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– Arkaprabha Chakraborty

This paper seeks to trace the ideas and ideologies of Decadence as a cultural phenomenon more than a literary movement. The Great Gatsby is being analyzed as representative of a time and culture that is both deeply intra- but also inter-continental. The exegetical parallels drawn to British Decadence are superficial in the sense that they are taken solely from the narrative and expounded upon as cultural commentary as opposed to a more thematic tying together of any comparable literature.

Introducing Decadence

The first question we must necessarily ask ourselves when it comes to Decadence as a movement of ethics, aesthetics and a very reactionary modernity is how we should, indeed, how we can define it. It would be quite difficult to create and then substantiate any one encompassing and appropriate meaning; so we must settle, grudgingly, for the closest contextual approximation we can get. Then perhaps the broadest, yet closest of several unsatisfying alternatives would be the French fin de siècle. While literally meaning “end of the century,” (Encyclopaedia Britannica) it took as its own the end of the 19th century in particular, talking of the “literary and artistic climate of sophistication, escapism, extreme aestheticism, world-weariness and fashionable despair.”(Britannica) Thus we already see that the movement has rejected the Kierkegaardian idea of will to meaning in favour of the more ‘fashionable’ Freud’s pleasure principle, i.e. submitting to the id and seeking instant gratification instead of using the ego for delayed gratification (what Freud calls the reality principle) in the longer term.

But what then separates the Decadent from the hedonist? The two are definitely not mutually exclusive, and scope of overlap or indeed, complete absorption is quite possible. It is difficult to fully outline parameters, especially with there being so many schools of hedonistic thought. Can we define Decadence as another school of hedonism? Possibly. Because while it shows definite traits of something between Epicureanism (as the Britannica describes it, “devotion to pleasure, comfort and high living, with a certain nicety of style.”) and a derivative of John Stuart Mill’s school of Utilitarianism (as separation of pleasures into higher and lower qualities but with the marked absence of morality as a ‘higher’ pleasure, or indeed as a pleasure), it has a marked and problematic blend of aestheticism. The love of beauty and pleasure derived through it is solely and wholly propounded by Decadence both as an ideology as well as a movement within the structure of hedonism.

Whether it is to pronounce or denounce the very crucial attitude of the fin-de-siecle, which was the effective heart of the Decadent ideology, the first issue of The Art Critic, dated 1893, expounds that it is “A meaningless phrase, not new, but lately suggestive of everything new and odd … All, young or old, regardless of colour, creed and sex, who rush head over heels with new ideas towards the 20th century are hommes et femmes fin de siecle … They are a set of young men, dreamers and visionaries … Some are imbeciles but masters of technique, others philosophers but botchers … There is in them a confusion of suppressed ideas, impulses, sardonic smiles, narcotic dreams, chronic mental catarrhs, ascetic efforts, godlike ideas, and the most absurd eccentricities and mannerisms which hurt (Winckelmanniac aesthetics) like the electric light in our eyes.

They indulge in an adoration of the nude in life and art, they are introducing a new religious worship, and make the boldest investigations into all sciences, and, in particular, in psycho-physiology.

And to what end? To wipe away the inconsistent theories of the past, to nail all great men of times gone by to the cross of judgement, to find out whether they are Christlike or like Dysmas and (Gestas).

They will no longer allow systems of philosophy and great literary works to be developed from a certain fundamental idea, supposed ‘infallible’ by one auguring mind.

They want everything – mud and diamonds, the slightest suggestion of a thought as well as sublime actions that benefit all mankind.” (p. 9)

There is, then, a very conscious and conspicuous desire for consumption in the mind of the ‘ideal’ Decadent. And since we are thinking of consumption as a culture, we could quite easily call it ‘consumerism’, although the term had not been defined in the sense used until 1960. Thorstein Veblen, however, was quite prophetic when he described something he called “conspicuous consumption” in The Theory of the Leisure Class: An Economic Study in the Evolution of Institutions as (among other points) “a means of reputability to the gentleman of leisure.” (p. 53) It is, in fact, an entire system of careful construction that prioritizes an aesthetic nature to non-essential consumption which necessitates leisure as a direct causative factor for the same.

