On one level the novel comments on the careless gaiety and moral decadence of the period. It contains innumerable references to the contemporary scene. The wild extravagance of Gatsby’s parties, the shallowness and aimlessness of the guests and the hint of Gatsby’s involvement in crime all identify the period and the American setting. But as a piece of social commentary The Great Gatsby also describes the failure of the American dream, from the point of view that American political ideals conflict with the actual social conditions that exist.
For whereas American democracy is based on the idea of equality among people, the truth is that social discrimination still exists and the divisions among the classes cannot be overcome. Myrtle’s attempt to break into the group to which the Buchanans belong is doomed to fail. Taking advantage of her vivacity, her lively nature, she seeks to escape from her own class. She enters into an affair with Tom and takes on his way of living. But she only becomes vulgar and corrupt like the rich. She scorns people from her own class and loses all sense of morality.
And for all her social ambition, Myrtle never succeeds in her attempt to find a place for herself in Tom’s class. When it comes to a crisis, the rich stand together against all outsiders. Myrtle’s condition, of course, is a weaker reflection of Gatsby’s more significant struggle. While Myrtle’s desire springs from social ambition, Gatsby’s is related more to his idealism, his faith in life’s possibilities. Undoubtedly, his desire is also influenced by social considerations; Daisy, who is wealthy and beautiful, represents a way of life which is remote from Gatsby’s and therefore more attractive because it is out of reach.
However, social consciousness is not a basic cause. It merely directs and increases Gatsby’s belief in life’s possibilities. Like Myrtle, Gatsby struggles to fit himself into another social group, but his attempt is more urgent because his whole faith in life is involved in it. Failure, therefore, is more terrible for him. His whole career, his confidence in himself and in life is totally shattered when he fails to win Daisy. His death when it comes is almost insignificant, for, with the collapse of his dream, Gatsby is already spiritually dead.
As social satire, The Great Gatsby is also a comment on moral decadence in modem American society. The concern here is with the corruption of values and the decline of spiritual life – a condition which is ultimately related to the American Dream. For the novel recalls the early idealism of the first settlers. Fitzgerald himself relates Gatsby’s dream to that of the early Americans for, at the end of the novel, Nick recalls the former Dutch sailors and compares their sense of wonder with Gatsby’s hope. The book also seems to investigate how Americans lost their spiritual purpose as material success wiped out spiritual goals.
The lives of the Buchanans, therefore, filled with material comforts and luxuries, and empty of purpose, represents this condition. Daisy’s lament is especially indicative of this: ‘What’ll we do with ourselves this afternoon? ‘ cried Daisy, ‘and the day after that, and the next thirty years? ‘ Fitzgerald stresses the need for hope and dreams to give meaning and purpose to man’s efforts. Striving towards some ideal is the way by which man can feel a sense of involvement, a sense of his own identity.
Certainly, Gatsby, with ‘his extraordinary gift of hope’, set against the empty existence of Tom and Daisy, seems to achieve a heroic greatness. .. ] Fitzgerald goes on to state that the failure of hopes and dreams, the failure of the American Dream itself, is unavoidable, not only because reality cannot keep up with ideals, but also because the ideals are in any case usually too fantastic to be realised. The heroic presentation of Gatsby, therefore, should not be taken at face value, for we cannot overlook the fact that Gatsby is naive, impractical and oversentimental. It is this which makes him attempt the impossible, to repeat the past. There is something pitiful and absurd about the way he refuses to grow up.