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From Rags to Riches: The American Dream in US American Literature The Great Gatsby: Jazz Age Values and Their Reflection Upon the American Dream Table of Contents Introduction 3 Revolution Music 3 Culture4 Technology6 Excess 7 Disillusionment9 Conclusion 10 Works Cited 11 Introduction The Great Gatsby has been acclaimed as one of the most important novels of the 20th century, and has become an American, and even world, classic. Fitzgerald has not only been heralded for his literary genius in the writing of this novel, but also for his impeccably accurate portrayal of the Jazz Age within The Great Gatsby.
Fitzgerald has furthermore been accredited with coining the term “Jazz Age. ” It has come to mean “[a] new era of ‘relaxation’. ” This age further takes its name from “popular music, which saw a tremendous surge in popularity” (Boland). Among the prominent concerns and trends of the period were “the public embrace of technological developments typically seen as progress—cars, air travel, and the telephone—as well as new modernist trends in social behavior, the arts, and culture” (Boland).
The Great Gatsby fulfills its role of portraying the Jazz Age accurately, illustrating many of the values of this time period, key among them revolution, innocence, excess, and disillusionment. These values have in turn played a very detrimental role upon the idea of the American Dream, leading to the definitive failure of this idealized world. Revolution First, one of the largest themes of the Jazz Age is revolution. Some of the most predominant forms of revolution illustrated within The Great Gatsby were in music, culture, and technology. Musical Revolution Prior to the 1920s, mainstream American music mostly consisted of folk tunes.
The emphasis was on everyday people learning to play for themselves and their families and friends at home. By the twenties, the humble tradition of the Mississippi Delta bluesmen had begun to filter through the “hot towns” of Chicago and New York City producing a potent music not everyone could play (Kersh). The relatively new phonograph and radio allowed previously regional music like the blues to be heard nationwide, creating the first Jazz Age stars (Kersh). Indeed this changing nature of music is what fueled not only Gatsby’s numerous parties but also the general feel of the novel.
These parties defied tradition, consisting of “a whole pitful of oboes and trombones and saxophones and viols and cornets and piccolos, and low and high drums” (Fitzgerald, 26). The music had a certain effect on the guests; it hypnotised them, and they let their bodies flow as if on thin air. As the music started, they reacted to it and began to dance; they were “holding each other tortuously, fashionably…and a great number of single girls dancing individualistically” (Fitzgerald, 31). They were temporarily in another world and were free to dance however they felt like.
This new music scene allowed for self-expression and individualism, especially among the women. It ultimately aided a different type of woman to emerge. Cultural Revolution The Jazz Age also saw the surfacing of the “New Woman”: the flapper. The flapper was “smart, witty, brash, and eloquent. These women…drank and partied just as hard as the men” (Boland). The flapper dress also detoured significantly from traditional feminine attire of modesty and conservatism: the dress exposed enough skin (in just the right places) to attract the attention of the right boys.
It added allure to the woman’s body—her gorgeous dress, bobbed hair, sparkling jewelry, and toned limbs moving together to the rhythm of the music, Jazz (Boland). Expression, individuality, and personal freedom were the most important ideals to the flapper woman, another reason for the immediate hit of Jazz music. Jordan Baker epitomized the flapper to a higher better degree than did Daisy within The Great Gatsby. Jordan represents the “new woman” of the 1920s: cynical, boyish, and self-centered. Jordan is beautiful, but also dishonest; she cheated in order to win her first gold tournament and continually bended the truth to get her way.
Though Daisy also physically embodies the flapper in her beauty and charm, she is also too “fickle, bored, shallow, and sardonic” to be a true flapper woman (SparkNotes). Further, Gatsby himself can be seen as a defiance of tradition. He is a self-made man, starting as a very lowly apprentice to a sea captain, then going on to become a very wealthy entrepreneur. “His parents were shiftless and unsuccessful farm people—his imagination had never really accepted them as his parents at all. The truth was that Jay Gatsby of West Egg, Long Island, sprang from his Platonic conception of himself” (Fitzgerald, 63).
His methods of achieving success are also a rebellion against the norm; he uses any means necessary including betting and smuggling alcohol during the Prohibition. Society’s view on these methods of attaining riches was drastically different than traditional ones, further alluding to a cultural revolution: “Real-life personalities were highly esteemed for their alleged bootlegging under Prohibition… At the onset of Prohibition, a bootlegging industry flourished from the start, and drinking became more in vogue than ever.
