Materialism in The Great Gatsby

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  • 0:03 Materialism in 'The…
  • 1:31 Myrtle Wilson
  • 3:27 Jay Gatsby
  • 6:30 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Lauren Boivin

Lauren has taught English at the university level and has a master's degree in literature.

What do Madonna and 'The Great Gatsby' have in common? Materialism! Madonna sings of being a 'material girl' living in 'a material world,' while the characters in 'The Great Gatsby' are swept into a vortex of acquisitiveness which robs them of more substantive gains.

Materialism in The Great Gatsby

In The Great Gatsby, author F. Scott Fitzgerald captures and conveys with poignancy the materialism, or the pursuit of possessions, by which American culture was swept away during the Roaring Twenties, a time of dramatic cultural and economic change. In doing so, he provides readers with a lens through which to examine the futility and hollowness of a materialistic culture. An image used early on in the novel provides an excellent metaphorical framework for this exploration:

'Every Friday five crates of oranges and lemons arrived from a fruiterer in New York--every Monday these same oranges and lemons left his back door in a pyramid of pulpless halves. There was a machine in the kitchen which could extract the juice of two hundred oranges in half an hour, if a little button was pressed two hundred times by a butler's thumb.'

As it's delivered from 'a fruiterer in New York,' we can assume Fitzgerald is talking about excellent quality fruit. Yet, it takes only a machine and two hundred presses of a butler's thumb to turn even excellent fruit into a pile of hollow, worthless waste. This quote helps to illustrate the gauntlet of materialism which ensnares so many of the characters in The Great Gatsby. Two such examples are Myrtle Wilson and Jay Gatsby himself, who are caught in a vortex of acquisition which, while producing a substantial pile of things, leaves them as hollow and useless as the orange and lemon rinds put out as trash each Monday morning.

Myrtle Wilson

Myrtle Wilson, wealthy Tom Buchanan's mistress, launches right into her materialist pursuits as soon as she alights from a train in New York City. Without even waiting to leave the station, she acquires magazines, cold cream, and perfume. The magazines she chooses include the 'Town Tattle,' a gossip rag. The cold cream and perfume, having been purchased at the station drug store, are most likely not of the highest quality products. It seems Myrtle is interested in buying things just to have them, as further evidenced by the way she buys a dog through her taxi window.

'I want to get one of those dogs,' Myrtle declares from her seat in the taxi. She speaks of the animal as an appliance, saying she wants 'to get one for the apartment' and 'they're nice to have--a dog.' Myrtle's purely surface-level interest in the dog is further expressed by her neglect of it once she and Tom reach their apartment. She makes some effort to get it food, but none to ascertain whether it's actually suitable for the poor dog. Instead, she presents it with a large dog biscuit 'which decomposed apathetically in the saucer of milk all afternoon,' thus indicating that the dog was not checked on as the day progressed and that there existed no real concern for its well being.

While Myrtle is busily trying to accumulate the trappings of an elevated existence, it's clear they have no substantive effect. Myrtle herself is not elevated or ennobled. She is really quite the opposite. Myrtle is made to look absurd as, in the midst of her possessions, 'her laughter, her gestures, her assertions became more violently affected moment by moment.' She's not able to act the part of high society hostess no matter what she buys, wears, or possesses.

Myrtle's absurdity and hollowness are acutely expressed at the close of this scene, as we read that 'Tom Buchanan broke her nose with his open hand' because she wouldn't stop saying his wife's name. If this is the life she finds herself in, it's clear that her materialism is gaining her neither power nor happiness.

Jay Gatsby

Jay Gatsby, like Myrtle, tries to build a life based on acquisition and possessions. While he achieves a greater degree of material success than Myrtle, he's no more successful at preventing himself from becoming like the 'pulpless halves' discarded from his home each Monday.

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