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Great Gatsby

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Autor:  anton  16 May 2011
Tags:  Gatsby
Words: 2316   |   Pages: 10
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"'Her voice is full of money,' [Gatsby] said suddenly. That was it. I'd never understood before. It was full of money- that was the inexhaustible charm that rose and fell in it, the jingle of it, the cymbals' song of it...High in a white palace the king's daughter, the golden girl" (127). This jarring reference to the intoxicating allure Daisy Buchanan holds over Jay Gatsby is the essence of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby. Gatsby, throughout the novel, is utterly infatuated with Daisy in an extravagant, idealistic, and narcissistic fashion. Gatsby’s former lover from his days as a military officer in Kentucky, Daisy – radiant with glamour, prestige, dignity, sophistication, social grace, and all the blessings bestowed by the gods of wealth – has since married the effete, aristocratic Tom Buchanan. Gatsby, a diligent and resourceful man and one of literature’s great Platonic dreamers, literally creates a new identity for himself in hopes of achieving the intrepid and impractical goal of retrieving his long-lost love. What at first appears to be genuine romantic love one would expect to find in 19th century romanticism is actually a thinly veiled form of materialistic lust. While Gatsby professes to adore Daisy, this is because Gatsby’s fantastic worldview has objectified Daisy into a consumer product to be acquired through his own accumulation of wealth: what Gatsby holds so dear is not Daisy’s frightful personality, but rather her wealth and luxurious lifestyle. Fitzgerald aptly laces profound socioeconomic arguments into the novel by exploring contemporary themes, including materialism, class stratification, changing morality, the hopelessness of “the lost generation” and, above all, the ultimate unraveling of the American Dream and its ideal of economic mobility. Gatsby instills Daisy with a kind of idealized perfection that she neither deserves nor possesses. Gatsby’s dream is ruined by the unworthiness of its object, just as the American Dream in the 1920s is ruined by the unworthiness of its object – money and pleasure. Fitzgerald uses the moral contrast between Gatsby’s meretricious materialistic instincts and his diligent idealism to lucidly illustrate how materialism and the unrestrained pursuit of wealth lead to the unraveling of the traditional American Dream.

Gatsby is at heart an idealist, and yet throughout the novel his actions and emotions are driven by meretricious impulses. From the reader’s first introduction to Gatsby, his persona – at once gaudy, ostentatious, charismatic and irreverent – reeks of his nouveau riche status. One scene describing the usual Saturday night parties at his garish West Egg estate is especially telling:

“At least once a fortnight a corps of caterers came down with several hundred feet of canvas and enough colored lights to make a Christmas tree of Gatsby’s enormous garden. On buffet tables, garnished with glistening hors d’oeuvres, spiced baked hams crowded against salads of harlequin designs and pastry pigs and turkeys bewitched to a dark gold.” (39)

The sheer material excess of Gatsby’s opulent parties should be enough to dull the morals and egalitarian instincts of any reader. Gatsby’s parties are the scenes of such prolonged drunkenness and debauchery that they reach the level of a materialistic escapism stemming from the revelers’ decayed moral values and lack of nobler goals. Morality or the absence thereof is an important theme in The Great Gatsby. Indeed, that the book is devoid of any reference to organized religion suggests that even established religions, the ancient standard-bearers of traditional morality, have been replaced by something more sinister and capricious. As the novel’s opening scene indicates, materialism is the incumbent deity of the jubilant 1920s:

“This is a valley of ashes – a fantastic farm where ashes grow like wheat into ridges and hills and grotesque gardens; where ashes take the forms of houses and chimneys and rising smoke and, finally, with a transcendent effort, of men who move dimly and already crumbling through the powder air…Immediately the ash-gray men swarm up with leaden spades and stir up an impenetrable cloud, which screens their obscure observations from your sight. But above the gray land and the spasms of bleak dust which drift endlessly over it, you perceive, after a moment, the eyes of T.J. Eckleburg.” (20)

