University High School
Instructor: Jim Garrett
The Not So Great Society of Gatsby: An Unprincipled Set of Regions
The Not So Great Society of Gatsby: An Unprincipled Set of Regions
Throughout The Great Gatsby, we follow the ambivalent narrator Nick Carraway, as he navigates his way through the amoral society of the "Roaring Twenties." While reserving all judgments, Fitzgerald, through Nick, effectively satirizes each character with his eloquent yet sometimes paradoxical writing, displaying the true failure of the American Dream. By pointing out the amoral aspects of three distinct societies discussed throughout The Great Gatsby: East and West Egg, New York City, and the Valley of Ashes, Fitzgerald conveys the larger theme that the "Roaring Twenties" or sometimes known as the "Jazz Age," was fundamentally unethical as a whole. From the inherent superficiality and materialistic ways of life embedded within the Eggs' inhabitants to the careless and arrogant actions that New York City inspires to the corrupted American Dream prevalent in the Valley of Ashes, the unethical 1920s American society is emphasized throughout the entire novel.
In the first of the three distinct regions, the Eggs, Nick displays the materialistic, dishonorable superficiality of wealthy inhabitants in the 1920s. While the Eggs is split into two: East Egg which represents the inherited "old money" and West Egg which represents the earned "new money", both are representations of a society of ostentation. Whilst attending one of the many parties of the novel, Nick observes that he is "within and without, simultaneously enchanted and repelled by the inexhaustible variety of life" (Fitzgerald 35). To Nick, when thinking about the inhabitants of the Eggs, he finds that their riches attract him, but how entitled and stuck up they are, disgusts him. The reader further finds the Eggs to be filled with materialistic and superficial individuals. In particular, Fitzgerald satirizes Daisy, the rich, beautiful and deceiving girl that Gatsby dreams of, to illuminate the shallow, materialistic and selfish aspects of character that the Eggs foster. In chapter 7, we see the idea emphasized in Daisy's inability to choose between love and money. It is evident to the reader that Daisy is in love with Gatsby, yet when Tom highlights the idea that all of Gatsby's wealth could be gone tomorrow, Daisy's materialistic self panics. When given a choice between following her heart to an uncertain future with Gatsby or following status and economic security in an unhappy marriage with Tom, she claims, "I can't say I never loved Tom" (Fitzgerald 133) and follows Tom. Furthermore, in chapter 9, when not one of Gatsby's wealthy, aristocratic party guests from the Eggs attend his funeral, the idea is emphasized that these guests were only attracted to his wealth and lavish parties, not Gatsby himself as a person. In other words, nobody had difficulty making it to his parties but found difficulty when attending his funeral. Nick simply exclaims that "no one else was interested" (Fitzgerald 164). Finally, once Gatsby finally begins to hit it off with Daisy, Nick notes that they had "forgotten me," (Fitzgerald 96) displaying the shallow ethos of the "new money" individuals because after it seems that Gatsby is going to fulfill his dream, he forgets about his good old friend in the process. In sum, it is reasonable to say that the Eggs represent a flawed American society broken by wealth.
Along with the Eggs, the unethical American society is also displayed within New York City through the illegal ways characters use to get a step up in society and the carless and arrogant behavior that the city inspires. We first are introduced to Wolfsheim's shady "business gonnegtion" (Fitzgerald 70) and the idea that Gatsby made his fortune bootlegging liquor in New York City. In a sense, this further illustrates the corrupt American Dream because Gatsby has to create an unfair advantage and break the law to further his status in society. This is fundamentally why today; America is not a true meritocracy. Our meritocracy today tends to unfairly reward those that are already ahead. Additionally, while in New York City, the characters' actions represent carelessness and arrogance, which fuels amoral behavior. This carelessness is shown from the beginning of the book when Tom brings Nick along to one of the many drunken parties at his luxurious apartment, one he keeps in the city to conduct his extra marital affair. The circumstance that he has an apartment to entertain his affair in itself is amoral; however, what goes on at these parties proves to further illustrate the unethical actions inspired by New York City. For example, during this alcohol-drenched party, "Tom Buchanan broke her (Myrtle's) nose with his open hand," after arguing "whether Mrs. Wilson (Myrtle) had any right to mention Daisy's name" (Fitzgerald 37). This displays the idea that not only were they both aware of the adultery they are committing, but Myrtle teases Tom about it, illuminating the true arrogance the City inspires.
Lastly, the Valley of Ashes, located halfway between the Eggs and New York City, further represents an amoral American society due to the display of the corrupt American Dream. As described in the novel as:
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 powdery air (Fitzgerald 23).
The Valley of Ashes is filled with poor workers who were left out of the wealth and glamour of the "Roaring Twenties" and envision the American dream to a similar extent to how Gatsby envisions the green light across the bay. This is yet another example of the flaw in the American Dream. The idea is shown that hard work and skill are insufficient to guarantee advancement in society or even economic security. In a sense, this valley represents the moral decay that was prevalent during this era. In this instance, Fitzgerald satirizes Myrtle Wilson, a poor member of the Valley of Ashes, who wants nothing more than to depart from her current status, even if it means committing adultery with Tom Buchanan, who himself is married as well. Myrtle and Myrtles husband, George Wilson, represent the type of people who inhabit the Valley of Ashes: poor, hardworking, and will do anything possible to move up from their current social status.
The three distinct regions: East and West egg, New York City, and the Valley of Ashes all illuminate an amoral American society. As readers make their way through The Great Gatsby, they notice that these distinct regions are not just names of places in the novel; rather they are whole sets of associations that Nick makes. However, after spending the summer in these three distinct societies, Nick has had enough. He leaves the amoral regions where he initially believed he could make his dreams come alive and travels back to his Midwest roots. Nick remembers his life in the pure Midwest where everyone knew each other's names, everyone was friends, and where hard work and human decency were the prized characteristics. Before heading to the Middle West, Nick states that "this has been a story from the West…. perhaps we possessed some deficiency in common which made us subtly unadaptable to Eastern life." (9.176) Nick comes to the conclusion that although there was promise of success and life in the East, the Midwest is simply his home. In fact, it is sensible to say the Midwest represents the society before the unethical "Roaring Twenties" came along, and Nick wants to go back.