In the 1920s, after WW1, the USA went under a radical change and social reform took place. The developments in industrialization caused decay in moral values. This resulted in materialism’s obliteration of the doctrines and rules of moral duties. Thus, society was torn apart due to the clash between old and new values. The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald reflects the American society during this period and clearly portrays the contrast between traditional and corrupted values by manifesting the distinct character traits, attitudes and habits of the characters; their individual patterns of typical lives and thoughts about the others.
Old values represent the traditional lifestyle and are based on morality and virtue. The characteristics of these values are portrayed by some characters, events and settings throughout the book. Firstly, old values give one a sense of right or wrong and obedience to social conventions. For example, Nick, the narrator of the book who lives according to these values says that he is slow thinking and full of interior rules that act as brakes on his desires. Then he observes the people around him and adds that he is one of the few honest people that he has ever known (64). His ideas show that spiritual values such as self-control, honesty and human respect are significant but rare. Secondly, the old lifestyle includes close and warm friendships that depend on respect and love. Gatsby trusts Nick and shares his secrets with him. They establish a genuine friendship. This emphasizes the importance and scarcity of sincere relationships.
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Furthermore, the old lifestyle is characterized by a certain modesty in which wealth and public show of it are not the only sources of validation. This way of life is illustrated by the settings of the book. For instance, West Egg, where Nick and Gatsby live, corresponds to the traditional lifestyle. Nick describes this place and writes: “I lived at West Egg, the-well, the less fashionable of the two. (…) My own house was an eye-sore but it was a small eye-sore and it had been overlooked”(9). We understand that this place is associated with old-fashioned stability, modesty and frugality; concepts that are meaningful according to the old moral code.
On the other hand, after WW1 as people got away from the traditional lifestyle, their moral considerations were suspended. These changes are illustrated by the personalities, behaviour and lifestyles of several characters in the book. Firstly, these characters are concerned chiefly and only with themselves. As Nick observes Tom and Daisy who has been cruel ad vulgar, he explains their attitudes towards others by saying that “they smashed up things and creatures and then retreated back into their money or their vast carelessness or whatever it was that kept them together and let other people clean up the mess they had made”(187). Throughout the book, they act vulgarly and cruelly.
This criticism points out the fact that selfishness is one of the major traits present in society. Secondly, although people meet frequently at social events, they lack sincere intimacy. At Gatsby’s party, Nick hears the guests milling around, exchanging rumours about their host but no one seems to know the truth about Gatsby’s wealth or personal history. This indicates that although people seem very close, they don’t really share anything and are distant. The corruption of society is clearly indicated by this secession among people. In addition, suspension of devotion to the family comes along with the corruption of values. For example, Jay Gatsby was in fact called James Gatz. He changed his name because “His parents were shiftless and unsuccessful farm people-his imagination had never really accepted them as his parents at all.
The truth was that Jay Gatsby, of West Egg, Long Island, sprang from his Platonic conception of himself. He was a son of God”(104). As it is emphasized in this quote, Jay Gatsby struggles to establish a new life for himself just because his parents are poor and don’t fit into the idealistic figure of the modern family. Furthermore, materialism replaces the vanishing values and money promotes to be the only aspiration of the people. The luxury of Tom’s house is described by elaborate decorations such as “the frosted wedding cake of the ceiling”, “wine-coloured rug” and an “enormous couch”(12). This rich decoration shows how important appearance and money are. The fact that the decorations of this house are considered significant and worked on elaborately despite the problematic relationships is proof of the corruption in the society.
In conclusion, there are two distinct groups in the society: The conventional people and the “modern” ones who are pursuers of power and superiority. They disregard moral values and are carried away by a stream of materialism. There is a huge gap between these two groups. This secession ruins the unity, peace and prosperity in the society.
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