Personal Values in the Social Setting in The Great Gatsby, a Novel by F. Scott Fitzgerald

The human psyche is a rather contradictory creature. It can be predictable in when it will express its ideologies, but is sporadic with the subject matter it chooses to dwell upon. To better explain this concept, think of it as a typical high society party-going citizen. If they’re gathered up with men and women of a similar social class in one expensively furnished room, one of them is guaranteed to share at least one personal thought to the others. Who can tell what unforeseen thoughts will jump from their mind- a casual opinion on a passersby, a criticism of the five star hotel down the road, or some wild eugenics conspiracy that they read about the other day. Of course that last one may have been a tad extreme, but it doesn’t stray too far from the moral line of the society in The Great Gatsby that has somehow dropped so low that it may as well have just gone through the floor in some chapters.

From cover to cover F. Scott Fitzgerald’s work is described and recollected through the eyes of Nick, who at most times is simply an introverted guest or accessory to the conversations between most of the main characters, which range from intimate and close quartered settings to heaping crowds of party-goers or roaming citizens. This spectator’s seat draws attention to a correlation between the settings and conversations: In tightly knit social scenes characters are more likely to express their personal values, whereas in larger social scenes like parties societal values are more commonly expressed.

Social settings in The Great Gatsby are abundant yet hardly diverse. The funeral and the scene of Mrs. Wilson’s death are the two most unique scenes as far as the emotions carried out within them and the overall setting. Outside of the persistent realm of jovial partying, Tom’s overabundant angst towards the end of the novel, and the everlasting sense of pure irritation Nick retains in almost every social encounter, the funeral offers a major sense of vulnerability for Nick in which he feels the new sensation of true sorrow for Gatsby for the first time.

Then, Mrs. Wilson’s site of death is what brings out not only the murderous and self destructive rage in Mr. Wilson, but the traumatic inner turmoil for Tom knowing that his other love has died while his remaining one slips away with a mysterious stranger. This is not to say that the abundant parties and friendly conversations lack a true sense of ideology and meaning, because there’s room for social commentary in something as simple as a two man conversation to a mansion-wide party.

While the character Tom isn’t necessarily the main character, he’s a fine example of the difference in values in relation to where he is and whom he’s with. When Nick is in a close group with Tom, usually consisting of Jordan and Daisy as well, Tom starts to let his own personal ideology unravel. It begins casually in the earlier stages of the novel, in the line “Civilization’s going to pieces,’ broke out Tom violently. I’ve gotten to be a terrible pessimist about things…” (17). Now you don’t really see this sort of behavior when Tom is at a large party, like when he attends one of Gatsby’s lavish parties with Daisy shortly after the tension begins to build between he and Gatsby. Instead, we see this type of opinionated rambling appear when he’s among the people he considers trustworthy of his social commentary.

Later on in the novel, Tom’s inner paranoia turns into an outlandish outburst when he remarks that “Nowadays people begin by sneering at family life and family institutions and next they’ll throw everything overboard and have intermarriage between black and white.” (137). While it’s not exactly reflective of one hundred percent of the societal values of the 1920’s, any history book can tell you that any year before the 1970’s was a fairly bad year for America’s diversity principles, so it’s safe to say that Tom is capable of displaying societal values in the story.

Fitzgerald chose to make Tom reveal these values in the intimate social settings because it creates a sort of spectating perspective in which the wealthier characters in the novel let their “secrets” and “honest opinions” flourish for what they think is a moment of real trust and understanding, while Nick is fully aware that the characters’ egos are so over-inflated that they aren’t profound in the slightest. The moral constrictions are looser, and somehow the standards for sophistication are lost between the wealthy high society demands of maintaining an image and the million dollar dinner parties that rave on every night- so it certainly lets the rich man feel like a philosopher when he takes a momentary break between horseback riding and buying out businesses to vent what’s really on his mind. The abhorrent lack of concern for how crude their own values are become more and more negatively characterized as Nick strays away from his initial role as the reserved attendant.

