The Decadence of the 1920's as Portrayed by The Great Gatsby
During the Roaring Twenties, a group of tradition-oriented writers emerged in the United States. Known as "The Lost Generation," these critics voiced their disgust for the lack of tradition and morals in their country through their writings. John Henkle explains,
The "Lost Generation" refers to a group of expatriated American writers who resided primarily in Paris in the 1920's and 1930's. [D]isillusioned with the American society and bitter about their World War I experiences, [t]hese writers were extremely critical of American society but failed to offer many solutions to the problems they observed" (Henkle online).
The group was comprised of many influential American writers including Thornton Wilder, William Carlos Williams, Ernest Hemingway, Archibald MacLeish and Hart Crane. "These traditionalists believed that the teenagers of the 1920's should act socially as they and their families had acted. They refused to accept change and fought against the revolutionary tendencies of this new generation" (Henkle online). F. Scott Fitzgerald, author of The Great Gatsby, was also a prominent writer of this group. In his novels and short stories, Fitzgerald narrated the corruption and decadence of the American society during this era. He and his wife, Zelda, were both observers of and participants in this lifestyle, and elements from his observations are depicted in his works. By examining certain characters in The Great Gatsby, one can obtain an accurate notion of the moral and social degradation that America went through during the 1920's.
Concepts such as hypocrisy, fakeness of character, and lavish use of wealth in The Great Gatsby come from the ideals of the Roaring Twenties. Thaman states that this era was "'so sorely out of joint' that it called forth the alarming attention of the religious press to sound the tocsin of a vanishing culture." She goes on to explain, "the manners and morals of America's young people especially were a source of worried interest" (29). It was during this time that young people let go of their fears of the future and thrived happily on newfound wealth. Americans looked forward to living their lives for themselves and their personal interests. Business became the business of America, and Americans became involved the stock market, real estate, salesmanship, and advertising. "The salesman and the advertising man, freed from many scruples that curtailed questionable methods of an earlier age, adroitly convinced Americans that former luxuries were present necessities" (30). Americans let industry have its way and enjoyed making and spending money in all sorts of ways. It was this material satisfaction that aided in the weakening of America's moral fibers, and this weakening was the subject of Fitzgerald's criticism. Young people "seemed to be shot through with greed, hypocrisy, and suspicion" (35).
Throughout the book, Fitzgerald criticizes the immoral abuse of wealth exposed by all of his characters, except for Nick Carraway, who is the narrator of the book. Nick serves as an impartial observer, and he makes his own careful decisions by judging what he has experienced. He claims, "Every one suspects himself of at least one of the cardinal virtues, and this is mine: I am one of the few honest people that I have ever known" (Fitzgerald 60). While Nick himself is one of the decadent age, he does present everything as it happens. Therefore, despite the fact that he may also possess questionable morals, his general detachment and the fact that he is personally involved in the plot makes him believable.
The book itself focuses on a dreamy yet determined racketeer named Jay Gatsby who has devoted his life to amassing wealth by any means necessary in order to win the heart of Daisy Buchanan. Also involved with the plot are various other upper class members characterized by a fakeness of disposition, a 'drifting' quality, a tendency to throw or attend extravagant parties, and possess either inherited or recently earned riches. This in itself embodies Fitzgerald's critical view of the American society. Fitzgerald employs Nick to explain the decadent nature of the times:
"Men and girls came and went like moths among theÃÂ¢Ã¢âÂ¬ÃÂ¦champagne...On week-ends his Rolls-Royce became an omnibus, bearing parties to and from the city...on Mondays eight servants, including an extra gardener, toiled all day with mops and scrubbing-brushes and hammers and garden-shears, repairing the ravages of the night before (39).
With the exception of Nick, Fitzgerald prevents each of his characters from growing or developing throughout the story. Long states that Fitzgerald accents characterization and theme by "miniaturization of characters through dominant traits and the reflection that they give of each other and the environment that formed them" (38). He keeps his characters flat and two-dimensional, showing that members of this era were incapable of changing for the better. In this way, Fitzgerald also portrays the hidden desperation and spiritual emptiness of American society through his characters.
