The period after World War I in the USA was characterized by economic prosperity and impressive industrial growth. It was the time of contrasts combining frantic pursuit of wealth and decline of idealism. The society perused the ideology of consumerism that made people consider the wealth as the primary aim to be achieved by any means. Fitzgerald is a great representative of this period giving it the name of “Jazz Age.” The concept of the Jazz Age has become a symbol characterizing the mass enthusiasm for carnival lifestyle, denial of the future and desire to live and enjoy the present day that is a short-term moment. Fitzgerald depicted the main features and social contradictions of that period in his novel, The Great Gatsby. The protagonist, Jay Gatsby, is an ideal example of the American dream since he has money, big mansion, and luxuries cars. However, in his attempts to follow the American Dream, all his wealth is demonstrative and empty. He creates the image of successful businessman and tries to support it by the numbers of extravagant parties in order to attract attention of his first love named Daisy. Therefore, the vision of society created by Fitzgerald provides beneficial and at the same time destructive consequences of consumer system of values that was persuaded by the representatives of all social classes in their attempt to obtain the American Dream.
Fitzgerald created the bright scheme of social stratification in the text. This differentiation is made according to both the geographical peculiarities of the society and the differences caused by interpretation of the American Dream. Therefore, the author represents three areas, namely East Egg, West Egg and the Valley of Ashes. East Egg is marked by the population that has obtained its material wealth due to inheritance and devoted its life to entertainment and hedonistic lifestyle. The inhabitants of West Egg have obtained their wealth recently due to their work or in some other ways. The most oppressed part of society lives in the Valley of Ashes which is full of people who are in debts and try to achieve any kind of material reward doing the hard work. Such a social stratification provided by the author reveals the social contradiction determined by the “roaring 20s” and the pursuit of the American Dream. Although American Dream allows the shift of the social status in case of obtaining the desired wealth, the existing social gap provided by the individual’s social background will not be overcome. This issue can be seen when Daisy “saw something awful in the very simplicity she failed to understand” and interprets the West Egg society as an unacceptable one that cannot reach the status of East Eggers even obtaining the same economical status (Fitzgerald, n.d., p.115).
Another example is Tom and Myrtle’s fight regarding mentioning Daisy’s name when Tom prohibited Myrtle to say Daisy’s name: “Making a short deft movement Tom Buchanan broke her nose” (Fitzgerald, n.d., p.41). This episode shows that although Tom tries to entertain himself with the woman from the other social class, he follows his initial system of values that does not let him equate himself with the inferior class. The social gap between the classes took place in the American society in the beginning of the twentieth century. In order to provide the clear interpretation of the differences between West Egg and East Egg, Fitzgerald introduces the character of Nick Carraway as the only representative of the middle-class social background (Dyson, 2008, p.63). Due to his “middle” position concerning upper and working class, he is considered the only source of clear interpretation of all circumstances. He said: “I’m five years too old to lie to myself and call it honor” (Fitzgerald, n.d. p.190). It demonstrates the deep recognition of the falsity and destructive nature of the upper class society that is, in general, the main aim of author’s attacks because of its consumption culture. Thus, a clear stratification of social classes in the text is created in order to reveal the main destructive features of arrogant upper class society in contrast to the simple and understandable nature of the middle-class people.
The social stratification provided in the text introduces the author’s criticism of the consumers’ society. The post-war industrial prosperity resulted in the creation of the consumers’ society, the main aim of which was to obtain more goods that supposed to provide the better lifestyle. In fact, the idea was the following: it is possible to obtain happiness by buying the fashionable goods, and not by creating them. According to Fitzgerald, such an ideology could deprive the American society from its authenticity and cultural identity (Pumphrey, 2011, p.116). The novel is a kind of precautions example of the possible American future that could be obtained in case of following consumers’ society.
