The beginning of the 20th century was marked with substantial changes including the industrial revolution, WWI and the gradual diversification of moral views as opposed to the uniformity imposed by the clericalism that had dominated the American society from its conception.
The dynamically changing morality first and foremost touched the new bourgeoisie, or the class of people who made their fortunes rapidly and became wealthy at relatively young age.
The Great Gatsby is a famous novel by American author F. Scott Fitzgerald. The action takes place on Long Island and in New York City in the 1920s era. The characters of the drama are mostly wealthy, yet young people, going through the stage of the inner morality reformation.
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The literary work depicts the stable upper-middle class of the 1920s, who used to live in the West Egg district of Long Island. Contemporary New York City lured people with its countless opportunities to realize oneself and improve one’s material well-being; Nick Carraway, a Yale graduate, is not an exception. He is flexible and intelligent enough and thus moves to New York for the purpose of learning and working in bond trade.
Furthermore, he’s originally solvent enough to afford a flat in the fashionable West Egg district: “My family have been prominent, well-to-do people in this middle-western city for three generations. The Carraways are something of a clan and we have a tradition that we’re descended from the Dukes of Buccleuch […]” (Fitzgerald, 4).
Upon the arrival to New York, Nick soon gets attracted to the fun-driven lifestyle, implying noisy parties, light flirt and false, theatrical love. The family of his cousin Daisy, who lives not far from Nick, is equally wealthy and aristocratic: her husband Tom graduated from a prestigious university and runs a successful business. Daisy is a beautiful, but excessively materialistic woman, who once had a romantic affair with Gatsby, but soon rejected him because of his allegedly questionable ability to provide for the future family.
Instead, she accepted Tom’s proposal and selected confidence in the tomorrow’s day as opposed to the strong, barely controllable emotions she had for Gatsby (Milford, 69). The protagonist of the novel, Jay Gatsby, stands to certain degree apart from the lawful third-generation businessmen he is on friendly terms with. Gatsby is a descendant of a poor family, but, owing to his motivation for learning, he manages to enter St. Olaf’s College, which he, however, soon leaves because of the despair, associated with his janitor’s job (Turnbull, 122).
Driven by his love for Daisy, he fanatically seeks ways of becoming rich and even dares break the law and engages with criminal business. However, the protagonist remains sincere in his attitude towards people and seems extremely kind, generous and broad-minded person: “It was one of those rare smiles with a quality of eternal reassurance in it that you come across four or five times in life… [his face] believed in you as you would like to believe in yourself” (Fitzgerald, 52-53).
As one can assume, wealth, as implied in the American Dream, particularly popular among the middle-class population, is one of the major themes of the literary work: “The Great Gatsby is a highly symbolic meditation on 1920s America as a whole, in particular the disintegration of the American dream in the era of unprecedented prosperity and material excess” (Bruccoli, 73).
Wealth, or, more precisely, its lack, becomes the major reason for the destruction of the beautiful fairy tale romance between Gatsby and Daisy. Financial prosperity is also the main factor motivating Tom’s extramarital lover, Myrtle, for seeing the man on the regular basis. Finally, money becomes a catalyst of Gatsby’s tragic outcome of being slaughtered after taking Daisy’s blame for the accident with Myrtle (Bruccoli, 79; Lehan, 211).
When approaching the theme of wealth from an alternative perspective, it is possible to notice The Great Gatsby contains a comprehensive overview of the sociology of upper-middle class and newly minted rich businessmen. In particular, the western part of the district is inhabited by newly rich, whereas the denizens of East Egg represent nobility and aristocracy: “Fitzgerald portrays the newly rich as being vulgar, gaudy, ostentatious, and lacking in social graces and taste.
Gatsby, for example, lives in a monstrously ornate mansion, wears a pink suit, drives a Rolls-Royce, and does not pick up on subtle social signals, such as the insincerity of the Sloans’ invitation to lunch” (Lehan, 215).
At the same time, aristocratic circles are depicted as mannequins, whose public behavior rarely reflects their true beliefs and attitudes. For instance, Tom is unfaithful in his relationship with wife and starts an affair with a woman, whose background is far from aristocratic and who lives in a poor neighborhood.
Wealth is also close-knit with the theme of moral freedom, which causes the moral degradation of the top society (Lehan, 233). The Buchanans are literally heartless: instead of attending Gatsby’s funeral and demonstrating their respect for everything the dead made for safeguarding Daisy’s reputation, they simply change the place of residence and distance themselves from the tragedy both physically and psychologically.
Even Gatsby, the most “authentic” and open-minded person in the novel, seems adversely affected by his wealth and sinks in the marsh of criminal affairs increasingly deeper so that even his surroundings learn about his illegal alcohol business and murders he committed.
Therefore, by describing the wealthy New York City communities of the 1920s, Fitzgerald prominently illustrates the negative impact of excessive prosperity on human value system and intrinsic ethical principles. The author also proves that money provides great freedom, but really few people are psychologically prepared to accept and successfully manage it.
- Bruccoli, A. New Essays on The Great Gatsby. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1985.
- Fitzgerald, F. S. The Great Gatsby. Wordsworth Editions, 1993.
- Lehan, R. F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Craft of Fiction. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1966.
- Milford, N. Zelda. New York: Harper and Row, 1970.
- Turnbull, A. Scott Fitzgerald. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1962
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