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Through its unflattering characterization of those at the top of the economic heap and its appalling examination of the ways in which the American Dream not only fails to fulfill its promise but also contributes to the decay of moral values in a modern society, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby provides a critical social history of America in the twenties within its narrative. Fitzgerald creates a setting in which wealth is at the heart of everyone’s desires. The artificial world of The Great Gatsby displays a notable discrepancy between the East and the West. The materialism of the East creates the tragedy of destruction, dishonesty, and fear. No moral values exist in such an environment. Fitzgerald portrays in this novel the putrefaction of innocence and of true love under the influences of capitalism and materialism through the relationships between characters. The relationships between Tom and Daisy, Tom and Myrtle, and Nick and his mind all attest to this theory of decomposition.
Tom and Daisy’s unstable relationship offers an example as to how wealth overrules love in the relationships within this narrative. Daisy, the quintessential air-headed, southern belle, and Tom, the stereotypical brute jock, in theory, make the perfect pair of superficial beings. However, it is clear that they are not truly happy with each other for they share affections with people outside of the relationship. Therefore, the question should arise as to why the pair stays together. The narrator, Nick Carraway, even questions why Tom and Daisy are together, saying that they “retreated back into their money or their vast carelessness, or whatever it was that kept them together” (136). In the end, what other reason except for the social confines and expectations of the time would explain the relationship between Daisy and Tom Buchanan? Gatsby, stuck in the social class of “new money” (122), is left by his mutual lover, Daisy, because she craves the lavish lifestyle with which Tom provides her. The materialistic belongings of Daisy are an overcompensation for her insecurities. Nick says that the couple “drifted here and there unrestfully wherever people played polo and were rich together” (17). This statement is a subtle attestment to the lack of intimacy and to the abundance of corruption and unhappiness in the relationship.
The relationship between Tom Buchanan and Myrtle Wilson also projects the idea of a relationship which has been corrupted by materialism. Tom tries to justify his affairs by saying that “once in awhile [he] goes off on a spree and make(s) a fool of [himself], but [he] always come(s) back, and in [his] heart [he] love(s) her all the time” (156). However, even Tom’s marriage with Daisy is simply an exchange for her youth, beauty, and social status. Tom uses his money and social status to have affairs with working-class women, such as Myrtle Wilson, who are simply property to him. His extramarital affairs with Myrtle Wilson can be understood in terms of his view of human interaction. The idea that the worth of a human being lies in the value of his possessions comes into play in this instance. On the other hand, Myrtle Wilson’s affair, to her, was a taste of the aristocratic champagne. Tom was the symbol of wealth and power for which Myrtle had sought. Myrtle even flirts with Tom in front of her husband, George Wilson when she “smiled slowly and, walking through her husband as if he were a ghost, shook hands with Tom, looking him flush in the eye” (26). In ruining their relationships with Daisy and George Wilson, these characters succeed in shaking the integrity of marriage. Their adulterous acts are desperate cries for both wealth and class and self-worth. Thus, the growing social idea of materialism causes multiple episodes of infidelity, expunging the sanctity of marriage.
Lastly, Nick Carraway’s internal conflict serves as a prime example of the decay of innocence, influenced by the new social standards. At first, he has mixed emotions about his East Coast move where the people lack the same integrity and good morale as those of his native region, the midwest. Nick Carraway is an emotionally sound character whose defining traits include honesty, good judgement, and midwestern innocence. In fact, in the beginning of the novel, Carraway says that he is “one of the few honest people [he] knows” (59). He judges the people who have been corrupted by wealth or power; he say that Tom and Daisy are “careless people” (145); he also says that Jordan Baker, somewhat of a love interest, is “incurably dishonest” (158). Throughout the novel, his character evolves into a more East Coast personality. He is stripped of his innocence and becomes less socially naïve because of his experiences with partying, affairs, and general corruption and dishonesty. His interaction with the other characters molds him into a replica of everyone else. Later, Carraway resolves this conflicting by moving back west. He says that “when [he] came back from the East last autumn [he] felt that [he] wanted the world to be in uniform and at a sort of moral attention forever [and he] wanted no more riotous excursions with privileged glimpses into the human heart” (4). His change of heart and loss of innocence is due to his exposure to the corruption of the world and his involvement with the surrounding characters.
Fitzgerald portrays in this novel the putrefaction of innocence and of true love under the influences of capitalism and materialism through the relationships between characters. For every relationship built on a stanchion of wealth and power, love becomes just another ring on a finger. Fitzgerald offers a moral observation about the difference between the characters of the East and of the West. Those from the Midwest—the newly arrived Nick Carraway — are fair, relatively innocent, unsophisticated, while the East natives —Tom and Daisy Buchanan— are unfair, corrupt, and materialistic. The failure of the American Dream rests on the fact that it’s only impetuses are materialism and capitalism. With these social changes, the artificiality of the world becomes increasingly undeniable and love and innocence become endangered social species.
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