The bright example of the ruinous effect of consumerism is Myrtle’s character with her permanent dissatisfaction of her life status and intentions to own the certain goods that could bring her the desired luxury life. Myrtle claimed: “I lay down and cried to beat the band all afternoon” (Fitzgerald, n.d., p.39). It was said regarding the misery of her husband’s social position in terms of wealth and money. Thus, she introduced the cult of goods as the necessary condition required for obtaining the happiness. In fact, the fatal consequences of her attempts to catch the American Dream reveal the main massage of the novel, namely the destructive nature of the consumerism. The other example of the consumption philosophy that introduced the notion of the cult of goods in the 20s years is the episode with Gatsby’s excursion to his house for Daisy. The way he showed Daisy his clothes represents the exaggerate attention to the clothes as the particular signification of wealth and high social status: “He took out a pile of shirts and began throwing them, one by one before us” (Fitzgerald, n.d., p.99). The consequences of such values were also fatal for Gatsby. Thus, the author points out the destructive influence of the consumerism on the society. As people are involved more in consuming of the products than in production of the new values and goods, they become greed and self-orientated. And these features can result in self-destroying.
In order to fit to the upper class society of Daisy’s surrounding, Gatsby creates the identity that is supposed to satisfy the demands of the upper class audience. The way he seeks to convince Nick in his high social origin makes Nick feel lie about Gatsby as they sound as the imagery: “He looked at me sideways-and I knew why Jordan Baker had believed he was lying” (Fitzgerald, n.d., p.70). This episode reveals the true way Gatsby treats the reality; in fact, he is performing the role of the person he is not in reality. Bringing Nick to the speakeasy, he introduces him to Mr. Wolfshiem to give more cogency to his words and maintain the created image. Therefore, he organizes the parties to attract attention of upper-class personalities in order to involve them into his live and identify his personality with this society. He describes his social background to Nick as the following: “My family all died and I came into a good deal of money” (Fitzgerald, n.d., p.71). However, the real state of things was that he obtained his wealth through economical operations such as bootleg and other machinations. Deep inside his identity, he realized the artificial character of his existence.
However, he considers himself deserving more than it is supposed by his lower-class background, and this conviction has become the essential part of his self-perception. In fact, nobody knows even a piece of real information about his personality. Those who attend his party amuse themselves with the numerous rumors regarding the origin of his social status: “Somebody told me they thought he killed a man once” (Fitzgerald, n.d., p.48). The mystery created around his personality helps him to maintain the desired popularity in order to achieve his main goal, namely to attract Daisy’s sympathy. The idealization of his personality by those attending his parties introduces the notion about the artificial nature of the consuming society where good advertising can convince anybody in anything. Gatsby creates his image in order to prove his correspondence to Daisy’s society. And his accurately planned campaign takes into consideration the vulnerability of the society to the extravagant and extra-wealth personalities.
The important role in the representation of the consumerism typical for the Jazz Age is the concept of parties. After the release of the Eighteenth Amendment to the Constitution that introduces the prohibition of the sale and consumption of alcohol drinks, the center of the entertainment was shifted to the underground part of society (Blocker, 2006). Consequently, numbers of speakeasies, clubs that sold alcohol secretly, were constructed. Therefore, the parties such as the ones described in Fitzgerald’s novel symbolized the denial of any restrictions both legal and moral. Alcohol that was available in the unlimited measures on Gatsby’s parties provides the mood of permissiveness and everlasting joy. Such entertainment was full of beautiful and frivolous women sharing the joy without considering their reputation. The atmosphere of the endless carnival made the audience forget about routine troubles and real-life difficulties and become a part of the big holiday. However, these parties were as aimless and empty as everything that was connected with the consumerism. Jordan’s words “And I like large parties. They’re so intimate. At small parties there isn’t any privacy” prove the real nature of the events (Fitzgerald, n.d., p.54). A great number of visitors were apathetic of the problems and any personal issues of each other. That is the reason it was easy to lose one’s identity in that crowd. Thus, the image of parties is the symbol of the described society where people tend to lose their identity in attempts to join the upper-class “crowd.”
Considering the analysis of the text, it becomes evident that Great Gatsby is the valuable source of the image of the USA in the period after World War I. Through bright images and characters he depicts the main socio-cultural realities of that time such as parties and social stratification struggle. Main heroes introduce the typical representatives of the different social classes with those life struggles that were familiar for American population in the first part of the twentieth century. The character of Gatsby is introduced as the symbol of the consumerist society with all possible consequences of the materialistic outlook.