魏倩 崇宁（西北大学现代学院 陕西西安 710130）
Abstract:“the spirit of Jazz Age”refers to a spiritual condition of people from the end of the WWІ to the beginning of the Great Depression. During this decade, the US economy was booming quickly. At the same time, great changes took place in people’s world outlook and values, hedonism and indulgence prevailed, which make people feel satisfied, but the seduces and dangers, also lead people into the abyss of moral decay. This article takes “the spirit of Jazz Age” as the clue to analyze the characters in The Great Gatsby and the changes of the American society in that age.
Keywords: F • Scott Fitzgerald; The Great Gatsby; Spirit of the jazz age
The Great Gatsby first published in 1925 is written by the American writer F · Scott Fitzgerald. It is based on a special period between the end of the World War І in 1919 and the great depression in 1929 defined by F · Scott Fitzgerald as Jazz Age or Roaring Twenties. In this period, the United States is at a historical intersection of the old and the new, and the development of capitalism makes a big change for the U.S. from agricultural civilization into industrial civilization. At the same time, the World War І brought the US new opportunity to create prosperity in economy, transportation, building, etc. Additionally, active land property and stock market make many investors strike it rich, and wealth has become a standard to judge whether a person is rich or not. Chasing fame and fortune have become a general mood of society, hedonism and consumerism were prevailing the entire society, and the traditional Puritan morality as well as the diligent and thrift thoughts are replaced by pursuing personal wealth and enjoying material life.
The Great Gatsby is regarded as the masterpiece relevant to the “American Dream -- a depiction of social upheaval and an irony of material excess. A number of scholars have explored this work from different perspectives, for instance, symbolism, consumerism, disillusion of the American Dream, Gatsby’s tragedy and so on. The English renown poet T.S. Eliot, read this novel three times and gave a highly compliment for this work that “the first step that American fiction has taken since Henry James.”
The Great Gatsby was translated into many different languages, including Chinese. Since then, many scholars in China began to study on The Great Gatsby by analyzing its themes and symbolic meanings. Wang Yujuan (1998) argues “the dream of Gatsby is also the dream of all Americans. The defeat of Gatsby is also the loss of generation.” Zhang Lilong (1998) argues that “The Great Gatsby is actually a recall and summary of the process of the involvement of the American dream from historical and realistic perspectives.” While others pay more attention to analyzing Gatsby’s tragedy. From all the different points of view, there is no denying that The Great Gatsby is really an excellent work that can arouse people to interpret it from different perspectives. However, few researches are based on the spirit of the Jazz Age reflected in this work, therefore, this paper is aiming to illustrate and analyze the spirit of the Jazz Age reflected in The Great Gatsby, by analyzing the characters combined with the background of the Jazz Age, revealing the themes of the Jazz Age and how these factors worked in The Great Gatsby.
Ⅱ、On the Spirit of the Jazz Age Reflected in The Great Gatsby
The Jazz Age refers to the ten years starting with the burst of World War І in 1918 and ending with the Great Depression in 1929 when the traditional Puritan ethic had crumbled, and hedonism was beginning to flourish in the whole society, in which jazz music and dance styles became prevalent. Jazz originated in New Orleans of the United States at the beginning of the twentieth century, and subsequently spread rapidly to the rest of the US, and also to Britain, France and elsewhere. It is a unique music style with novel features and forms. Jazz as a coalition of American and European music played a significant part in this period, and its influence on pop culture continued long afterwards. The Jazz Age is also known as “the Roaring Twenties” during which great revolutions in social values among some Americans were taking place.
As is known to all, The Great Gatsby reveals the collapse of American Dream. At the same time, the spirit of the Jazz Age reflected in this work also plays the key role in it. Jazz Age is the background of the whole story. We can see increasing prosperity of the 1920s when the materialism and hedonism bewitched people’s mind. In order to get more money, people would do everything to attain their goals at any cost, and this notion changed the mode of life and put people into self-indulgence. This paper is going to illustrate the spirit of the Jazz Age reflected in The Great Gatsby in following themes: decadence and excess, money worship, hedonism and idealism.
In the Jazz Age, people tended to lead a decadent life. They had an extreme and negative attitude toward life, such as taking violence against others or giving up their own life easily.
In chapter Four of the novel, when talking about the bootlegger, the young ladies said, “one time he killed a man who had found out that he was nephew to von Hindeburg and second cousin to the devil.” Clarence Endive, who came from East Egg,“he came only once, in white knickerbockers, and had a fight with a bum named Etty in the garden.” Others in the novel, “Also from New York were the Chromes and the Backhyssons and the Dennickers and Russel Betty and the Corrigans and the Kellehers and the Dewars and the S.W. Belcher and the Smirkes and the young Quinns, divorced now, and Henry L. Palmetto who killed himself by jumping in front of a subway train in Times Square.”
Meanwhile, social upheavals make the people have no hope for living, they are prone to enjoy the excessive sex life, prefer to squander money to show their prominent social status and flaunt wealth.
