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The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald

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The cultural era of the 1920s in the United States exemplified a new historical period in which social roles and societal structure was redefined. Amidst this revival and new identity of the American society, the individual often stood to be equally influenced by the society he had created. As explored in The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald, this new society of wealth and prosperity leads to an artificial aesthetic, causing the individual to lose a sense of self-identity –ultimately leading to demise. Through the aspects of changes in geography, tradition, and social status, the abandonment and loss of self-identity is examined in relation to newly emerging American culture. The underlying irony of the loss of self, hidden by aesthetic perfection, leads to the ultimate death of characters in The Great Gatsby and illustrates the social satires of American culture and society during the 1920s.


The Great Gatsby is set in Long Island, New York, in and around the New York City metropolitan area. The initial setting ironies in the book lie in the differences between the West Egg and the East Egg, the East Egg is home to the ‘old money’ population, those who have possessed wealth for generations and have more ‘tasteful’ approaches in style, the long established Buchanan family lives in the East Egg. Nearby, the newer and gaudier West Egg stands as the home to the ‘new money’ population which Nick describes as, “the less fashionable of the two”, this sense of style is the residents’ attempt to assimilate themselves into affluent society by overtly displaying their new wealth in the form of their homes. The two residential districts are also separated by a body of water, signifying the fact that no amount of demonstrated status can ever truly unite the East and West Egg as they are fundamentally different on a historical level. Outside of the living areas, and on the way to the city, the Valley of Ashes is present. The Valley of Ashes is an industrial district outside of the affluent sphere, it presents a level of irony as it represents the actual living conditions of many Americans beyond the relatively small and artificial realm of the wealthy. The valley also represents the past’s of numerous characters, such as Gatsby, that he so yearns to escape from, but its ever present status right near him and the ugly truth that it brings, Fitzgerald explains the gloomy reality, “Occasionally a line of gray cars crawls along an invisible track, gives out a ghastly creak, and comes to rest, and immediately the ash-gray men swarm up with leaden spades and stir up an impenetrable cloud, which screens their obscure operations from your sight.” In the Valley of Ashes, the key event of Myrtle’s death occurs in her attempt to escape. Myrtle is the epitome of the nouveau riche social classism and acts in very distasteful ways towards wealth throughout the story including trying to associate herself with wealth by having an alleged affair with the wealthy Tom Buchannan in an attempt to gain social status and abandon her identity as a ‘commoner’. Her death in the highly unglamorous Valley of Ashes symbolizes the inescapable fixture of one’s past or true identity, this event is the only ‘real’ thing to happen to Myrtle through the finality and high degree of death. The use of geographical setting, and the numerous symbolic ideas that it embodies, stands throughout The Great Gatsby to embody new social ideals and a loss of one’s self.


