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The United States of America is often referred to as the land of endless possibilities, where everyone can achieve everything. The belief in the so-called American Dream, which gives the people a sense of hope that includes the opportunity for economic prosperity and success, was and is still present. “Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness”, as also stated in the Declaration of Independence, are the main tenets of the American Dream. However, for many people, this pursuit of happiness can only be reached through prosperity. This materialistic attitude can also be seen in The Great Gatsby, which was written by F. Scott Fitzgerald in 1925. In this novel, the characters are steadily “progressing … towards the achievement of the American Dream”. However, “this journey towards the attainable yet unattainable is full of practical challenges”. The following term paper will analyse to what extent the characters in The Great Gatsby are corrupted by this materialistic attitude and society. It will show that living in a society which is primarily dominated by this attitude and idea of wealth providing exclusiveness generally results in corruption and moral decay. Also, it will discuss how the novel, in its critique of materialism, reflects and comments on social and cultural discourses of the 1920s concerning wealth, happiness and moral corruption. To allude to this topic, I will first give a short overview of the society and the role of wealth in the United States in the late 1920s. Secondly, the different types of social classes will be named and characterized. In the analysis, I will have a look at selected characters from the novel, namely Daisy Buchanan, Jay Gatsby and Myrtle Wilson, for the purpose of showing that materialism affects their lives in a very negative way. Even though Nick Carraway is a first-person narrator without being the protagonist, which makes him an unreliable narrator to some extent, I decided to still use his descriptions for my analysis. A closing conclusion will end this term paper.
Society and Wealth in the 1920s
The novel is set in the 1920s, a time in which people led “destructive lifestyles, drinking excessively”, as Currell describes it in her book American Culture in the 1920s. Society was about the change due to several reasons in this decade. In the north of the country, the economy was booming and industrial companies were expanding more and more. This time is often referred to as the “Jazz Age” or the “Roaring Twenties.” The United States slowly evolved into a global leader, in terms of politics, economy, and culture. An explosive augmentation of the circulation of money was the result of the economic boom and the increasing interest in gambling on the stock exchange. For the first time in history, even the average citizen was interested in the stock exchange and started to gamble on it. The “society played fast and loose with its money”, as Streissguth conveniently depicts it. What is interesting is the reason why people were interested in the stock exchange. The average worker tried to gain wealth through stocks or bond issues, while the already rich people tried to increase their wealth. Another change in the society of that time is urbanisation. People started to leave their rural homes and moved to urban areas. This can also be seen in the novel, in which Gatsby moves from his home in North Dakota to West Egg. During this process, new cities and urban areas arose. “By the census of 1920, the United States was for the first time an urban society”.
Types of Social Classes
All these events and changes, mostly the rising increase in the flux of money, led to a constantly increasing separation of society. By the end of the 1920s, three types of social classes can be grouped. These groups were the “Old Money”, the “New Money”, and the so-called “No Money”.
The first group is the so-called “Old Money”. Old Money refers to families that have had possession of a certain amount of property or wealth since the 19th century, this also means they have established influential social connections. Their property is passed on through heritage generation by generation. Old Money families consider themselves as the dominant class and describe other classes as primitive. This is also a reason why they do not accept new people in their ranks, so one could say that there is a sense of coarseness to the rest of the world. Looking at this class, they are mostly described as rather conservative and more educated than the other classes. In comparison to others, they are very responsible with their wealth and they know how to deal well with their money. In the novel, two representatives of this class are Daisy and Tom Buchanan. Their selfish and callous personality perfectly fits the description of this class. Also, their way of treating other people is characteristic of this class. One example of this is how Tom treats George Wilson throughout the novel.
The second group is the so-called “New Money”. People of this group have attained their wealth in the economic boom of the 1920s and are the first generation of their family to obtain wealth. They can be seen as some kind of new heroes in society, as Batchelor confirms by saying that “[m]oney stood at the centre of American culture in the 1920’s, and the era’s brokers and investment bankers reigned as society’s new heroes”. Because they did not grow up being wealthy, they tend to be more lavish with their money. In comparison to the Old Money, these people barely have any social connections and are often described as less educated and less elegant. In The Great Gatsby, Jay Gatsby is one representative of this class. His unstinting, to some extent even wasteful character perfectly fits the description of this class. He, unlike Tom Buchanan, wants to meet new people and wants to be surrounded by them. However, one could argue that he tries to counterbalance his lacking social contacts through his extravagant parties. Also important is the spatial separation of the classes. Old Money people live in East Egg, while the New Money people live in West Egg. This separation through a bay also represents the division of classes during that time.
The third group is the so-called “No Money”. People belonging to this group have, as the name already suggests, no property or wealth. Most people desperately try to do anything to climb up the ladder of success and to be part of that uprising new class. They are willing to do anything to achieve their goals without realizing that they will never be able to leave this class, as the other classes will not accept them. In the novel, two examples of this group are Myrtle and George Wilson. They are not really described in detail, which gives the reader the sense that they are easily overlooked or ignored. This can be seen as a form of critique because, as in real life, the No Money people are overlooked, and everyone is just interested in the people above them, living a desirable life. The only thing they share with Gatsby, for example, is the fact that they will both never be accepted by the class above them. Gatsby, as a part of New Money, will never be accepted by the Old Money and Myrtle and George will never be accepted by the New Money because they do not own any wealth.
