“And so with the sunshine and the great bursts of leaves growing on the trees, just as things grow in fast movies, I had that familiar conviction that life was beginning over again with the summer.”
The Great Gatsby, much like the titular protagonist of the narrative, presents itself as a sort of enigma in American literature. The symbolism and motifs in the novel are enough to keep critics and academics alike occupied for a century, as the book has since its publication in the early part of the 20th century. The novel by F. Scott Fitzgerald is considered an American classic, both for its literary mastery and the way in which it depicts American life (at least that of the higher classes) during the first decades of the 20th century. The quote above highlights the familiar theme of hope, nostalgia, and even wistfulness present throughout the novel. It conveys the sense of certain self-confidence and satisfaction that could only be felt by the higher classes at the center of the novel. The Great Gatsby presents the readers with a great many literary and social questions, ranging from class distinctions to symbolism, the relationship between Gatsby and Daisy, love and freedom, individual tragedies, personal attraction, and more. However, nothing is quite as apparent in the novel as the presentation of wealth. With this in mind, this short discussion paper examines materialism in The Great Gatsby, and more specifically how the novel reflects American Materialism both in the 1920s and moving into the modern, contemporary world we live in today. Overall, the research and subsequent discussion of this paper shows that the novel has a great deal of import on how American society works, both back then and in the present day.
First and foremost, it is crucial to establish how the novel relates to the real world, rather than just operating as a simple narrative within a novel with nothing to offer other than symbolism in its characters. As one discussion of The Great Gatsby and how it relates to the 1920s society in America, the book “inhabits a different world, with barriers between men and women, Protestants, Catholics, and Jews, rich and poor, capital and labor, educated and half-literate” (Prigozy 79). In other words, the essential core of the novel is not concerned with the ideas of justice, freedom, and personal enlightenment that occupies much of modern American literature. Instead, the novel is focused on the personal ‘struggles’ of the main characters (mainly Daisy and Gatsby) within their own, privileged existence. There is little reference to any outside influences. As the source quoted above goes on to say, “At no point in the novel does Daisy Fay Buchanan ever appeal to the transcending authority of love, or Jay Gatsby to that of equality. Social judgment matters more” (Prigozy 79). In this way, both of the major characters of the novel are preoccupied with the world in which they are situated, which is precisely what makes the narrative a fascinating study in American Materialism. This is what makes The Great Gatsby such a great piece of literature: the novel is “one of the strongest indictments of American materialism”, and F. Scott Fitzgerald had “a mastery of the craft that enabled him at least at times in magazine stories like many of these to write honestly, as his artistic conscience dictated, and at the same time to entertain an audience that seems in retrospect a rather unlikely on upon whom to try out his serious…subjects and themes” (Prigozy 79). In other words, The Great Gatsby as a novel stand both as a compelling piece of fiction and a stark calling out of American materialism – both when it was published, to the audience that read it at the time, and to today’s audience.
Quote after quote reaffirms the status of The Great Gatsby as a critical analysis of American materialism during the 1920s. For instance, the protagonist states “Whenever you feel like criticizing anyone…just remember that all the people in this world haven’t had the advantages that you’ve had,” while just a little later on, speaking of a woman, saying “I hope she’ll be a fool – that’s the best thing a girl can be in this world, a beautiful little fool…You see, I think everything’s terrible anyhow…And I know. I’ve been everywhere and seen everything and done everything” (Fitzgerald 17, 27). Quotes like these highlight the self-involved nature of the major characters, and shows that the narrative is nearly satirical in its treatment of American materialism. The characters may not be aware of the privilege they possess, but the extreme nature of their wealth is quite apparent to the average reader, which immediately calls to mind the detrimental impacts of materialism throughout the novel. As one scholar states, “Although Fitzgerald’s satire operates on multiple levels in this passage, his focus rests at least in part on American postures of class and authority that, ineptly modeled after British manners, rely on materialism at the expense of substance” (Rule-Maxwell 57). In other words, this author finds that while the narrative of the novel may be compelling on its own, it is really Fitzgerald’s commentary on American materialism, class, and modes of authority that hold lasting value and influence in American literature. Regardless of the individual characters’ personal transformation (for the better or for the worse), it is the author’s treatment of materialism that leaves the most lasting impression. As the same scholar goes on to state, the images in the narrative “symbolize a complicated engagement with materialism because they both celebrate and pass judgment on the way Americans, including Fitzgerald himself, fashioned themselves with cloaks of prosperity, thus reflecting an ambivalent negotiation of wealth and position on an individual and national level” (Rule-Maxwell 58). In this way, everything from the symbolism of the story to its major characters participate in painting an overarching theme, and indictment of, American materialism in that age.
This is further confirmed by subsequent writings of Fitzgerald himself. In another essay, “Echoes of the Jazz Age,” the author writes of that time that “It was an age of miracles, it was an age of art, it was an age of excess, and it was an age of satire…We were the most powerful nation. Who could tell us any longer what was fashionable and what was fun?” (Wilson 17). In other words, Fitzgerald himself recognized the contrived nature of the upper classes present in the narrative of The Great Gatsby, and his characters and storytelling in the novel are clear indictments of this type of materialism. The indictment is also seen in the way Fitzgerald utilizes imagery in his depiction of upper class America. As one scholar states, a comparison can be made between The Great Gatsby and The Waste Land, a poem by T.S. Elliot: “”The connection between Fitzgerald’s striking description of the ‘valley of ashes’ in Chapter II of his book, and Elliot’s valley of dry bones, both central symbols in the two works, appears obvious…the parallel goes much further than has been noticed so far and Fitzgerald, consciously and unconsciously, drew upon The Waste Land as a whole, to the point of making it the informing myth of his novel” (Audhuy 41). In other words, Fitzgerald purposefully painted a picture of American materialism in his novel, not only as a picture of how the wealthy live, but on how they live to the moral detriment of the country and society as a whole. This is where the text becomes particularly relevant to the world of today, as it continues to serve as a commentary on modern materialism.
Ronald Berman quotes a text that was published just a few years before The Great Gatsby, which states that the spirit of the United States “is and long has been one of pagan Materialism, infecting all branches of though, and of unscrupulous Commercialism, infecting all branches of action” (Berman 22). This is the main perspective presented through the narrative of The Great Gatsby, and goes a long way toward showing how the novel remains relevant to modern society. After all, many would argue the United States is still marked by rampant commercialism and materialism with very little end in sight. The continued frustration with this materialism is communicated through the interactions between Nick, Daisy, and Gatsby throughout the narrative. As Berman goes on to state, “Fitzgerald has gone to some trouble to indicate – in a very pointed communication from Nick to reader – that an eruption has occurred that reveals underlying truths…Beneath he surface of a ‘pleasant’ evening is resentment, even rage if we are to judge from what seems to be its displaced forms in Tom” (Berman 22). It is this frustration that translates into modern reality; as another scholar notes, the major ethical themes in the novel include “moral growth, Gatsby’s life of illusion, the withering of the American Dream, and the parallels between the 1920s and the 1980s” – or, in this case, the 1990s, the 2000s, and the current year (McAdams 653). The fact that no one shows up to Gatsby’s funeral may be a further commentary on the fruitlessness of materialism, and stands as a moral lesson to this day.