Influence of contextual factors across American Literature
World war one is a defining part of history worldwide, lasting from 1914 to 1918. Although America only joined the war in 1917, its effects were inescapable, and consequently the war is alluded to in many works of literature from the time. The war was actually economically good for America – profits from munitions production and technological advances actually raised the living standards of many ordinary Americans. However, for those experiencing the true horror on the front line, the war was far from beneficial, creating emotional scars far deeper than physical battlefield wounds.
Many authors writing in America after the war were able to draw on their own first hand experiences to influence their writing. For example, F.Scott Fitzgerald trained to be a soldier and whilst doing so, met his future wife Zelda. This undoubtedly influenced his writing of ‘The Great Gatsby’ where, with the invisible cloak of his uniform draped across his shoulders, Gatsby was able to met Daisy. Other authors had similar war-time experiences, but reflect this far more negatively in their own works of literature, such as Ernest Hemingway, an ambulance driver during the war, and, Edith Wharton who provided relief for wounded soldiers and army personnel in Paris.
In the Age of Innocence, Edith Wharton makes subtle reference to the war and its effects that will follow the setting of the novel. Although written in 1920, the book is set in 1870, allowing Wharton to reflect with hindsight on the period before the world wide devastation what would soon follow. Arguably, this helps to explain the books title – Wharton, reflecting and experiencing the legacy of world in “A Farewell to Arms, Ernest Hemingway presents a similar view. Through metaphors of natural imagery, the people, had their innocence tarnished by the war. For example, the water had previously been “clear” and “blue” and “sparkling”, but the war left behind its legacy of “mud” and “cholera”.
In the “Great Gatsby”, Fitzgerald presents the war as a positive thing for Jay. Gatsby had “done well out of the war”, experiencing may opportunities such as going to Oxford and meeting Daisy. Although this does not necessarily work out well in the end, Hemingways portrayal of the legacy of the war in “A Farewell toArms” is arguably more realistic. The war is spoken about very matter of factly, including details not explored in Gatsby. Rather than providing opportunities, the war is totally destructive. Catherines fiancée was “blown all to bits”, and whilst the protagonist gets to meet Catherine, she is soon whisked away by an Italian officer, leaving us with the impression that the war may not be as good for individuals, as it is for the country as a whole.
Wealth is an inescapable theme within America Literature linking closely with many others, such as the American Dream, class and freedom. Books such as “The Great Gatsby” and “The Age of Innocence” written in the roaring twenties, when consumerisom was booming, living standards were rising and Americas economy was on the up. However, there was still a large divide between the “haves” and the “have nots”, who were still struggling to survive.
In “The Great Gatsby” wealth is an extremely poignant theme. The divide between those already wealthy and those in poverty is explicitly shown in the differences between those in the valley of Ashes and those in East and West Egg. For example, George and Myrtle are desperate to obtain wealth and escape the “eyes” of T.J Eckleberg in the valley of Ashes. Surrounded by cruel reminders of the lives of the rich, such as the “railway” that passes through the garage, both work hard to better themselves. George in the garage and Myrtle with Tom. Tom and Daisy represent the alternative lifestyle. Rather than struggling to make money, they are so inherently rich that Daisy’s voice is “full of money” and the couple can “retreat back in their money” when things aren’t going well. However, in the novel, Fitzgerald also expresses the divide between the wealthy – those of the “new money” in a west egg and the “old money” of East egg. Consequently, although Gatsby has struggled and worked to make his money, he will never be seen as being as inherently wealthy as Tom and Daisy by some.
Similarly, in the Age of Innocence, Edith Wharton represents money and wealth as being a continuing presence and factor in the lives of her characters in 1870’s upper class New York. However, whilst characters such as Newland Archer are in the same position as Tom and Daisy and have not had to struggle like Gatsby to obtain their wealth, they must instead fight to maintain it. “The New York of Newland” Archers day was a small and slippery pyramid full of “hypocrisy” and as a result, the characters must fight to stay on top of the “pyramid of Wealth” or risk being excommunicated from their high society. This alludes to Edith Whartons and overall message as being one that money and the struggle for wealth is detrimental in society. A similar message is also presented by Mark Twain in “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn”. The novel makes multiple connections to the Californian Gold Rush of the 1800’s, in which many men took great risks to try and obtain the rewards of wealth that come with finding gold. In the book, money is presented as being largely negative, with gold being described as “looking awful all piled up”. The concept of the desire to get wealth is also shown as being bad for society, with there being a “reward of 200 dollars” on certain members of society, encouraging others to betray other members of society for their own economic gain.
.In this era of American Literature, freedom was something with a different meaning of many Americans in different groups of society. For example, black Americans struggling to escape the fetters of slavery and its legacy, lower class Americans fighting to escape poverty, or ordinary Americans just wanting to break free from the entrapments of society along with its class systems and social codes. Consequently, this underlying desire for freedom and the search for the meaning of it has found its way in to many great works of American Literature.
In “The Great Gatsby”, F.Scott Fitzgerald presents almost every character as having their own individual struggle to attain their own personal definitions of freedom. For example, Myrtle and George’s desire to escape the Valley of Ashes and Daisy’s desire to be free from Tom, or arguably just the social class and stigma that she became a part of when she married him, Daisy expresses these feelings to Nick at their reunion very early of the novel, telling him her boredom of the entrapments of her gender and class “will show you how I’ve gotten to feel about things”. However, no characters reach these ideals suggesting Fitzgeralds view is that most meanings of freedom are unreachable. It is also interesting that freedom in the novel takes many forms, e.g. from gender, from society.In the “Age of Innocence”, Wharton presents similar view. Newland feels so entrapped by the rules of his society he feels “already dead”. “Archer felt like a prisoner” so much so that he marries May, someone who he does not genuinely love and forsakes his affair with Ellen Olenska, his true desire. In “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn”, Twain presents a similar view on freedom Huck wants to be free from his father and describes feeling “free and easy and comfortable on a raft”. This idea suggests the meaning of freedom is to escape from him personally, which can translate to American Literature as a whole.
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