics justified the decision purely because Dylan had also written prose, because he made references to scholarly works in his songs, or because his lyrics could potentially be read as poetry on their own. Such justifications are an insult to music; they suggest that words made sonorous no longer qualify for our time, study, and thought in any serious capacity. Media of such critical importance and popularity should not be undersold with suggestions that it only achieves literary merit by replicating a different art form. Stretching the boundaries of literature into the realm of sound does not diminish it but instead provides greater emotional access to the words. Music adds a new dimension which pure writing simply cannot achieve.

If words can gain literary merit by becoming musical, songs from a less “literary” artist than Bob Dylan should be able prove this benefit. Mumford and Sons, a folk rock band which found widespread success in its three albums from 2009, 2012, and 2015, provides a particularly fitting example. Lead singer Marcus Mumford has said that music is written when “you can’t really express how you’re feeling, so you write it down with poetic license and vent as much as you want” (Patterson). The importance of his statement is its implications. He claims that writing lyrics helps him express what he doesn’t know how to express; how can you express in words what you don’t know how to say in words? Another element must be introduced to offer a richer expression than plain writing. That is where the musicality of the work comes into play.

In the same interview, Mumford revealed that “We’re just writing songs that ask questions.” Asking a question can be done with only pen and paper, but melody adds a previously unaccessible layer of meaning. This tendency of songs to pose questions encourages two objections to their qualification as “serious literature.” First, unlike a novel or a biography, pop songs simply do not have the space to write out every detail of the arguments and stories they attempt to tell. Second, the nature of music is more crowd-seeking than the average sonnet. The pressure towards popular themes has supported the mentality that songs are not worth the same consideration as poems, which can be shorter without having their integrity questioned. If music is truly a feature of language, neither of these complaints should stand.

Brevity alone is not a disqualification from literary merit. The very existence of haikus shows that short works have been considered worthy of analytical reading. In music, the scarcity of words tends to leave open extensive interpretation, more so than in novels or biographies which can employ their length to offer more specific and in-depth statements. “Ditmas,” a short, bright track from Wilder Minds, opens with just the sort of vagueness scorned by those critical of musical prestige. The first verse sings of “a life lived much too fast to hold on to,” surrounded by obscure references to some time, someone’s past, and an unspecified “I” and “you.” Since it is unclear what exactly the subject is, the verse could be applied to an unlimited number of stories. Those who suggest that this interpretive gap devalues music ignore the history and implications of this obliquity.

The genres of song lyrics (not always considered literature) and lyrical poetry (almost always considered literature) were not always so distinct. Indeed, the blurred lines between the two are what legitimize the excuse that Dylan’s work could be accepted as literary due only to its “poetic nature.” Scholar Mark Jeffreys explains that the history of this schism created “the modern lyric…at the intersection of a fading Petrarchism and a rising admiration for the epigram” (120). He follows the path of short styles from historical epigrams and inscriptions to today’s modern work. Of particular importance was the shift of epigrams from purely written words to “emblem books,” where they were accompanied by visuals to fill out their stories. In their wake was “a lyric poetry that had not only acquired epigrammatic tendencies towards terse suggestions and tight closure, but also a self-referentiality and obliquity” (125). Short forms, in their reliance on images, became even less specific. Once the pictures faded out, the language was too obscure to understand what was actually being talked about. Brevity became a problem because once sophisticated authors moved away from images, they had neither excessive words nor pictures to fill in their works’ newfound conciseness.

Into this void entered sound. Lyrical writings were now better equipped than ever for the “tradition of lyric as a poem to be sung” (120), because something had to fill the interpretive gap left by the emblem books. Still, this practice of excluding portions of the narrative has left marks on current music. All “Ditmas” offers are fragments of a story: “one reminds the other of the past,” “I had been resisting this decay,” “The world outside just watches.” Never does the band give solid reference points to what happened in the past, what is being resisted, or what is being watched.

Such vagueness has been exploited as one of music’s weaknesses; it can’t be literary if the author doesn’t explain what he is talking about. But this gap does not degrade significance. It can instead be a door into understanding a work. Jeffers suggests that “No one can write in short forms without being forced to make a host of assumptions about what one’s audience will know or be able to ascertain from the barest textual information” (129). Such assumptions are necessary when words are too limited to offer explicit meanings for every lyric. These assumptions are what turn some critics away from music, as they feel that so little can be gained from a line like “I’ll never wear your broken crown,” the refrain of a disputed set of lyrics with grim religious undertones and spirited instrumentals from Mumford’s second album. The interpretation is left open; the listeners are on their own to parse the meaning of the pronouncement, since again the “I” and “you” are unspecified, as is what sort of crown we’re discussing and just how metaphorical it is. Speculations range as to what that line references, but that is precisely the point. While reality shows the writer to be the son of an English clergyman who refuses to call himself religious (a reading which reveals what the writer was likely to have meant), Mumford did not assume that his audience would be aware of this. When asked about the song, he left it at “I’m never gonna tell you who or what it’s about” (Patterson).

