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The Context and Value Systems Discussed in The Great Gatsby

The Great Gatsby, by F. Scott Fitzgerald, gives the reader a narrow insight into the social and economic situation of the USA in the 1920's. The text explores many of the values of this time, challenging some while reinforcing others

F. Scott Fitzgerald


The Great Gatsby, by F. Scott Fitzgerald, gives the reader a narrow insight of the social and economic situation of the United States of America in the 1920?s. The text revolves around the activities of privileged Americans, between the ages of 20-30 year olds. It must be remembered that although the ?Roaring Twenties? was a time of great economic wealth for some, it was a time of suffering for others. Only then can the reader truly appreciate the intricacies of the novel, and discuss the relevance in terms of its value systems in relation to the value systems of contemporary Australian readers.

The novel explores many of the values of 1920?s America, challenging some while reinforcing others. It questions people?s views on fidelity, materialism, loyalty,
friendship, realism, consumerism, nihilism, and social and economic structure. During the 1920?s society was changing, and the first ?me generation? dealt with the effects
of the Great War with a facade of idealism and patriotism. It was a time of selfishness and sophistication. The good of the individual was valued over the good of others.
Consequently, the economic gap increased, as did organised crime, nationalism and industrialisation.

During the 1920?s, society?s view towards women changed. Women received the right to vote, and many refused to give up the employment they held during the Great War. It became fashionable to act ?masculine?, as skirts and hair were shortened, and women began to smoke in public. However, this change was seen more in urban and ?middle class? families. ?Upper class? women, such as Daisy, were still expected to behave in a more conventional manner, mostly by trying to please domineering husbands, such as Tom. This is exemplified in Daisy?s bitter explanation of her feelings towards feminism.
?[A beautiful little fool], that?s the best thing a girl can be in this world? (p 22)
This is similar to the way a contemporary reader may view feminism today. While women have gained many rights, prejudices still remain, and the word ?girl? is still
used as an insult.

Perhaps it is this attitude which affects her decision to have an affair with Gatsby, though still remain with Tom, even after the relationship is exposed. Tom shares this
view, as he carries out an affair with Myrtle. F. Scott Fitzgerald?s challenge of society?s view of fidelity and family structure is foregrounded. The promiscuity of
characters led to either death or an unhappy marriage. However, it could also be taken that F. Scott Fitzgerald was positioning the reader to realise that relationships between people of different socio-economic backgrounds led to the characters? destruction. Gatsby had ?new money?, while Daisy had ?old money?. Myrtle was ?working class?
while Tom was ?upper class.? During this period of time, socio-economic groups were changing, and people were under the impression that by working hard and increasing capital, they could change their social and economic position. However, as can be seen in many people?s obsession with Gatsby?s source of income, prejudices still existed regarding the social hierarchy.

The 1920?s were a time of sensationalism. People wanted to know about each other?s lives. The contemporary Australian reader can compare this to the recent surge of ?reality TV?, and the power of the media. Gossip was a favourite pastime. Evidence can be seen in the circulation of rumours about the source of Gatsby?s wealth and forebears. His past was mysterious, and he never revealed his true self. As Jordan so rightly puts it,
?He?s just a man named Gatsby.? (p 50)
This statement sums up what the people knew of their host. However, people were inclined to make up their own stories, which they convinced themselves were true. Gatsby was never completely honest when discussing his past. Nick observes
his behaviour when he tells him he is an ?Oxford man?.
?He hurried the phrase?as though it bothered him. And with
this doubt, his whole statement fell to pieces.? (pg 64)
Gatsby was rumoured to have been everything from a German spy who ?killed a man once? (p 45) to a ?bootlegger? (p 60). However, people didn?t mind taking advantage of his hospitality. This love of money and power was very important in forming the values of the 1920?s. It also encouraged, along with the Prohibition Act, the growth of organised crime, from which American society has never recovered.

The Prohibition Act forbid the manufacture, transport or sale of intoxicating liquids. It was passed in the hope that it would help to preserve the ?moral code? of America.
With the terrible irony so typical of that era, it did the reverse, and set the stage for organised crime. The public resented the act, which constricted ?American freedom?.
Gangs and ?bootleggers? set up territories, which they protected violently, to sell alcohol, and within a short time, any person who wanted to drink could do so. Profits
from the illicit liquor could be put into developing other criminal activities, such as prostitution, drug imports, blackmail and gambling. This is similar to the drug
underworld in Australia, to which young people are sometimes exposed. Although Gatsby?s past is never really uncovered, there is a lot of evidence that the source of
his wealth was from ?bootlegging? and a heavy involvement in crime. Certainly, alcohol was never hidden at his parties, or anywhere else in the novel. The public was
dependent on the criminal world for alcohol, and although such criminal activities were disliked, they were viewed as a necessary evil, and so legitimised.

