The values of each age are reflected in the texts which are composed in them. Both The Great Gatsby and The Reader are written with the values of each age in mind. F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby examines the culture of the 1920s and the context that surrounded Fitzgerald whilst writing the novel. Bernhard Schlink’s The Reader is an investigation into the post World War II generation of Germany and the views from each generation. The Reader is written with the current era in mind, from the perspective of Michael Berg in the 1990s.
When writing The Great Gatsby Fitzgerald judged the values of his own time, he looked at his surroundings and took in all the ideals of society. Fitzgerald discussed what values he had, what society had and what he believed was wrong. In particular there was a strong bond between people and their material possessions during the 1920s, they would aspire to have the latest and greatest, the most decadent of items. Fitzgerald reflects this nature (particularly in the upper class) in The Great Gatsby by his display of characters. Daisy and Myrtle seek out the right man, with the correct social standing in order to be happy in their lives. Myrtle could not settle for George Wilson as “he borrowed somebody’s best suit to get married in, and never told me about it…I lay down and cried…all afternoon.” Her inability to love someone based on the fact that he could not afford a nice suit is how Fitzgerald saw the world in the 1920s, shallow and materialistic.
In a similar manner Daisy was not able to be with Gatsby unless he was of the proper social standing, as a poorer boy from the west in the army he was not what Daisy was looking for, so he changed his life to be right for her. Gatsby’s change is evident in the lifestyle he lives, the mansions, the cars, the parties and alcohol, all contributing factors for positioning himself in the same light as Daisy. Clearly what Fitzgerald is doing in The Great Gatsby is criticizing his world for taking material values too seriously, the superficiality of their lives worth more than enjoying life itself. This is in a sense the downfall of the American dream, to gain all these possessions yet lose all interest in life itself. Fitzgerald’s realization of this is reflected in the character and narrator Nick Carraway who reasons that his life is not what he’d hoped and realizes suddenly that the East coast life is just a cover-up for the moral emptiness of its residents.
The Reader was written in late 1995 for an audience who weren’t around for the events of the Second World War, rather it was up to Schlink to show The Readers how the life was at the time and what values the people had. The key element that holds all of The Reader’s historical timeline together is the generational element, the judgment between those in the war and those who lived after. The younger generation did not understand how such atrocities could be committed in the war and the older generation was not able to explain why it had to be so. Schlink examines three periods after the war, the recovery of the 50s, the trials of Hanna in the 60s and the jail time Hanna served from around the 80s to present day.
Throughout all of these the difference in the values changes, particularly in the way Michael views Hanna. Michael’s mind goes from innocence, to shame, to acceptance of her actions. This is characterized in German by the saying Vergangenheitsbewältigung, which essentially means to come to terms with the past. Much holocaust literature in Germany deals with this composite word as it allows us to feel the victim’s pain. What the younger generation felt for those involved on the German side of the war was guilt, for the outrageous actions committed, responsibility, for being related to yet unable to stop the actions and judgment, for the previous generation not stopping their actions.
In both The Great Gatsby and The Reader the context is crucial to understanding the values in the novel. In The Great Gatsby taking a modernist reading and rejecting traditional values explains why Fitzgerald focuses so heavily on consumerism, on individuality and on success. In The Reader looking at the novel in a liberal humanist light reflects how the characters are. They have the ability to think, will and choose freely, they have the right to judge and express their own ideas and desires. The American dream in The Great Gatsby also reflects humanism, wanting everyone to have a chance in life, to seek the American dream. This chance is what brought Gatsby, Carraway and many others to the east. The Reader’s ability to strike home with every person that reads the novel reveals the universal effect that the novel has.
The Great Gatsby depicts the 1920s in a very shallow perspective which in turn mirrors the lifestyle of the rich throughout much of time and whilst its context and references are set heavily in the 1920s its values are common to many ages, particularly among the elite. In comparison The Reader does not stay within one time and moves through over 50 years, examining the change of values, reflecting how Schlink’s views the changing of the world, the generational elements and the ethical considerations. Both demonstrate the values of the ages in which they were composed. Nick Carraway’s narration in The Great Gatsby is evidence of the hypocritical nature of the characters, committing acts that he judges others for. Michael Berg’s view of Hanna in The Reader shows the change in values based on his emotion towards her, ignorance, then hatred, then acceptance.