Fitzgerald's portrayal of 1920's America in The Great Gatsby is as a corrupt and selfish society, completely lacking in spiritual enlightenment.Discuss!
In my mind, the statement is fairly accurate. I think that Fitzgerald understood the 1920s better than most and brought this vision into full force with his work. In the end, the American social order of the 1920s was one that was filled with a sense of the grandeur and the elaborate. There was little pause for reflection in such a setting. While materialism and consumerism drove all, there was not a foundation that guided such pursuits. I think that Fitzgerald's real genius was that the social attitude he defined was mirrored in the economic history of the time period. The lure of the superficial and the surface was found in the economic practices of conducting stock sales on short term wealth acquisition, buying on margin, and not developing some type of regulatory framework to ensure that the market was operating by some type of rules and code of conduct which would prevent abuse. Fitzgerald was able to draw out the idea that there was so much self- interest that disaster on both emotional and financial levels was inevitable. The Jordan Bakers and Tom and Daisy Buchanans were present in society and in the economic boardroom. Just as trouble results from them in the novel, America was soon to realize that these ilk of characters will cause trouble for the nation, as well.
There is a striving for purity in the society of this novel. That purity is beyond the reach of Gatsby, Daisy, Jordan and Nick as well.
We see the hints at Nick's failure from the opening of the novel as he describes his hopes to become an old guard intellectual in one summer and admits that he falls far short of this aim. He doesn't seem to read much at all but instead gets lessons in how a person can bath in corruption, so to speak, yet still yearn for purity and innocence.
Daisy and Gatsby represent this purity for one another. They are images, for one another, snatched from the past, from a time before the compromises and adult decisions had removed them from innocence. This is why they are drawn together, as an attempt to regain what was lost.
Spiritual enlightenment is not a part of the lives or the characters in this novel, but a sincere hope for something like spiritual salvation and renewal drives the action of The Great Gatsby.
It is interesting how often the word 'careless' is used in the novel, especially in regards to Tom, Daisy, and Jordan's behavior and attitudes. They each show several examples when they act in careless ways -- Daisy's driving when she is angry; Tom's blatant cheating, Jordan's treatment of Nick etc. What is interesting is that in almost every case you can take the word careless and break it into its two parts and the meaning still fits. Daisy could CARE LESS about the woman she ran over; Tom could CARE LESS what Daisy thinks of his cheating; Jordan could CARE LESS what Nick thinks when she drops out of touch. There is a difference in meaning between the two words, but in this novel they are usually equally applicable.
I generally agree that this is true, but with one major exception. I think that the most sympathetic character in the book is Nick Carraway, in large part because he is not corrupt and selfish. If the most sympathetic character in the book (the narrator, no less) is a good person, I think that should tell us something. I think that Fitzgerald is telling us that parts of the US are corrupt and selfish, but there is a whole other type of person in the country, represented by Nick Carraway, that is good. Therefore, it is not quite as bleak a portrayal as the statement you pose to us suggests.
Perhaps the general statement about society should be particularized. For,Fitzgerald's satire is aimed at the nouveau riche, much as Charles Dickens satirized those who acquired wealth after the Industrial Revolution and aspired to become like the upperclass of England, who were a frivolous class. The Great Gatsby points to the growing wealthy class in America that was becoming amoral in its materialism.
To add to #4, Gatsby's party-goers are careless and act as if they were at an amusement park rather than a fine mansion. I would also simply add a biographical note regarding Fitzgerald and other writers who suffered disillusionment with American materialism. These expatriate writers, known as the Lost Generation, went to Paris because they despised the crassness and selfishness they saw in America at this time.