The Great Gatsby
Movies are often a reflection of the political and social changes that are occurring at the time of their creation. Movies typically reflect the views and attitudes of society and do so in a way that is dramatic and captivating. This holds true for The Great Gatsby, both during the time period in which it was written as well as during the 1970s when the motion picture was released. Written by F. Scotts Fitzgerald, the story takes place during the Roaring Twenties, a time in history many refer to as a period of great transformation and wealth. Following World War I and the rise of industrialization, many Americans left their farms and migrated to cities in search of a more extravagant lifestyle.
Along with social and cultural transformations came many political changes as well such as the ratification of the 19th amendment granting women the right to vote. This milestone achievement aided in development of the modern “flapper” mentality; the symbol of the roaring twenties. According to the article, flapper women were young with, “bobbed hair and short skirts who drank, smoked and said what might be termed “unladylike” things, in addition to being more sexually “free” than previous generations” (History.com Staff).
The 1970s were characterized by several events that set the stage for future issues. The ongoing war in Vietnam faced much opposition from American citizens who did not support the war. When the United States invaded Cambodia in 1970, riots broke out at Kent State University where violence escalated and several students were killed (Schulman, 2001). The rising counterculture heavily influence political protests as the two went hand in hand (Schulman, 2001). Many of the same attitudes from 1920s towards war and the government were unearthed during the 1970s as people were drained with the idea of war and sought peace.
The infamous Watergate scandal in which five burglars from President Nixon’s “Committee to Re-Elect the President” were discovered in the Watergate office building attempting to steal confidential tapes and information (History.com Staff). After discovering that Nixon was involved in the crime, Congress began the process for impeachment; however, Nixon quickly resigned. The Watergate Scandal further damaged the government’s public image and left many citizens distrustful in its actions. Unfortunately, the combined failure of the war in Vietnam, Nixon’s dishonesty, and economic shock led to the distrust of Democrats in particular (Schulman, 2001).
Although women gained the right to vote during the roaring twenties, there were still many issues of equality in the workplace. This era saw the rise of feminists, an even more independent woman than the 1920’s flappers who had just begun to defy gender rules. According to Schulman women formed prominent organizations such as the National Organization for Women and pushed for equality with men in rights and privileges (Schulman, 2001). Feminists pushed for the approval of the Equal Rights Amendment which guaranteed that “equality of rights under the law shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any state on account of sex.” The rise of feminist ideology called for a reconstruction of American standards concerning gender differences (Schulman, 2001).
As with the social and cultural changes that occurred within the 1920s, the 1970s saw a cultural change of its own. The Watergate Scandal left a bitter taste in the mouths of Americans for politics. Frustration with the government pushed many towards the rising “counterculture” which was characterized by drugs as a way to expand one’s consciousness, communal living, promiscuity, a stronger bond with nature, and distinctive dress (Schulman, 2001). The 1970s ushered in the hippie movement, which mean referred to as a way of life, rejecting mainstream, traditional culture and encouraging the practice of a different lifestyle (Schulman, 2001). Individuals were even more sexually promiscuous and live in the moment than those of the 1920s as people wore what they wanted, had extreme amounts of sex and indulged in a wide variety of drugs (History.com Staff).
The Great Gatsby takes place in New York during 1922 and is narrated by the main character Nick Carraway, a young man and World War I veteran that moves to West Egg to learn about the bond business. Jay Gatsby is Carraway’s “new money” wealthy next door neighbor that throws huge extravagant parties every week. Gatsby is secretly in love with Nick’s cousin Daisy Buchanan, who is the wife of Tom Buchanan, an “old money” wealthy family that resides in East Egg. The neighborhoods reflect the segregation between individuals with old money and those with new money. Gatsby’s elaborate parties and flashy lifestyle are all an attempt to attract the attention of Daisy. After learning of Nick and Daisy’s relation (cousins), Nick arranges for Gatsby and Daisy to meet and the love affair is rekindled once the two reunite.
