The Great Gatsby: A Savage Critique of High Society
The extravagant, mystical events that are Gatsby’s parties represent the charming surface of a wealthy lifestyle and the complete lack of substance underneath. Through lyrical, soaring phrases punctuated by a plethora of adjectives Fitzgerald lends the parties an air of enchantment and portrays the elaborate decorations – the “harlequin designs” of the salads and the “turkeys bewitched to a dark gold” – as an utter delight for the eye to see. The immense preparation that goes into the occasion and the way Nick’s descriptions crescendo as the party builds to its climax creates a sense of anticipation. Whether the guests are “diving from the tower of [Gatsby’s] raft” or laughing away in groups, they appear to be carefree – creating the impression that the lives of the wealthy are full of fabulous fun and happiness.
However, on a deeper level Fitzgerald savagely critiques the gaudy nature of such events and the hollow people who attend them. The flawless appearance but impermanent nature of the party reflect that of the lives of the rich – lovely to look at but superficial and empty, as shown by the way the groups “dissolve and form”, constantly drifting about in a meaningless manner, creating a foul dust that floats through the air much like their “whispers”. The “ravages of the night before” that the wealthy recklessly create is the inevitable result of their careless behavior. The “pulpless halves” shipped away from Gatsby’s the next day are a metaphor for the guests themselves – empty, with something essential missing, “moths” flitting from party to party attracted to the bright lights, lacking entirely in substance. At Gatsby’s second party Nick talks of an “indefinite procession of shadows” visible in the dressing room, applying powder and rouge to their meticulously cared for skin. The fact that he describes the wealthy as shadows is another indication of their emptiness and impermanency, drifting from place to place and leaving nothing but “crushed flowers” and “fruit rinds” behind. The makeup, especially powder, represents the beautiful facade that can literally drift from their skin at any moment. Unusually, Daisy’s singing voice is but a “whisper”, her cruel indifference and fundamental lack of decency demonstrated at the party leaving Gatsby in an “unutterable depression”, another victim of the viciously careless wealthy.
The extent to which they are lacking in substance is shown through the Valley of the Ashes, a physical representation of the corrupted, hollow inside of the wealthy people’s lives. They have taken the once optimistic and noble ideals of the American Dream and confused them with the pursuit of wealth, in the course of this creating for themselves a privileged yet shallow life and creating for others utter despair and desolation. The “ash grey men” are described as melting away and forming again in an instant, their meaningless lives dissolving and leaving a trail of “grey dust” on the less fortunate before reforming and continuing on as “desolate”, “grotesque” figures encompassing all that is wrong with America. Dr. Eckleberg’s “gigantic, blue” eyes look down upon the wreck that is the Valley of the Ashes, eternally judging the horrible wealthy as they pass underneath his piercing stare. Throughout the novel Fitzgerald uses the colour grey – hopeless and depressing – as a symbol for all those who are infecting the American dream or have been affected by its demise. The cold hearted, cheating Jordan has “grey eyes,” while the “spiritless” George Wilson has grey, “anaemic” skin and what is left of his livelihood is surrounded by the pure greyness of the Valley of the Ashes. George is a helpless victim of people like Tom, who brutally destroys his life by having an affair with his wife – his good heart is useless against the endless money in Tom’s possession, reinforcing the corrupted idea that money is the only pathway to happiness.
New York is the setting of the novel, chosen specifically because of the many parallels it has with the lives of the wealthy – its surface allure and excitement hide the cold, hard desolation that is reality. Nick knew his workmates “by their first names,” suggesting a level of intimacy and friendliness in his work relationships, but despite this he cannot help but be overwhelmed by a “haunting loneliness”, the shallow friendships proving meaningless and leaving Nick striving for something of depth. The city itself has a “racy, adventurous feel”, much like the lives of the wealthy, the breakneck speed of the city and its illusion of “intimate excitement,” creating a world of drama that draws people into its thrilling decorations and shining lights. Unfortunately, this wondrous appearance quickly dissolves as more time is spent in the heart of New York, “the…men and women and machines” growing tired to the eye and revealing themselves to be nothing more than a “flicker” of joy. Nick finds he is unable to find satisfaction in a world so shallow and temporary. While “there was laughter” and soaring voices punctuate the thrilling night, bystanders make “unintelligible circles” and their cigarettes are a metaphor for the useless ashes they people leave behind, their cyclic, grey lives infecting those around them like the secondhand smoke drifting through the air to form the Valley of the Ashes.
Gatsby’s life is the epitome of glamour and sophistication but throughout the novel readers discover his inner turmoil, his unsatisfied desires proving his material objects useless as he desperately searches for something he cannot have. The “glistening” parties thrown by Gatsby full of “chatter” and “laughter” are contrasted by the lone figure of Gatsby, observing the “moths” he has drawn towards him with an obvious lack of contentment, his wealth providing him little satisfaction as it becomes clear he has no true friends amongst the throngs of people. He has found no joy in the privileged world he has created, discovering for himself the pure emptiness lying below the shiny surface. This is shown in the novel as he carelessly tosses his expensive “pile of shirts” onto the table and by the fact that he has the simplest room in his colossal mansion. It is clear that the life he is living is not leading him down a path of happiness, but rather down a “desolate” one littered with “discarded flavours”. He stretches “his arms towards the dark water,” plagued with a deep longing for something beyond the meaningless world he has created. This longing is for Daisy, who through her reckless indecency and lack of morals leads him to his untimely death.
Gatsby is trapped in a world full of sparkling facades – which his glamorous parties help sustain – but brutal realities, restless and unhappy, permeate the book and ultimately lead to Gatsby’s demise. The reader should take this as Fitzgerald’s cue that perhaps we should all look deeper than the glittering surface for the truth.
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