Jay Gatsby drives the plot of the novel. He is Fitzgerald's own representation of himself, according to Thomas J. Stavola. "Gatsby embodied so many of the most painful experiences, fears, and desires of Fitzgerald's own life" (125). This reinforces the accuracy of the book's portrayal of the time. However, Gatsby's life is only a romantic illusion, and he becomes a "'mythic character,' expressing the destinies, aspirations, and attitudes of Western Man" (131). He is "never allowed to become soiled by the touch of realism" (Lockridge 41). Gatsby has devoted his life to the American Dream: if one can amass enough money, one can achieve anything. He is committed to a quest for material goods; however, instead of the typical member of the Jazz Age, his ultimate quest is for love and fulfillment. Not only does he fail in this quest, but as a member of an age where love and fulfillment are not the major goals, Fitzgerald shows that Gatsby is indeed an illusion.
However, the other characters of the book represent the evils of the typical American public and it that preys upon Gatsby and the American Dream. Tom Buchanan, for example, is described realistically, in contrast to the lofty style in which Fitzgerald presents Gatsby. Tom is "sturdyÃÂ¢Ã¢âÂ¬ÃÂ¦with a rather hard mouth and a supercilious manner [with] two shining arrogant eyes" (Fitzgerald 7). He also has "a body capable of enormous leverage-Âa cruel body" (7). In this way, Tom represents the brutality and moral carelessness of the inherently wealthy.
Tom's wife, Daisy, is also representative of her society. She has a fragile, ethereal quality to her, which suggests her fakeness and insubstantiality. She enjoys the actress that Gatsby points out during his party because "she has no substance. She is a gesture that is committed to nothing more real than her own image on the silver screen. She has become a gesture divorced forever from the tiresomeness of human rality [sic]" (Lockridge 45). Daisy is superficial, and Nick believes that there was "a basic insincerity," contemptuous selfishness, and a corroding cynicism that "asserted her membership in a rather distinguished secret society to which she and Tom belonged" (Fitzgerald 18).
In addition, Jordan Baker, the friend of the Buchanans and the love interest of Nick, represents the so-called "free love" of the time. In this time man "is an animal with animal instincts and passions" (Thaman 138). Nick finds a selfishness to her, a compulsion to continuously lie and exaggerate. She is rich, beautiful, and immoral, definitely part of the Buchanans' social class. She seems to balance an imaginary object on her chin, and wears a white dress at times, reinforcing her abstract nature (Fitzgerald 8). Long explains, "In the opening chapter Fitzgerald indicates not only that the Buchanans and Jordan Baker are wealthy, but also that they have been molded by the social and economic class to which they belong" (Thaman 146). She is a cheat and avoids "clever men" who would find her out (149). She is described as having an unsettled life, much like the many other partygoers. Much of her disposition helps her to fit in with the image of the extravagant rich. Jordan embodies the key characteristics of the typical well-to-do American citizen of the 1920's.
Lastly, Meyer Wolfsheim, Gatsby's business associate, presents another dark component of Fitzgerald's portrayal of the American decadence. Long states, "FitzgeraldÃÂ¢Ã¢âÂ¬ÃÂ¦has envisioned Wolfsheim as being profoundly comic; everything about him is surprising, and humanÃÂ¢Ã¢âÂ¬ÃÂ¦.he has an old-fashioned regard forÃÂ¢Ã¢âÂ¬ÃÂ¦'fine breeding"' (158). While Wolfsheim provides insight into Gatsby's amazing wealth, he appears only briefly in two passages of the entire novel. His short-lived role alludes to the fact that he is one-dimensional and has little substance.
In The Great Gatsby, F. Scott Fitzgerald recognizes and depicts the moral and social degradation that America went through in the 1920's through his characters and the events in which they participate. Characters represent an unstable, rootless society, corrupted by the glitter and glamour of wealth, and they portray a warping of the American Dream. These characters create a credible illustration thanks to Fitzgerald's personal involvement in his writing. In short, much can be learned about the decadent morality during the 1920's through Fitzgerald's work in The Great Gatsby.
Fitzgerald, F. Scott. The Great Gatsby. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons,
Henkel, John, et al. "The 1920's." The Nineteen-Twenties: A Nation in Flux.
28 April 1997. 7 November 1999. http://www2.idsonline.com/jeff/ index.html
Lockridge, Ernest, Ed. Twentieth Century Interpretations of The Great Gatsby.
Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1968.
Long, Robert Emmet. The Achieving of The Great Gatsby. Lewisburg:
Associated University Presses, Inc., 1979.
Stavola, Thomas J. Scott Fitzgerald: Crisis in an American Identity. New
Jersey: Vision Press, 1979.
