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The Great Gatsby illuminates society in the Jazz Age and the common values and beliefs of many Americans during that time. The American dream is one filled with wealth, alcohol, prosperity and a pseudo-happiness that came as a result of a growing economy and a plethora of ways to make money in illegal ways. These illegal methods included bootlegging, which defined the underworld of the early twentieth century. The underworld eventually penetrated the upper classes and caused moral decay in society that assisted in creating and destroying the dreams of people as they constantly fought for the American ideal.
In The Great Gatsby, the main character Jay Gatsby continually holds the common belief that happiness can be attained by wealth. He makes this evident by means of his elegant mansion on West Egg, his extravagant wardrobe, and his constant parties. The happiness he buys from his possessions is all to buy the happiness of his long lost love, Mrs. Daisy Buchanan. Gatsby, like many others, acquired a vast majority of his money from bootlegging. As stated by writer Henry Piper, "bootlegging wasâ€¦ a[n] acceptable business enterprise," (191). Living on West Egg, Gatsby's source of income was an unspoken truth. What is an acceptable enterprise by all and a practiced one by many in West Egg, the new money that is so prominent in the area cannot buy the social connections that come with those who live in East Egg. While the value of their respective dollars is constant, their social connections are what define them. (Bewley 229)
One of the major symbols of Gatsby's wealth is his prominent West Egg mansion. The mansion is "a factual imitation of some Hotel de Ville in Normandy, with a tower on one side, spanking new under a thin beard of raw ivy, and a marble swimming pool and more than forty acres of lawn and garden" (ch.1; 9). This home, located across the bay from East Egg and the Buchanan mansion, is host to an array of alcohol-soaked get-togethers attended by some of the most prominent figures in the area, as well as narrator Nick Carraway and Tom and Daisy Buchanan. The parties not only signify Gatsby's need to impress others with his money, but also speak to his infatuation with money and his corrupted dream.
Jay Gatsby's wardrobe shows his infatuation with money. His wardrobe contains eloquent and gaudy items, such as a gold, metallic hat; silver vests; and gold jackets. The shirts and clothes that are ordered every spring and fall express in a simple, discrete way his wealth to Daisy. Daisy becomes infatuated with the idea of him, and upon seeing the shirts, utters, "[what] beautiful shirts â€¦It makes me sad because I've never seen such beautiful shirts before" (Fitzgerald 98). While crying over shirts may make Daisy out to be a psychotic emotional wreck, the shirts represent much more than what meets the eye. "It is not the shirts themselves that overwhelm her but what they symbolizeâ€¦" (Churchwell 43). The elegant clothes prove that Gatsby's immense wealth cuts no corners on its path to Daisy's heart.
There exists a hierarchy throughout The Great Gatsby that divides the classes. The inhabitants of East Egg, represented by Tom and Daisy Buchanan, possess immense amounts of old money and strong social and political connections. They tend to be more arrogant and enjoy flaunting their money and successes. The inhabitants of West Egg occupy the middle teir; they are the people that have come across large sums of money due to the prohibition and the booming economy after the First World War. The West Eggers are represented by Jay Gatsby. In the lower tier exist the poor, working-class members of society who reside in the Valley of Ashes, as represented by George and Myrtle Wilson. The only parallel that may be drawn among the three tiers is a never-ceasing insecurity and anxiety with how society views them. Those who reside in East Egg are suspicious of and threatened by the new generation of rich who accumulating immense sums of money in a very short period of time. On the other hand, those who reside in West Egg do all possible to make an ostentatious display of their new wealth. Their anxieties exist in aspiring to be at the top.
To Gatsby, his dream was symbolized by Daisy; Gatsby even says that her voice sounds like money, a direct correlation between Daisy and the wealth and happiness that Gatsby would supposedly enjoy if only he could have married Daisy but could still enjoy if he had married her five years later. His pursuit of happiness with Daisy was the ultimate cause of the degradation of Gatsby's morals and realistic dreams. Gatsby's dreams had distorted reality to the point where when his rationality realized that the image of life and of Daisy did not coincide with the real life version his mind did not grasp that perhaps the dream had receded to the point of no return, consequently his dreams helped to result in the devastating end that was the finish of The Great Gatsby.