“You don’t make much money, do you?”: Evolution of Decadence through the Economy

Extrapolating upon and also reducing Veblen’s argument about the creation of this ‘leisure class’, the beneficiaries of the two major Industrial Revolutions were the upwardly-mobile bourgeoisie and the aristocracy/peerage, who were able to use their financial clout to rise above, to control and invest in, as it were, the advent of mechanization and the consequent decrease in employment in various sectors of what was previously exclusively human labour. As Randall Stevenson very validly states in A Reader’s Guide to The Twentieth-Century Novel in Britain, “the affluence fostered by the Industrial Revolution … was neither justly distributed nor obviously directed by commitment to anything other than further extension of itself.” (p. 17) This statement does not limit itself to just the Industrial Revolution of Britain, but could easily be transposed onto the scientific boom of Restoration-era America, innovation being fostered by the rise of Industry (for the development of the railways) and Charles Sanders Pierce’s redefinition of the scientific method. Then, because there exists this class whose income did not entirely or directly depend upon the time and effort put into (and the term is used very loosely) manual labour, alternative activities to fill out their waking hours generally took the shape of consumption in one form or the other.

In Gatsby, Jay Gatsby himself plays that role, although it seems far less starkly apparent when one considers that he does have a foil to his obscene wealth in the form of Tom Buchanan, who is of ‘old money’ and has an upper hand in their dynamics by being married to Daisy, whom Gatsby holds as an ideal to strive for. Important to Fitzgerald’s critique of modern America, Gatsby is of the belief (and correctly) that the only way to do this was through the acquisition of wealth. The dynamics of Gatsby’s interpersonal relationships with Tom and Daisy as well as the obscenity of wealth are discussed later in the paper. It is similarly crucial that Gatsby remains far wealthier than narrator Nick Carraway for Fitzgerald to make a perspectival commentary on the increasingly capitalistic nature of the American Dream. As Fitzgerald’s friend and editor Maxwell Perkins wrote in a letter reproduced in Dear Scott/Dear Max: The Fitzgerald-Perkins Correspondence, “You adopted exactly the right method of telling it, that of employing a narrator who is more of a spectator than an actor: this puts the reader upon a point of observation on a higher level than that on which the characters stand and at a distance that gives perspective.” (p. 143, found, Gatsby p. 225)

The important aspect to piece together through Nick’s unobtrusive reporting and commentary of this particular power struggle is the dichotomous unease between old and new money that was intrinsically linked with societal polemic of the period in question. At a time known as the ‘Progressive Era’, the end of the 19th century was when America was, in effect, ‘re-colonized’, with millions of immigrants pouring in from all over Europe and her colonies in search of a better life. A time when immigrant laws were much freer than what we see today, there existed a benevolent ‘Americanization’ movement which which, as Wikipedia states, was “a nationwide organized effort in the 1910s to bring millions of recent immigrants into the American cultural system.” This is crucial in remembering the origin of the Meyer Wolfsheims and self-centred Ewing Klipspringers who become so symbolically integral (in a myriad of ways) in the life of Jay Gatsby. It may actually be argued that ‘un-American’ (in the most literal sense of second-wave immigrants) influences degraded James Gatz’s ideal of ‘Jay Gatsby’ into nothing more than a fabulously wealthy bootlegger. Especially in the light of Gatz’s transformative spark being brought about through his ‘mentor’, eccentric millionaire and debaucher Dan Cody. At this point, it would be an interesting stray thread to note that the name ‘Cody’ comes from the Irish for “one who is helpful.” (Wiktionary)