As the story continues Tom (although involved in an affair of his own with Myrtle Wilson) becomes suspicious of Gatsby and eventually confronts him about it while out— to which Daisy sides with her husband and refuses to continue her relationship with Gatsby. Tom allows Gatsby to switch cars with him and take Daisy home to prove that Gatsby cannot persuade her to stay with him. However, on the ride back as Daisy is driving she accidentally strikes and hits Myrtle, killing her. To protect Daisy, Gatsby takes the blame which ends up costing him his life as Myrtle’s husband, convinced that Gatsby murdered his wife, shoots and kills him while in the pool. After attending Gatsby’s funeral, Nick decides to move back to Minnesota and reflects on how the American dream—and the pursuit of it—corrupts people in their attempt to gain money, power, and happiness.
The film furthers our understanding of the events and mentalities that were occurring during the time. People were obsessed with flashiness, money, and achieving the American Dream. It illustrates the confusion that people have in believing that money will bring happiness. Gatsby spends most of his life acquiring riches in attempt to impress Daisy only to find that they would not suffice as she was loyal to Tom. People often believe that money is the cure for problems; however, as shown in the story, it only created more. In the film we gain an understanding of conflict between classes within high society as well as the lower classes.
The story does include several universal themes that can still apply to audiences today. For example, the film illustrates how far people are willing to go to achieve wealth and status at the expense of their own happiness, and how money can taint the hearts of good people. It shows how many can make people put wealth over more important matters like their loved ones. It also shows how money cannot bring happiness or the people that we love. The American Dream is a longstanding concept that has enticed many people to pursue and manifest their dreams. However, the concept is built on individualism and leads many people to chase money blindly while losing what is important to them (as what occurred with Gatsby). The 1920s, and The Great Gatsby illustrate just how absorbed people can become in money and the flashy lifestyle and neglect what is most important to them.
The intention of writer—Fitzgerald—was to show the clash between the older, established (old money) society and the new emerging (new money) society. There was a struggle between the two with views on money, traditional roles and new mentalities. The Roaring Twenties was a time of great wealth acquisition and the emergence of a crowd more concerned with indulging in the moment and having a good time. This is depicted in the film through Gatsby’s extravagant parties where wealthy individuals came to dance, drink, and show off flashy cars and clothing. The actors are all affluent, white, young and middle-aged men and women that indulge in the moment often spending money recklessly and without regard. The period is characterized as one of great social and political change and is reflected in the characters and settings that are mentioned throughout the book. The film features heavy imagery to drive home the message of nonconformity and the flashiness of the high society lifestyle.
Some critics believed that the film did not portray enough passion between Jay Gatsby and Daisy Buchanan; however, many believed that despite this the overall movie drove home an essential message: money cannot buy happiness and does not suffice for it either. Some critics believe the film was too “storytelling” in nature. All attempts to effectively narrate the book on film were all met with disappointment. The importance of the film is significant. It is both a love story and a tragedy, and demonstrates the destruction that the love of money (or the lack of it) can produce.
There are also many underlying messages throughout the story and we should understand the film as a product of the time period that it occurred from. It exemplifies the destruction of the American Dream and the pursuit of it. Originally the American dream was built on principles such as individualism, the pursuit of happiness, and discovery of one’s self. However, in the film and in the book, individuals were able to make mass amounts of money through corrupt methods and with no regard or respect towards traditional values. It also shows the clash between social classes. Individuals with “new money” typically gained it through questionable methods and spent it on flashy material in contrast to those with “old money” who were raised on traditional values, acquired wealth through hard work or had it passed down to them, and held a negative perception of people with new money. There are many social and cultural messages that arise in the film.
The meaning of the film has not changed as this same concept applies today (and holds just as much significance). Today, society is going through a similar period as the Roaring Twenties. There is political chaos over the war on terror, the legalization of weed, the gay rights movement, and the protection of democracy in other countries. There is a huge culture shift as many young people are deserting old values and ideas concerning their careers and livelihoods. Many are pursuing opportunities that enable an equal work-life balance and incorporates their passions. Ideas and morals are changing as women are embracing their sexuality and abandoning traditional gender roles. This film very much relates to ongoing events.
History.com Staff. "The 1970s." History.com. A+E Networks, 2010. Web. 10 Jan. 2016.
Schulman, J. B., (2001). The Seventies: The Great Shift in American Culture, Society, and Politics. Da Copa Press.