Thesis: Gatsby the Symbolic Dominance of Materialism

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Gatsby

The Symbolic Dominance of Materialism in the Great Gatsby

The twentieth century brought about revolutions in industry, economy and culture which seemed to presuppose the American Dream. By definition, accessible to every man, this was the promise that through discipline, hard work and ingenuity, one could seize on the opportunities around him in order to elevate himself. The 1920's may perhaps be the first era in which this type of upward economic mobility had become popularly available in a nation increasingly dense with ambition, potential and resource. This is an era of great paradox in our history though. Even in the midst of our technological progress, the loosening of our social formalities and the broadening of personal opportunity, an undercurrent of discontent pervaded. With ambition came rampant materialism. With progress came excess. And with a greater identification of the American Dream with the acquisition of wealth, a more abyssal emptiness incurred upon some of its most ardent pursuers. Such is the expectation upon which is formed the symbolic power of The Great Gatsby. The Jazz Age masterpiece, by F. Scott Fitzgerald, captures this complex period in its sharp critique of the artifices which overshadowed the progress of his time, rendering an effective historical and literary document to a unique point in our past. Particularly, Gatsby challenges the uniformly positive expectation of his time and place by reflecting on the stark materialism that were permeating American culture for the first time at this juncture. Fitzgerald's work functions as a symbolic elaboration on the material excess and spiritual emptiness which seem to coincide in the primary players of the text.

Fitzgerald's novel touches on a multitude of themes relevant to the era, contributing to a school of literary works from contemporaries of the period which together reflect a deep sense of disillusionment and idleness in their subjects. Its continuity within this tradition is what prompted his admired contemporary Gertrude Stein to observe to her colleague that "you are creating the contemporary world much as Thackery did his in Pendennis and Vanity Fair and this isn't a bad compliment.' Fitzgerald's text is full of recognizable things, but they are related and perceived in special ways." (Berman, 1) Indeed, the emphasis on the type of material objects that either litter our everyday or remain listed amongst our desires makes Fitzgerald's novel a corollary on ownership, status and personal satisfaction.

The Great Gatsby revolves around a set of lukewarm young adults who inhabit East and West Egg off of New York across a sweltering summer. Distinguished by categorization as Old and New Money, with the former category referring to an American aristocracy and the latter category disdainfully regarding those of more recently acquired means, the two islands serve as a forum for Fitzgerald's examination of the dividing line. Boyer (1990) acknowledges this dividing line, forcing us to recognize that quite in fact, the material objects that offer the primary symbolic thrust of the novel are more complex than we may have at first perceived. Indeed, said objects may not sufficiently explain the gap between New and Old Money. To our perspective, and to that of Gatsby himself, the acquisition of wealth and resource alone should be sufficient to ensure his status and reputation. But we learn a great deal about socioeconomic nuance through Fitzgerald's work. Boyer (1990) remarks that "Jay Gatsby is someone who believes in the American dream of success. His life plays out the most famous piece of repartee between Fitzgerald and Hemingway -- that the rich are very different from you and me, because they have more money. Gatsby is a man who though that if he had the money, he would be rich, and could therefore be different," (Boyer, 328) The disillusionment with the vanity of material acquisition that would be a real presence for many young Americans just emerging from their own socioeconomic restraints is symbolized in Gatsby's external largess, his internal discomfit with the Old Money around him and his ultimate sense of spiritual emptiness.

To the point, the novel's meditation on the shallow and directionless lives of the young adults who gravitate between this dividing line of Old and New sets into motion a range of conflicts that revolve around classicism, sex and boredom. Jay Gatsby's rise from insignificance to affluence is a veritable realization of the American Dream. At the receiving end of his affections is Daisy, whose born wealth betrays the true exclusivity of American aristocracy. Placed into conflict with one another by way of their love, Gatsby and Daisy are towers to the corruption of America's superficiality.

Seen through the eyes of Nick Carraway, we are given a self-declared neutrality of observation, which sets into contrast the spoiled but beautiful girl and the self-made bootlegger. Though in Gatsby's excess and good-spirit we are evinced to believe that opportunity abounds, Nick serves as a liaison between both worlds and reveals American wealth to be an extremely exclusive club. Of his own place, from within Gatsby's ostentatiously grand house, he notes that "high over the city our line of yellow windows must have contributed their share of human secrecy to the casual watcher in the darkening streets, and I was him too, looking up and wondering. I was within and without, simultaneously enchanted and repelled by the inexhaustible variety of life." (Fitzgerald, 36) The narrator acknowledges the distance which separates his life from those of lesser economic comfort, and likewise implies a distance which is wedged between he and his 'friends.' Always at arms length in his tastes for Daisy and Tom, and constantly beleaguered by the mystery of Gatsby, Nick's neutrality is almost an impairment. Even of Jordon he is only fond by familiarity, with a reserved nature -- which he admits to on the novel's first page -- dominating his impressions and interactions.

This helps us to pin our understanding of Fitzgerald's text to a materialism that is not just spiritually alienating but which also seems to intervene in the capacity of characters to truly care for or even know one another. In Gatsby, for instance, Fitzgerald's critics have observed a figure with degrees of literary gender confusion and a silliness of priorities that combine to distance him from his ambitions of friendship and romance. Kern (1996) would report that "Gatsby is a 'close,' wrote H.L. Mencken, with 'the simple sentimentality of a somewhat sclerotic fat woman.' Fleshy, foolish, and gendered female, Mencken's fat clown draws together into one startling image the rhetorical features and barely camouflaged paranoia about being feminine that recur in early modernist discussions of art and the creative process." (Kerr, 1)

Nick proves the best vessel for our observation of these less than admirable features, with his emotional distance from the proceedings suggesting some recognition of the severe self-consciousness impeding upon the behaviors of all around him. It is in this disaffected middle-grounder that we are given the full scope of alienation which concerns the author. In the midst of a cataclysmic encounter between Daisy's boorish husband Tom and Gatsby, Nick remembers that it is his 30th birthday. An odd disassociation permeates this moment, emanating from the strange fact that the character would have forgotten his birthday in the first place. This is followed by a somber realization: "Thirty -- the promise of a decade of loneliness, a thinning list of single men to know, a thinning briefcase of enthusiasm, thinning hair." (Fitzgerald, 136) This is a heartrending concession that speaks to the lost isolation of a man with direct access to the dream. Nick's narration is a window into the emptiness of material attainment, with his passions subverted by a life of hedonistic disinterest.

This theme of hedonism is predominant in the day-to-day lives of the characters around which Fitzgerald's world revolves. Recreational gambling, drinking, automobile driving, theatre attendance, house-parties and afternoon soirees constitute the story's narration, giving the suggestion of a life absent of responsibility or consequence. This too, however, proves only a facade, with the loose moral fabric of the novel's characters and the abusive nature of their various affections ultimately fomenting grave conflict and tragedy. At the base of this tragedy, the pressures of materialist definition hold sway. Such is most evident in Daisy, whose very marriage is an appendage of this impulse. Tom's courtship had coincided with a period in which "she wanted her life shaped. . . immediately -- and the decision must be made by some force -- of love, of money, of unquestionable practicality -- that was close at hand." (Fitzgerald, 151) This is a characteristic trait which is reflected in Daisy but indicative of an entire class, driven so fully by the imperatives of status as to eschew such priorities as love and internal fulfillment. It is also of importance to the novel's thematic propulsion that Daisy is, like Carraway, a victim of her own idleness.

If there can be cited a grievance with Fitzgerald's watershed novel, it might be its appeal to such devices of intrigue as unfolded in the… [END OF PREVIEW]

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