Back To CourseThe Great Gatsby Study Guide
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Lauren has taught English at the university level and has a master's degree in literature.
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, 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, 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.
A man with 'owl-eyed spectacles' visiting Gatsby's library manages to get at the crux of Gatsby's charade, despite his considerable inebriation. As he examines a book found in the library, he exclaims with wonder: 'It's a bona fide piece of printed matter. It fooled me. This fella's a regular Belasco. It's a triumph. What thoroughness! What realism!' David Belasco was a famous theatrical producer who specialized in elaborate methods of stage lighting and special effects to create dramatic fiction, so to call Gatsby 'a regular Belasco' is to call him an artist of deception and fabrication. Instead of stage lights and special effects, Gatsby uses material possessions and parties to create his own type of fiction. In so doing, the highest praise Gatsby can earn is that he puts on a good show. However, like the Wizard of Oz, he's all smoke and mirrors but no real substance, as deduced by the man with the spectacles.
Gatsby's mansion is one of the most obvious displays of his materialistic focus. However, even this large, elaborate possession is unable to achieve the depth of authenticity Gatsby seeks. Nick Carraway, the novel's narrator, describes Gatsby's home thus: 'It was a factual imitation of some Hotel de Ville in Normandy, with a tower on one side, spanking new under a thin beard of raw ivy.' Here again, we see Gatsby being perceived as something of a ruse, his house is but 'a factual imitation' of something else, rather than having an identity and presence of its own. Similarly, the fact that his mansion is noted to be 'spanking new' shows that it is conspicuously not among the older, more established homes he seeks to emulate. The 'thin beard' of ivy which grows up the side of the tower is another poignant metaphor which shows that Gatsby is not among the established genteel classes. While he has ivy and a tower for it to climb, neither Gatsby nor the ivy have had enough time to establish themselves. The ivy is but a surface covering, just as Gatsby's possessions are a shallow shell over his true identity: a poor boy who acquired his money through bootlegging.
Despite the quantity of glittering things Gatsby accumulates, and in spite of his seeming popularity, he is left empty and abandoned at the end of the novel. Although they've rekindled their old relationship, Daisy Buchanan leaves him. Daisy was the sole reason Jay Gatsby went to the trouble of accumulating all these things in the first place, but they fail to win her over. In addition to that devastating failure, Gatsby is vengefully killed for a murder he did not commit, his body left drifting languidly in his expensive pool. Jay Gatsby's death is scarcely mourned and his funeral sparsely attended. The occasion stands in stark contrast to the attention he'd previously received while throwing his lavish and well-attended parties.
Myrtle Wilson and Jay Gatsby are two of many examples of how the characters in The Great Gatsby are engrossed in materialist pursuits that lead to their own demise in the Roaring Twenties, a period of dramatic cultural and economic change. Through these characters, F. Scott Fitzgerald explores materialism, or the serial acquisition of possessions, and how it ultimately leads to despair and futility. As such, Myrtle and Gatsby are both ultimately reduced to 'pulpless halves', like the oranges and lemons discarded without care on Monday morning. Additional examples of the meaninglessness and superficiality of materialism include Myrtle and Tom's purchase of a dog and the new ivy on Gatsby's mansion.
Myrtle is an especially sad example, as her proximity to wealth does nothing to curb her crude behavior or prevent Tom Buchanan from publicly abusing her. As for Gatsby, a visitor to his library understands that he's dealing with a 'Belasco' who's life is nothing more than a theatrical production that ends in romantic defeat, death, and obscurity.
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Back To CourseThe Great Gatsby Study Guide
8 chapters | 98 lessons | 2 flashcard sets