Social criticism in The Great Gatsby
Authors often use their works to convey criticisms of society. Such works of literature do not directly criticize specific real people or events. They do however present a sense of the writer’s concern with issues of social injustice and misguided values. Two strong examples of social criticism through literature are Great Expectations by Charles Dickens and The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald. In both novels the writers project their social criticisms to the reader through the use of characterization and setting.
Great Expectations was written and set in mid-Victorian England, having been first published as a serial in “All The Year Round” a weekly English periodical.
Dickens used this form of publication to incrementally dose his readers with his criticisms of Victorian English Society. In this work the writer uses setting to influence character; thereby showing how social problems arise from people conform too the political, social and economic elements of society. The Great Gatsby was written and set in “jazz-era” 1920’s America.
With this novel Fitzgerald criticizes a different society than that of Great Expectations that has different problems. However the author still uses the relationship between setting and character to bring to life a critical portrayal of American 1920’s society.
With Great Expectations Dickens strongly criticizes three social problems that afflict Victorian England: the treatment of children, the injustice of the social class structure and the inhumanity of government and Law. In the authors time children were objectified as a virtually cost free commodity of labor to support the industrial revolution. Dickens expresses criticism of the abuse of children in Britain through characterization in Great Expectations. The most poignant example of this is the storys protagonist Phillip Pirrip, referred to throughout the novel as Pip. Pip portrays the abuse of children through example. During childhood he receives regular beatings and constant harassment by his sister and guardian Mrs. Joe. Being an orphan he is considered a burden not only by Mrs. Joe but also by her family and friends, as expressed early on in the story by the unanimity of all present (save Joe) around the dinner table at Christmas. This universal malice against Pip for being a young child who is dependent for the basic necessities of life establishes and carries the novels theme of the dehumanization of children in Britain.
In fact Pip is eventually legally bound to Joe as forced labor in his blacksmith shop. The paradigm of Victorian child mistreatment is further established as one realizes that Pips indentures are a favorable alternative to being sent to a forced labor work mill, as was the status-quo for orphans and unwanted children. Other lesser characters are examples of Dickens’ displeasure with social regard for children. Trabbs Boy, the young boy of Pips age who is bound to work for the tailor and labor at his yolk is only shown during childhood as being objectified as a labor commodity.
The Avenger, the boy whom is hired by Pip after his social elevation and move to London is only shown as being controlled by a young adult Pip as a domestic servant. Even Estella is an example of the objectification and dehumanization of children. Although she is never forced into labor as a child on a count of the wealth of her guardian Miss Havisham, she is raised to be an object of unquestioned obedience. Deliberately making her the heartless and cruel embodiment of Miss Havishams vendetta against the world beyond the gates of Satis House.
In Dickens’ England society conformed to a class structure that was obsessed with social satire and wealth. On its lowest end the great multitude, droves of people that worked jobs as industrial slaves in work mills and factories. These people, the majority of the population were entered into this world of work at very young ages, were forced to work twelve hour days and were paid extremely little. At this time there were no legal perimeters for safety or rate of pay. There was no state education and so the people of the vast lower class who could not afford to send their children to school were forced to suffer generation after generation in appalling working conditions. Dickens criticizes this injustice in Great Expectations buy mocking a society that values wealth and appearance. In the novel typically the poorest characters are the most honest and moral and the wealthiest are the most immoral and corrupt. Pips moral stalwart is Joe, his much older brother in law. Joe is a poor blacksmith who is ridiculed for his humble means by his wife and also by a wealthy Pip for his humility and ignorance of wealth and high society.
Despite this Joe is the only character that is universally kind and compassionate, the stories only true gentleman, but is never socially recognized as such because of his low social stature. On the other hand Miss Havisham is a character that shows this relationship between wealth and immorality. She is the most visibly wealthy person in the novel; she is also the cruelest. All of her actions are motivated by a desire to humiliate Pip and make him feel in human due to his modest upbringing. John Wemmick is a very visible example of the juxtaposition of corrupt wealth and honest humility. He is a law clerk to the powerful London lawyer Mr. Jaggers. While at work with Jaggers he conforms to the environment by being an emotionally devoid subordinate who will follow nearly any directive regardless of morality. When he is outside of work he shows a kindness towards Pip and compassion toward his elderly dependant father, making him a product of his environment.
The clearest example shown by character in Great Expectations is Able Magwich. Magwich is sent to penal colony Australia as an expelled convict. While in the New World he works very hard and amounts to great wealth. Despite his capital gain Magwich does not fall into immoral corruption. The character remains on moral high ground due to his complete willingness to freely give all his money to Pip in an act of uncompromising gratitude for the meal charitably given him by Pip one cruel day on the marshes. Pip, once made the beneficiary of Magwichs’ money does fall into moral decline. Pips moral redemption only comes after he comes to terms with the fact that he has become destined never to get Magwichs’ money. Pip then completes his own moral salvation by under great personal peril tries to help Magwich escape a certain death under the gallows.
