The “Great Gatsby” was published in 1925 and was set in the ‘Roaring Twenties’. This was a glamorous decade marked by cultural, artistic and social developments, but it was brought to an end by the Wall Street Crash of 1929, which triggered the Great Depression of the 1930s. In the 1920s, America became very prosperous as the country recovered from World War I. There was a policy of Prohibition. This meant that alcohol was illegal, but the continued demand meant there was a lot of money to be made from bootlegging. It was a time of social change; the younger generation started to rebel against tradition.
For many people, and particularly women, the war provided new experiences and freedom. After the war, there was a strong desire to try new and exciting things and to break from tradition. Jazz music became popular because it was more energetic than earlier music styles. Fitzgerald coined the term ‘Jazz Age’. Flappers began to challenge traditional gender roles. Flappers were women who behaved in a way that was thought to be inappropriate by the older generation; they drank, smoked and wore revealing clothing. Fitzgerald sets “The Great Gatsby” in an altered version of Long Island and Manhattan.
Great Neck and Manhasset Neck become East and West Eggs, and the large landfill site Flushing is renamed the ‘valley of ashes’. The main sites represent different elements of the 1920s east-American lifestyle; Manhattan’s skyscrapers and luxurious hotel suites but it is also filled with lonely clerks who spend all their time working, and gangsters who meet in seedy bars. The valley of ashes is a stretch of wasteland which sits between the other sites and connects them. The valley illustrates that the excesses of wealth can’t be achieved without exploiting another part of society.
The wealthy upper classes who inherited their money live in East Egg, West Eggs hosts ‘new money’; people who have earned their money. The people who live in East Egg come from old, wealthy families and have inherited money. They see themselves as elegant and well-mannered. West Egg is the home of the ‘new money’; people who have recently made their money through business. The people of East Egg look down on the people who live in West Egg because they consider their family backgrounds to be ‘inferior’ and their ostentatious displays of wealth to be in bad taste.
Gatsby realises that money isn’t enough to cross the social divide between himself and Daisy; he needs to be upper class to be seen as her equal. His affected speech and imported shirts are an attempt to imitate the upper classes. Religion has been replaced by consumerism and the pursuit of pleasure. The characters live aimless lives that revolve around pleasing themselves and acquiring new possessions. For example, the guests at Gatsby’s parties focus on drinking, looking for new lovers, and trying to make ‘easy money’.
The conversation between Michaelis and Wilson in Chapter eight suggests that consumerism has replaced religion; ‘You may fool me, but you can’t fool God! ’…Michaelis saw with a shock that he was looking at the eyes of Doctor T. J. Eckleberg…’ Wilson mistakes the eyes of the advertisement for God. This shows that the eyes actually have no meaning except for the meaning that the characters give them. This could reflect the feeling of the ‘lost generation’ that life is essentially meaningless and is defined only by the values the people give it. Consumerism promises that material objects will make you happy and give your life meaning.
However, material possessions don’t make people happy; in the novel this is symbolised by the fact that cars, a desirable consumer item, cause death and destruction. The idea that consumerism has replaced religious value in reinforced throughout “The Great Gatsby”; Fitzgerald mentions the ‘Presbyterian nymphs’ in the speakeasy, a place where people could illegally buy and drink alcohol during prohibition, in Chapter 4. This use of religious language could suggest that religious symbols have lost their power, and are at home in places of corruption.
Weddings are a religious and legal union of a couple, but Daisy’s wedding to Tom is used primarily to display their extravagant wealth. Tom brings ‘four private cars’ and hires ‘a whole floor’ of hotel. Gatsby’s car ‘scattered light’ across the landscape and has ‘fenders spread like wings’. These descriptions give the car qualities often associated with religion; it’s source of light and is winged like an angel. Most of the characters in the novel are very wealthy and live a life of luxury. The rich and glamorous atmosphere defines the noel’s tone; the focus on the upper-class lifestyle gives the novel a mood of lively extravagance.
For example, Gatsby owns a beach, motor-boats and a Rolls-Royce and his parties are full of ‘faces and voices and colour’. However, this society is contrasted with the poverty of those living near to the valley of ashes. The location of the valley of ashes between the wealthy Egg communities and New York makes the contrast stronger. There is also a constant sense that the glamorous lives of the upper classes are essentially meaningless; beneath the surface, everyone is bored because they have no purpose; Daisy seems to realise this when she asks what they should do ‘this afternoon…and they day after that, and the next thirty years? . Many friendships appear superficial. For example, Gatsby’s parties are full of ‘enthusiastic meetings between women who never knew each other’s names’. This shows that the society is full of pretence and loneliness. Many of Gatsby’s guests had tragic fates. For example, ‘drowned’, ‘strangled his wife’, ‘killed himself’. This reinforces the message that behind the light-hearted partying, much of society was deeply unhappy. Fitzgerald’s portrayal invites the reader to be critical of the character’s empty, materialistic lives while simultaneously making those lives seem exciting and beautiful.