A very classist society had already been well established by then, and though there were several upheavals through the twin Panics of 1873 and 1893, the basic tenets and class structure came out largely unaffected. Importantly, though, the 1873 Panic had destabilized Britain’s economic superiority while leaving the United States comparatively less ravaged. The continuation of this shift in economic muscle into the 20th century is quietly but effectively touched upon in the description of one of Gatsby’s ridiculously ostentatious parties, where Fitzgerald notes through Nick Carraway the presence of a “number of Englishmen dotted about; all well dressed, all looking a little hungry, and all talking in low, earnest voices to solid and prosperous Americans … they were selling something: bonds or insurance or automobiles. They were at least agonizingly aware of the easy money in the vicinity and convinced that it was theirs for a few words in the right key.” (p. 32) But the wealth and general sense of la dolce vita only served to mask much deeper problems of greed and corruption. The last three decades of the 19th century in the United States had been appropriately christened by Mark Twain and Charles Dudley Warner as ‘The Gilded Age’ through their novel of the same name.

Those who managed to hold on to their money through these twin Panics form the base of Gatsby’s ‘antagonists’, Tom Buchanan and complicit but unknowing, his wife Daisy. Sneering and deeply suspicious of the nouveau riche Gatsby, Tom makes enquiries into his background, but that is more out of insecurity and the classist fear of letting “Mr. Nobody from Nowhere make love to your wife.” (p. 96) Nick’s positioning here is once again essential, being much poorer than his cousin, who had married someone with wealth even greater than what she was normally accustomed to. It is crucial here to note the alienation of such conspicuous consumers to the working class. Nick enjoys Tom and Daisy’s interest in his marriage prospects if only because it “made them seem less remotely rich.” (p. 17)

“Remotely rich” becomes an important state of being in the eyes of the abnormally ordinary Nick Carraway, thanks to his position in the narrative as a “spectator.” But when we are treated to his intermittent streams of consciousness, Nick’s thoughts often serve to cruelly undercut and indeed satirize the actions and the aura of the leisure class. An understated but powerful example of this would be when Nick was reluctantly taken to meet Tom’s mistress, a woman married to a service station owner by the name of Wilson. It is notable how unabashedly surprised Nick seems in his thoughts at the poverty Tom’s mistress lived in when not in his company. What makes it even more interesting is how the sheen of luxury that Nick has seen over the entirety of Tom and Daisy’s life, makes him wonder if this poverty, simply by its association as an appendage of Tom’s life, is actually a façade. He almost convinces himself “that this shadow of a garage must be a blind, and that sumptuous and romantic apartments were concealed overhead.” (p. 19)

But a second experience with the remoteness of the rich which serves to establish a binary for Nick personally when Gatsby talks to him in private one night, offering him a job. Earlier in the day, Jordan Baker had told Nick the story of Gatsby and his cousin Daisy and how he desired a meeting with her and wondered if Tom could arrange for it. As tactlessly as Daisy desires to fling he and Jordan together, Gatsby asks, him, fumbling a little, “why, look here, old sport, you don’t make much money, do you?” When Nick confirms this, it “seemed to reassure him and he continued more confidently.” Gatsby goes on to offer him a job in one of his side businesses which he assures Nick will be very monetarily rewarding. What Gatsby does fail to see in his disconnect with this fast disappearing class of honest worker is how transparent his motives are. Nick expounds, not out loud, “that under different circumstances that conversation might have been one of the crises of my life. But, because the offer was obviously and tactlessly for a service to be rendered, I had no choice except to cut him off there.” (p. 62)

Gatsby’s disconnect with Nick in this instance uncomfortably mirrors the power dynamics between Tom and Wilson, the service station owner. There is the obvious sense of the rich looking down on the working class, but because they are mirror images, some aspects are necessarily inverted. So where we see Tom acutely aware of his power over Wilson, toying with the idea of not selling him his car for cheap, we also see Gatsby genuinely disconnected with the psyche of someone like Nick; understandable when one considers that in Gatsby’s line of ‘work’, everyone is only looking for easy, quick money and in large amounts. As a corollary, for Wilson’s desperation to get his hands on the car to fulfil much smaller and more immediate dreams than Tom could or would comprehend, there is Nick with his high principles, refusing a job which he feels was insultingly (though genuinely) offered, despite conceding the job might have changed his life ha it been offered any other way. (p. 62)

