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Essay on Failure of the Capitalist Ideal in Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby

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 The most striking element in Fitzgerald's demystification of the world of the capitalist ideal is not the human insecurity and moral ugliness bred by the fever of glamour but the absolute failure of the work ethic quite literally to deliver the goods. Only the upper ten percent of the population enjoyed markedly increased income in the 1920s, for as Spindler notes, by 1929 perhaps 50,000 individuals received half of all national share income (166). In 1921, Zinn records, 4,270,000 Americans were unemployed, two million people in New York City lived in tenements condemned as firetraps, and six million families (42 per cent of the US total) made less than $1,000 a year (373); Gatsby opens in the spring of 1922. "Shocking to tell," records Ann Douglas, "71 percent of American families in the 1920s had annual incomes below $2,500, the minimum needed for decent living; in New York in the years just after the war, the average worker earned only $1,144 a year" (18). In addition to the dramatic new polarization of wealth, corporate mergers between 1919 and 1930 swallowed up some 8,000 businesses (there were 80 bank mergers in 1919 alone), in a momentum of monopolistic concentration of wealth and power at the very top that rendered the traditional entrepreneurial dream a hollow fiction for virtually all. By 1929, the 200 largest non-financial companies held nearly half of all corporate assets and over one-fifth of the entire wealth of the nation (Spindler 103). In view of such developments, it is no wonder that Nick finds Tom and Daisy "remotely rich" and feels "a little disgusted" (20), a resentment of privilege shared by the cottagers of the old West Egg fishing village who refuse the offer by the original own...


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... starved, dulled and oppressed. Wilson's garage is a dim and almost bare expanse of dust "approached by a trail of ashes," where work has left him "spiritless, anaemic" (25). Up in the city, Nick falls asleep at his swivel chair, attempting "to list the quotations on an interminable amount of stock" (155). The oppressiveness of broiling heat on the train to Long Island is subliminally clinched by association with industry: "As my train emerged from the tunnel into sunlight, only the hot whistles of the National Biscuit Company broke the simmering hush at noon" (114). (The association may remind us again of the rich, "safe and proud above the hot struggles of the poor" [150].) The work ethic is in crisis, its cruel bluff exposed. Fitzgerald's demystification of capitalist promise could hardly be more thoroughgoing. Or so it might seem.

 

 


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