But even if he didn’t want his explicit story dragged into everyone’s interpretation, he does make assumptions about the society that would hear his music. A song with lines like “I will not speak of your sins” and “How dare you speak of grace” assumes an audience with enough awareness of the connotations of sin and grace to understand the religious implications. His religiously worded song with a less-than-religious mood presumes a society that to some extent understands the significance of the biblical references in a non-biblical context. The expected understanding of the song thus reveals what assumptions the author presumed the reader would have; as in short poetry, this expected background knowledge makes lyrics a useful lens with which to look at the culture in which they were written.

This lens explains why “songs receive little critical attention until they have lost their audience and become historical curiosities” (131). Critics who concede that songs can have literary meaning once we want them for this more historical pursuit can accept that understanding old songs offers a window into old cultures. Yet this same critical attention is refused to more current works. Songs offer an expectation of what their audiences will identify with; people’s responses to them are a critical cultural indicator, particularly in an age when information about who listens to what music when is so readily available. Classifying current music outside the realm of literature is thus problematic because it ignores current culture. If music can be used after its time to distinguish cultural patterns, there is no reason to not extend that study to the current time, for the same reasons we study current books as well as historical ones.

However, up until now we’ve ignored the hallmark of music: sound itself. While plenty of people do love and study poetry, today’s poets do not reach anywhere near the popularity and esteem of today’s musical artists. What makes them different is the complexity added by the language of music itself. Evidence of this essential difference lies in its effects.

The source of music’s peculiar grip on people is not a new question. Roger P. Phelps goes into detail on such studies in “The Psychology of Music and Its Literature,” which offers an overview of psychological musical papers since the 1920s when the question started to be approached by contemporary methods. The field encompasses “aesthetics, acoustics, measurements, performance, and therapy” (114), and there “is still a great need for considerable research” (125) in such fields. Even though these studies have yet to reach conclusive answers on every effect of music, Phelps at least manages to show that music certainly does have unique effects on people’s minds. Dozens of authors are cited who look at why music might change moods and mindsets, its practical uses for therapy, and its origin in aptitude or training. There is something for all of these writers, psychologists, historians, and musicians to try to understand about music.

Few of us can deny having felt that effect, that something different. The first impressions of “Ditmas” focus on the fast beat, the happy key, the soaring vocals; attention lies in the emotions projected into the song, not the words written through them. The full script forces amendments to that fully optimistic interpretation, but does not destroy it. Mumford’s words may be what his song is built on, but they do not define its meaning alone. The line “so I cry / as I hold you for the last time in this life” would in most contexts be heartbreaking, because the words evoke a picture of the speaker being torn from someone he cares about. Empathy does not let the listener ignore the melancholy undertones of final and heartbreaking goodbyes; the instruments behind the line do. They refuse to fall when the theme falls. “Broken Crown” uses this additional tool as well. In this case, it augments the angry words with angry noise instead of the juxtaposed emotions present in “Ditmas.” Here is the dexterity so valuable to be gained in music. Sound becomes a new tool for the author. Their words are now received in a mood partially induced by whatever background noise with which they decide to pair the words.

Mumford may write questions in the lyrics themselves, but as a songwriter, the words are no longer his sole tool in pondering those questions. He gets to give the question more; he decides how it is said, in both tone and volume; and he decides what else is happening while it is said, discord or harmony. Music allows its writers more choice, a means of expression beyond simple words.

While the brevity of music imposes limits on how much a lyricist can express, the musical qualities themselves provide a means of further exploring the work in a way inaccessible to the purely written word. As with any literature, the audience will have its own interpretation of the writer’s work. The pure author- the novelist, the historian, the scholar- has only words with which to shape this impression. Music offers another way to express, another way to shape the audience’s experience. And its way is far less constrained than a book’s. No matter how creative or experimental a writing style is, identical sounds will not accompany every reader’s experience with story. Music’s features offer a tone unbound completely by language. This freedom allows musicians much easier access to people’s thoughts and emotions, instead of just their logical thinking patterns. Even though musicians have less ability to shape their audience’s thoughts with logical explanations and definitions, they trade the length in for an even more powerful tool: the ability to shape emotions and feelings in a much more immediate way.

