Student Question

How does The Great Gatsby challenge the established values of its time?

Quick answer:

The main way in which F. Scott Fitzgerald challenges the established values of his time is by glorifying criminality and tacitly accepting the illegal underpinnings of American society during Prohibition.

Expert Answers

An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

The primary way in which F. Scott Fitzgerald challenges established values is by making a criminal the hero. Although it is never fully explained how Jay Gatsby has made his fortune, adequate information is presented that he has mostly done so by illegal means, especially involving alcohol sales. Closely related to this glorification of individual criminality is Fitzgerald's tacit acceptance of the illegal underpinnings of American society during Prohibition. While some characters claim ignorance of the source of Gatsby's money and criticize or even ridicule him, they take full advantage of his hospitality. Everyone seems to drink a lot. The handful of characters who represent old money do not support conservative moral values. This is most evident in both Tom and Daisy Buchanan, who both have extramarital affairs.

Approved by eNotes Editorial
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

In many ways, The Great Gatsby is a quintessential example of life in the 1920s, the era in which the novel is set, but Jay Gatsby, one of the main characters, challenges the values of the era with his approach to wealth.

Gatsby shares his wealth by throwing extravagant parties and welcoming everyone. He makes everyone feel as if he is fond of them and wants them around. Gatsby wants to be liked more than he wants to be rich but has no problem using his wealth to make people like him. Later in the novel, we see that he is willing to go to extremes to be loved as well.

Compare this to the stiff, reserved representations of "old money" in the novel, like Tom and Daisy. They aren't nearly as welcoming to Nick as Gatsby is, even though they've known Nick longer. While they invite Nick to their home, they aren't nearly as hospitable or welcoming as Gatsby is. Tom and Daisy are used to the idea of being wealthy, and while they know their money can be used to their benefit, they're reserved in regard to their lifestyle and privacy, keeping secrets of their marriage from even those close to them.

Gatsby, on the other hand, makes a show of his wealth by throwing parties and treating his friends to outings. While Gatsby keeps secrets, he does so to make himself more amiable, and he feels that he has more to lose if his friends stop liking him. Essentially, The Great Gatsby challenges the 1920s values of conservatism and wealth.

Approved by eNotes Editorial
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

How does The Great Gatsby challenge the established values of its time?

It's normal in cultural historiography to state that the 1920's were a time of vast change in American life. Long-established ideas were stood on their heads, and older ways of thinking were systematically debunked. The decade was very much a precursor of what was to happen 40 years later, in the 1960s.

In The Great Gatsby, the title character is an upstart, a man of humble, uncertain background who has established himself as a plutocrat, one whose power is based chiefly on wealth. Though America was rooted in egalitarian ideals, most power in this country initially stemmed from inherited wealth, as in Europe. The great exception had been Abraham Lincoln, a man of working-class background and little formal education who became the greatest president in US history—perhaps precisely because only an outsider could understand the false and dysfunctional dynamic of the nation and have the boldness to do something to change it. Gatsby is no Lincoln, but he is a "self-made" man, and the fact that he can achieve power and prestige is a challenge to the established social hierarchy of not only the US, but of the world overall of that time.

The people who attend his parties are similarly part of this meritocracy in which status in society has begun to be based on new wealth. At one of Gatsby's parties, the orchestra plays a piece called "The Jazz History of the World." In the America of this period, jazz, to the establishment, represented something both ravishing and still, in a way, slightly disreputable. Nick comments that the nature of the piece eluded him somewhat. But more than anything else it is a musical analogue to the overturning of social norms that Gatsby himself represents. The elitism of the nouveau-riche who come together at the party is a foreshadowing of the dynamic that has come to dominate the US over the past hundred years. Throughout Fitzgerald's novel, there is a consciousness of this new meaning of wealth for its own sake, and at the same time a questioning of its validity. In the end, Gatsby himself, though flawed, is a positive symbol, as the famous closing statement about his belief in "the green light," in an "orgiastic future," spells out so poetically.

See eNotes Ad-Free

Start your 48-hour free trial to get access to more than 30,000 additional guides and more than 350,000 Homework Help questions answered by our experts.

Get 48 Hours Free Access
Last Updated on