Upper-class citizens gained prestige by offering outlawed alcohol to their house guests and by taking friends to popular speakeasies” (Moss, 151). The moral rights and ethics of good were overshadowed by the need to become rich and successful. This time period is also the first era to mass question the existence of God. In The Great Gatsby, God is simplified to be the eyes of Dr. T. J. Eckelburg: “[they] are blue and gigantic—their retinas are one yard high. They look out of no face, but, instead, from a pair of enormous yellow spectacles which pass over a nonexistent nose…His eyes brood on over the solemn dumping ground” (Fitzgerald, 16).
These eyes stare out from the Valley of Ashes, which exemplifies the decay of American society. The people of the Jazz Age were striving for material and economic wealth, completely forgetting about any spiritual aspect to life, and in this struggle, they gave up their souls in exchange for that wealth. The eyes can in turn be seen as the eyes of a “dead God” looking onto a “dead society”. There are further brief references to God within The Great Gatsby, but all allude to the same idea: the lack or helplessness of God.
Man also has even drifted so much away from previous conservatively religious ideals that he himself is more worshipped that God. Nick Carraway is even surprised at this newfound idea; that “one man could start to play with the faith of fifty million people” (Fitzgerald, 47) is something that only God should have been able to do. Gatsby further goes on to compare his mind to that of God. Referring to kissing Daisy he says, “his mind would never romp again like the mind of God” (Fitzgerald, 71). George Wilson’s statement “God knows what you’ve been doing, everything you’ve been doing.
You may fool me, but you can’t fool God. ” (Fitzgerald, 102) seems like a mockery on God. He is the only character that makes a reference to God’s omnipotence and ends up committing a huge act of sin: suicide. Technological Revolution The twenties were a time of radical transformation caused by the many changes in technology through new advancements, discoveries, and inventions. Possibly the most significant innovations during this time were the automobile and the radio. The mass production of the automobile started by Henry Ford in the 1920s. By 1927 he had manufactured and sold some 15 million Model-Ts (Cheek).
This technological revolution is emphasized in The Great Gatsby numerously. I conducted my own side experiment and counted the number of times the words ‘car,’ ‘automobile,’ or ‘auto’ were mentioned within the text and the result was rather interesting: there were 66 mentions of this new technology. The newest cars were seen as status symbols, so of course the upper class had to have the most recent cars. Gatsby takes a lot of pride in his car, and tries to use it as a tool to win over the woman of his dreams, Daisy. Gatsby’s owns both a Rolls Royce and a ellow station wagon, and they are personified as “splendid” and “gorgeous,” showing how much importance was placed on physical appearances of wealth. I find it rather interesting that this ultimate symbol of wealth, the car, was the ultimate force of destruction within the novel. Once Myrtle was run over by Gatsby’s car, each character ended up also destructing. The other important revolutionary catalyst was the radio. In an age without television, radio was the center of entertainment and news. Radio provided a cheap and convenient way of conveying information and ideas.
The first broadcasts were primarily news and world affairs; later in the decade, radios were used to broadcast everything from concerts and sermons and everything in between (Cheek). Radio was the main form of media that helped spread other revolutionary ideas, such as the new music of Jazz and advertisements for the newest cars. Excess The theme of excess in The Great Gatsby also goes hand in hand with the materialism and superficiality of the time, and as excesses go, the Jazz Age was definitely marked by a huge increase in consumerism.
Some of the aforementioned ideas of revolution of the Jazz Age also evidence the excess of this society, especially the cars, the dress, the “achieve through any way possible” mentality, and the mansions. Leading the way was the increasing popularity of the automobile, a product that stimulated the U. S. economy more than any other industry. At the turn of the 20th century, there had been only 8,000 automobiles registered in the United States. By 1920, there were 8 million and by the close of the decade, 23 million (Cheek). Gatsby’s car thus not only symbolizes the technology of the decade, but also this widespread excess.
Gatsby’s car was one that “everybody had seen,” a “rich cream color, bright with nickel, swollen here and there in its monstrous length with triumphant hat-boxes and supper-boxes and tool-boxes, and terraced with a labyrinth of windshields that mirrored a dozen suns” (Fitzgerald, 41). Further, Gatsby’s second car, “the death car,” is a bright yellow color, dramatically contrasting the standardized black color of most cars of the time. The mansions are anther very visible form of excess. “[The Buchanans’] house was more elaborate than [Nick] expected, a cheerful red-and-white Gregorian colonial mansion, overlooking the bay.
The lawn started at the beach and ran towards the front door for a quarter of a mile, jumping over sundials and brick walls and burning gardens—finally when it reached the house drifting up the side in bright vines as though from the momentum of its run. The front was broken by a line of French windows, glowing now with reflected gold and wide open to the warm windy afternoon…. ” (Fitzgerald, 6) Though they are only one couple with a small daughter, this huge mansion is something that they, in their eyes, need to represent their success and wealth. This additionally stresses the value of excess and materialism during this time.