“Torturously, fashionably and keeping in the corners”: The Society of Decadence

Now that American Decadence has been given an economic backdrop for the complicated evolution that gives us a figure like Gatsby and the making of American class structure, it is necessary to develop Transatlanticism as a movement of untold importance to the development of Gatsby. The turn of the 19th century, sprawling into the beginning of the 20th is generally accepted as the time of Transatlanticism at its cultural crisis, especially through the preamble to and in the wake of the Great War. European attraction to the New World had begun even earlier, though. It was in the middle of the 19th century, around the time of the railway boom in the wake of the American Civil War, but this again was for the labour class. One could see the last few immigrants of the Western European countries and Britain trickling in, but these new immigrants were mostly unskilled labourers from the Mediterranean region and from Central Europe.

It is a more immiscible interaction that takes place between the Americans and the British when the wave of Transatlanticism hits hardest through World War I. The earlier, established dichotomy was that of America as being a place of untold wealth and opportunity while Europe (Britain in particular, being an English speaking nation) was thought to be a place of rich culture and educative ability. Both ideas were superficially strengthened by the influx of American soldiers on the Continent and the British Isles during the Great War, and, to a lesser extent, the few British soldiers who had to go the other way to the New World. The impression is effectively ratified when Gatsby claims to be “born in America but educated at Oxford” (p. 49) and when Nick sees concrete evidence for the same, his opinion of Gatsby his changes for the better in spite of knowing very little about him. Most of Nick’s information up to this point was hearsay. Gatsby sets about telling him the story of his life (severally false, as we are to find out later) in Chapter Five, but when this crucial point of his education is ratified through a photograph Gatsby Shows Nick of his Oxford days, he automatically updates the other ‘good’ things Gatsby says about himself to be equally, almost necessarily true. (p. 50)

However, one cannot altogether discount the desire for ancestral establishment Gatsby shows when he adds “all my ancestors have been educated there for many years. It is a family tradition.” (p. 50) With that addition and the shifty glance he gives Nick, we realize that Gatsby is acutely aware of his societal position as not quite anywhere in the social strata, caught in between. So while several, possibly including many of old money, do attend and enjoy his lavish parties, not many would accept him as part of their decadent upper class. In fact, many do not restrain themselves from rumour mongering at the parties themselves. Notably, at his very first party, Nick hears that Gatsby “killed a man once” or “was a German spy during the war.” (p. 33) and later, that “He’s a bootlegger,” else “One time he killed a man who found out that he was nephew to von Hindenburg and second cousin to the devil.” (p. 46) This was because no one quite knew what exactly was the business of Jay Gatsby. As Fitzgerald puts it quite unequivocally, “Gatsby’s notoriety, spread about by the hundreds who had accepted his hospitality and so become authorities on his past, had increased all summer until he fell just short of being news. Contemporary legends such as the ‘underground pipe-line to Canada’ [through which alcohol was supposedly smuggled into the United States] attached themselves to him,” (p. 73) leaving no doubt about the wave of curiosity left in his wake.

But views of morality or a moral order have been depicted as curiously liberal, almost amoral when it comes to high society transgression. While everyone speculated about Gatsby’s doings, however fantastic or illegal, no one quite judged. This amorality extends to not only the public face and what one did to earn their daily bread, but also into the private and personal, into the sphere of sexuality and sexual transgression. Considering the Puritan history of the East Coast, there is mordant irony in Nick’s calm point of view, where he believes “the fact that he [Tom] had ‘some woman in New York’ was really less surprising than that he had been depressed by a book.” (p. 17) This relaxed but undeniable presence of sexuality had already been established by the easygoing, often naïve Daisy deciding to “arrange a marriage” between Nick and her friend Jordan Baker where she would “sort of – oh – fling you together. You know – lock you up accidentally in linen closets and push you out to sea in a boat, all that sort of thing –” (p. 16), showing an astounding lack of tact as host to both Jordan and Nick, who were strangers at the time.