One of the very first lines in the book is Nick’s description of himself as “inclined to reserve all judgements” (5), which is clearly seen resigning as Nick becomes more and more flustered by the ignorance and stupidity of those around him. He took to writing a list of estranged attendants one summer, he had initiative to keep Gatsby in line when he started to panic over Daisy, he even had the audacity to denounce Jordan’s driving and warning her “Either you ought to be more careful or you oughtn’t to drive at all” (63). Nick is one of the only characters in the book to let his mild mannered side argue reasoning in the novel, or really indicate that he has a proper set of principles. All the other characters are perfect examples of hypocrisy, cheating, greed, lying, and finally ignorance.

Even Gatsby is no exception, failing to comprehend the shallowness of Daisy’s love won only by who is the most wealthy. These misconstrued values flourish among the wealthier main characters in the novel without any of the characters seeing their own flaws. Even ditzy Daisy finds Tom’s interest in the minority majority trends to be a sign that he’s “getting very profound,” (17), validating his less than extraordinary opinions are only interesting because their lives are lacking in true depth and are only filled with the senseless and monotonous festivities they shower themselves with.

While they may not be as dense as that last note may have bitterly insinuated, there are definitely flaws to be found in the morals of The Great Gatsby’s common crowd. To find our typical subject, we look to one of the hundreds of party guests scurrying about Gatsby’s mansion during any of Nick’s visits. In these very widely attended social scenes with numerous visitors within earshot, visitors commonly spout rumors about Gatsby like “Somebody told me they thought he killed a man once.” (48) Now, who can notice what’s wrong with this picture? Not only is there the sheer inconsideracy behind suggesting someone murdered someone, but there’s also the fact that this is based on something that someone thought. That’s a vague assumption made by somebody so incredulous they’re deemed just someone, to put it bluntly. There’s no worse indicator of a corrupted society than values that make that happen on multiple occasions; furthermore, it just so happens the next example comes from none other than loveable Tom with the caustic remark: “I didn’t hear it. I imagined it.

A lot of these newly rich people are just big bootleggers, you know.” (114) Gatsby hasn’t even confessed his past with Daisy and yet Tom proceeds to play the pot calling the kettle black. Gatsby is absolutely mysterious by the means in which he gained his precarious fortunes, but Tom is more wealthy than the vast majority of the party attendees, and is still out to make a fiend of this man generous enough to allow literally anybody into his home.

Although it’s not quite as jovial of a scene as Gatsby’s final parties, Mrs. Wilson’s demise is a crucial social scene that it’s a time of genuine sorrow for some of Fitzgerald’s characters. While they’re background thoughts are conveyed throughout the novel in an off and on sort of manner in a variety of local party spots, this is a time when the spotlight emotion has just shifted from steaming rage to agonizing tragedy with one fatal incident. Two characters are immediately broken and the world around them starts to show some of their less wild values. Human life and well being is given a tremendous rise in attention when Wilson goes into his spiral of depression and desperation.

Michaelis was more than a guard to Wilson’s well being, he was a genuinely concerned friend- as made clear by the lines “You ought to have a church, George, for times like this. You must have gone to a church once. Didn’t you get married at a church?” (165) and “You’re morbid, George. This has been a strain to you and you don’t know what you’re saying. You’d better try and sit quiet till morning.” (166). The mood of that setting brought out the first signs of genuine attempts to help another human being, something unseen in the promiscuous values of the majority of characters. The sheer fact that he “hurried back to the garage” (168) after four hours of sleep shows a genuine concern for Wilson’s well-being and uncontrollable delirium that only the smaller bit of society can value in the roaring 20’s.

In the end, The Great Gatsby and F. Scott Fitzgerald teach the reader an incredibly valuable lesson through the values of its fabricated society: There are no values worth adopting. Fitzgerald’s astounding writing addresses the sad fact that in the end, life is full of rude people, terrible tragedies, and times where absolutely nobody wins. It’s a cynical remark, but it’s what makes The Great Gatsby so relatable in a unique way. It’s one of the very few books that honestly understands that sometimes life can be cruel and unforgiving, and there’s no other choice than to cope with what’s been given. Money is not a mask for woes, money cannot buy happiness. Money, in Fitzgerald’s perfect actualization of wealthy life in the 20’s, is simply a means of bottling up your turmoil with a well decorated house to hide it in.

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