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ENGLISH
Asked by Cristina

To what extent do you agree that an obsession with the pursuit of wealth and consumer culture of the 1920's dominates human thinking and behaviour in The Great Gatsby?

In F. Scott Fitzgerald’s ‘The Great Gatsby’ an obsession with the pursuit of wealth and consumer culture dominates the thinking and behaviour of the major characters so thoroughly that their objects of affection are reduced to material commodities and love, a traditionally noble emotion, becomes expressed through the language of avarice and advertisement. The teleological progression of the plot towards a conclusion culminating in death works in concert with Fitzgerald’s descriptions of material wealth to suggest the consumerist obsession of this era has dominated human thinking and behaviour. In the process the very tenets of Thomas Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence are desecrated. In ‘The Great Gatsby’ the American Dream of equal opportunity for all and prosperity earned through hard work is transmuted into a consumerist ideology whereby Gatsby’s living is acquired through criminal bootlegging, and ‘liberty’, and the ‘pursuit of happiness’, have become a series of choices about which shirts to buy and cars to ride in, as exemplified by Myrtle’s shopping sprees, Gatsby’s clothing and his ostentatious yellow station wagon. Fitzgerald’s depiction of Daisy’s behaviour at Gatsby’s house makes it clear that her love is conditioned by the objects of this spent wealth. After finally being reunited with her lost love, in place of a demonstration of deep-set emotion for Gatsby himself, is an outburst over the liberal material wealth he has acquired. As Daisy sobs over how beautiful his clothes are Gatsby is metonymically substituted by his British silk shirt collection. This interaction indicates that consumer culture has not only dominated human behaviour but has eclipsed human emotion. Further evidence of Daisy’s obsession with the consumer culture of the 1920s is suggested by the instance in which Daisy makes her love for Gatsby explicit. Whilst Nick’s narration makes it clear that the words are interpreted as ‘I love you’, it is actually expressed through far less endearing terms as a comment on his appearance: ‘You always look so cool […] like the man in the advertisement.’ Her paramour and the emotion she feels towards him has been objectified to the point where Gatsby is the mere sum of his shirts, covetable ‘look’, and resemblance to a form of marketing. Love is consistently fashioned and shaped by less than noble desires throughout the novel. The economically challenged Myrtle’s obsession with Tom’s ‘dress suit and patent leather shoes’ and Gatsby’s early infatuation with Daisy’s beautiful house contributes to the impression that an obsession with the pursuit of wealth and consumer culture of the 1920s dominates human thinking and behaviour in ‘The Great Gatsby’. This is most apparent in Fitzgerald’s descriptions which pay detailed attention to the material objects and markers of wealth over delineations of the characters themselves: the image of the ‘Great’ Gatsby and many of the characters’ remains out of focus. He is a figure composed of a commercial smile, elaborate pink suits and an array of silk shirts whilst his height and the colour of his eyes and hair remain undetailed. Through this use of metonymy Fitzgerald demonstrates that human perception has been filtered by a lens which automatically commodifies the object of affection. This warped thinking and consumerist obsession has been deemed by critics such as Louis Tyson as the cause of dysfunction within the interpersonal relationships depicted. The trajectory of the relationships founded on a desire for wealth and splendour such as between Daisy and Gatsby and Myrtle and Tom all evidently end in dissolution. The death of Myrtle by means of Gatsby’s ‘gorgeous’ yellow station wagon further corroborates with this interpretation, as it effectively emblematises the extremity of the American consumerist obsession of the 1920's as the ‘unalienable right’ to the ‘preservation of life’ is breached in a graphic collision of human life with the most recognisable symbol of the titular character’s affluence. Through his sartorial descriptions and the structuring of the denouement with a fatal car accident by the driver of a luxurious vehicle Fitzgerald effectively highlights how far an obsession with the pursuit of material wealth shapes human thinking and behaviour in his portrayal of 1920's America.   

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Alex Childs
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