How does The Great Gatsby prove that materialism lead to moral decay?
The 1920’s is widely perceived as the decade of materialism. It was a time of economic prosperity. In his book, The Great Gatsby, Fitzgerald illustrates how the obsession of material wealth leads to moral decay. He uses characters actions such as Myrtles choice to stay with Tom despite the abuse, locations such as the valley of ashes to represent the moral decay underneath the wealth of the two main cities, as well as the consumption of alcohol even though, at the time, it was illegal, to represent the decline of morality that can occur due to wealthy circumstances.
Fitzgerald depicts the moral decay of the upper class with the use of many characters throughout the novel. (Smith) Myrtle Wilson’s attraction to Tom Buchanan is based on what he can buy her instead of love. On their first night out with Nick present, Tom buys her “…a copy of ‘Town Tattle’ and a moving picture magazine and…some cold cream and a small flask of perfume” (Fitzgerald 31). Soon after, at a party in Tom’s apartment, Myrtle keeps saying the name of Tom’s wife “Daisy” over and over to provoke him. Tom then breaks Myrtles nose. Yet after this abuse she decides to continue her relationship with him because she does not want to let go of her fantasy of having anything she wants – everything her working class husband cannot get her. This incident depicts the moral decay of Myrtle as well as Tom. Tom’s status and class makes him believe that women are beneath him and he has the right to do what he wants.
Gatsby’s willingness to commit crimes to obtain money in order to acquire the women of his dreams is another example of how wealth can lead to moral decay. (Smith) Like Tom, Jay Gatsby uses money to secure a married woman’s affection. Further investigation on Tom’s part reveals exactly how Gatsby got his money. Gatsby realizes that in order to gain Daisy’s attention, he needs great wealth. To obtain this wealth, Gatsby willingly breaks the Prohibition law and “…sold alcohol over the counter” (Fitzgerald 141). Not only does Gatsby become a bootlegger to obtain the wealth he needs, but after his death, a phone call is made that indicates his affiliation with bond swindling as well. “They picked him up when he handed the bonds over the counter” (Fitzgerald 174).
Another example of how wealthy conditions can lead to moral decay is that after all that happened to Nick in Fitzgerald’s novel The Great Gatsby; it never crosses his mind to report the criminal activity of all of the people he meets to the police (Smith). Nick is the only character who knows the truth of the criminal activities that have taken place by the end of the novel and in the end he decides to leave the East Coast. Nick not reporting the criminal activity to the police suggests that he himself has been tainted by the immorality of his friends and that he, as a narrator, is probably not as reliable as one would believe him to be.
Fitzgerald not only uses his character’s actions, but the locations expressed within the novel to illustrate the decline of morality as well. The Valley of Ashes represents the moral decay that had taken place in society due to people’s desire to become rich. “This is a strip of land between the West Egg and New York City…” (Bret Harwell) The Valley of Ashes has become a place where immoral acts such as Myrtle’s death take place. One of the main immoral acts that take place in The Valley of Ashes is Tom’s affair with Myrtle. Nick states that the abundance of immoral acts in the Valley of Ashes is “a fantastic farm where ashes grow like wheat…” (Fitzgerald 25).
East Egg is another location that illustrates how wealthy conditions can lead to moral decay. (Mina) East Egg, especially Daisy and Tom, represents the established aristocracy and taste, however, many of them are careless people who use their money simply to ease their minds and not worry about hurting others. “What the old Aristocracy possesses in taste, however, it seems to lack in heart, as the East Eggers prove themselves careless…” (Spark Notes). Jordan Baker is an excellent example of a careless and inconsiderate East Egger. She is shown to be a very reckless driver. She carelessly stated that “It takes two to make to make an accident.” (Fitzgerald 59). She then suggests that she hoped she would never meet anyone as careless as herself for that reason. Another example of how Jordan Baker exemplifies East Egg is that she cares for only herself. “There was a rumor going around that she (Jordan) moved her golf ball during a tournament to win” (Fitzgerald 58). This quote shows how Jordan cared for her fame and money so much that she was willing to cheat illustrating that wealth, as well as status, can lead to moral decay.