Gatsby's character relies heavily on his personality, which included his physical appearance, his grooming and his gestures (Lehan 58). His gestures defined his social mannerisms, and his "â€¦clipped speech, the 'old sports', the formal intensity of manner, the gracefulness of the ballroom floor, the bending slightly forward to create the impression of an intensity of interest, the meticulous attention to detail--these and many more 'gestures' compliment the personage of Gatsby" all spoke to his constant struggle to achieve social acceptance. (58-59). Narrator Nick Carraway notices Gatsby's mannerisms, as well as his immense persona during one of their first conversations:
He smiled understandingly-much more than understandingly. It was one of those rare smiles with a quality of eternal reassurance in it, that you may come across four of five times in life. It faced-or seemed to face-the whole external world for an instant, and then concentrated on you with an irresistible prejudice in your favor. It understood you just as far as you wanted to be understood, believed in you as you wanted to believe in yourself, and assured you that it had precisely the impression of you that, at your best, you hoped to convey. Precisely at that moment it vanished-and I was looking at an elegant young rough-neck, a year or two over thirty, whose elaborate formality of speech just missed being absurd. (48)
In this passage, Carraway is blown away by the mere image of Gatsby-his smile, persona, and ideals blow even the most simple of persons away.
There exists a difference in Gatsby's mental image and the real image of Daisy. Her idea of the American Dream was a fun, carefree idea. In order to achieve her dream, she needed not only money, but the social prestige and connections that only comes in old money. Her dream and her methods of achieving it lead to her being ultimately unhappy in life. (Kaplan 11) Her dream and the methods she uses to accomplish it, lead to her marriage being unhappy, where she still attempted to capture happiness and keep her dream alive. "If she was really concerned about the money," says Fitzgerald's personal biographer and literary critic Scott Donaldson, "she would have waited for her love (Gatsby) to return from the war" (Donaldson 28). If Daisy had indeed been concerned with happiness, as was implied throughout the novel, then she would not have been as concerned with money as she obviously was - she would have waited for Gatsby to come back from the war and not have married Tom; a decision based on her thoughts of what her life should have been life and a decision that cost her happiness. The moral decadence and carelessness of the American dream is also illustrates accurately in Daisy in the situation of the killing of Myrtle and her abandonment of Gatsby just before and after his death. (Piper 62) The fact that she ran over Myrtle without stopping and did not have the bravery to tell Tom shows how Daisy was always thinking of herself and of her own comfort rather than the safety, wellbeing and feelings of others.
It is revealed to the reader the true history of Jay Gatsby, who transformed from James Gatz in his younger years. The transformation from James Gatz to Jay Gatsby shows how people are willing to transform themselves according to their ambition to achieve immense wealth and prosperity. (Piper 88) Gatsby's illegal methods of making money are alluded to in the book. This reminds the reader how the American Dream perverted and ultimately sidestepped the moral revolt and pushed money-crazed people into crime, ultimately degrading the moral values of the century. (Churchwell 24-25)
The American dream is murdered concurrently with Gatsby. The dream, while mocked and ridiculed in the whole story, finds closure with Carraway in the ending of the novel:
I have an idea that Gatsby himself didn't believe it would come, and perhaps he no longer cared. If that was true he must have felt that he had lost the old warm world, paid a high price for living too long with a single dream. He must have looked up at an unfamiliar sky through frightening leaves and shivered as he found what a grotesque thing a rose is and how raw the sunlight was upon the scarcely created grass. A new world, material without being real, where poor ghosts, breathing dreams like air, drifted fortuitously about â€¦ like that ashen, fantastic figure gliding toward him through the amorphous trees. (ch. 11; 184)