Fitzgerald’s Cutting Critique of American Morals
The Great Gatsby is a severe criticism of American upper class values. The stereotypical American dream, the one that says hard work can lead us from rags to riches has been ripped apart through shortcuts and corruption. Fitzgerald uses the book’s central conflict between Tom Buchanan and Jay Gatsby to illustrate his critique. Tom was born into a wealthy family and Gatsby is nouveau riche. Fitzgerald demonstrates that no matter how one gets their money whether it is inherited or earned they are morally decadent and there is no purpose to their lives. The Great Gatsby is Fitzgerald’s scathing condemnation on American ideals in the 1920s it hypothesizes that the American Dream is simply an illusion. In the novel, Fitzgerald showcases the decline of American ideals and emphasizes the superficial qualities of American life through the main characters Gatsby, Nick and Tom.
Fitzgerald clearly illustrates the growing deterioration of society by using Gatsby as a symbol for the corrupted dream throughout the text. Gatsby has not achieved his wealth through honest hard work, but through bootlegging and crime. His money is not simply ‘new’ money, it is dirty money. His wealthy lifestyle is little more than a facade, as is the whole person Jay Gatsby. Gatsby has been created from the dreams of the boy James Gatz. Gatsby is not concerned with the true value of anything he owns. He measures his worth by the degree to which he impresses Daisy. Gatsby is not a symbol of the greatness of the American dream, but a mere parody of it. Gatsby’s time is filled with prosperity, but it is an empty life. Gatsby stands out only because of his wealth. He throws lavish parties but those who come to his home do not genuinely like Gatsby, they only come for the parties, the food and to mooch off of him. Some of his party guest even gossip about him openly to each other. Many of his party guests do not even take the time to meet him at the parties. What Gatsby discovers is that his wealth, his attempts to at sophistication and taste, even his heroic service in the war are not enough. Fitzgerald satirizes the upper class’s distinction not only between the rich and the poor but also between new money and old money. In the words of Tom Buchanan, Gatsby is “Mr. Nobody from Nowhere.” He sees money as the solution to his dreams, and reinvents himself so much that he becomes empty and hollow.
It is not only Gatsby who is corrupt. Nick repeatedly says that he is the only honest person he knows. The story is full of lying and cheating. Nick is involved in this deception, helping Gatsby and Daisy in their attempts at an illicit affair. He later conceals the truth about Myrtle’s manner of death. In the beginning Nicks despises Gatsby’s flamboyant and exaggerated ways. Nick is impressed that his former Yale classmate, Tom Buchanan, could afford to ship his polo ponies from the Midwest to New York. Nick admits, “It was hard to realize that a man in my own generation was wealthy enough to do that.” Nick believes himself above the people around him thinking himself superior in every way. However, he comes to admire Gatsby because of his ongoing pursuit of making his dreams become reality. “They’re a rotten crowd,” I shouted across the lawn. “You‘re worth the whole damn bunch put together.” Ch 8. Nick is initially charmed by Daisy but quickly concludes that she has a charm that is superficial. Nick realizes that Daisy and Tom, despite their wealth, are morally bankrupt. “They were careless people, Tom and Daisy — they smashed up things and creatures and then retreated back into their money or their vast carelessness, or whatever it was that kept them together, and let other people clean up the mess they had made.” Ch 9. In addition to his everyman quality, Nick’s moral sensibilities helps to set him apart from all the other characters. He is set off as being more practical and down-to-earth than other characters. This essence is again brought to life in Chapter 2 when he doesn’t quite know how to respond to being introduced into Tom and Myrtle’s secret world. He is repulsed by the party he attends and the violence that ensues when Myrtle makes fun of Daisy, yet he never gives up their secrets. Nick only plays the role of the everyday man he is just as morally bankrupt as the rest of them. The only difference between Nick and the other characters is that he retreats and goes back home at the end leaving behind the morally bankrupt life in New York.
The clear villain in the story is Daisy’s hulking brute of a husband Tom. He is arrogant and violent. He leads a life of gluttonous consumerism. Fitzgerald leaves no ugly “rich person” stereotype behind with Tom’s character. He is having affairs, playing polo and driving fast cars. His affair with Myrtle Wilson is just the latest of many, beginning at his wedding to Daisy. He doesn’t even attempt to hide his affairs going so far as to accept a phone call from his mistress in the middle of dinner. “Tom’s got some woman in New York” (19). Tom doesn’t even seem to care about his child. Daisy confides to Nick that after her child was born he left almost immediately, “she was less than an hour old and Tom was God knows where” (21). Tom shows off to Nick while showing him his house by saying “I’ve got a nice place here” (12). He loves to feel superior to everyone. “Sports . . . afford and exercise for dexterity and for the emulative ferocity and astuteness characteristic of predatory life” (236). Tom doesn’t even try to hide his racist, violent tendencies. While at a dinner party he introduces a bizarrely racist topic of the new book, “The Rise of the Coloured Empires. . . . Well, it’s a fine book, and everybody ought to read it. The idea is if we don’t look out the white race will be — will be utterly submerged. . . . This fellow has worked out the whole thing. It’s up to us, who are the dominant race, to watch out or these other races will have control of things” (14). Tom is racist and violent and clearly feels superior to everyone. “Now, don’t think my opinion on these matters is final, . . . just because I’m stronger and more of a man that you are” (9–10). Tom’s character is living a life of cheap thrills with no purpose or moral compass.
The American Dream, a long standing ideal embodies the hope that one can achieve financial success, political power, and everlasting love through nothing more than hard work and dedication. During the Roaring 20s, people in America put up facades to mask who they truly were. The Great Gatsby showed that the American dream can never be had through corruption or materialism. There are no shortcuts to hard work and integrity.