Martin Heidegger is one of the many philosophers who has considered language’s role in our loss of touch with the world. His solution is poetry. Lyrical music can be a saving grace for much the same reason. It offers us words without the same analytical mindset books sometimes force upon us. Because musical words are presented with background noise, with a feeling and emotion behind them, we can hear “Ditmas” and experience the happiness without getting caught up in the sad words; we can hear “Broken Crown” and feel the anger without needing the entire explanation behind it. The specifics of the lyrics offer some insight on what the songs might mean, but language is no longer alone in defining what the work will offer. Words become one aspect instead of the entirety; and in this way they lose their monarchical power over our reactions to text. We no longer understand words purely on a basis of their definition; we can now hear the emotions behind them, a dimension unique to music.

Works Cited
Jeffreys, Mark. “Songs and Inscriptions: Brevity and the Idea of Lyric.” Texas Studies in Literature and Language, vol. 36, no. 2, 1994, pp. 117–134.
Mumford and Sons. “Broken Crown.” Babel, Markus Dravs, 2012,
Mumford and Sons. “Ditmas.” Wilder Minds, James Ford, 2015,
Patterson, Sylvia. “Mumford & Sons: ‘We’re Fans of Faith, Not Religion.’” The Big Issue, 3 Oct. 2012. Web. 10 Nov. 2016.
Phelps, Roger P. “The Psychology of Music and Its Literature.” College Music Symposium, vol. 15, 1975, pp. 114–125.
Sisario, Ben, Alexandra Alter, and Sewell Chan. “Bob Dylan Wins Nobel Prize, Redefining the Boundaries of Literature.” The New York Times. N.p., 13 Oct. 2016. Web. 9 Nov. 2016.

Broken Crown

Dreaming of America

Representation, representation, representation; what American student hasn’t been pelted with that word over and over again? The Revolution was fought for a lack of representation in Parliament. The Civil War was fought for a lack of representation for African Americans. Suffrage was fought for a lack of representation for women. We care about what stands for us, and we care about what our country stands for. We want the United States of America to represent good; good values, good people, good economies. Since the founding of our nation, one of our primary symbols for that sought-after status has been the American Dream. But does ‘the American Dream’ mean what it always meant? That definition fundamentally shapes how we view our country and its goals, and that understanding changes what people want out of their lives and what the government tries to give them. How this dream manifests itself profoundly affects our interactions with the world around us, and it is dangerous to assume that we completely understand and control this aspiration. It is always changing, always misunderstood, always just out of reach. If the American Dream is the ultimate goal we claim it to be, understanding what it is and how it changes is essential to understanding our own trajectory and fate in the world.

The American Dream has changed many times, but let’s focus on a particularly recent shift, because it is the most relevant. World War I spelled a sudden change in American perception of the world they lived in. They had witnessed people killing other people on a grand scale and had experienced shortages and loss in recent memory. While nothing compared to the difficulties coming in its sequel, the first World War gave the Americans a taste of hardship that was revolted against spectacularly in the interwar period. Out of that riotous quest for comfort was born F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby: the ultimate symbol of money-loving, glory-seeking, party-going New York fame.

The Great Gatsby is a love story. Nick Carraway gets entangled in the romantic affair of his neighbor, Jay Gatsby, and Nick’s cousin, Daisy Fay Buchanan. Gatsby personifies a rags to riches story, clawing up the social ladder through the prosperous business of illegal alcohol. Daisy is frivolous, married, and old-money through and through. Naturally, it does not work out; Gatsby builds himself up from nothing so that he can deserve her, yet they are completely incompatible people. One of the main interpretations of this affair places Daisy as the American Dream and Gatsby as the citizen working tirelessly to achieve her.
The first description we get of Daisy is full of false promises. Nick describes her looking up to him in a way that “promis[ed] that there was no one in the world she so much wanted to see” (9), and giving the appearance of “a promise that she had done gay, exciting things just a while since and that there were gay, exciting things hovering in the next hour” (9). Both are entirely false statements. Nick and Daisy are not close, and the last thing she did was sit in a room for hours doing nothing and the next thing she’ll do is sit in another room for hours doing nothing. She is perceived as offering some exciting prospect which she does not truly offer. It is revealed even in her words. She explains that she has “‘been everywhere and seen everything and done everything’” (17), again not possibly true, but it is the feeling she gives off. It matches the picture of her as a dream to be chased–something exciting, both attainable and exalted, in store just for us.

