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In The Great Gatsby Fitzgerald’s characters present attitudes and values which allow readers to sympathise with their situations. With reference to appropriate episodes and external info about attitudes and values for 20th and 21st century readers, give your response.
This statement suggests that readers (both nowadays and in the 1920s) would be able to sympathise with the attitudes and values of Fitzgerald’s characters. It is possible to agree with this statement because there are several characters whom the readers can identify with throughout, but others may disagree, claiming the values are too archaic for the 21st century reader.
In examining the attitudes and values presented, a good place to start is attitudes to money.
Readers from any generation will be able to sympathise with Gatsby and his obsessive drive for wealth. Gatsby idolises the rich, as Nick records: “the yacht represented all the beauty and glamour in the world.” This rampant materialism causes him to believe that money is the single most important factor in achieving his dreams.
Without money there is, “indiscernible barbed wire,” between him and his ambitions. In many ways this mirrors our current 21st century culture, where the rich continue to get richer while the poor are left behind. Gatsby’s attitudes and values surrounding money allow readers to sympathise with his situation.
The attitudes towards money from readers in the 20th and 21st centuries are similar. In the 1920s society had just come out of the economic hardships of war and people had disposable income for the first time in over a decade.
Many Americans had extra money to spend, and they spent it on consumer goods such as ready-to-wear clothes and home appliances like electric refrigerators. The advertising industry boomed and enticed people to spend even more money, encouraging a culture of materialism. This culture has prevailed to this day. Modern readers are also coming out of economic hardship, although it was caused by recession and not war. Britain spends £20 billion a year on the advertising industry alone. Therefore readers are able to sympathise with the economic plight of the characters in The Great Gatsby, especially characters like George who are not affluent and struggle to make a living in a hyper-capitalist society.
Further support for the proposition can be found when we consider that readers from both the 20th and 21st centuries can sympathise with the characters is through their attitudes and values surrounding love and pleasure. In The Great Gatsby Fitzgerald conveys a society that is breaking free from Victorian constraints and is becoming more sexually open. There was a great desire for romance, even extra marital romance, as illustrated through Gatsby’s desire for Daisy. Fitzgerald describes Gatsby’s desire for Daisy as, “he found that he had committed himself to the following of a grail.” The highly sought after Holy Grail was the chalice used by Jesus and it symbolises a long journey of devotion and patience, and is an extended metaphor to represent Gatsby’s heroic longing for Daisy. Gatsby is also willing to sacrifice his own reputation for Daisy’s sake after the car accident: “but of course, I’ll say that I was [driving].” Readers will be able to sympathise with his experiences of unrequited love and his values towards love.
In the 1920s, the automobile provided freedom and privacy for young couples, and the concept of dating was born. Popular date locations included dance halls, speakeasies, restaurants, the backseats of cars and especially darkened movie houses. Getting a date (or better yet, getting several requests for the same night) was seen as a personal triumph. Dating many people was considered the best way to meet the “right person.” In a 1928 survey, 25 percent of all married American men and women admitted to at least one adulterous love affair! This flippant attitude towards love and sex has been carried through to the 21st century. The vast majority of people engage in pre-marital sex, to the extent that it is considered the new normal. Extra-marital sex is also gradually becoming more accepted, as illustrated by adultery websites such as Ashley Madison. Readers coming from both centuries will be able to sympathise with the attitudes and values of the characters and their less than monogamous romantic situations, such as the affair between Gatsby and Daisy or Tom and Myrtle.
