The Negative Side Of Materialism In The Great Gatsby
The Lure of the American Dream
The American Dream is the promise of a better life that brought people from all over the world to the newly discovered continent so that they could populate it and contribute to the development of the land and of their personal lives too. The concept of the American Dream still continues to attract immigrants from countries in Europe, Asia and Africa including North and South America even after more than 400 years. However, the interpretation of the American Dream has changed over the centuries and many people have come to the country with their own expectations of well-being and success. During the early days of settlement, immigrants from Europe were welcomed to create a new life for themselves and for their families. They were attracted by the promise of getting land on which to farm and build a home for their families. The loneliness and loss of tradition was an acceptable price to pay to escape religious and economic persecution in the old country.
Once the country had gained an identity, it continued to attract people with dreams of making wealth with its culture based on innovation and resourcefulness. The Puritan work ethic combined with free market principles meant that people could earn a lot of money if they worked hard enough for it. The American Dream then evolved from the dream of creating a home and personal world in a foreign land to achieving material wealth. With the rise of communism, America became the champion of free market enterprise and attracted people from controlled economies in search of economic freedom and wealth. However, the United States was still a growing economic power and was still away from becoming a global leader. That opportunity came first in the First World War where after the destruction of Europe and other parts of the world, America became the economic haven of the world and people continued to make extraordinary wealth because of the peace, stability and power of the United States. This interpretation of the American Dream is reflected by Fitzgerald in The Great Gatsby where he describes the excesses that obsession with materialism can cause. Today, the American Dream of wealth, freedom and equal opportunity continues to attract people from the poor regions of the world in search of a better future for their families.
Gatsby's Motivation for Seeking Greater Status and Wealth
Gatsby seeks greater wealth and materialism in the novel as a means to attain the love of Daisy. He has had a relationship with Daisy in the past but they could not marry because he had been called away to serve in the First World War. Meanwhile, Daisy has married Tom, a wealthy man who belongs to the elitist West Egg part of the city. This makes Daisy unattainable for Gatsby. However, Gatsby lives in a period where the power of money is rising at unprecedented levels. Money is seen as a vehicle to achieve almost everything one desires. For the naive Gatsby, this includes even the love of another human being; in this case that human being is Daisy. He feels that by seeking greater wealth and status, he would be able to win back Daisy from her husband Tom. According to Callahan (374), "Jay Gatsby pursues Daisy knowing that her sense of happiness and the good life depends on money and property."
Gatsby changes his name from James Gatz to Jay Gatsby (Fitzgerald 104) and makes a fortune by becoming a bootlegger. He is involved in numerous illegal activities, such as selling smuggled alcohol to the people and doing business with people involved in fixing sports events (Fitzgerald 79). His obsession with winning Daisy even causes him to cross the line between right and wrong because he even becomes involved in illegal activities to make money. This also reflects the decadent values of the 1920s when material wealth mattered more than the means by which it had been attained. Everybody from the new wealthy attend the ostentatious and loud parties thrown by Gatsby every weekend (Fitzgerald 43), even though most of them are loathe to become personally associated with him. Hardly any one of the regular attendees comes to pay their respects at Gatsby's funeral. According to Roberts (71), despite earning wealth, Gatsby has been unable to learn the ways of the elite class.
The reason why he throws these parties is again to impress Daisy and convince her that he is wealthier, and therefore more worthy of her now than he was earlier. He also assumes that Daisy will come back to him now that he has more wealth and a higher social status. Gatsby also wants to seek greater wealth and status so that he has come to view Daisy as a material possession that can be obtained through wealth and status.
A Moral Vindication of the American Dream
Seeking greater wealth and status is not wrong in itself because it can help to improve the quality of life of a person. The early settlers of the United States had to undergo a very hard life as they struggled to construct their physical and emotional worlds anew. The promise of greater wealth, material comfort, status and respect in the community is an adequate reward for all that early struggle. The settlers would not have been able to undertake such enterprising efforts if they did not believe that it would make their lives better. Seeking wealth and status is a justifiable aim because it helps to bring people out of poverty. Poverty makes people dependent on one another and liable to being exploited for their needs. Both of these go against the values of the Puritan work ethic that encourages people to be independent and resourceful. By seeking greater wealth and status, people can become independent and make their own decisions.
Poverty is also known to breed crime. When people cannot find a way out of their meager resources, they may resort to crime if legal channels and equal opportunities are not available. When legitimate channels of making wealth exist, people can get out of poverty through legal means without having to resort to crime. Money has power because it grants access to other resources like education, health and food. When people seek greater wealth and status, they can also use their wealth to help others get out of poverty and enjoy the basic necessities of life. Similarly, wealth brings with it greater status, partly because of the associative power of money, and partly because of the reputation gained through industrious effort and hard work. This status can be used as a source of influence to bring about positive changes in society. The power and influence of the United States in the world today is a result of the economic power that comes from the promise of making wealth. Wealthy people also serve as a role model for others who are encouraged by their stories of hard work, determination and success.
The Negative Side of Materialism in The Great Gatsby
Blind pursuit of materialism can have serious negative effects on society. These effects have been illustrated by Fitzgerald in The Great Gatsby to bring home the point that in a materialistic society where people's desires become unattainable, the interpretation of the American Dream can go sour, with people's efforts directed towards a negative outcome.
One of the negative outcomes of the blind pursuit of materialism in the 1920s in America is the attitude of the Buchanan's towards life. They are one of the elite wealthy families residing in the West Egg part of the community. Despite being millionaires, their lives are vapid and uninteresting. They seek interest and excitement in their lives that money cannot give them. At the dining table, Daisy does not show any maternal affection towards her child. After petting the child, she hands it over to the nurse to be taken care of (Fitzgerald 124-125). This reflects that her maternal love has also been numbed under the influence of wealth and greed. The moral decadence is also reflected in her husband Tom, who is having an extramarital affair with Myrtle to fill the vacuum in his life (Fitzgerald 31). Another instance of his treachery is when he informs Myrtle's husband that Gatsby owns the car that hit Myrtle and killed her (Fitzgerald 190). This results in Gatsby being murdered by Myrtle's husband (Fitzgerald 179). Both husband and wife are again seen to be devoid of human compassion when they pack off on a vacation immediately after Gatsby's death. At his funeral, Gatsby is seen to have been deserted by all those on whom he had lavished his wealth, wine and hospitality. His father and Nick are present along with one other visitor (Fitzgerald 186).
Making wealth the aim and criteria of a successful life damages the ethical fabric of society. Even though Gatsby is good-natured, he ultimately resorts to criminal and shady activities to…