In this scene the reader is given a very brief glimpse into the dank underbelly of an America dominated by a brazen bourgeoisie, epitomized in the characters of Gatsby and Jordan Baker, as well as the more aristocratic Tom and Daisy Buchanan. This scene not only demonstrates the moral bankruptcy of an upper class whose values have corroded away due to the uninhibited pursuit of wealth and capricious materialism; it also reminds the reader of those unfortunate proletarians who represent the losers of a Social Darwinist economic order, the tragic victims of an era that seemed to reverse many of the monumental gains of the Progressive period, such as unionization, progressive tax structures, a stable currency, and urban reforms that had just begun to lessen social and economic ills. Extraordinary pity for the plight of these “ash-gray men” is evoked in this scene, as the hideous eyes of T.J. Eckleburg seem to taunt the indigent masses for their lack of material wealth. Whereas the forces of materialism ruthlessly oppress the working class, the wealthy Gatsby harnesses materialism as a means to meet his idealistic ends. Although it is demonstrably impossible for Gatsby to rekindle his relationship with a now-married Daisy, Gatsby is a relentless dreamer who musters all of his skill to win Daisy over with romantic gestures, lavish parties, and spectacular wealth. One of Gatsby’s most intriguing qualities is his ability to, in a very Emersonian fashion, transcend reality and adhere to his alternate persona. “The truth was that Jay Gatsby of West Egg, Long Island, sprang from his Platonic conception of himself. He was a son of God – a phrase which, if it means anything, means just that – and he must be about His Father’s business, the service of a vast, vulgar, and meretricious beauty” (99). Fitzgerald demonstrates that while Gatsby is in spirit a lovesick, naпve young man, his reinvented self has caused great harm to others. Especially pertinent is the scene in which Gatsby shamelessly fraternizes with Meyer Wolfsheim, a corrupt gangster who helped fix the 1919 World Series. Nick is naturally shocked by this abhorrent marriage of convenience:

“The idea staggered me. I remembered, of course, that the World’s Series had been fixed in 1919, but if I had thought of it at all I would have thought of it as a thing that merely happened, the end of some inevitable chain. It never occurred to me that one man could start to play with the faith of fifty million people – with the single-mindedness of a burglar blowing a safe.” (74)

This scene demonstrates not that Gatsby is malicious towards baseball fans, but that he is utterly self-absorbed, entirely obtuse to the feelings and concerns of others, and consumed by his plan to pay for Daisy in cash. In addition, Jay Gatsby is involved in numerous bootlegging operations and attempted to kill his mentor, Dan Cody, for inheritance money. Despite the severity of these crimes, Gatsby is completely unfazed. All of these actions, in his view, allow him to accumulate wealth with which to win over Daisy, and thus they are just actions. Gatsby is, in many respects, an entirely immoral character in that he favors material excess and debauchery at the expense of his own moral values, and that he favors a hideously amoral accumulation of wealth at the expense of the working class, all in pursuit of a nakedly unrealistic dream.

Despite Gatsby’s destructive means of pursuing his dream, his negative character flaws are not necessarily clear-cut. Gatsby is, above all, a remarkably idealistic dreamer. While his dream is certainly impractical, Gatsby shows a remarkable work ethic that should be applauded. A posthumous examination of Gatsby’s diary entries yields striking insights into the tenacious manner with which he approached all aspects of his life. “Rise from bed…Dumbbell exercise and walking…Study electricity…Work…Baseball and Sports…Practice elocution, poise and how to attain it…Study needed inventions” (174). Gatsby’s “General Resolves” show that he was also incredibly goal-oriented, hardworking, and meticulous about the minutest details of his life. Anyone with such a painstaking approach to life would have been bound to succeed in the context of the traditional American dream as it existed before the 1920s. One cannot help but pity Gatsby for the man that he could have become had he not chosen to pursue Daisy so doggedly. In retrospect, it is tragic that a man with such an excellent work ethic, kind-hearted and tenacious character became inebriated with the elixir of materialistic luxury, rather than that of spiritual enrichment. Thus Gatsby irrevocably bound his happiness to the whims of his material wealth and his association with such aristocrats as Daisy Buchanan, whom he valued not for their delightful company but for the comfort of their wealth itself. In essence, Gatsby himself is a demonstrative example of how once-pristine American ideals of hard work, thrift, vitality, self-improvement, and individualism have been supplanted by an unrestrained, amoral quest for wealth.

