F. Scott Fitzgerald is widely known for writing about the beauty and glamor of life in his time. In one of his more acclaimed works, The Great Gatsby, Fitzgerald highlights a love story and the pursuit of happiness in the roaring twenties. A more in-depth look into the novel reveals a more corrupt and crooked reality under the surface. This perspective is recognized by academic Susan Resneck Parr, “The modern world has become a moral and spiritual wasteland,” about the environment characteristic in his novels. The moral line between right and wrong becomes blurred for Tom, Gatsby, and Myrtle throughout the story. The distortion of morals in society is reflected in the behavior of Tom and Gatsby.
Tom’s skewed virtues are apparent throughout the novel. His adulterous relationship with Myrtle goes directly against common decency and is, therefore, inherently indecent. Towards the beginning of the book, after arriving in New York City, Tom pressures Nick to attend a party with him and Myrtle. Nick quickly realizes that Tom is having an affair with Myrtle. After Catherine (Myrtle’s sister) arrives, she reveals to Nick that, while Tom and Myrtle are unhappy in their respective marriages, they cannot have a proper relationship because “‘It’s his [Tom’s] wife that’s keeping them apart. She’s a Catholic, and they don’t believe in divorce’” (33). Nick immediately discloses to the reader that Catherine’s entire statement is an elaborate lie perpetuated by Tom as (Tom’s wife) Daisy is not Catholic. Later, Myrtle taunts Tom by chanting Daisy’s name repetitively until he strikes her as he “broke her nose open with his open hand” (37) His blatant abuse of her both mentally and physically displays not only his lack of ethics but also his distorted moral concept. In the final scene, when Tom is talking to Nick, it becomes clear that no matter how sinful Tom appeared, he believed that everything he did was right, further proving his skewed conception ethics. The fact that Tom is cheating with Myrtle is exacerbated by his ‘stringing her along’ with a lie and culminates in his explosive assault, demonstrating his immoral behavior all at one event.
Though Gatsby has an entirely different profile than Tom, the combination of his obsession with Daisy, occupation, and suspicious past signifies the distorted morals of the novel. At the beginning of the book, Gatsby comes off as a mythical, elusive character as nobody can precisely identify him –or anything about him, for that matter– even at his party. He is described as having an abundance of wealth, to the extent that he can regularly host extravagant parties at his mansion. Before Gatsby surprisingly introduces himself to Nick at one of his gatherings, it becomes apparent that everyone attending the party is merely coming for the party, illegal alcohol, and nothing else. Nick later discovers that Gatsby is throwing these parties to gain Daisy’s attention. Though the party-goers themselves have poor virtues, that Gatsby is hosting these parties to impress a married woman calls his ethics into question. Nick learns more about Gatsby’s background en route to New York to meet one of Gatsby’s ‘friends,’ “‘I am the son of some wealthy people in the Middle West– all dead now. I was brought up in America but educated at Oxford’.…’ What part of the Middle West?’...’ San Francisco… My family all died, and I came into a good deal of money’”(65). By the end of the novel, his statements are known to be full of lies, for example, not only is his family living, but he inherited nothing from them. Gatsby’s ‘friend,’ Meyer Wolfsheim, confuses Nick as a “business connection”(70), raising suspicion that is justified when it is revealed that Wolfsheim rigged the 1919 World Series, making him one of the most corrupt and notorious individuals of the time. Gatsby is proven to highly corrupt himself when Nick discovers that he is a bootlegger. Ultimately, his sketchy business dealings, obsession with Daisy, and general tendency to lie result –partially– in his unfortunate downfall and death. His shortcomings in love, unethical profession, and shady past come full circle and culminate in his sparsely attended funeral, a glaring contrast to the wall-to-wall crowded parties, giving Gatsby a particularly sad and tragic ending.
Fitzgerald depicts the distorted virtues of both Tom and Gatsby, despite their different profiles, to illustrate the skewed sense of morality common during the time. Though at first glance, the novel is anecdotal of love and happiness, a deeper dive supports a more harrowing theme supported by Fitzgerald’s tendency to paint the world as a spiritual and moral wasteland. Nowadays, The Great Gatsby is a staple of high school literature because of its focus on, and exposure of the dark realities that make up the American Dream. In many ways, the consequences stemming from the skewed virtues in the book were a warning from Fitzgerald to be cautious of their merits. Considering the warning wasn’t heeded, the novel serves as a harbinger of the Great Depression, which happened soon after that. Ultimately, though the book illustrated a time nearly 100 years ago, the crucial foundations of the novel still hold today.
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