The Great Gatsby was written by F. Scott Fitzgerlad was written as well as set in what was known as the jazz-era in the 1920s. The jazz era was the prosperous age of the American economic boom where the quintessential American Dream flourished. However, through The Great Gatsby, Fitzgerald dons the role of a social critic to bring out the adherence and affinity of the generation towards false material values during the Jazz era (Bruccoli, 2000). Through the rise and fall of Jay Gatsby, Fitzgerlad critiques the American society that was keen on affluence and was morally irresponsible.
The social criticism of Fitzgerald
The social criticism of Fitzgerald revolves around a certain selected group, which is a set of privileged youth in their twenties. Through this set, he provides an insight into the “youth and mystery that wealth imprisons and preserves” (Fitzgerald, 1925, pp.92). In The Great Gatsby, the affluent class is shown as the one that has no moral values and the highest value is placed on money. Thus, in society, there is no place for Nick Carraway and his honesty. Therefore, the so-called ‘roaring 20s’, which was the era of jazz, luxury, and glamour was actually the era of the foreclosure of the American dream. (Long, 1970). As a social critic, Fitzgerald not only uses symbolism or metaphors, but he does that very effectively through the characters that he creates, the milieu of the book as well as certain ‘props’ such as the extravagant car. For example, the ‘green light’, at the end of the Buchanan’s dock stands as a symbol of intense desire for Gatsby’s wealth, power, yearning for Daisy as well as envy at the members of East Egg society, “Gatsby believed in the green light, the orgastic future that year by year recedes before us” (Fitzgerlad, 1925, pp.110). Thus, the author uses the symbol of the green light to depict the various factors that are responsible for corrupting the American Dream (Prigozy, 2002).
The writer also uses his characters effectively to convey his social criticism. Through the extravagance of the parties thrown by Gatsby, the shallow mind of his guests as well as by providing hints related to Gatsby’s involvement in crimes bring forth the American social setup (Bloom, 2003). The milieu of the work has been set up in such a manner that it throws a clear light on the failure of the American dream because the ideals of politics in America are a clear contract of the actual social conditions that exist in society. While the American democracy upholds the values of equality, Fitzgerald illustrates that social discrimination exists at a very high level in society (Lehan, 1966). For example, the attempt carried out by Myrtle to break into the Buchanans group is a failure. She has an affair with Tom and takes on his style of living, becoming both vulgar and corrupt. Soon, she begins to scorn people from her own class. However, in the end, she is not successful in her attempt to find a true place in that group. Another instance which brings forth this social indifference is what Nick says about Daisy, ‘in a moment she looked at me with an absolute smirk on her lovely face as if she had asserted her membership in a rather distinguished secret society to which she and Tom belonged’ (Fitzgerlad, 1925, pp.11).
While for Myrtle, this struggle is for social ambition, for Gatsby it takes on a new dimension of struggle, which is also influenced by social consideration. For him, failure has a stronger effect (Turnbull, 1962). All his confidence, his hopes in life and his career shatter when he does not succeed in winning Daisy. Therefore, when he gets killed by Wilson, his death is insignificant, for he has already been spiritually and morally dead, which is a strong metaphor for the social scene in the United States. Fitzgerald also points out satirically at the decadence of spiritual life, through the luxurious lives led by the Buchanans. Even though they have the money, the wealth, and all the luxuries that they ever need, Daisy says, ‘What’ll we do with ourselves this afternoon?’ cried Daisy, ‘and the day after that, and the next thirty years?’ (Fitzgerlad, 1925, pp. 71). Furthermore, the couple also has extramarital affairs, which is an indication of the degeneration of morality (Fahey, 1973).
It is also very interesting to see how Gatsby’s house is always full of people and social gatherings, but when he dies, there is no one to attend the funeral except for Nick and Gatsby’s father. This shows how Gatsby’s friendship was shallow and not meaningful (Parkinson, 1988). To make the situation more ironic, there is one guest called Klipspringer who calls, but just to know about the pair of shoes that he had lost somewhere. This situation is an accurate portrayal of the social and moral degeneration, where people made friends with others only for the time that they could provide luxury and wealth-related pleasures. This is, therefore, a dig at the hollowness and fakeness of human relationships (Crosland, 1975).
The collapse of the American Dream
The eventual tragic end of the book also is a strong indication of the times to come – namely, the collapse of the American Dream and the Great Economic Depression that the United States slipped into. Therefore, at some level, the writer was able to sense the downward trend that the Jazz era was leading to and he managed to portray that well in The Great Gatsby (Cass, 1980). While there is this strong prominent theme of social decadence, there is also hope which is represented through the character of Nick. Fitzgerald was a part of the social group which was popularly known as the “Lost Generation”. This generation lived through the hollow dazzle of the Jazz age, just like Gatsby. Therefore, the social criticism in this book comes out very strongly.
- Fitzgerlad, F.S., 1925. The Great Gatsby. New York: Scribner.
- Bloom, H. ed., 2003. F. Scott Fitgerald’s The Great Gatsby. New York: Chelsea House Publishers.
- Bruccoli, M. J. ed., 2000. F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby: A Literary Reference. New York: Carroll & Graf Publishers
- Cass, C. S., 1980. ‘Pandered in Whispers’: Narrative Reliability in The Great Gatsby,” College Literature, 7(1), pp.113-24.
- Crosland, A.T., 1975. A Concordance to F. Scott Fitzgerald’s ‘The Great Gatsby’, Detroit: Gale.
- Fahey, W., 1973. F. Scott Fitzgerald and the American Dream. New York:
- Thomas Y. Crowell Company
- Lehan, R. D., 1966. F. Scott Fitzgerald and the Craft of Fiction. Carbondale, IL: Southern Illinois University Press.
- Long, E.R., 1970. The Achieving of The Great Gatsb. New Jersey: Associated Union Presses.
- Parkinson, K., 1988. Critical Studies: The Great Gatsby. London: Penguin
- Prigozy, R. ed., 2002. The Cambridge Companion to F. Scott Fitzgerald. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
- Turnbull, A., 1962. Scott Fitzgerald. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons