The Debauchery of Decadence: a Comparison of Arrowsmith and the Great Gatsby

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The Debauchery of Decadence

The 1920s was a period of significant change for many Americans. After the U.S. emerged victorious from the Great War, an economic boom resonated throughout the land. A new, fervently capitalist America emerged, as the innovations and efficiencies of a new rapid age of industrialization took hold of the spirit of the people. All the while, this spirit tended to beat stronger in the hearts of some than in others; those wealthy enough to rejoice in the newly-conceived luxuries did so at length. Resultantly, what was once deemed a strong American work ethic quickly fell into a society based on partying, decadence and the pursuit of personal fulfillment. Those with less capital, however, could not partake in the nation’s newfound wealth; as the evils of a newly capitalist society served to disparage those less fortunate among the American people, a class society was born. Now, despite the evident disadvantages of such a situation, the exciting times only served to motivate and inspire a new generation of writers. An era noted for a high number of novels rated, even to this day, as among the best of the 20th century, the 1920s was a great period in the history of American literature. It is from lines of methodically conceived prose and phrasings that we have drawn much of our knowledge and understanding of the time period. Amongst a sample of the literary talent, it is notable that two such authors released books to critical acclaim in the year 1925; taking cues from the world around them, they drew on experiences with such topics as love, science, class separation and capitalism. While each novel centres on a separate facet of American lifestyle, Sinclair Lewis, through Arrowsmith, as well as F. Scott Fitzgerald, through The Great Gatsby, both successfully make use of the literary form to preserve, in their works, the ideology of the 1920s as a period of both great social change and moral decline. This is demonstrated through each novel’s use of three elements: central theme, the journey of the central character, and the use of contrasting pairs of symbols to create imagery.As many authors of fictional writing tend to draw their inspiration from the world around them, it is evident that the social progress of the 1920s, as well as the sense of moral ambiguity it held, can be directly related to either novel’s central theme. Common to both novels, however, are the historical circumstances which lead to their conception. Despite the advancements that the post-war boom brought to the American lifestyle, a new-found societal drive for self-indulgence and and personal profit lead to the hollowing and corruption of accepted moral standards. As a result, a general theme of decline prevails across both works. In Gatsby, the central theme is the decline of what was once considered the American Dream. The reader is introduced to a facet of the 1920s in which not only does self-indulgence reign supreme, but it does so only for a certain and small portion of the population. Daisy and Tom Buchanan, members of the “upper class” during the era, are deemed separate from the “middle class”, of which Nick is a member, and further apart from the “lower class”, of which Myrtle and George Wilson are members. Much like the song goes, “The rich get richer, and the poor get - children” (Fitzgerald, 92), and while the other classes toil beneath, the Buchanans seem entirely able to live lifestyles emanating with prosperity. They enjoy a lifestyle of the era; they live in a large mansion, own a stable of horses, and partake in discussion regarding the latest philosophical and scientific views. They are concerned only with the fulfillment of their desires, as they meanwhile hold disregard for those deemed socially beneath themselves. When an equal, a stranger by the name of Gatsby, appears one day, he is initially accepted for who he appears to be: a good-hearted, lavish, successful yet mysterious man. With a burning passion...
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