Finally, it could be argued that modern readers will sympathise with the attitudes and values the characters have towards technology and how this impacts their lives, for better and for worse. Nick makes reference to, “intricate machines,” and automobiles. This is a society, much like ours, that is slowly becoming ever more dependent on technology. We also see that it can be both a blessing and a curse. The characters are eating dinner when, “almost immediately, the telephone rang.” Dinner should be a time when families come together after an eventful day to spend time with each other, but in this case the shrill ring of the telephone interrupts the proceedings: a 1920s equivalent to texting at the table. Much like in the 21st Century, technology is presented as something capable of pulling families apart – especially since the woman on the phone is Tom’s mistress. How many relationships are ruined today because of instant, 24/7 communication? In light of this remarkable similarity, it perplexes me that anyone could argue that the readers are unable to relate to the attitudes and values of the characters.
However, those that oppose my view claim that the attitudes and values of the characters are the antithesis to the true attitudes of the readers, and therefore they are unable to sympathise with their situations. There may be some merit to this opinion, especially when we consider Tom’s racism. His views are abhorrent to modern mind-sets, evidenced by his choice of reading: “Have you read the Rise of the Coloured Empires by Goddard?” This refers to a genuine book that was around at that time, titled The Rising Tide Of Colour by Lothrop Stoddard. Tom feels threatened by the rising power of racial minorities and wishes to preserve the archaic status quo, which instantly destroys any shred of sympathy that a reader might have had for him.
Racism remained a problem in the 1920s, although progress was being made. This was the time of the Harlem Renaissance, a term used to describe a flowering of African-American literature and art in the 1920s, mainly in the Harlem district of New York City. During the mass migration of African Americans from the rural agricultural south to the urban industrial north, many who came to New York settled in Harlem, as did a good number of black New Yorkers moved from other areas of the city. For the first time they were respected as integral to the community. Racism is experiencing somewhat of a revival in the modern world through parties such as Britain First and the views of extreme politicians such as Donald Trump. However, these are minority views and generally readers from both the 1920s and modern times will be repulsed by the racist attitudes and values that are displayed by some of Fitzgerald’s characters, making us unable to sympathise with them.
The claim that readers will be able to sympathise with Fitzgerald’s characters could be contested when we consider their attitudes and values surrounding women, which many would interpret as misogynistic. Throughout The Great Gatsby men are described based on their wealth or careers, but women are described based primarily on their appearance, such as the sexualised depictions of Myrtle: “She was in the middle thirties, and faintly stout, but she carried her surplus flesh sensuously as some women can. “ Additionally, Daisy wishes that her daughter will grow up to be, “a beautiful little fool.” Both Daisy and Myrtle accept that being physically beautiful is the only way they can survive in the harsh 1920s culture. Through this portrayal, Fitzgerald suggests that women are little more than dolls that are beautiful on the outside but empty underneath. These attitudes and values would repel female readers especially, and make them unable to sympathise with the characters.
Even when the book was first published, it was not received well amongst women. In 1925 Fitzgerald wrote to Marya Mannes that, “Women, even intelligent women, haven’t generally cared much for The Great Gatsby.” This reflects 1920s culture; on surface level women were becoming more liberated, however any jobs available to women paid much less than their male counterparts which meant that women had to rely on the financial support of a man. Fitzgerald wrote during the era of the flappers. These were women that shirked traditional feminine ideals and behaved similarly to men, such as smoking and drinking. They cut their hair short, wore short skirts and danced provocatively.
Women such as these were not happy with Fitzgerald’s portrayal of women as weak and passive. Likewise in our modern society, more women are employed than ever and are earning historically high wages, even though some issues do remain. The only truly independent female in The Great Gatsby is Jordan, but she is presented as someone who is dishonest and careless. Readers from both the 1920s and modern times will be repulsed by the misogynist attitudes and values that are displayed by some of Fitzgerald’s characters, making us unable to sympathise with them.
To conclude, after careful consideration we determine that in The Great Gatsby Fitzgerald’s characters present attitudes and values which allow readers to sympathise with their situations. There may be some instances of conflict but these are outweighed by the amount of attitudes and values that are applicable to readers in both the 1920s and 2010s. The opposing arguments have some merit but ultimately they fail to realise the true implications and context of The Great Gatsby.
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