Another central idea was to achieve as much material success as possible, and then flaunt it. Fitzgerald summed this idea up well in The Great Gatsby by saying, “Americans, while occasionally willing to be serfs, have always been obstinate about being peasantry” (57). Even if one didn’t have the means to have the best of everything, it was still expected of them. Myrtle was enraged when she found out her husband didn’t wear his own suit to his wedding. “He borrowed somebody’s best suit to get married in…and the man came after it one day when he was out…I gave it to him and then I lay down and cried…all afternoon” (Fitzgerald, 24).
Daisy also displays the importance of material excess, also in dress, when looking at Gatsby’s clothes, “It makes me sad because I’ve never seen such—such beautiful shirts before” (Fitzgerald, 59). This concept of excess caused people to place the most importance and meaning on purely physical, material, and ultimately temporary effects. Disillusionment The excess materialism combined with a sense of ‘newness’ through the revolutionary technologies of the time left an overall feeling of disillusionment upon the upper class. Each character within The Great Gatsby is either himself disillusioned or is affected by disillusionment.
Gatsby can probably be seen as the person suffering the most under this disillusionment because everything that he has strived for in life, all his wealth and material gain, was for a false hope and cause: Daisy. Though his life seemed completely full, from the huge boisterous parties during the week to the numerous people he surrounded himself with, he ended up alone in his purely material world. This is blatantly evident at his funeral; “The minister glanced several times at his watch so [Nick] took him aside and asked him to wait half an hour. But it wasn’t any use. Nobody came” (Fitzgerald,).
Daisy and Tom were also both disillusioned, mainly in their relationship. Tom paraded around with mistresses and Daisy was toying with Gatsby’s heart; both were in their separate fantasy worlds, imagining a life they subconsciously knew they would never lead. That is ultimately why they remained together in the end, despite the adulterous way they treated their relationship. Nick himself was also disillusioned; “Everyone suspects himself of at least one of the cardinal virtues, and this is mine: I am one of the few honest people that I has ever known” (Fitzgerald, 39), thus characterizing himself in opposition to the masses.
He is “inclined to reserve all judgments” (Fitzgerald, 3), events in the novel do not attest to his self-characterization. Though he wants to take the moral high ground, his best friend ends up being probably one of the more morally corrupt characters, Gatsby. He also says about Jordan’s cheating during her tournament, “Dishonesty in a woman is a thing you never blame deeply—I was casually sorry, and then I forgot” (Fitzgerald, 38). His utter awe and wonder of this “new world” clouds his better judgments.
In then end though, it seems that he as able to grasp a bit of the truth: when all the wonder, glamour, and sparkle finally fades away, the emptiness will settle in and they will finally sense that this pursuit of the American Dream was an illusion. Conclusion The Jazz Age was a very revolutionary movement within American history, and has left a rather large impact on American society. The values of revolution, excess, and disillusionment played a large role on the pursuit of the American Dream. In reality, the American Dream was based on nothing but these Jazz Age values.
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The revolutionary nature of this time period led to society’s value of excess and ultimate disillusionment. These false values made the American Dream seem something it is not. In the 1920s, the American Dream was nothing but an idea of materialistic wealth and objective pleasures. The reach for this rather unattainable Dream represented the demise of an America of hard work and good ethics and goals of wealth and a skewed successful life. Works Cited Boland, Jesse. “The Jazz Age in America. ” 1920s Fashion and Music. Jesse Boland. 15. 04. 2010. Web/ 01 Sept. 2010. . Cheek, Jerry S. Inventions. ” The Roaring Twenties. Kennesaw State University, 01. 08. 2005. Web. 01 Sept. 2010. . Fitzgerald, F. Scott. The Great Gatsby. Woodsworth Edition. Ware, Hertfordshire: Woodsworth Editions, 1993. Print. Kersh, J. “The Great Gatsby: The Jazz Age. ” ENotes. Penny Satoris. Seattle: Enotes. com, Oct. 2002. Web. 29 Aug. 2010. . Moss, Joyce. Literature and Its Times: Profiles of 300 Notable Literary Works and the Historical Events That Influence Them. Vol. 3. Gale, 1997. Print. SparkNotes Editors. “SparkNote on the Great Gatsby. ” SparkNotes. com. SparkNotes LLC. 2002. Web. 01 Sept. 2010.
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The Great Gatsby and Jazz Age Values
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Zelda Sayre Fitzgerald and F. Scott Fitzgerald by Harrison Fisher, 1927; Conté crayon on paperboard; National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution; gift of Fitzgerald’s daughter, Mrs. Scottie Smith
Amy Henderson, curator at the National Portrait Gallery, writes about all things pop culture. Her last post was on technological revolutions.
