After a time of prosperity, the roaring 1920’s became a decade of social decay and declining moral values. The forces this erosion of ethics can be explained by a variety of theories. However, F. Scott Fitzgerald paints a convincing portrait of waning social virtue in his novel, The Great Gatsby. Fitzgerald portrays the nefarious effects of materialism created by the wealth-driven culture of the time. This was an era where societal values made wealth and material possessions a defining element of one’s character. The implications of the wealthy mindset and its effects on humanity are at the source of the conflict in The Great Gatsby, offering a glimpse into the despair of the 20’s. During a time of “postwar American society, its restless alienation, and its consequent reliance on money as a code for expressing emotions and identity” (Lewis, 46), Fitzgerald focuses his pen on the inevitable emptiness created by the illusions of wealth and its anomalous connection with love during the 20’s.
In order to convey his theory, Fitzgerald builds a repertory of superficial characters whose existence revolves around material value rather than tangible human qualities. For example, Tom Buchanan, the husband of Daisy, is introduced as having an appealing and rich life. “He’d brought down a string of polo ponies from Lake Forest,” Nick comments about Tom. “It was hard to realize that a man in my own generation was wealthy enough to do that,” (p. 10). Tom is depicted as an enormously wealthy “national figure,” one with handsome and powerful “physical accomplishments” (10). But Fitzgerald’s description does not go much further than that. Tom’s persona is limited to a list of superficial accomplishments none of which resemble any spiritually fulfilling traits. Tom thus represents the end result of a person consumed by wealth, because that is his only defining characteristic.
Although we could pity such a character, Fitzgerald makes sure that we don’t feel much of anything towards Tom because he was born into wealth and never had to pursue it. “His money was divested of dreams before he was even born” (Lewis, 51). Since Tom’s lifestyle links intrinsically to his character, nothing he does resembles the passions and desires of a natural human being, rather he is portrayed as a machine or byproduct of his family fortune. Tom la...
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... to love, the most powerful of all human feeling. “The culture of wealth,” writes Marius Bewley, “represents the romantic enlargement of the possibilities of life on a level at which the material and the spiritual have become inextricably confused,” (Bewley, 37). Gatsby learned this lesson the hard way, giving up his spiritual vision of love and losing it to the emptiness associated with wealth.
Fitzgerald realized the confusion in the 1920’s of a culture based around wealth and used his novel to expose the blandness of wealthy lifestyles in contrast with the human feeling of love. If love were a color it would be red, and if it had a mind of it’s own it would remain far from the gray “Valley of ashes” (27) of New York in the 20’s. Gatsby unfortunately combined those two worlds together and the gray dusted over the red. In the end, Gatsby is murdered, Tom and Daisy continue like zombies, and Nick, disenfranchised, decides to leave altogether. Fitzgerald portrays the essence of emptiness in all the characters touched or consumed by wealth and leaves the reader with a clear message: No sense of fulfillment, specifically regarding love, will result in a life consumed by wealth.
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