In some ways, depicting such plainly accepted sexual liberty of the leisure class, with their obsessive desire to possess and consume, is a comment upon the growth of flapper culture as an embracing of aestheticism as well as a general relaxation of what could only be described as very Victorian codes of moral conduct, i.e. “devotion to plain-living, hard work and religion.” (Wikipedia) A microcosmic symbol of this shift in the American lifestyle is unobtrusively slipped into the fixed setting of Tom’s nonchalantly adulterous affair with Mrs. Wilson in his apartment in New York. On the table there lay a book called Simon Called Peter. A best-seller in 1921, the story is of an army chaplain who “becomes involved in a series of passionate affairs.” (“Explanatory Notes”, p. 136) The ironic Biblical reference to Simon Peter, the first Pope of the Catholic Church is unmissably blatant. Even in his role as a neutral commentator, Fitzgerald cannot help symbolizing this shift to a decadent, consumeristic way of life, bankrolled by industry, and backed by the right to Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness that is to become as intrinsically American in the Roaring Twenties as the ubiquitous flapper.

“Redolent of orchids and pleasant, cheerful snobbery”: Daisy as a Woman of Decadence

The flapper is arguably the crux of The Great Gatsby, the reason behind the transformation of James Gatz and central to Nick Carraway’s documentation of what turns out to be the last few months of Gatsby’s life. His cousin Daisy is the woman in question, and the tenets of flapper culture in the face of older, more Victorian values of virtue, constancy and domesticity is how Gatsby moves forward, in a violent struggle by a patriarchy forced to embrace a sudden, proto-feminist modernity brought about by economic prosperity, suffragette and a disdain for the Prohibition. It was certainly not easy to accept by those used to and desiring the continuation of traditional gender roles, like Tom, who suspiciously tells Nick after Gatsby has told him that he knows Daisy, “I may be old-fashioned in my ideas, but women run around too much these days to suit me.” (p. 77) Nor for Gatsby, who is thwarted in his intention of making Daisy confess to Tom that she had never loved him, because he is unable to comprehend the possibility of Daisy actually having loved Tom Buchanan simply because they had resumed a forgotten relationship, rather, a relationship she had forgotten. Gatsby wants “nothing less of Daisy than she should go to Tom and say: ‘I never loved you.’ ” Fitzgerald immediately underlines the ludicrousness of this desire when he impersonally states that “After she had obliterated four years with that sentence they could decide upon the more practical measures to be taken.” (p. 82)

Gatsby does not refuse to, but actually cannot comprehend that Daisy might be leading a different life from five years ago, that her sensibilities might not be as rigid as the older Gatsby’s, that she might not be stuck with an ideal of him because her life was continually filled with varied distractions, some of which might not hold her interest but all of which serve to move her on with time and in a linear fashion. Gatsby, on the other hand, idealizing his time with Daisy during the war, holds fast on to a cyclical movement of time, much against the grain of contemporary society, which is being pushed inevitably further forward. When Nick, the cautiously neutral spectator, suggests that Gatsby cannot repeat the past, he is treated with genuine incredulity but also a fearful edge as he “looked around wildly, as if the past were lurking here in the shadow of his house, just out of reach of his hand.” (p. 82) In his essay Prosperity’s Child: Some Thoughts on the Flapper, Kenneth Yellis agrees that “The flapper’s aesthetic ideal was motion, her characteristics were intensity, energy, volatility.” (American Quarterly, vol. 21 no. 1 p. 44) Gatsby’s inability to accept Daisy’s modernity in the face of a static ideal is what ultimately leads to the breaking of his ideal when Daisy tearfully proclaims, “I did love him once – but I loved you too.” (p. 92)

In that dizzying seventh chapter, it must be realized that all of Gatsby’s fear as well as Tom’s is born of Daisy’s active acceptance of everything as an option, as a possibility, even the possibility of her cousin being in love with her. (p. 64) Daisy’s role as the sexually liberated flapper juxtaposed with Tom as one extreme of masculinity and wealth, the moneyed, entitled chauvinist and Gatsby as the other, nouveau riche, anachronistic idealist. Not only does her acceptance of loving them both immediately destabilize any patriarchal sense of control in the name of ‘love’ for the both of them, this entire interaction immediately becomes representative of a far deeper issue smouldering at the time.

