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 desire” (17). With statements such as “impersonal” and “absence of all desire,” Fitzgerald imbeds the image that characters such as these are empty and devoid of life. Lifeless characters such as Tom, Daisy and Miss Baker represent a culture of hollowness resulting from the effects of wealth in the 1920’s.
Jay Gatsby’s character, on the other hand, fixates on wealth for different reasons. Unlike Tom, Gatsby is portrayed as a character free from the influences of material wealth earlier in his life. During this time Gatsby is capable of real human feelings such as love. When Gatsby begins falling in love with Daisy, he “looked at Daisy while she was speaking, in a way that every young girl wants to be looked at,” (p.80). Finally, Fitzgerald depicts a character devoid of bland, empty, crass or discriminative qualities in the story. This allows the reader to finally relate to a character showing true human feelings. Gatsby’s purity and innocence are implied not only by his youth, but because he was impoverished at the time and ignorant to the corruption of money and wealth. Tragically, though, his love for Daisy drives him towards the dead-end pursuit of procuring material wealth in order to win the heart of someone who required wealth to be loved.
Once obtained, Fitzgerald wants the reader to know that Gatsby does not truly care for his wealth, because his love for Daisy trumps his desire for riches. Gatsby “revalued everything in his house according to the measure of response it drew from her well-loved eyes” (97). The reader in this case can empathize with Gatsby because “what Gatsby buys, he buys for a reason” (Lewis 51), and that reason is love. Here Fitzgerald wants the reader to understand the insignificance of wealth when compared to love. Love is a real human condition desired by all humans including the reader. Therefore, Fitzgerald wants to remind us of the vitality associated with a real human feeling such as love, and further disassociate us from the devices of wealth. We empathize with the naivete of Gatsby because it stems from true human passion.
Money and wealth are a conception of the human mind, whereas love and happiness are natural feelings that are not created, but are obtainable by human beings. As Ernest Lockridge states, “Money represents another attempt – more, debased, perhaps – to order concrete reality by abstract idea” (Lockridge, 12). By abstract idea, Lockridge refers to money as an abstraction or a conception of the human mind. If both statements above are correct, achieving love cannot result from a concept of the human mind (i.e. money), but rather must be achieved through natural human development. If Gatsby had only gained this knowledge, his love for Daisy may have persisted as it did in his younger years when he existed in a more natural state of human development. Unfortunately, he pursued Daisy within her world of wealth, a world built around human conception. The tragedy lies in the paradox that Gatsby, who once embodied real human feelings of love, condemns himself by wealth, and must exist in a more “debased” reality of human abstraction rather than human realism.
To continue his theme of emptiness, Fitzgerald shows the reader how Gatsby’s pursuit of love within the confines of human conception leaves him a victim of emptiness. Nick, the narrator, describes Gatsby and Daisy after their reunion: “There must have been moments even that afternoon when Daisy tumbled short of his dreamsnot through her own fault but because of the colossal vitality of his illusion” (101). After so much effort and time, Gatsby’s dream comes true, but he still remains unfulfilled. By submitting to the illusion of wealth and its offerings, Gatsby’s dream essentially transforms into an illusion as well. He was left feeling empty like the other characters affected by wealth.
In the pursuit of wealth, life becomes a never-ending battle to acquire more without the possibility of ever having enough. In Gatsby’s case, Daisy became less impressive as the pursuit had gone “beyond her, beyond everything,” (101). Essentially, everything becomes nothing and only the feeling of emptiness within a pointless pursuit remains.
Fitzgerald did not surprise us with this concept, as he foreshadowed it early in the story with Tom Buchanan. Tom manifests himself as a character of “such an acute limited excellence” that “everything afterwards savours of anti-climax” (10). In other words, an existence built upon the material culture of wealth will smother all other qualtites of life. Similarly, Gatsby’s anti-climactic interaction with Daisy shows the effects of such a phenomenon. In an essay about The Great Gatsby, writer Roger Lewis explains that “the absence of great love is more painful because the sense of possibility money provides is so powerfully ambient in Gatsby’s world” (Lewis, 54). It seems that humans can always dream of possibilities, but not always predict the ramifications. Gatsby could not predict his anti-climactic future and the material illusion he had built around love. Instead, he only saw the possibilities.
Whether expressed through Tom, Daisy, Gatsby or any of the other charcters in The Great Gatsby, Fitzgerald successfully portrays some of the evils surrounding the mysterious forces behind money in a time when its value outweighed life itself. We see that Tom and Daisy are static and empty characters, who will find comfort in continuing their trite lives, but will never attain a fully developed sense of real humanism. This is a valuable lesson taught by Fitzgerald.
Another lesson comes from the character of Gatsby. Fitzgerald teaches us that money cannot buy love. In fact, the power of money creates an illusion so powerful that it dulls the senses to love, the most powerful of all human feeling. “The culture of wealth,” writes Marius Bewley, “represents the romantic enlargement of the possibilities of life on a level at which the material and the spiritual have become inextricably confused,” (Bewley, 37). Gatsby learned this lesson the hard way, giving up his spiritual vision of love and losing it to the emptiness associated with wealth.
Fitzgerald realized the confusion in the 1920’s of a culture based around wealth and used his novel to expose the blandness of wealthy lifestyles in contrast with the human feeling of love. If love were a color it would be red, and if it had a mind of it’s own it would remain far from the gray “Valley of ashes” (27) of New York in the 20’s. Gatsby unfortunately combined those two worlds together and the gray dusted over the red. In the end, Gatsby is murdered, Tom and Daisy continue like zombies, and Nick, disenfranchised, decides to leave altogether. Fitzgerald portrays the essence of emptiness in all the characters touched or consumed by wealth and leaves the reader with a clear message: No sense of fulfillment, specifically regarding love, will result in a life consumed by wealth.