America, we say, was built on the American dream, the notion that through hard work and dedication anyone can become rich and prosperous. This notion can be compressed to the pursuit of money and power, of which material gain is the ultimate trophy of success. In other words - with ambition, came materialism. One can imagine then, when a nation is built on such a shallow ideal as materialism, that the moral integrity of the society will be corrupted. In F. Scott Fitzgerald’s landmark book, The Great Gatsby American dream and the side effects the pursuit of this dream had on the moral integrity of the American people. He makes his dismay of America at the time rather obvious, to the point where almost every character in the book displays some form of moral-decay. His portrayal of the American society raises the question: could the rising taste for material gains in 1920’s America have poisoned traditional American values?
The book is set during the roaring twenties, a decade defined by radical change and social reform following great developments in industrialisation. These developments created a whole new gold mine of an industry, and the gates were open for anybody to go digging. Many lower-class individuals were making so-called ‘new money’ and this sudden uprising of blue-collars led to a clash between old and new values. Nick Carraway, the narrator and the eyes through with which we discover the story, is in many ways Fitzgerald’s representation of ‘old values’. He introduces himself in the first pages of the book, notably saying “Everyone suspects himself of at least one of the cardinal virtues, and this is mine: I am one of the few honest people that I have ever known.” Through this self-proclaimed neutrality of observation, one gets the impression of a quite morally sound character; he comes across as thoughtful, observant and thorough, albeit also a bit snobbish and judgemental. Altogether, these traits are reminiscent of the typical old-style and traditional values such as self-control and integrity. However, even Nick Carraway’s integrity, with all his seemingly strict moral codes, must be questioned. For example, how honest can a man who needs to explicitly tell you that he is honest, really be?
Obviously, he is not an entirely honest man, illustrated when he remains silent after Tom breaks Myrtle’s nose, and when he begins a fling with Jordan Baker all the while he has a woman waiting for him at home. Nick has caught onto the appeal of the American dream, shown as he moves to New York in the hopes of making money trading stocks in the booming economic market, and the move is clearly having an effect on his veracity. The obviously dishonest actions that he commits after moving to New York prove that this dishonest society which he has chosen to integrate himself into has corrupted his true values.
Where Nick is a representation of old-values, the people he meets in New York are a representation of the new values, the first person we meet being the great Jay Gatsby. We learn that Mr. Gatsby started at the bottom of the ladder and worked his way to the top, to the point where he could afford a lavish mansion in one of New York’s most exclusive suburbs and had so much money to spare that he threw superbly extravagant parties on the regular. These parties are the very embodiment of the materialism that brewed in 1920’s America. Apart from the obvious physical materialistic aspects of the extravaganzas, Nick’s descriptions of them point out how insincere people had become. He recollects how the guests at these parties would share rumours about Gatsby, taunting at one point that 'Somebody told me they thought he killed a man once.' (3.30-35), proving how little anybody really knew about the true Jay Gatsby. It goes to show that even when someone seems very close, they may in fact be very distant, hiding under a mask of superficiality. These superficial and insincere relationships are further established when no one turns up to Gatsby’s funeral, and Nick realises how alone Gatsby was, despite being surrounded by so many people. The guests at his party, and by extension the people of New York, valued superficial, materialistic principles such as how much money a person had or how big their house was. They valued these superficialities over genuine and sincere principles such as a person’s actions and behaviour, and it affected their ability to make sincere relationships.
Tom and Daisy are another example of people whose relationships struggled because of corrupted values. Being members of the rich elite, Tom and Daisy seem to have everything one could ever lust for: power, money, beauty and all types of materialistic possessions. They are in every superficial manner the definition of American success. Yet, despite all their riches they could never find true happiness. Daisy states when she first meets her cousin Nick:
“'You see I think everything's terrible anyhow,' she went on in a convinced way. 'Everybody thinks so—the most advanced people. And I know. I've been everywhere and seen everything and done everything.' Her eyes flashed around her in a defiant way, rather like Tom's, and she laughed with thrilling scorn. 'Sophisticated—God, I'm sophisticated!'”.She shows how, despite her outwardly happiness, she in in fact quite depressed by her situation, presumably because she finds no meaning in anything anymore. Daisy shows that in some ways, the pursuit of the American dream has a glass roof: Because what do you do once you have reached the top? What more is there to get when you have everything? The materialistic approach to hedonism caused Daisy to feel hollow inside. This feeling of hollowness is a characteristic trait which was indicative for not just Daisy, but the entire upper class. They were so focused on superficial things like material wealth that they eschewed priorities such as love and internal fulfilment, leading to emotional emptiness.
On the other end of the social and economic ladder, we have Mr. and Mrs. Wilson. Myrtle represents almost too clearly the excessive worship of materialism that bloomed in 1920’s America, and her storyline conveys clearly how destructive the obsession over wealth and materialism was for the soul. Myrtle Wilson was servile towards wealth, as well as overly eager to distance herself from her humble beginnings, shown for example in chapter two when she complains in a condescending manor about the waiter: “‘I told that boy about the ice.’ Myrtle raised her eyebrows at the shiftlessness of the lower orders. ‘These people. You have to keep after them all the time.’” Her words are surprising, as she acts as though she is from a higher class then what she really is. Further on, her actions demonstrate that she has no qualms about outright shunning her husband and completely bypassing her marital obligations behind his back, leading the reader to greatly question her moral integrity. Myrtle’s obsession with materialism turned her into a spineless, pretentious and undeservedly condescending person. Her husband on the other hand, seems to be one of the few characters in the book without a problematic set of morals despite seemingly having pulled the short end of the stick in life. A sad sort of irony can be found in that he in more ways than one fulfils the requirements for an American success story, being hard-working, dedicated and genuine, yet never seems to find success, as he continues to face misfortune. His character exemplifies the melancholy side of the American dream, the side where the people who really deserve wealth are cheated out of it by selfish, more fortunate people.
It appears that what every character in this book have in common is their pursuit of the American dream. The irony though, is that the pursuit of the American dream, which in many ways was in fact a pursuit of happiness, made people less happy. Not one prominent character in The Great Gatsby really displayed true happiness. Even the ultra-rich Buchannan’s, who seemed to have everything one could ever lust for, were so caught up in their pursuit for power and positive outwards appeal to be able to create a truly happy marriage. For the other characters, their corrupted minds ultimately led to death and dismay, with Mrs Myrtle being the most obvious example, as she desperately jumps in front of the passing yellow car. This may be a symbol for the futility of reaching for materialistic happiness. Myrtle desperately grasps after her fleeting dream but only realises the brutal truth once she fatally tumbles to the ground. The truth being that if your dreams are rooted in a corrupt value like materialism, the corruption will poison the basis of your morals and lead to a dissatisfied and restless soul.
In the end, it seems as though there was truth to Nick’s words in the final pages of the novel. Instead Nick says, “We beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past'”. The tragic ending all but solidifies the idea that the American dream can never truly be attained, the top of the ladder never reached. The best one can do is fake attainment and hide behind a smokescreen of materialism. But as the tragic outcome of The Great Gatsby implies, falsehood was only the tip of the iceberg when Americans began to idealise materialism. Many other sincere values fell prey to corruption along the way.