Consumerism was an important part of the 1920?s. Companies competed in finding new ways of cost cutting and passing the savings onto the consumer. They also spent a great deal to create high-powered advertising campaigns. Successful businesses expanded, gaining control of the market as they took over smaller businesses. During this time, many families took advantage of credit, and bought products without thought of repayment. Under this influence, industry boomed. People took advantage of the economic climate by investing in shares. Nick, the narrator, had made his money by working in bonds. The public treated the stock market as a casino, and many put their life savings in the hope of sharing in the wealth. The economic gap
increased, and although some made a fortune, such as Nick, others were very poor, for example the people in the Ash Valley.

The brutality of the war still lurked in the minds of the people, and many tried to escape the memories in a show of sophistication and shallowness. Life was short, and
people began to question religion. Nihilism is a major theme in the novel. A representation of the social abandonment of religion is the glasses of Doctor T. J.
Eckleberg. They look over the ash valley, which represents the remnants of a broken humanity. The eyes see all, but they have no face. The people felt abandoned by God.
?[The eyes] look out of no face? observes Nick (p 26). Many young people these days are at a stage of questioning their religious beliefs. F. Scott Fitzgerald challenges nihilism, as the characters are ultimately destroyed by their belief of a senseless existence. A minor character, Michaelis, reinforces the importance of religion in times of trouble when speaking to George Wilson after the death of his wife.
?You ought to have a church?for times like this.? (p 150)

Realism is reinforced, as the main characters? disillusions lead to an unhappy life, or a sudden and violent death. Gatsby, as Nick puts it, had, ?Paid a high price for living too long in a single dream.? (p 153) His yearning for the past, and the belief that he could relive time lost, led to his downfall. His dreams came to nothing, and his death was ignored by the multitudes that used to attend his celebrations. Tom and Daisy, caught between the idealism of
their extra-marital affairs, and the reality of their own marriage, are doomed for an unhappy life. Even Nick, the narrator, who informs the reader at the beginning of the
text that he is honest and telling the story without judgement, is a victim of fantasy. In many ways, he creates the situation, by bringing Daisy and Gatsby together, and
supervising the affair. Perhaps F. Scott Fitzgerald attempts to foreground the dangers of misconception of self when Nick says,
?Everyone suspects himself of at least one of the cardinal
virtues.? (p 59)

The novel invites the audience to question the validity of their own friendships as they witness the destruction of the characters. Although his guests enjoyed gossiping about
Gatsby?s mysterious past, and felt it may be criminal, not one had any reservations about taking advantage of his spectacular hospitality. As Nick observes,
?People were not invited-they went there.? (p 42)
Even so, few could recognise their host, and he lived in isolation, surrounded by people. The parties were the result of his broken dreams, although not one of his
guests realised this. After his death, the pretence of friendship was lost. He was no longer rich and powerful, but a broken man. Only three people came to his funeral;
Nick, Gatsby?s father, and a single party guest. The anonymous man is startled to learn that no one even visited the house.
?They used to go there by the hundreds!? (p 166)
Nobody else felt loyalty toward their host. Not even Daisy contacted Nick about the funeral. The sophistication and shallowness of the 1920?s is complete. The contemporary readers are called to question their own friendships and loyalty.

The Great Gatsby gives an interesting if narrow insight into the values of the 1920?s. The society was changing, but also remaining the same. The people were caught between the idealism of a new America, and the reality of a nation with the same social and economic structures and prejudices as in the past. As Australia sits at a turning point in its history, it is important for us to question our social values, and what we want for our nation's future. The novel positioned the audience to question their own values and the values of society. The author challenges some, and
reinforces others, but it is the role of the contemporary reader to form their own conclusions.


Fitzgerald, F. (1926). The Great Gatsby. England: Penguin.

Hobsbawn, E. (1994). Age of Extremes. Great Britain: Penguin.

Koutsoukis, A. (1982). Focus on Nations. Melbourne: Longman.

McWhirter, N. (1999). Book of Millennium Records. United Kingdom: Virgin.

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