As someone who adores sequins and feathers, I am buzzing with anticipation over what the New York Timeshas dubbed “an eminently enjoyable movie,” Baz Lurhmann’s new film version of The Great Gatsby. Will I like Leo DiCaprio as Gatsby? Will Jay-Z’s music convey the fancy-free spirit of High Flapperdom?
F. Scott Fitzgerald is credited with coining the phrase “The Jazz Age” in the title of his 1922 collection of short stories, Tales of the Jazz Age. He also became its effervescent chronicler in his early novels This Side of Paradise (1920) and The Beautiful and the Damned (1922), along with another short story collection, Flappers and Philosophers (1920). Published in 1925, The Great Gatsby was the quintessence of this period of his work, and evoked the romanticism and surface allure of his “Jazz Age”—years that began with the end of World War I, the advent of woman’s suffrage, and Prohibition, and collapsed with the Great Crash of 1929—years awash in bathtub gin and roars of generational rebellion. As Cole Porter wrote, “In olden days a glimpse of stocking/Was looked on as something shocking,/But now God knows,/Anything Goes.” The Twenties’ beat was urban and staccato: out went genteel social dancing; in came the Charleston. Everything moved: cars, planes, even moving pictures. Hair was bobbed, and cigarettes were the new diet fad.
Gloria Swanson by Nickolas Muray, c. 1920 (printed 1978) (c)Courtesy
Nickolas Muray Photo Archives; gelatin silver print; National Portrait
Gallery, Smithsonian Institution
According to his biographer Arthur Mizener, Fitzgerald wrote his agent Maxwell Perkins in 1922: “I want to write something new. . .something extraordinary and beautiful and simple.” Like today, newness was fueled by innovation, and technology was transforming everyday life. Similar to the way social media and the iPhone shape our culture now, the Twenties burst with the revolutionary impact of silent movies, radio and recordings. New stars filled the mediascape, from Rudolph Valentino and Gloria Swanson, to Paul Whiteman and the Gershwins. Celebrity culture was flourishing, and glamour was in.
Paul Whiteman in “King of Jazz” by Joseph Grant, 1930; India ink and
pencil on paper; National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution; gift
of Carol Grubb and Jennifer Grant Castrup
Accompanied in a champagne-life style by his wife Zelda, the embodiment of his ideal flapper, Fitzgerald was entranced by the era’s glitz and glamour. His story “The Diamond as Big as the Ritz,” he admitted, was designed “in the familiar mood characterized by a perfect craving for luxury.” By the time he wrote Gatsby, his money revels were positively lyrical: when he describes Daisy’s charm, Gatsby says: “Her voice is full of money,” and the narrator Nick explains, “That was it. I’d never understood before. It was full of money—that was the inexhaustible charm that rose and fell in it, the jungle of it, the cymbals’ song of it.”
Fitzgerald acknowledges the presence of money’s dark side when Nick describes Tom and Daisy: “They were careless people—they smashed things up. . .and then retreated back into their money. . .and let other people clean up the mess they had made.” But his hero Gatsby is a romantic. He was a self-made man (his money came from bootlegging), and illusions were vital to his world view. Fitzgerald once described Gatsby’s ability to dream as “the whole burden of this novel—the loss of those illusions that give such color to the world so that you don’t care whether things are true or false as long as they partake of the magical glory.”
Rudolph Valentino by Johan Hagemeyer, c. 1921; gelatin silver print;
National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution; Alan and Lois Fern
Gatsby sees money as the means to fulfilling his “incorruptible dream.” When Nick tells him, “You can’t repeat the past,” Gatsby is incredulous: “Can’t repeat the past? Why of course you can.” (Cue green light at the end of the dock: “So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into time.”) As critic David Denby recently wrote in his New Yorker review of the Luhrmann film: “Jay Gatsby ‘sprang from his Platonic conception of himself,’ and his exuberant ambitions and his abrupt tragedy have merged with the story of America, in its self-creation and its failures.”
It was the American Dream on a spree. Fitzgerald ends Gatsby intoning his dreamlike vision of the Jazz Age: “the orgastic future that year by year recedes before us. It eluded us then, but that’s no matter—tomorrow we will run faster, stretch out our arms farther. . . .And one fine morning—”
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About Amy Henderson
Amy Henderson, the National Portrait Gallery's historian emerita, is a cultural historian specializing in the lively arts—particularly media-generated celebrity culture. Her books and exhibitions run the gamut from the pioneers in early broadcasting to Elvis Presley, Katharine Hepburn and Katharine Graham.