Gatsby thinks his key to that dream is money. He was born into a poor German family that farms for a living in the Midwest. After falling in love with Daisy, the only way he knew how to become worthy of her was joining the social elite through wealth. Even Fitzgerald’s descriptions of color stick solely with money. Gatsby reaches for “a single green light” (21) on the end of Daisy’s dock from his own house. Why choose green if not for the specific color of our currency? And the only color descriptions from the first party Nick attends at Gatsby’s are gilded; the only food given a color is meat “bewitched dark gold” (40), the band plays “yellow cocktail music” (40), the only outfits described are “two girls in twin yellow dresses” (42), and even the people descriptions are narrowed to “Jordan’s slender golden arm” (43). It’s a golden party in a green garden. Gatsby is surrounded by money symbolism from the start. This is what he worked for, the green and gold to get him to the top with Daisy. If he has wealth, he believes he can have her.

Then there’s Gatsby’s own falsehood about his past. He tells Nick that his “family all died and [he] came into a great deal of money” (65), which makes him old money instead of new. He further justifies his status with an education at Oxford, a decorated history in the war, and favors owed to him by important people; these are all marks of Daisy’s social circles instead of those he inherited. His fantasy mirrors a particular image from the American Dream. Once money and status are achieved, the past can be forgotten. The image of the American melting pot shows people coming in British or Irish or French or Italian and all coming out American, erasing the past and disowning their heritage. Gatsby remakes himself and tries to delete all that he once was. The American Dream he embodies, working hard for riches and status, says that anyone can make it.

The tragedy of the novel is that Gatsby doesn’t end up with Daisy. She chooses Tom, and Gatsby is killed in the aftermath. This man who has apparently done everything right, at least according to the model of hard work equals success, loses it all. Daisy, his American Dream, was not his to take. She chooses the old money, the thoroughly upper class American. The implications of Daisy representing the American Dream the nation seeks becomes troubling. The message that all can come to America and succeed is refuted, even though that was the slogan for so many years while American recruiters went to Europe in attempts to pull immigrant workers overseas for cheap labor. They made the United States attractive by feeding the foreigners the same lie that Jay Gatsby lost his life to: it does not matter where you are from because, if you have determination and intelligence, you can make it big. Yet, according to this template, Gatsby does everything right. He uses whatever means he can, and does the improbable thing of finding huge success for his trouble. He still cannot win Daisy; he still isn’t as ‘good’ as Tom.

Fitzgerald’s social criticism portrays the unfairness of the peddled American Dream. He proves that following the template doesn’t always get people where they want to be. He proves that that particular American Dream–trade smart labor for all you ever wanted–is a farce. The implication is that Daisy, as the American Dream, has become unattainable by wealth and success. The fact that he bothers to make that critique suggests that something has shifted, that the American Dream was once realistic and isn’t any more, but no one has realized it just yet.

The concept of an American Dream achievable for all spawned from the beginning of the country. Maybe the first American Dream was religious freedom for the pilgrims in their City on a Hill. Fast forward to the revolution in the British colonies, and the dream is the Founding Fathers’ American experiment: can a democratic republic, a previously unheard of governing style, truly function? Fast forward more: manifest destiny, the explicit need to expand west and span the continent. Fast forward again: industrialization, immigrants flooding in, everyone believing that America is a new opportunity, a fresh start, a melting pot where any nationality goes in and one nation comes out. World War I hits, and with it the Gatsby extravaganza: get rich to achieve the American Dream, but it won’t accept you, even if you do everything right, even if you try to erase the past. Keep moving on to today: what is our American Dream? Because if it is still Gatsby’s dream of riches and fame and love, we’re calling it what it’s not. We say the American Dream meaning a dream that has carried on from the Mayflower’s landing; we still talk about it as if it’s the same as it always was. The concept has changed without the word’s permission, and we have used it to justify lusting after an entirely different American Dream.

And that is why we need to care about the way words change. The American Dreams we’ve had in the past have been in reach. It was when its meaning changed that it became something as unachievable as Daisy always was for Gatsby. Daisy certainly loves him at some point, but in the end she leaves him. By that choice, she represents how this idea can entice us with no real reward, no matter how reachable it seems and how hard we might work for it. We believe it possible because the word itself once meant something possible for our country: religious freedom, basic human rights for humans other than white males, a fairly stable life. World War I made Americans want more, but they called it by the same name. They did not realize how they discredited the initial inspiration by filtering it through more material and commercial desires. By going in search of this new American Dream as Gatsby sought, we now seek what cannot be found.

Works Cited
Fitzgerald, F. Scott. The Great Gatsby. New York: Scribner, 1925. Print.