Tom and Daisy exemplify the stereotype of the East Eggers well when, at the end of the novel, they simply move to a new house far away instead of attending Gatsby’s funeral even after all of the loyalty Gatsby showed to Daisy. “Gatsby’s good qualities (loyalty and love) lead to his death, as he takes the blame for killing Myrtle rather than letting Daisy be punished, and the Buchanan’s bad qualities (fickleness and selfishness) allow them to remove themselves from the tragedy not only physically but psychologically” (Spark Notes). Tom Daisy and Jordan exemplify how, due to their wealth, East Egg has become careless and inconsiderate.
West Egg is another location that shows how wealthy conditions can lead to moral decay. West Egg represents the self-made, newly rich (J. Yahoo). Gatsby exemplifies the stereotypes of West Eggers well. West Eggers are portrayed as gaudy, and lacking in both social graces as well as taste. Gatsby for example, lives in a mansion, wears suits with lively colors, drives an incredibly expensive car, and yet does not pick up on subtle social signals as well as others. An example of his inability to pick up on subtle social signals is shown when Gatsby meets the Sloanes and is invited to lunch. He fails to pick up on the insincerity of their invitation. What the newly rich lack in social grace, they make up for in loyalty and heart as West Eggers prove themselves caring. Gatsby, whose wealth derives from criminal activity, proves himself loyal when he stands outside Daisy’s house until four in the morning in Chapter 7, to make sure that Tom does not hurt her. Gatsby is shown to be not only loyal but caring as well when his good qualities lead to his death as he takes the blame for killing Myrtle Wilson rather than letting Daisy take the blame.
In his novel, The Great Gatsby, Fitzgerald uses the consumption of alcohol to portray the decline of morality of the upper-class. During the 1920’s the 18th Amendment was put into affect making the production and distribution of alcohol illegal. However, each party that the novel describes involves alcohol. “However, each party that the book describes, rather it be one of Gatsby’s lavish parties at his estate or Tom’s private party in his New York City flat, involves alcohol and intoxication therefore immoral in the eyes of society” ( Hinko). It can be inferred that Fitzgerald uses the presence of alcohol to symbolize the moral degrade of the 1920’s especially in the area of romance. Tom and Daisy’s marriage is an important example of this as both violate their vows and meet with their lovers while alcohol is involved. This symbolizes the decline of their morality and well as their marriage due to the influence of alcohol.
Fitzgerald uses alcohol to portray moral degrade through the abnormal actions that alcohol causes people to do. During one of Gatsby’s lavish parties, a great number of drunken women can be seen dancing individualistically. Nick then goes on to say that “Most of the remaining women were now having fights with men said to be their husbands” (Fitzgerald 52). This shows that alcohol brought issues between many of the marriages at Gatsby’s party, illustrating the moral decay that come with alcohol consumption. Another example of moral decay due to alcohol consumption would be the girls in yellow dresses. “One of the girls in yellow was playing the piano and beside her stood a tall, red haired young lady from a famous chorus, engaged in song. She had drunk a quantity of champagne and during the course of her song she had decided ineptly that everything was very, very sad – she was not only singing, she was weeping too. Whenever there was a pause in the song she filled it with gasping broken sobs and then took up the lyric again in a quavering soprano.” (Fitzgerald 38) This quote shows the moral decay that accompanies alcohol consumption.
In summation, Fitzgerald uses his novel, The Great Gatsby, to illustrate how the obsession of material wealth leads to moral decay. He uses the actions of the upper class characters such as Gatsby’s willingness to commit crimes in order to obtain the wealth he desires, locations such as the East and West Eggs and their corrupt ways due to their wealthy circumstances, as well as the consumption of alcohol and it’s ability to make one lose their dignity and etiquette to portray the moral decay of civilization that can occur when presented with wealth. When an individual is fortunate enough to live in wealthy circumstances, they can easily lose sight of responsibility and moral obligations.