The flapper as the symbol of a decadent and reactionary modernity outraged sentiment and fuelled debate like few other societal issues of the early 20th century. Yellis, speaking about the late 19th century ideal of the maternal and wifely woman and the emergent flappers, states that “The thoroughness of the difference between the two images is remarkable in view of the short time that separates their ascendancies.” (“Prosperity’s Child,” Quarterly, p. 45) Perhaps therein lies the problem, of the flapper in particular and perhaps of modernity in general, that the change was too sudden. Perhaps the question was one of pace. It is generally observable that for a new modernity to be deemed (mostly) inoffensive, it has to evolve over a stretch of time.

Perhaps most uncomfortable for Gatsby and Tom, and therefore, for the wide patriarchal spectrum, is the sense of helplessness in the face of Daisy’s modernity. Yellis insightfully states that during this time, the flapper was “merely ‘yielding to normal human impulses.’” He goes on to say that “It became clear, too, that Eve was not willing to take the rap for the unclean thoughts aroused in men’s minds.” This becomes a modernity that becomes difficult to take at the time as, in Yellis’ words, “What was being challenged and defended was the Victorian-American conception of sexuality and the roles of men and women with respect to each other and to society. Primarily a middle-class code, it was at least the acknowledged general standard. It held men to be the aggressor, women the endurer in sex and in other activities … It was a two-edged as well as a ‘double’ standard, allotting to men all the liberties and prerogatives, but stigmatizing them as less moral creatures than women.” (“Prosperity’s Child,” Quarterly, p. 47) The change of this acknowledged order becomes too much for the patriarchy to take too soon. And one cannot help but think that Fitzgerald bows to societal normativity when Daisy’s desire to leave Tom for Gatsby is broken by Tom’s revelation that Gatsby’s wealth was largely through illegal means. (p. 99) However, it could well have been a simple economic and societal consideration on Daisy’s part, as Tom would most likely have gone after and cracked down on Gatsby’s businesses had she actually left him. This remains a mystery which may never reach a satisfactory conclusion.

“Something made him turn away from the window”: The grotesque in Gatsby

The grotesque in English literature as a literary technique to “induce empathy and disgust” can be traced as far back as works like Gulliver’s Travels if not further. The Decadent literary movement, however, grasped the grotesque with the intention of creating what GK Chesterton calls Mooreeffoc, which is coffee room spelt backwards (“viewed from inside through a glass door, as it was seen by Dickens on a dark London day”) and denotes, as expounded by J.R.R. Tolkien in his essay On Fairy-Stories, “the queerness of things that have become trite, when they are seen suddenly from a new angle.” It is not for nothing that Fitzgerald makes the description of the area between two havens, New York and West Egg unusually depressing. “This is a valley of ashes – a fantastic farm where ashes grow like wheat into ridges and hills and grotesque gardens; where ashes take the forms of houses and chimneys and rising smoke … The valley of ashes is bounded on one side by a small foul river, and, when the drawbridge is up to let barges through, the passengers on waiting trains can stare at the dismal scene for as long as half an hour.” (p. 18) This is distinctly incongruous in a very impressively neutral narrative, almost free of affect in most of its descriptions.