Dickens also employs setting in Great Expectations to showcase his criticism of corruptness and moral disregard due to power and money. This is portrayed with a comparison of Miss Havishams residence Satis house and Pips first home with Joe the forge. Satis house is the seat of greatest personal wealth in the novel. It is an aged, decrepit and filthy environment despite the tremendous wealth of Miss Havisham. This setting reflects the evil derangement of Miss Havisham and the authors theme of lowered morality proportionate to increased wealth. In complete contrast the forge is the seat of social humility. Joe works hard and gains very little money yet his home is a place of great comfort and moral fortitude. It is here that Pips fondest memories live, sitting before the hearth in the evenings with Joe having the only true relationship of family that he feels throughout the novel.
Setting is used with character by Dickens to convey his criticism of the inhuman social structures and legal system of Victorian England. All of the public sate facilities in Great Expectations are portrayed as in human and cruel. The first settings of state property that the reader is shown are the prison ships anchored off the marshes. They are described by Pip as cruel ghostly places, the homes of all the criminals of society. The next state facility in the novel is the county courthouse that Pip is taken to have his indentures notarized. It is here that Pip is legally made a slave. It is a London courthouse in which Magwich is banished from England.
It is in the same courthouse that the wealthy criminal Provis can afford a better attorney than Magwich so making him the recipient punishment for Provis’ crimes. Finally Magwich is handed the sentence of death in a courtroom, the laws dehumanization of society illustrated as over a dozen men and women are simultaneously sentenced to die with a single order from a judge. Aside from the novel Dickens made a famous quote to the effect of criticizing the dehumanizing role of the state stating his “political creed”, “My faith in the people governing, is, on the whole infinitesimal,” he announced; “my faith in The People governed, is, on the whole, illimitable.” (Welsh).
F. Scott Fitzgerald was another author whom attempted social criticism through the employment of setting and characterization. In his novel The Great Gatsby he criticizes the backwardness of status-quo social idealism in jazz-era America. The world of Fitzgerald is much different than the world of Dickens however the use of writing is still used to identify problems in society and criticize them. In The Great Gatsby two main themes of social criticism are projected: greed and declining moral values. The abundance of greed in The Great Gatsby is self- evident, it is not the greed that is criticized but societies unwavering belief and acceptance of it. The novel is narrated through the moral retrospection of Nick Carrawy, a man who himself is critical of the greed, carelessness and the delusional nature of the stories primary characters. Even though he is a bond salesman, a person whose job is to do nothing else than to contrive and employ the most efficient methods of making money, reiterating Fitzgeralds theme of illusion verses reality. The negative effects of greed on society are shown through characterization.
Daisy married Tom Buchannan even though she was in love with Gatsby because at the time Tom was far wealthier than Gatsby. This example becomes tangible when the gift of an extraordinarily expensive necklace confirms Daisys acceptance of Toms marriage proposal. Daisy is betrayed by her greed when Tom consummates an affair with Myrtle Wilson. Tom is also a victim of greed, not for money but for something else he considers to be a commodity: women. When he pursues Myrtle he pushes daisy closer to Gatsby, almost loosing her. Myrtle shows the reader the most vivid example of Fitzgeralds catharsis against greed. After betraying her loving husband to have an affair with Tom, whom she was drawn to for the lavish fun afforded in New York by his money, is killed. Myrtle dies when she sees Toms car approaching and runs out into the road to confront him about his not willing to see her any longer, she is hit and killed.
The Moral values of the jazz-era are criticized in The Great Gatsby through character and setting. The first instance that family is portrayed in the novel the reader sees it through Nicks eyes as he visits the Buchannans home for dinner shortly after arriving to West Egg. Tom exchanges no remarks with his wife but instead he serves alcohol. Daisy shows Nick her daughter by having her brought into the room by the hired nurse who raises her and then having her promptly taken away. During dinner Tom takes a phone call with his mistress and when Nick is in the private company of Jordan she does nothing but gossip about Toms affair. Moral Values are criticized in the setting of Gatsbys house during the parties that Nick attends. The party is lavish and very active with live entertainment and lots of alcohol and food. The guest become drunk and stupidity ensues with a car accident at the end of Gatsbys lawn. These are not teenagers but wealthy and affluent adults getting drunk and being reckless. With such portrayal of family and respected society Fitzgerald negatively criticizes the moral values of American society.
Charles Dickens and F. Scott Fitzgerald both viewed society critically. While Dickens was a social reformer who gave many speeches and donated his time too many social causes Fitzgerald preferred to showcase the problems that he saw with society in literature so that his reading public may form their own conclusions. Both authors made their criticisms with the use of characterization and setting in the novels they wrote. For Dickens Great Expectations was a work of criticism that targeted Britains Victorian era societal deficiencies such as the objectification, mistreatment and abuse of children as well as a discriminating class structure and a political and legal system that was cruel and inhuman. He gained first had insight into this problem as a child being forced to work in a blacking warehouse.
He grew up in the middle class with no public education or health care. His father was sent to prison for being in debt were he died. For Dickens such criticism was necessary to encourage social reform. Fitzgerald was an author whom was critical of the social decline into greed and carelessness that faced 1920’s jazz era America. Even though the American people had more than any other society before they still faced the inherent problems of being human thus capable of making the wrong choices. Fitzgerald proposed little in the way of reforming such problems realizing that he could only point them out with the literary criticism of his work and hope for a better future.
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