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Materialism in the Great Gatsby and the Jazz Age

Updated on January 22, 2014

Fitzgerald, in the Great Gatsby, critiques and censures 1920s Jazz Age America. The “Jazz age” was a period where American society began to replace traditional values, rooted in the declaration of independence, with modernism, valuing individual success, and was generally associated with the desire for wealth.

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American Dream

Fitzgerald explores the idea that pursuit of wealth, rather than happiness, dominated human thinking in the 1920’s. After Gatsby’s death and the death of his dream Nick describes the Dutch Sailors finding the “Fresh, green breast of the new world”, showing that America once symbolized freedom and happiness, as did the seed of Gatsby’s dream, however the 20’s opened the way to the aspiration of easy money and the acceptance of moral laxity. Symbolically the “vanished tress”, referring to the ‘[fresh]’ and “flourishing” America “made way for Gatsby’s house” depicting the abandonment of true happiness in pursuit of wealth. Fitzgerald demonstrates this through the main plot line, as Gatsby’s dream of loving Daisy is ruined, he resorts to rampant materialism emphasizing the idea of the replacement of traditional American moral values.




A bitter satire

“The Great Gatsby” could be seen as a ,bitter satire, with Fitzgerald keen to expose, the destructive aspirations, engulfing American society. Not only does Fitzgerald criticize the upper classes saying “[Tom’s] freedom with money was a matter for reproach” but also the lower classes for the vulgarity, tastelessness and ‘vitality’. In addition he disapproves of Daisy’s ‘indiscreet voice’ that is ‘full of money’, depicting the shallowness of the upper classes as a result of their priorities. The complete infatuation 1920’s society is depicted as having with wealth is demonstrated by the disillusionment with religion and identity as Daisy and Jordan are presented as “silver idols”, a metaphor suggesting God and morality have been displaced by the false god’s of money and women. Modernists, during the 1920’s, moved away from religion and became apathetic and indifferent to moral teachings. The excess to which the upper classes spent and acted was displeasing to Nick ;referring to them as “careless people...who smashed up things and creatures and then retreated back into their money”. Nick presents a sense of moral damnation concerning his description of their “carelessness”, arguably he is commenting on the rise of individual importance, lack of regard for the well being of society (as shown by adultery and automobiles) and rampant materialism. This referrence to the “carelessness” could also be a comment on the destructive nature of using to excess and many critics have interpreted this to be an allusion to the Great Depression.



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Conspicuous Consumption

Fitzgerald’s critique of American society is also identified by the need the characters have to consume conspicuously, giving an illusion of ‘happiness’. This is shown by Wolfsheim’s ‘specimens of human molars’, Gatsby’s house as an “imitation of some Hotel de Ville in Normandy’ and Myrtles observation that ‘[Tom] had on a dress suit and patent leather shoes’. These all epitomize Jazz Age American societies fascination with wealth and the importance that others saw their “Automobiles”, “Parties” and most significantly their “money”. Gatsby’s parties in particular vividly demonstrate the lavish, excessive wastefulness of 1920’s America and the dehumanization of these parties depicts the replacement of traditional American values. The juicer is “pressed two hundred times by a butler’s thumb” and not the butler himself, “a tray of cocktails float[s]” with no mention of the waiter; suggesting a dehumanizing lack of intimacy between the guests so that the parties become a symbol of the Jazz Age itself :”one great show”[Donaldson] thus the obsession with money and the consumer culture expands.


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