Examples in The Great Gatsby
The first character, which will be analysed, is Daisy Buchanan. Looking at the types of social class from chapter three, Daisy definitely belongs to the class of Old Money. Born in a noble Confederate family, she is described as a wealthy attractive upper-class woman who was adored by many young men. However, when having a closer look, it becomes clear that she is corrupted by this materialistic worldview. One example of this corruption is the birth of her daughter. “I’m glad it’s a girl. And I hope she’ll be a fool – that’s the best thing a girl can be in this world” are Daisy’s own words. In her opinion, her daughter can only be successful in this world when she is pretty and foolish. Daisy herself has no income, like most Old Money people, because she was born rich and never had to work. Even though Daisy describes herself as “pretty cynical about everything”, I would disagree with this to some extent because she is more sensitive and romantic than described. This can be seen in the fact that she did not want to marry Tom, as she was waiting for Gatsby, and the only reason she married Tom was not love but rather to maintain her status in the upper class. In contrast to her image, Daisy is not naïve at all, but rather uses her chances smartly. However, Daisy ends up being an egoistic and hurtful woman, which is reflected more and more as Nick gets to know her. Her real character can be seen in two of her actions. After she hits Myrtle with the car she just leaves the scene. The reader can interpret this as a perfect representation of her character because for her Myrtle, who, to Daisy, is just a part of the lower class, is not worthy of her care and attention. The other action is that she just plays with Gatsby because she is interested in his wealth throughout the novel. This becomes clear after Gatsby’s death because Tom and Daisy move to another city and she ends up with someone she does not really love but helps her to maintain her status.
The next character being analysed is Jay Gatsby. He is part of the New Money class because he is the son of a poor family in North Dakota but worked his way up to wealth. One could argue that Gatsby can be seen as a symbol of the American Dream, as he is the poor boy who worked hard to achieve his dreams and becomes rich. However, he did not earn his money through honest work but rather through a criminal career. This is already one hint that Gatsby is corrupted by this idea that wealth is a desirable aim. Another argument which displays this fact is his lifestyle and especially his parties. His lifestyle is extravagant and some may even call it excessive. He drives a Rolls-Royce, owns a huge mansion and celebrates parties and is doing all for acceptance into society. Schiff points out that “while the old money members of society remain caught up in underlying grief for their decline in society, those who are … outsiders, such as Gatsby, struggle to receive acceptance”. Of course, one could say that he throws his parties to impress Daisy and to get her back, but this was not very successful as she does not turn up to most of the parties and he needs Nick to get her to one of them. In the novel, there is one scene in chapter V, which specifically underlines his corruption. When Nick suggests that he could invite Daisy, Gatsby wants to reward him. This shows the reader that Gatsby, working his way up, does not know what a favour is because he says “it wouldn’t take up much of your time and you might pick up some nice bit of money”. In the same scene, Gatsby seems to have no patience because while waiting for Daisy Nick states that “he looked at his watch as if there was some pressing demand on his time elsewhere”. Gatsby believes that time is money and does not want to lose time. Also, the fact that he is emphasizing that everything has to look perfect also displays his need control and his obsessive behavior.
The last character which will be analysed, is Myrtle Wilson. She belongs to the No Money group because she is a working-class woman not being wealthy. We do not know much about her when we get to know her; only the fact that she is married miserably to George Wilson. She despises her husband because he has come to nothing yet, which underlines her materialistic worldview. The quote “I knew right away I made a mistake. He borrowed somebody’s best suit to get married in” shows, that her husband not being able to buy a new suit bothers her, as he is not able to provide her with the lifestyle she desires. In the novel, a comparison between Myrtle and Daisy perfectly displays the division of classes. Myrtle, being described as earthly sexual, stands in strong contrast to Daisy, who is said to have an angelic ambiguous charm. Also, the way both characters are dressed points out the difference. While Daisy is dressed in pure white, Myrtle’s dress is spotted and dark blue. Even the names themselves highlight this division. Whereas both women got their names from flowers, Daisy got her name from a white delicate flower while Myrtle got it from a common shrub. All these facts clearly show that an upper-class woman was seen as more beautiful and more important, as Daisy is described with all positive attributes. Just as with the other characters mentioned before, Myrtle’s attitude and desire for wealth corrupts her, even resulting in her death. While she desperately desires a luxurious life, she tries to build up wealth. “The panoply of consumer items Myrtle gathers around her to convince herself she leads a glamourous and exciting life” shows this quite well. To change her class, she tries to enter a relationship with Tom Buchanan. She hopes that he can help her to reach her desired wealth. Her wish corrupts her in such a way that she does not even realize that he is just playing with her. In the end, it is this love that kills Myrtle, as she gets hit by a car while running on the street because she thinks that she sees Tom coming for her.
As shown in this paper, The Great Gatsby, which is “one of the few works of literature that nearly everyone is at least acquainted with in text or film form” shows the division of social classes that arose in the 1920s. The novel depicts the different classes and their characteristics quite well. It shows the competition between Old and New Money as they both will never accept each other because they are born into different worlds. The fact that we do not know much about George Wilson or other No Money people shows that lower class people were easily ignored or disappeared in society. Nevertheless, one has to keep in mind that Nick, as a narrator, is unreliable and that the way he frames the story was not analysed or considered in the analysis. He himself states in the novel that we cannot determine the events happening, but we can determine the report of them. He also says that he does not want to judge people while reporting his facts. If you take that into account, it could be interesting for further works to analyse how Nick’s way of telling the story influences the way we receive it. Finally, I would like to depict that this portrait of a spoiled, superficial society perfectly fits our modern society. Even though the novel was written and published in the 1920s, I would argue that the situation is pretty much the same today, as people still aim for wealth and think that luxury is a desirable aim. So, one lesson we can learn from The Great Gatsby is: “Wealth fills our bellies, but leaves us spiritually hungry”.
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