Thaman, Sister Mary Patrice. Manners and Morals of the 1920's. New York:
Bookman Associates, 1954.
Autmbiles of the 1920s
I picked Automobiles of the 1920s as my Submission Topic just by chance. I was on
lycos.com and I typed in 1920s and automobiles came up so I thought it would be a
good idea to click that so I just went with it.
I also thought it would be a good topic to find lots of research material . Especially
since I already knew a little about the Henry Fords model -T . I will need to find out the
effects of the car on America and when the car really started taking off.
I think the invention of the automobile was one of the greatest inventions to ever be
introduced to the public , and it did and still is improve economy and transportation in
America. And was use for just about every thing like delivering mail , milk , lumber , and
to take people to the hospital .
There was no greater symbol of the 1920's than the automobile. The impressive
leather coaching and customized interiors . The ease of operation and reliability meant
freedom. Beneeth their hoods many of the cars large engines delivering speed and
excitement were found.
The automobile was arguably the most important for social change in the
1920s liberating Americans from often restrictive home or neighborhood situations.
Many women used the cars to save time in their daily domestic chores -- in turn giving
them more free time, in which they could educate themselves, or find a job. The younger
generations loved the car as an escape from the chaperones.
A juvenile court judge criticized the auto as a "house of prostitution on wheels," due to
the relatively large quantity of "inappropriate" sex occurring in the car. Businessmen,
possessing a faster, more personal form of transportation, could live further from the city
and subway stops. Consequently the suburb lifestyle began in places like Queens and the
Bronx. Rural Americans loved the car as a ride to town and the social circles.
Automobiles were around before the 1920s, but were expensive unreliable and
generally only for the rich. What made the auto so influential in the 1920s was the
increased availability and dependability. Scientific management and the assembly line
increased factory productivity and decreased cost making the auto more affordable. By
1930 every 1.3 households owned a car, versus 44 households in 1910. Henry Ford was
largely responsible for this movement, pioneering efficient production methods and
striving to produce a reliable and practical car for the masses. His legendary Model-T aka
"The Tin Lizzie" produced between 1913 and 1927, was sold as low as $290 . It's
successor the Model-A, sold for as little as $460 . There was a movement in America to
make Henry Ford president.
However, there was also a large high-priced auto market. The Coolige Prosperity
fueled the prices of such monsters as the Locomobile Model 48, for $13,000, and the
1929 Rolls-Royce Phantom, selling between $17-18,000. These luxurious cars
undoubtfully functioned as symbols, transporting the occupants in a style that cannot be
found today .
But the automobile was more than just a practical mean of transportation . It struck
roots deep in the national psyche , became part of the American dream. "George F.
Babbitt," wrote Sinclair Lewis in 1922, "as to most prosperous and tragedy, love and
heroism." The manual laborer on the south side of the tracks felt the same way . Asked
what the men were working for, a trade union official replied: "25% arefighting to keep
their homes;65% are working to pay for cars." A working-class wife , interveiwed by
sociologists Robert and Helen Lynd for their book, Middletown, commented: "I'd rather
go without food than give up the car."
Meanwhile the obesstion with the car grew even more desirable wuth hydraulic brakes
in 1920, and balloon tires in 1922. It looked more attractive, with sweeping, rakish
fenders and fast-drying colored lacquers, and more comfortable, too. In 1919, 90% of
auto bodies were open; while 10 years later they were closed. While the makers reached
for new goals 5.3 million cars in 1929 , a few companies were providing with both the
rich and near-rich with cars that were individual and distinct.
Here is a picture of the 1928 Ford
Model-A (Arabian Sand?) The release of this car in December of '27 rivaled the
excitement of the Sacco Vanzetti trial and execution. Ford closed his factories for 7
months after stopping Model-T production, in order to develop the Model-A. The
unnecessary halt translated into a large loss for the Ford Company, despite the mammoth
demand for the Model-A. Henry Ford was convinced, obviously, to try adding a little style
and comfort to the Model-A, differing largely from the utilitarian Model-T, or "Tin
While writing this report I had some trouble finding things on the internet so I had to
go to the books . But I didn't need to find to much information since I already knew quiet
a bit about automobiles in the 1920s from history class , so I just used my history book as
my main research material . And the Encyclopedia as my other research reference. The
only thing I had trouble with really was the spelling and all the typing because I really suck
at both of them .