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 clawed apart through shortcuts and graft. 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, his characters are morally bankrupt and there is no purpose to their lives. The Great Gatsby is Fitzgerald’s scathing condemnation on American ideals in the 1920s, hypothesizing that the American Dream is simply an illusion if you depend on money alone to get there. In the novel, Fitzgerald showcases the decline of American morality and emphasizes the superficial qualities of American life through the main characters Gatsby, Tom and Daisy.
Fitzgerald clearly portrays the burgeoning deterioration of society by using Gatsby as a symbol for the corrupted dream throughout the novel. Gatsby has not achieved his prosperity through honest hard work, but through bootlegging and crime. His money is not simply ‘new’ money, it is dirty money. His flamboyantly wealthy lifestyle is little more than a mask, as is the whole person Jay Gatsby. Nick knew the moment he met him when he spoke with “elaborate formality of speech” (53) that “just missed being absurd” (53) that Gatsby was playing some sort of game. Gatsby is not a symbol of the enormity of the American dream, but a mere parody of it. Nick noticed at a party that Gatsby “grew more correct as the fraternal hilarity increased” (54). Gatsby’s time is filled with prosperity, but it is an empty life. Gatsby stands out only because of his wealth. He throws lavish soirees 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. Jordan tells Nick that he “gives large parties” (54) but she seems to dismiss him as uninteresting, “just a man named Gatsby” (53). Some of his party guest even gossip about him openly to each other. Two young ladies drinking cocktails at his house called him a “bootlegger” (65) and said that he had “killed a man who had found out that he was nephew to von Hindenburg and second cousin to the devil” (65). Many of his party guests do not even take the time to meet him at the parties. Gatsby’s wealth, his pursuit of refinement, and even his valiant service in the war are not enough for the people at his parties to respect him. Fitzgerald mocks the upper class’s obsession 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” (137). Gatsby sees money as the solution to obtaining Daisy, and reinvents himself so much that he becomes empty and hollow.
The clear villain in the story is Daisy’s hulking, brute of a husband, Tom. Fitzgerald leaves no ugly “rich person” stereotype behind with Tom’s character. Tom is having affairs, playing polo and driving fast cars. His affair with Myrtle Wilson is just the latest of many, beginning on his wedding day to Daisy. He does not 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 does not 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 is a predator, and we initially believe Daisy is his victim. While at a dinner party Tom speaks 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 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” (11). Tom’s character is living a life of cheap thrills with no purpose or moral compass. Nick is impressed that his former Yale classmate Tom 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” (10). Eventually Nick comes to terms with the fact that Tom is a guileless bully. 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.” (188).
Fitzgerald almost makes you feel sorry for Daisy in the beginning. Daisy seems like a terribly unhappy person throughout the novel. Nick describes her as a princess “High in the white palace the king’s daughter, the golden girl “(127). As the story unfolds you realize her beauty is all an illusion, smoke and mirrors meant to pull you in and make you forget how ugly a person she really is. Gatsby says that “Her voice is full of money” (127). Both of these men put her high up on a pedestal that she does not really deserve. Other than being beautiful she does not seem to offer anything but her cool impersonal good looks “in the absence of all desire” (17). Daisy speaks with “a bantering inconsequence” (17). She is cold, callous and uncaring, but so beautiful that they forgive her over and over. Tom and Daisy are from the same old money background and Daisy is more concerned with keeping her social standing that she is in attempting to improve her life. Daisy describes her husband as “a brute of a man, a great big hulking physical specimen” (16). Daisy understands that her husband is betraying her throughout their marriage but she would rather be in an unhappy union with her “old money” husband then a happy one with a nouveau riche bootlegger like Gatsby. She eventually tells Gatsby “Oh, you want too much!” (139). Daisy was just toying with poor Gatsby’s feelings. Gatsby tells Nick that Daisy was “the first nice girl he had ever known” (155). Daisy represented an ideal woman that only ever existed inside his imagination. When Tom and Daisy leave town at the end of the novel, leaving poor Gatsby to take the blame for killing Myrtle, any kindness you feel towards Daisy is gone.
The American Dream is more than a rag to riches story. In Fitzgerald’s novel he portrays the American dream as something one can achieve only through honest hard work. Even though the characters have financial success they are corrupted by their money and not allowed to have anything “real”. In all of the luxurious homes in the novel there is not a single happy person. Near the end of the book Nick sees Jordan Baker one last time and describes her as “a good illustration” (185). Fitzgerald is emphasizing Jordan’s superficial qualities that Nick can see right through now that he has decided to leave and go back home. During the Roaring 20s, people in America put up facades to mask who they truly were. The Great Gatsby illustrates that the American dream can never be had through corruption or materialism. There are no shortcuts for hard work and integrity.
Fitzgerald, F. Scott. The Great Gatsby. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1995.