Great Gatsby and the 20's

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Erik Ferjentsik 127W Paper
After a time of prosperity, the roaring 1920's became a decade of social decay and declining moral values. The forces this erosion of ethics can be explained by a variety of theories. However, F. Scott Fitzgerald paints a convincing portrait of waning social virtue in his novel, The Great Gatsby. Fitzgerald portrays the nefarious effects of materialism created by the wealth-driven culture of the time. This was an era where societal values made wealth and material possessions a defining element of one's character. The implications of the wealthy mindset and its effects on humanity are at the source of the conflict in The Great Gatsby, offering a glimpse into the despair of the 20's. During a time of "postwar American society, its restless alienation, and its consequent reliance on money as a code for expressing emotions and identity" (Lewis, 46), Fitzgerald focuses his pen on the inevitable emptiness created by the illusions of wealth and its anomalous connection with love during the 20's. In order to convey his theory, Fitzgerald builds a repertory of superficial characters whose existence revolves around material value rather than tangible human qualities. For example, Tom Buchanan, the husband of Daisy, is introduced as having an appealing and rich life. "He'd brought down a string of polo ponies from Lake Forest," Nick comments about Tom. "It was hard to realize that a man in my own generation was wealthy enough to do that," (p. 10). Tom is depicted as an enormously wealthy "national figure," one with handsome and powerful "physical accomplishments" (10). But Fitzgerald's description does not go much further than that. Tom's persona is limited to a list of superficial accomplishments none of which resemble any spiritually fulfilling traits. Tom thus represents the end result of a person consumed by wealth, because that is his only defining characteristic. Although we could pity such a character, Fitzgerald makes sure that we don't feel much of anything towards Tom because he was born into wealth and never had to pursue it. "His money was divested of dreams before he was even born" (Lewis, 51). Since Tom's lifestyle links intrinsically to his character, nothing he does resembles the passions and desires of a natural human being, rather he is portrayed as a machine or byproduct of his family fortune. Tom lacks human qualities and therefore leads an empty existence. Even though Tom shows some life by expressing ideas regarding the books he insists are "scientific,"(17), his ideas are crass and discriminative as he demands, "We've got to beat them down," (18), when referring to the "Rise of the Coloured Empire". Expressions such as these only distance Tom from benign human tendencies, leaving him less worthy of receiving any compassion from his audience. By creating a character like Tom, Fitzgerald leaves the reader with the impression that one born into and consumed by wealth will become the most unappealing and bland character of all. In this way the author leaves a sense of emptiness associated with Tom and continues to sew the thread of emptiness in all other characters consumed by wealth in his story. Daisy, Tom's wife and the object of Gatsby's romantic quest, for example, possesses a voice "full of money," (144) which blatantly associates her character with wealth. Fitzgerald makes Daisy seem desirable, but never describes her physical features, which is odd considering she is the force behind the profound obsession of Jay Gatsby. Perhaps Fitzgerald chooses to ignore Daisy's physical description to purposefully display her as a bare character. In essence, he dehumanizes her to better reveal her shallowness. One of the few times a physical description of Daisy appears comes in conjunction with Miss Baker, another character under the spell of wealth, when Nick comments on their white dresses with "their impersonal eyes in the absence of all...
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