The traditional and morale social structure of the United States was redefined in the 1920s as culture changed because of new economic prosperity and technological advances that led to an age of rationalism. As displayed in The Great Gatsby, this mass revolution and social change leads many characters to abandon their pasts and assume new identities to conform to changing times. One main theme explored within the realm of tradition is the notion of religion and its implications as a conventional form of self-identity. A major religious symbol is the large ominous eyes of T.J. Eckleburg, these are gigantic eyes on a billboard that seem to have the ability to see everything in a ‘godlike’ fashion throughout the entire story because of their enormous size, the eyes are also located in The Valley of Ashes which, as previously discussed, represent the past lives of many characters with their brutal authenticity and humble beginnings. A description of the eyes offers an insight into the scrutiny of the eyes that seem to judge the immoral new culture of the surrounding area, “Evidently some wild wag of an oculist set them there to fatten his practice in the borough of Queens, and then sank down himself into eternal blindness, or forgot them and moved away. But his eyes, dimmed a little by many paintless days, under sun and rain, brood on over the solemn dumping ground.” The eyes in the Valley of Ashes seem to loom as a symbol of old times in the context of many characters lives and judge the new morale’s of the tumultuous 20s. The new American ideal of the value of education also displays a break from tradition, The Great Gatsby represents the new idea in the United States of education as a means of status, for the first time people could now buy their way into elite American universities such as Yale and thus assume the ‘tradition’ of education, "An Oxford man!" He was incredulous. "Like hell he is! He wears a pink suit.". Tom demonstrates here that despite Gatsby’s elite Oxford education, he is not a member of the traditional privileged community and stands out with a symbolic ‘pink suit’ that is an extreme attempt by Gatsby to leave his past by creating a drastic contrast to the bland style of his old common life. The shift in traditional gender roles and the significance of marriage is also investigated as an aspect of a change in tradition. Women gained more social rights during the 1920s through Progressive political campaigns and other social aspects such as the widespread development and use of birth control. Amid the beneficial aspects of these new improvements, the new dynamic of the ‘independent woman’ arose, although this woman gained many rights she often overlooked many integral parts of society, including marriage. Myrtle, who embodies this aspect of the free woman, seems to take the notion too far as she cheats on her husband George and lives a separate existence from him as opposed to the traditional notion of marriage as one of fidelity and unity, “He had discovered that Myrtle had some sort of life apart from him in another world, and the shock had made him physically sick”. Marriage and family is often described as the most fundamental aspect of society as well as one of the most sacred and traditional ceremonies of union, Myrtle’s blasphemy against this ideology is the ultimate self abandonment as she corrupts her own commitment to her husband as well as the traditional concept of marriage as a whole –inflicting personal loss of self. Changing standards in American tradition illustrates a how rapid change can lead to ultimate loss of self-identity and disregard for the sacred past.

The greatest aspect of self-loss in The Great Gatsby deals with the theme of social class and status. American success of the time was measured by one’s wealth and in that the way they displayed their wealth to others. The ‘new rich’ among the wealthy population displayed themselves as a newly affluent part of society who wished to demonstrate their wealth through material goods to exemplify their social status in very overt and gaudy manners. Myrtle masters this technique by, among other things, through the artificial attitudes and mannerisms that she displays in front of other people, "I told that boy about the ice." Myrtle raised her eyebrows in despair at the shiftlessness of the lower orders. "These people! You have to keep after them all the time.", this display shows Myrtle acting in a snobby manner by complaining about things as trivial as ice. Nowhere else in the novel is such attitude observed and it can be clearly assumed that this was once again a scheme by Myrtle in her efforts to assimilate into the old rich community of the wealthy. The strive to become wealthy was also in part fueled by a belief that human traits are determined at birth and are based on one’s wealth at the present time, “I am still a little afraid of missing something if I forget that, as my father snobbishly suggested, and I snobbishly repeat, a sense of the fundamental decencies is parceled out unequally at birth.”. This philosophy that Nick presents is evident throughout the novel in many aspects including Gatsby’s attempts to display his material goods through his glamorous party and Myrtle’s artificial desires and display of ‘wealth’ towards friends. Those who were not born into wealth strive to portray an aspect of the old rich in their lives not only as a display of power to their fellow community members, but also as a means of justification as to who they really are –a part of themselves that they have never really found but look for within the promise of money. Both Gatsby and Myrtle’s aspirations of wealth end up being their ultimate demise in the end of the novel as the Myrtle is killed trying to escape the Valley of Ashes (her past), and Gatsby is killed by George who epitomizes the ‘old rich’ that Myrtle so desperately sought. This failure to identify the true being of oneself culminates in what wealth and status truly symbolizes, a means to justify themselves and fulfill their needs.

Self-identification and its implications within The Great Gatsby are explored as a key theme within the novel that has significant effect on the reader. The Great Gatsby proves to be of both literary and philosophical significance as it explores deep questions of both the 1920s United States and human beings as a whole. Through a study in the notions of geography, morals, and social aspects of the book, the theme is solidified and leads to a greater and more logical understanding of the great parable of The Great Gatsby. As characters abandoned these notions throughout the novel, a loss of self became evident and ultimately lead to the demise of many. On both a personal and historical level The Great Gatsby serves to explore self discovery in the face of the artificial constraints of society, creating dynamic tension unprecedented in the American literary tradition.




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