The Great Gatsby and its Portrayal of the 20s
American society experienced one of its sharpest changes during the 1920’s, with the increased masculinity of women, the rebel attitude of the younger generation, and increased class division. Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby exemplifies the most important of these changes through the story of a group of 20-somethings during this time. Nick’s narrative of his neighbor Gatsby exemplifies criminal activities, relationships/courtship, gender roles, class division, and other cultural changes with great accuracy and attention to detail while maintaining intricate literary devices. The novel helps contextualize and simplify the changes that occurred during the time, and provides some insight on the cause of these changes and their effects on the future of American society.
There was a large shift in relationships and social interactions during this time period as well. The increase in leisurely lifestyles for the upper class allowed for a class of socialites, whose time was spent mainly going to parties and socializing with friends. The main characters, as well as the attendees of Gatsby’s parties are examples of these types of people. There was a decrease in arranged marriages, and the younger generation dated or courted a person of their choosing (Fass). Choice of partner can be seen in Daisy’s original rejection of Gatsby, as she didn’t want to marry someone without money, and Jordan and Nick’s short-lived courtship before Jordan’s engagement to another man. Women now had more of a say in who they wanted to marry, rather than their family choosing a spouse for them. Divorce was also becoming more normalized during this time, as shown by Catherine’s comment on Tom and Myrtle’s marriages, “’If I was them I’d get a divorce and get married to each other right away.’” Catherine casually mentions the topic of divorce, showing that it is not a big deal or that uncommon for the time (Fitzgerald 37). Overall, the 20s brought a new fluidity to relationships; people were able to court different partners before choosing someone to marry, and were even able to divorce their spouse if their marriage didn’t work out. This ends the tradition in American culture of marriage and relationships being formed early-on without change and without attraction or chemistry being tested first.
The privileges of the upper class are frequently seen in Gatsby, as the characters it chronicles are all wealthy, except for the less-fortunate narrator. Nick is able to identify and comment on the privilege of his friends, Tom, Daisy and Gatsby, because he is not as well off as they are, but he still does not fully understand the plight of the lower class. Nick depicts Myrtle, Tom’s mistress, carelessly buying a puppy, along with several items, on a whim, and later listing off other items that she “needs” to get, showing that her privilege allows her to buy whatever she wants, whenever she wants. Furthermore, Gatsby, the focus of the story, throws extravagant parties and owns a large mansion, despite almost never working outside of a couple “business” calls. Daisy barely ever sees her child, as seen on page 123, the only scene that her daughter appears in and it’s only for a few sentences. Daisy is rich enough that she doesn’t even need to care for her own child. The book itself shows no focus or consideration of the lower class during this time, which was the typical behavior for upper class people, such as Nick, the narrator. The government also didn’t show much attention for the lower class during this time either, as welfare programs weren’t formed until the following decade, and the upper class was able to operate on its own set of rules because they could pay off government officials if they needed to.
The Great Gatsby displays the changes in American culture and society during the 1920’s while providing literary devices to analyze them without hurting the integrity of the story. In Chapter 6, Fitzgerald alludes to Plato’s ladder of love to show that Gatsby chooses to experience the lowest rung of the ladder instead of experiencing a more meaningful connection. This contextualizes the sexual shift in American society – relationships become more about physical connection than political alliances or family ties (Fass). Fitzgerald cleverly uses the common knowledge of the time to make his readers infer the actions of characters without directly saying it. He foreshadows Gatsby’s involvement in bootlegging through several phone calls from notorious bootlegging cities like Detroit and Chicago, Gatsby’s relationship with Myer Wolfshiem and Wolfshiem’s behavior when he first interacts with Nick. His symbolism of the billboard of the faded eyes of TJ Eckleberg represents the increased questioning of religion and God that occurred during the time. Fitzgerald also criticizes the lack of cause for the actions of the youth during the 20’s through Nick’s inability to find a cause for his friends’ actions. Much like the writing in Gertrude Stein’s “Composition as Explanation”, Nick and his friends repeat the same thing over and over without cause; they attend the same parties, socialize with the same people and do very similar things throughout the whole book up until the explosive ending.