The novel “The Great Gatsby” in general is about middle and upper class American citizens and their lives a few years after the conclusion of First World War. The author (Nick Carroway), a World War I veteran himself, shows an insight into the lives and minds of American soldiers who fought in Europe during the conflict and the interesting experiences some may have had in the years following their return. The novel deals with many of the social attitudes and ideas that prevailed during the early 20″s.
Historical facts are cleverly infused into the novel giving the reader an insight into society of the time. A clear view of the discrimination that existed in that time period against non-whites and women was evident, for instance, a conversation takes place between characters in the novel in which civilization is said to be going to pieces as a result of “The Rise of the Coloured Empires”. Women are also constantly referred to as “girls”.
Incorporated also, is an interesting plot of a man´s extreme love for a woman and the catastrophic events that take place as a result. This was indicative of many people of the day who had a spouse but also maintained a relationship outside of the marriage.
During the 1920″s America was a country of great ambition, despair and disappointment. The novel The Great Gatsby is a reflection of this decade, it illustrates the burning passion one man has toward his “American Dream” and the different aspects of the dream. Fitzgerald´s work is a reflection of America during his lifetime. The Great Gatsby shows the ambition of one man´s reach for his “American Dream,” the disappointment of losing this dream and the despair of his loss.
In the 1920″s the spirit and ambition of the American people soared. Unlike the Europeans who were trapped in the social class to which they were born, the American people knew that if they worked hard then they could rise to a higher social class, seeking the “American Dream”. The women´s liberation movement was an example of how Americans expressed their newly discovered social freedom. It seemed that nothing was impossible to achieve. James Gatz, shared the spirit and ambition on the American people and fought long and hard to earn his place in the world. He had dreamed of transforming himself from the poor, young man that he was into the wealthy celebrity that he would soon become. Although Fitzgerald had no way of foreseeing the 1929 crash, the world he presents in the novel clearly seems to be headed for disaster, where society places its faith in superficial means (materialism).
The main themes in the book are the decay of morals and values and the frustration of a “modern” society. The Great Gatsby describes the decay of the American Dream and the want for money and materialism. This novel also describes the gap between the rich and the poor (Gatsby and the Wilson´s, West Egg and the Valley of the Ashes) by comparing the differences between the Western United States (traditional western culture) and the Eastern United States (money obsessed values). On a smaller scale this could be seen as the difference between the West Egg (the “new, money) and the East egg (the “old” money).
The 1920″s was a time of corruption and the degradation of moral values for the United States and many other countries. World War One had just ended and people were revelling in the materialism that came with the end of it, new mass produced commodities such as motor cars and radios were filling people´s driveways and houses, money was more accessible (before the Great Depression). Cars were becoming a social symbol in the 1920s as we can see with Gatsby´s five cars, one of which he gives to Nick and one of which kills Myrtle Wilson later on in the novel.
The parties that Gatsby held every week in the summer were a symbol of the carelessness of the time. Gatsby would hide in the house while the “guests”, most of whom were not even invited, would party, eat and drink until the early hours of the morning without even meeting the guest or even knowing who he was, people would turn up just to be seen or reported in the local newspapers “In his blue garden people came and went like moths among the whisperings and the champagne.” This shows the carelessness of the guests. Another quote about the parties refers to the way the guests devour the endless supply of food and never give a thought as to who gave it to them. “Every Friday five crates of oranges and Lemons arrived from a fruiterer In New York- Every Monday these same oranges and lemons left his backdoor in a pyramid of pulp less halves.” This is also a symbol; it relates the “pulp less halves” to the rather “empty” guests, soulless people obsessed by image and wealth, a corruption of the American Dream.
Another sign of the fall of the American Dream in The Great Gatsby is the way Gatsby makes his money. Gatsby gets his fortune through the illegal sale of alcohol (”bootlegging”). The sale of alcohol was prohibited in the United States in the 1920s. Gatsby came from the Eastern United States where there was “new money.” There he met Dan Cody who taught him how to “bootleg.” As Gatsby became richer he moved to West Egg in New York. Gatsby´s house is a rather artificial place, the house was originally built to impress Daisy with his so-called wealth, and this is a sign of a corrupt way of “winning” love through money and wealth. Gatsby´s house is furnished well with old looking ornaments; his house also has a library, which is full of “uncut” literature. The conversation between Jordan and another at one of Gatsby” parties talks about the books: “Absolutely real – have real pages and everything. I´d thought they´d be a nice durable cardboard.” These books and antiques are just Gatsby´s way of showing off his wealth to others, however Gatsby doesn´t really care for materialism, we can tell this because his bedroom, the only room he really ever uses, is empty compared to the rest of the house (apart from his wardrobe full of shirts he does, and will not wear, they are only there to impress Daisy).
The fall of the American Dream and corruption is also evident in the position and treatment of children in the story, Daisy and Tom´s daughter, Pammy, is treated as an object to show off rather than a child to love. “The child, relinquished by the nurse, rushed across the room and rooted shyly into her mother´s dress.” The child does not know her mother very well and is still very shy to go near her. Gatsby had never really known of the existence of Daisy´s child, as Daisy was probably afraid to tell him about her. “Afterward he kept looking at the child in surprise. I don´t think he had ever really believed it its existence before.” The word it instead of her also denotes the child´s position as nil. Daisy uses the child as a show item: “I got dressed before luncheon,” said the child, turning eagerly towards Daisy. “That´s because your mother wanted to show you off,” replies Daisy. When the child speaks to Daisy, Daisy never answers or replies to her. Daisy always changes the subject as if she doesn´t even notice the child is there. For example, when the girl comments Jordan” dress, Daisy ignores her and asks her what she thinks about her friends: “Aunt Jordan´s got on a white dress too” (said the child).”How do you like mother´s friends?” (Replies Daisy). Also: “Where´s daddy?” (Said the child) “She doesn´t look like her father,” explained Daisy. “Daddy” (Tom) is never around; he was not there when his child was born. Daisy thinks that Tom is “brutish” and she has never really liked him, suggesting that she only married him for his wealth.
The Great Gatsby is a great portrayal of the corruption of society and the fall of the American Dream. The Great Gatsby shows us the way people will fall into the hands of money, greed and power and get involved in illegal activities to get where they want and what they want. This book is a perfect example of the fall of the American Dream in the 1920s.
Fitzgerald describes the society of the time as either having money or no money at all. However, Fitzgerald expresses that there are two classes of wealthy the “old” or “new” money.
The “old” money people like Tom and Daisy Buckhannan and Jordan Baker, were born into wealth, not having to work, they are judgemental and superficial failing to view the essence of people, they view others with wealth with uncertainty not concerned with how much money they have, but where they acquired it from, and in Gatsby´s case they take an elitist view over his bootlegging (therefore his attempt to disguise his past). The “old” money view the “new” (Gatsby) as lacking in refinement, sensibility and taste “The pink suit”. However, those of the “new” money are not much better, those that visit Gatsby´s parties, do not bother to attend the funeral of the host, showing how their concerns are for living for the moment and living life to excess.
Myrtle Wilson, who is in the middle / lower class live in what is known as the “Valley of Ashes” in the novel. She is trapped there, and her desire to move from there is such that she has an affair with Tom, distancing herself from the moral obligations to her husband. She does not realise that Tom will never have a serious relationship with her and accept her into his ring of friends.