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The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald is a shining example of the principle that the most powerful messages are not told but rather shown. Although the novel is written in the form of largely impartial narration by Nick Carraway, Fitzgerald’s criticism of American life and culture during the Roaring Twenties subtly and powerfully permeates the plot. Fitzgerald shows that American society, flushed from victory in the First World War and bombarded with advertisements expounding the wonders of consumer items from cars to refrigerators, has experienced a radical shift in its value system. Through his portrayal of the main characters, Fitzgerald implies that the traditional virtues of thrift, sincere friendship and true love, as described in books like Benjamin Franklin’s Poor Richard’s Almanack, have been replaced by the vices of reckless spending, shallow friendships and superficial love. Furthermore, Fitzgerald implies that although members of high society in the Roaring Twenties would party all night long, their perversion of the values of frugality, friendship and love help repress and reinforce feelings of loneliness and unhappiness.
By detailing the observations made by Nick Carraway of Jay Gatsby, Fitzgerald proves that the work ethic and frugality that originally gave rise to American wealth have been replaced by a wasteful materialism. The grand, raucous parties that Gatsby hosts at his West Egg mansion are a showcase of all the undesirable practices that stem from materialism. Carraway observes that a corps of caterers string enough colored lights in Gatsby’s garden to make it appear like a “Christmas tree,” and that eight servants and an extra gardener are required on Mondays to repair the damages of Sunday partying. The narrator is also amazed by the pyramid of pulpless orange and lemon halves, left to rot at Gatsby’s back door without a second thought after the butler had extracted the juice. Inside the parties, sumptuous buffet tables laden with spiced baked hams and pastry pigs and a full-sized orchestra replete with trombones, cornets and piccolos reinforce a vivid image of a high-class society unconcerned with conservation and hooked on the horn of plenty. By using a surfeit of detail to emphasize the excessiveness of Gatsby’s parties, the author suggests that material wealth is merely a cover for spiritual isolation. Through their liberal use of alcohol and enjoyment of their opulence, Gatsby’s guests can drug themselves into not facing their inability to foster the development of genuine human relationships. That the guests have lost this ability is evident in Nick’s observations of the party atmosphere: “The bar is in full swing, and floating rounds of cocktails permeate the garden outside…[there are] enthusiastic meetings between women who never knew each other’s names.” (40) The superficiality of these introductions and the false gayety of the party become even more apparent as the party ends. Wives complain bitterly about leaving as their husbands take them home, and departing cars are blocked by a coup stuck in a ditch. The reader receives the distinct impression that the exhilarating party is ending in a whimper like a charade that has finally been exposed. The nature of this charade is expressed in Nick’s parting description of Gatsby’s house: “A sudden emptiness seemed to flow now from the windows and great doors, endowing with complete isolation the figure of the host, his hand up in a formal gesture of farewell.” (56) That Fitzgerald chooses this image as the last impression to impart to the reader shows his desire to emphasize the loneliness inherent in extravagant consumerism.
The Great Gatsby depicts the perversion of the value of friendship by describing the empty and meaningless personal relationships of Tom Buchanan–relationships that indicate the profound secret unhappiness of the wealthy. Buchanan’s conduct shows the upper class’ rejection of the traditional conception of a friend as a person to rely upon for honest criticism and help in need. When Buchanan invites his old college acquaintance Carraway to his East Egg estate, he is quick to emphasize his affluence when he points out the sunken Italian garden and snub-nosed motorboat. Carraway notices Buchanan’s need to garner approval: “I always had the impression that he approved of me and wanted me to like him with some harsh, defiant wistfulness of his own.” (7) Clearly, Buchanan does not value Carraway as a true friend but merely someone who can confirm the quality of his estate, and by transitivity, the quality of his empty, unhappy life. This interpretation is reinforced by Buchanan’s association with Myrtle’s circle of friends. At the apartment gathering, Buchanan and Myrtle invite friends that are intellectually and physically superficial. For example, Mr. McKee is an amateur artist whose artistic creativity is limited to the far from imaginative renderings “Montauk Point–The Gulls” and “George B. Wilson at the Gasoline Pump.” Myrtle’s sister Catherine is described by Carraway as having a powdered face and plucked eyebrows and wearing pottery bracelets that clink as she moves. The topics of conversation are shallow and revolve around money; Mrs. Wilson describes her medical bill and her sister declares that she was cheated at Monte Carlo. The triviality of the people and atmosphere are outer manifestations of the triviality of the relationships. This becomes painfully apparent when Buchanan breaks Mrs. Wilson’s nose and the party concludes in disorder. Mr. McKee and Carraway leave, in direct repudiation of the aphorism that a friend in need is a friend indeed. Although Buchanan through his drunken revelry and association with mentally anemic and physically ugly people tries to create a semblance of a fulfilling life, in the end his perversion of the value of friendship demonstrates the wealthy elite’s inner unhappiness.
Because the false love expressed by the main characters is based on the exchange of valuables and not the exchange of values and aspirations indicative of true love, a character like Tom Buchanan promotes spiritual unhappiness in himself and his women. For example, Buchanan first expresses his love for Daisy by holding an elaborate wedding replete with four private cars and a gift of pearls valued at three hundred and fifty thousand dollars. This seemingly grand gesture, however, does not prevent Daisy from crying and getting drunk before the wedding ceremony. Daisy does not love Buchanan and thus no amount of money can replace true love in creating genuine happiness. That Buchanan himself is left unsatisfied is evident in his taking of Myrtle to be his mistress. Not learning the lesson that love cannot be bought, he lavishes her with gifts–even a dog on her whim. Mrs. Wilson’s greed, which has replaced values of true love, is highlighted by her shopping requests: “I’ve got to get [a] massage and a wave, and a collar for the dog, and one of those cute little ash-trays where you touch a spring.” (37) The emptiness of the relationship is finally revealed when Tom breaks Myrtle’s nose and ultimately sealed when Myrtle is killed after an argument with her husband caused by her infidelity. Fitzgerald convincingly shows that the perversion of love reinforces unhappiness.
In The Great Gatsby, Fitzgerald argues that the degraded values of thrift, friendship, and love have created an upper class that tries in vain to hide their isolation and misery. Even though the novel focuses on specific characters in a limited span of time, Fitzgerald’s contemporary work has proved enduring because of its timeless applicability. He makes a strong case for the warning that to lose sight of the values that made America great is to destroy that greatness itself.
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