Culture's Influence on the Great Gatsby

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Tamarine Vilar
Culture’s Influence on The Great Gatsby

At the time F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote The Great Gatsby, culture had a strong influence on the way he developed his characters. In the twenties, the pseudo future promised prosperity and that encouraged decadence, wantonness, and the abandonment of values to make those pursuits. Society focused on the accumulation of wealth, spending money, using/abusing power and having a good time. This culture dictated how people acted, reacted and thought about others. It was about this same time period that Freud had proposed his theories. This same culture that affected literature had a similar influence on Freud’s theories. Freud maintained that human sexuality and how one treats the opposite sex is part of human nature. That is why the Freudian philosophy appears to apply so well, The Great Gatsby and Freud’s theories both stemmed from the same root, the culture of the twenties. The Feminist response maintained that it was culture, including literature, which propagandized people. “Feminist criticism examines the ways in which literature reinforces the economic, political, social and psychological oppression of women.”[1] These polarized opinions of Freudian psychology vs. Feminist Criticism come into play in The Great Gatsby. The Feminist response believes nurture (culture) influences people whereas Freud’s theory believes it is due to human nature. The Feminist response says that literature reflects the culture of that time rather than reflecting human nature in general. We need to put ourselves in that culture in order to compare Fitzgerald’s work with these theories to see if and how they apply. The Suffragette movement was in full swing. Women had previously been subjugated and treated like chattel but now they were coming forward. However, men were still in control. The Freudian philosophy maintained that men have the power and have equated money with that power. The Feminist response to Freud declared that disempowerment was a symbolic castration. Tom put Myrtle in her place by breaking her nose. He disempowered her. Tom and Myrtle were fighting over whether or not she had the right to mention Daisy’s name. “Daisy! Daisy! Daisy!” shouted Mrs. Wilson. “I’ll say it whenever I want to! Daisy! Dai--” Making a short deft movement, Tom Buchanan broke her nose with his open hand.”[2] He appeared to ‘own’ women, and he did with them as he pleased. Tom lived the double standard of ‘it’s okay for me to have an affair but not for Daisy.’ He blatantly flaunted this affair as if it was the norm, everyone knew about his mistress. Perhaps Fitzgerald was telling the reader that the newly rich can’t handle money and it improperly goes to their head. Gatsby was newly well-to-do, but hadn’t discovered how to handle it. Power (money) had corrupted him. Gatsby tried to portray the image of being an even more powerful man by claiming to be an Oxford man. Through the majority of the book this illusion of status stays. Early in the book, Nick asks Jordan: “Where is he from, I mean? And what does he do?” “Well, he told me once he was an Oxford man.”[3] In addition, Gatsby carried a photograph from his Oxford days, as a source of bragging rights to prove he actually did attend Oxford. “Here’s another thing I always carry. A souvenir of Oxford days. It was taken in Trinity Quad - - the man on my left is now the Earl of Doncaster.”[4] Much later in the book, while Gatsby was talking with Tom, he finally reveals that he really didn’t graduate from Oxford. “It was in nineteen-nineteen. I only stayed five months.”[5] For the majority of this book, Gatsby projected the façade of being an Oxford graduate. In the culture of the twenties, this fits into the image of being a powerful man. Freudian psychology also comes into...
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