Towards the closing chapters of The Great Gatsby, it becomes clear that Gatsby’s ultimate demise and the failure of his dream is due to the materialism and amoral pursuit of wealth that come to define his person. Already it is apparent that Gatsby has built his entire identity around wooing the unattainable Daisy through flashy displays of wealth and glamour. In the midst of their brief period of re-unity, Gatsby seems almost blissfully unaware of Daisy’s marital status. “’I wouldn’t ask too much of her,’ [Nick] ventured. ‘You can’t repeat the past.’ ‘Can’t repeat the past?’ he cried incredulously. ‘Why of course you can!’” (111). Gatsby is so infatuated with the possibility of fulfilling his lifelong dream that he is unaware of the fundamental unworthiness of its object, let alone the impracticality of its all. In no time Gatsby’s bubble bursts when Tom finally confronts the awkward situation and permanently seizes Daisy as his possession. Ironically, a possession is all she is to either Tom or Gatsby, as both characters have objectified her into a consumer product, no longer a human being. With Gatsby’s lifelong mission in utter ruins, the novel foreshadows its own conclusion with, “So we drove on toward death through the cooling twilight” (137). Immediately after this Daisy and Gatsby kill Myrtle, Tom’s working-class paramour, with their car. Myrtle’s husband, the insipid George Wilson, soon finds out that Gatsby was the driver, and seeks a final resolution to the disaster life has become. “It was after we started with Gatsby toward the house that the gardener saw Wilson’s body a little way off in the grass, and the holocaust was complete” (163). This is Fitzgerald’s most effective of all possible conclusions. Any other writer would have dwelled for pages on the scene and nature of the murder, yet Fitzgerald brilliantly encapsulates it all simply by saying “the holocaust was complete.” Essentially, Gatsby has undergone two deaths: one is psychological, occurring with the end of the dream of winning Daisy he built his life around. The second is, of course, his physical death at the hand of George Wilson. Fitzgerald correctly emphasizes the former, as Gatsby’s fundamental reason for his existence has ended. Throughout the novel Fitzgerald stresses the developments precipitating this tragic chain of events. Because Gatsby is infatuated with materialism, he objectifies Daisy and constructs an entirely new identity to attain her luxurious grace. Gatsby’s ultimate failure arises from the fact that Daisy is unattainable (thus his dream unrealistic) and that Gatsby’s amoral pursuit of wealth has caused him to place undue value on unworthy people.

Many comparisons between the 1920s and the 1990s have been made in recent historical writings. As many scholars note, very similar economic trends were at work in both periods: the stock market boom, lax government regulations, corporate consolidation, class stratification, technological revolutions, and a more materialist consumer culture. Fitzgerald reinforces the sentiment that the traditional American Dream has been lost to the forces of materialism and the uninhibited pursuit of wealth.

“As the moon rose higher the inessential houses began to melt away until gradually I became aware of the old island here that flowered once for Dutch sailors’ eyes – a fresh, green breast of the new world. Its vanished trees, the trees that had made way for Gatsby’s house, had once pandered in whispers to the last and greatest of human dreams; for a transitory enchanted moment man must have held his breath in the presence of this continent, compelled into an aesthetic contemplation he neither understood nor desired, face to face for the last time in history with something commensurate to his capacity for wonder” (182).

Fitzgerald uses a naturalistic metaphor to skewer Gatsby’s character. He compares trees to the economic and societal foundations created by Gatsby’s predecessors and excoriates Gatsby for trading the essential promises of the American Dream – vitality, individualism, and upward mobility – for a selfish and materialistic dream that never pans out. An apt comparison can be drawn to the 1990s here. Progressive historian Thomas Frank once lamented the same death of economic democracy, a period when “Americans imagined that economic democracy meant a reasonable standard of living for all, that freedom was only meaningful once poverty and powerlessness had been overcome. Today, however, American opinion leaders seem generally convinced that democracy and the free market are simply identical.” Nearly the exact same consensus occurred during the 1920s when it was popular for political candidates to boast “the business of America is business.” Fitzgerald sends an enduring warning to avoid the materialistic folly of Jay Gatsby that – on a national scale – has the potential to once again erode the American Dream.



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