A novel which is set during a time of political and social change is ‘The Great Gatsby’ by F Scott Fitzgerald.
… F Scott Fitzgerald’s ‘The Great Gatsby’ explores the era of social and political change known as the ‘Roaring Twenties’, through the narrator, lowly stockbroker Nick, and the self-made millionaire, Jay Gatsby.
The writer uses key techniques such as setting, symbolism and characterisation to convey the theme of the American Dream and the political and social views of the period in which the story is set.
… Through this protagonist, the author is able to capture the essence of an age where it was possible to ruthlessly pursue the ‘American Dream’ of material wealth and popularity; yet his success is also hollow, because he fails to win over Daisy Buchanan from her husband Tom; and in the end, he is tragically killed.
First impressions of Gatsby
Gatsby has made his wealth partly from bootlegging and shady business associations. He exemplifies the extravagance of the ‘Jazz Age’. Nick’s first impressions of his wealthy neighbour are through his wild parties:
This conveys the great waste that occurs in order for the wealth to have their fun. The ‘pyramid’ also shows Gatsby’s need to show off. It is not enough for him to have found success – other people need to know as well.
Gatsby and Daisy
In this historical period, Gatsby is something of a paradox. Although he has great wealth he is a poor man with respect to loved ones. He has few friends and little contact with his family. This is ironic as the size of Gatsby’s parties would suggest he is popular. However, this flamboyance is actually designed to impress Daisy, his first love. We are given an insight into this in the scene where he shows off his wardrobe to Daisy and Nick:
Everything about Gatsby is extravagant, down to his choice of clothes. Strangely, Daisy starts weeping – perhaps her feelings of love for Gatsby are confused with her need for security and pampering; as if love and money are the same thing to her. This conveys the emptiness of life for wealthy people in the Twenties.
Symbolism of Ash Valley
Yet while the novel conveys the glamour of the Jazz Age, it also shows a seedier side through the symbolism of the Valley of Ashes, a derelict strip of land between East and West Egg. Only the poor characters of the book live here, and the valley’s physical and moral ruin is evident in Fitzgerald’s description:
Eckleberg perhaps symbolises the failure of capitalism, as it ruins the environment and makes people destitute; yet his sign also suggests a fallen idol or a false God, who has abandoned the poor. It embodies the fact that in the middle of growth, optimism and decadence there is also neglect and apathy. It is in this setting that the climax occurs, when Daisy runs down Myrtle and her husband goes after Gatsby for revenge. The rich have somewhere to run to, away from the desolate valley, but Gatsby cannot evade retribution the same way as Daisy and Tom.
East Egg – the upper classes
The people of East Egg are born rich and have no idea of the real value of money, or the worth of ordinary people. Daisy kills Myrtle and thinks she can escape punishment as she is rich; and throughout the book there are examples of Tom’s adultery. This is a carefree, but immoral society. The rich answer to no-one and don’t suffer consequences:
This shows the arrogance of East Egg residents. Tom has no need for the extra money but Tom wants to emphasise his control over Wilson. In this episode, the American Dream is shown to have a false side – Wilson is a hard working mechanic who has earned everything he owns, but he has to defer to Tom, who inherited his wealth. In this way, the ability to live the life you want by working for it is shown to have its limitations.
Therefore, ‘The Great Gatsby’ is a novel which evokes the time of political and social change known as the Roaring Twenties. Although Gatsby shows a genuine love for Daisy, he tries to win her back by living a shallow, materialistic life. The author’s use of symbolism, setting and characterisation convey the idea that extravagance can’t be confused with real happiness.