The 1920s was one of the most significant time periods in America’s history. After World War One was over America began to reinvent itself. It was a time when prohibition came about, social reform was taking place, and the economy endured many modifications. It was a time for reinventing one’s self in many different ways. Americans were changing. They were readjusting to a new lifestyle. They were making transitions that would change America forever. The greatest changes in America were its values. These changes reflected not only America’s values but American’s values as well. These changes were captured by many artists. In order to adapt, these artists had to develop new styles, new values, and new points of view. Lots of the artists did not write in America, they escaped to Europe to get a better picture of what America was truly like. Artists such as Lewis Sinclair, Ernest Hemingway, and F. Scott Fitzgerald captured America and Americans in the prime of these postwar changes. These authors provided us with a depiction of what was happening in America. They not only provided us with what was happening in the twenties, but they showed Americans what others thought of them as well. They confirmed American’s worst suspicions about themselves and America. The authors portrayed a vivid image of Americans being torn into two directions. How do you adapt to a new world while trying to preserve the values of the old world?
The values of Americans were the key themes in each of the author’s most successful novels. As mentioned above, the authors developed new styles and points of view as a result of the changing values. Some of the novels that illustrate how the changing of one’s values did not come easy are Sinclair Lewis’ Babbitt, Ernest Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises, and F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby. All changes, however, came at a price.
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The novel that illuminated the 1920s the best, in its search for a new set of values, would have to be The Great Gatsby. Fitzgerald was a genius. His novel touches upon numerous instances in which the old values are being replaced with new values. The novel takes place in a time of growth and prosperity, the age of prohibition, as well as a time of corruption. Fitzgerald presents not just a society, but a world in which the value systems have gone out of balance.
Prohibition was a big deal in the 1920s. It was believed drinking too much-destroyed families, values, and traditions. Millions of Americans embraced this amendment as a moral advance against the immorality that was plaguing the drunkenness of the new world. In order to abolish this plaguing immorality, the amendment of prohibition was put into effect. Although millions of Americans were in support of this amendment, millions more opposed it. It was an effort to enforce traditional behaviour and improve social behaviour. The amendment made it illegal for anyone to manufacture, sell, or transport liquor of any sort. This gave rise to even more drinking in the twenties. In The Great Gatsby, Gatsby is always throwing parties at which everyone was always boozing. This was a common scene. Drinking was out of control in the twenties. Prohibition also gave rise to organized crime, which led to even more drinking. Manufacturing and selling alcohol was a business in high demand that helped to establish the “newly rich.” Gatsby, a figure of an American trying to live the American dream, made his fortune off of organized crime. He was supposedly bootlegging. (If you were to buy alcohol in the twenties, the only way you could get it was from bootleggers.) He represents the newly rich in the novel. The mafia eventually took over the illegal sale of alcohol. In time, it was seen that prohibition did the opposite of what it was intended to do. It pushed people even farther away from their traditional values and put them in touch with modern values (if you were to compare traditional values with modern values it would be like comparing black to white.)
Prosperity was overwhelming in the twenties. Prosperity was based on industry and the industry was based on mass production. Prosperity grew in the twenties because people began to have more money which enabled them to buy more things. The economy began to soar. People were buying more which led to more profits. Profits led to more goods being made, which then led to higher wages and more jobs. This empowered the development of the economic cycle. This led to more materialistic goods such as cars, clothing, books, radios, phones, etc. In The Great Gatsby, you see how important materialistic goods mean to people. Gatsby wants to show his display of wealth to his lost love Daisy. In doing so, he has managed to buy five cars amongst many other consumer goods. Many Americans tried to do what Gatsby did to fit inside the new society where the rich are worthy and the poor are worthless. Another example of decaying values is when Daisy begins to weep when Gatsby starts throwing out all his expensive shirts in a display of his wealth. She is not weeping for a lost love, on the contrary, she is weeping over the obvious display of wealth she sees before her. Like many Americans, Daisy is caught up in the idea that wealth makes a person happy. She is losing sight of values, and all that they represent.
Wealthy Americans viewed themselves as superior to everyone else. In the twenties, America was filled with European travellers from Europe who thought America was in search of a soul. They believed Americans to have no guidance or values. In the 1920s many of the wealthier people (mainly the ones who had always had money, “old money”) were thought to be coarse, rude, and tasteless. They believed they had a type of freedom from the ordinary. They were vulgar, insincere, and always let others clean their mess for them. Tom and Daisy Buchanan show vulgarity and crude behaviour throughout the novel. Tom displays vulgarity in many ways. He not only is having an affair with another woman but lets it blatantly be known. He also depicts a sense of vulgarity when he purposely hits Myrtle Wilson, his lover, in a drunken rage. On the other hand, Daisy portrays not only vulgarity but crudeness as well. She is the reason behind Myrtle’s death, but yet allows someone else to take the blame for her actions. Not only did Fitzgerald display this in his novel, but the Europeans confirmed it for him and the rest of the world. They thought Americans to be crude, vulgar, and uncivilized. This still affects us today. Most Europeans are not very acceptable and are rude to the Americans. The new image America is portraying to the world is that Americans have no values. We no longer rest upon our traditional values which have kept us going up until now.
In the 1920s most Americans were in pursuit of the infamous “American Dream.” The American dream was to be rich, successful, happy, and to be one of the social elites. However, the few that got there were labelled the “new money.” The new money is different from the old because the old never had to work for it. The old money treated the new money differently than ordinary people but still deemed them inferior. People got to the top by whichever means they could. Americans put their values and morals away to reach the unreachable dream. An example of this is Gatsby. First of all, he was involved in an organized crime which is completely immoral and shows little care for his values, but on top of that, he has an affair with a married woman. He does this because he is trying to make his dream come true.
Another example of the decaying American dream is Myrtle. She is having an affair with Tom in hopes that he will leave his wife, and she will rise up in the social ladder. This, however, does not go her way and backfires on her when Daisy runs Gatsby’s car into her. The American dream was an ideal dream that many hoped for and few got. However, when the dream is reached, it is far from a joyous occasion. In most cases, the values of one are just thrown out the window, and in place, you get greed, deception, and a lifetime of unhappiness.
The Great Gatsby is a great portrayal of the corruption of society in the the1920s and the fall of the value system. This novel showed us how money, greed, and the power to get involved in illegal activities to get what you want are not worth it. It shows a society of decaying morals and values and the frustration of modern society. This book helped Americans see the image they were portraying to the World and themselves. It opened their eyes to help them see their mistakes and what can happen if society does not change. The characters in this novel were all pulled away from the moment they so desperately wanted to seek. This novel was a message to Americans telling them not to try to live in a utopia because there is no such thing. This novel was an attitude towards America, but also an attitude towards its era and the seed of its destruction. Do not lose sight of one’s values, because one will lose sight of his life. Gatsby did.
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