This reflects his own attitude towards wealth. The characters are defined by their relationship with money; it affects how they act, how they see themselves and how others see them; Nick is confused about how to respond to wealth and decadence. When he begins his banking career he suggests his role models are ‘Midas and Morgan and Maecenas’. At the same time Nick says that Gatsby’s empty display of wealthy ‘represented everything for which I have an unaffected scorn’. Daisy and Tom take their wealth for granted.
Tom assumes it is his natural right to be at the top of society, and Daisy was ‘casual’ about the beautiful house she grew up in. this attitude makes them ‘careless people’; they never worry when they hurt other people, they can retreat ‘back into their money’. Gatsby used to be ‘extravagantly ambitious’ and focused on financial gain. However, the Gatsby that Nick meets doesn’t get involved in the decadence of his own parties. This suggests that he has grown to be indifferent to his wealth; he just sees it as a means towards winning Daisy.
For Myrtle, money buys happiness; she gets pleasure from her cold cream, pet dog and magazines. Her opinion of her husband was damaged by the realisation that he couldn’t afford to buy a suit for their wedding. Money takes on a meaning beyond its financial wealth. For Gatsby, money is confused with love. He says Daisy’s voice is ‘full of money’, linking his longing for her with his longing for the wealth and status that she represents. Gatsby understands the relationship between love and money. Daisy’s voice, he says, is ‘full of money’; it is the seductive, thrilling aspect of her.
What Gatsby, with surprising consciousness, states is that Daisy’s charm is allied to the attraction of wealth; money and love hold similar attractions. Gatsby, with his boundless capacity for love sees that the pursuit of money is tied to his love for Daisy; and he knows himself well enough to see this. That Daisy’s voice is ‘full of money’ is a remark only Gatsby could make. It is a statement of someone attune to the possibilities of love and money and sensitive to them; perhaps too much. Tom could never have provided this description of Daisy; his attraction to her has nothing to do with wealth.
Tom is accustomed to having money; money holds no interest for him because it does have to be chased after; his is old money simply there to be used. Tom may buy anything he wishes; from polo ponies to cufflinks; but he understands that polo ponies or cufflinks are all he is buying. Myrtle only cares about appearance and material possessions. Myrtle claims not to care about clothes; ‘I just slip it on sometimes when I don’t care what I look like’, but actually she’s obsessed with her appearance; she changes clothes regularly and buys cold cream and perfume.
She wears bold colours, in contrast to Daisy who wears white but when Myrtle changes into a cream dress, her ‘vitality’ changes to ‘hauteur’. This shows that she thinks breeding is all about appearance. She’s also concerned with other people’s appearances. She was seduced by Tom’s clothes the first time she met him, mentioning that he wore ‘a dress suit and patent leather shoes’ as well as a ‘white shirt-front’. It’s significant that Myrtle pretended to be ‘looking at the advertisement’ instead of looking at Tom, because both Tom and the advertised product represent Myrtle’s greed for material objects and wealth.
Tom Buchanan represents the immorality and materialism of the ‘Jazz Age’. Fitzgerald thought that the ‘Jazz Age’ was hypocritical and this is reflected by Tom’s behaviour; he is appalled when he learns of Daisy’s affair with Gatsby, but he has lots of affairs himself. He criticises Gatsby for ‘sneering at family life’, but ‘was God knows where’ when his daughter was born. He also criticises Gatsby for knowing criminals and for being a bootlegger, but Tom also knows criminals and he likes to drink, which shows that he doesn’t follow the prohibition laws either.
He sets a high moral standard for other people, such as Gatsby, but has no morals himself. Nick notes that he moves ‘from libertine to prig’ to suit his needs. Tom’s wealth and sense of superiority makes him ‘careless’ and uncaring. Nick summarises Tom and Daisy’s behaviour when he says ‘they smashed up things and creatures and then retreated back into their money…and let other people clean up the mess…’. They run away from their problems and never face the consequences. He acts as a foil to Gatsby; Gatsby is loyal, sensitive and caring whilst Tom is more or less the opposite.
For example, he only seems to start caring for Daisy when he sees he could lose her. This suggests his reaction is as much about pride and possessiveness as about actually caring for her. The fact that Daisy chooses Tom over Gatsby highlights the shallow and materialistic nature of the ‘Jazz Age’ society. Like Daisy, Tom is materialistic; he has to appear to have the best of everything. For example, he was married with ‘more pomp and circumstance than Louisville ever knew’.
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