It is very possible, as Fitzgerald seems to use this technique repeatedly in the course of the novel, that the objective of the unusual, if not the outright grotesque, is to pave the way for something he uses in close conjunction, the vulgar, often seguing naturally into the repugnant. The vulgar and repugnant in this instance is personified by Tom’s mistress, Mrs. Myrtle Wilson. She stands as a litmus test of sensibility and sensitivity on the reader’s part when out of her role as John Wilson’s wife, gallivanting through New York with Tom. She is loud and brash and self-centred without any demure confidence to offset it. She puts on affect in her episodic high society cameos with Tom Buchanan. Through Nick’s quiet commentary, it is clear that she is a woman quite intoxicated with the elevation of status, economic if nothing more, in Tom’s company. His insensitivity to the situation as well as hers is narrated second-hand, but with unmistakable distaste by Nick when he informs us that Tom’s “acquaintances resented the fact that he turned up in popular restaurants with her and, leaving her at a table, sauntered about, chatting with whomsoever he knew.” (p. 18)

Myrtle Wilson is representative of a vulgarity offensive to the necessarily elevated senses of a decadent upper class, but becomes problematic to Tom in particular who takes a sincerely aesthetic pleasure in her. The dichotomy between the vulgar and aesthetic is one which Tom has to resign himself to and tread carefully on when in Mrs. Wilson’s company. However, the symptomatic violence of having to deal with this dichotomy, as seen when Tom breaks her nose with an open handed slap leads one to believe that this division is essentially unconquerable.

As the certain corollary, the vulgarity and obscenity of Myrtle Wilson’s being is underlined in the grotesqueness of her death. Fitzgerald describes the scene impressing upon us a sense of the grotesque once again. “Myrtle Wilson, her life violently extinguished, knelt in the road and mingled her thick dark blood with the dust … when they had torn open her shirtwaist, still damp with perspiration, they saw that her left breast was swinging loose like a flap, and there was no need to listen for the heart beneath. The mouth was wide open and ripped at the corners, as though she had choked a little in giving up the tremendous vitality she had stored so long.” (p. 102) Curiously enough, the scene of the death is at the very place we were first made aware of the grotesque in the novel, near Wilson’s service station.

However, after Gatsby’s death as the conclusion of this sorry affair, we see that Tom, for all his wealth and standing, is as intrinsically vulgar, bordering on obscene, in his own way. As he explains himself for making Wilson believe that it was Gatsby who had killed Mrs. Wilson, and thus leading the man to shoot Gatsby in his pool before shooting himself dead, his argument comes out as childishly obscene as a defensive argument could be. His simple justification was that he too had suffered seeing a reminder of his mistress in the box of dog biscuits up in the New York apartment. His unabashed acceptance of his regular infidelity aside, he seems to believe that directing Wilson to Gatsby with the knowledge that he would be shot dead was quid pro quo for the accidental death of Myrtle.

Nick’s understandable disgust is tinged with a sense of revelation when he realizes the cause of this sort of vulgarity. It was simply that “They were careless people, Tom and Daisy – they smashed up things and creatures and then retreated back into their money or their vast carelessness, or whatever it was that kept them together, and let other people clean up the mess they had made…” (pp. 132-133) The cyclical nature of their vulgarity is seemingly incurable as well as intolerable to Nick, who, after faithfully chronicling his entire experience with Gatsby right up to his death, seems to find comfort only in a return to his Midwestern roots.


The Great Gatsby, while remaining a powerful critique of the American Dream and the allure of the Almighty Dollar, has several dimensions of resignation and acceptance of the same as the modernity of the Roaring Twenties. The transatlantic nature of decadence as a hedonistic and aesthetic ideology becomes impossibly alluring to an increasingly consumeristic and choice-based lifestyle being led by the upper-class Americans, eventually to trickle down to the lower classes. The money that is undoubtedly necessary to fuel this sort of debauchery is rarely mentioned explicitly but has a perennial presence and is the underlying motive force of Gatsby’s quest.

However, once James Gatz reaches his ideal conception of himself (worked with Daisy being held as the object of desire, the reward), Jay Gatsby fails to win Daisy as he was fighting the force of a modernity far larger than himself yet borne out of the efforts of many very like him. His casual spending may be quite the trend, but after having given rise to the flapper, Gatsby was unable to comprehend that his psyche was still stuck in that idealized past. His failure was wholly due to his inability to be modern and decadent in a more internal aspect than simply throwing his innumerable gaudy parties. And so does Fitzgerald too concede that this remains a problem constant and universal with his powerful closing line, “So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.” (p. 134)