Daisy, is like a fairy who possesses a very melodious voice. As the heroine in the novel, “her face was sad and lovely with bright things in it, bright eyes and a bright passionate mouth—but there was an excitement in her voice that men who had cared for her found difficult to forget: a singing compulsion, a whispered‘listen’, a promise that she had done gay, exciting things just a while since and that there were gay, exciting things hovering in the next hour”.She is so lovely and very good at affectation and coquettish that when Nick talks to her, he feels uncomfortable. Perhaps that is because she is really like what she said,“I’m pretty cynical about everything”.Nick can see Daisy’s nature that she is not sincere and very persistent in money and fame.She is just playing games. What’s more, after her conversation with Gatsby, Gatsby also tells Nick that “her voice is full of money”. Therefore, Daisy’s charming appearance and voice are just tricks to deal with people. All she wants is money and position. Her heart is full of worship for money. She is just a beautiful shell of that age.
In the turbulent 1920s, the American economy was influenced by the World War І, it did not decline. Instead, some investors made big fortunes overnight, and people began to make money blindly. The traditional “industrious and thrifty” spirit of American was taken place by the pursuit of personal wealth, and the enjoyment of material life. Decadence and money worship were prevailing in the whole society. People indulged the ego to avoid the reality by squandering money.
People are described to be very addicted to Gatsby’s deluxe party. As mentioned in the novel, nobody was really been invited except for Nick.“I was one of the few guests who had actually been invited. People were not invited—they went there”,“They got into automobiles which bore them out to Long Island and somehow they ended up at Gatsby’s door”,“Once there they were introduced by somebody who knew Gatsby and after that they conducted themselves according to the rules of behavior associated with amusement parks”,“Sometimes they came and went without having met Gatsby at all, came for the party with a simplicity of heart that was its own ticket of admission.”It can be found that people are just looking for enjoyment and pleasure. Hedonism is flourishing and people are corrupt in it up to their necks.
The Jazz Age has become a synonymous with hedonism. People resist changing at that time. They enjoy themselves in red lanterns and green wine, which is a leading atmosphere in the roaring twenties.
The leading character in the novel is the mysterious and cryptic millionaire Jay Gatsby, who is sincere and has a fantastic romance about love. He is trying to build a golden palace and lively party whereas he shows no interest in the “annoying” riot, for the only reason he did this is to attract the fair beauty in his heart. In secular view, Gatsby is a handsome and a real gentleman, but in love, he is just a faithful and loyal man who believes in love so deeply.
Gatsby spends many nights staring at the green light at the end of Tom and Daisy’s dock, which is a symbol of Daisy in Gatsby’s dream. It’s not only a navigation light of Gatsby’s life that can make him see the light at the end of the tunnel, but also a hope that seems even more far-reaching that he can’t give a touch.
When Gatsby gets the chance to meet his old lover Daisy, he feels so excited and restless that both of them feel so awkward over years when they meet again. Through their talking, Gatsby can feel that this girl sitting next to him has changed a lot, he realizes that but he still can’t let her go and still feels hopeful for their love relationship, he thinks he will touch her and let her go back to him, then they will lead a happiness life in the rest of life, but everything goes wrong in the end.
As the protagonist of the novel, Gatsby plays a crucial part in the whole story, and what supports him from poverty to wealth is his dream for Daisy, who is Gatsby’s dream love over years. Gatsby come from an impoverished background while Daisy is born in an upper class family. This is a sharp contrast between them two. Gatsby loves Daisy so much that he is engaged in illegal activities to earn money. The only purpose behind these behaviors is that he wants to get her love back so he tries his best to make his dream come true. In the age of “money means everything”, the original idea of American dream has fade away from Gatsby’s imagination.
As a matter of fact, Gatsby didn’t get any respect from others despite he earned much money and held deluxe parties in his mansion to attract Daisy’s attention. People from different classes and different places are rush to the fore to attend the fancy parties. Daisy is also flipped by such an outstanding romantic man, but at the end of the story, when Daisy drove the car and killed Tom’s mistress Myrtle Wilson unexpectedly, Gatsby took all the blame for the accident and finally he lost his life. However, Daisy didn’t show up at his funeral, and she didn’t even feel ashamed of what she did to Gatsby, and didn’t feel indebted to Gatsby for what he had done for her. On the contrary, she went to another city for a nice holiday with her husband Tom. The narrator Nick saw through the cruelty and danger in the rich upper classes, he felt disappointed and decided to leave New York city in the end.
Gatsby is a typical idealist in the novel so that he is hopeful for a romantic relationship with Daisy. He is trying his best to become a new identity—a millionaire, but the reality told him his fantasy is just a dream that can never come true. Daisy’s beauty makes Gatsby’s dream more attractive and seductive, Gatsby’s death is the end of his life and the disillusion of his dream. The sharp contrast between his dream and the cruel reality result in a fact that his dream is doomed to be a failure. To some extent, although it is a story about a man making great fortune through his own hard working, the history of the American is a satire of the society in the novel.
This paper mainly explores the spirit of the Jazz Age reflected in The Great Gatsby.“All the bright, precious things fade so fast, and they don’t come back.”In the Jazz Age, people were out on the tiles and indulged themselves in endless enjoyment. There is no doubt that decadence, money-worship, hedonism and idealism are symbols of that age, which give them a wake-up call that it’s high time to recognize themselves and their dreams.“So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.”Although the reality is cruel, there is still a long way to go.
American novelist E.L. Doctorow mentioned in Nation that“When Fitzgerald was at the peak of his creation on the occasion, his understanding toward the society phenomenon changed into powerful words, (he is not only the criticism of the society, but also the victim), at least he achieved this work—The Great Gatsby.”The Great Gatsby is such an excellent work in the American history that it still enjoys a high reputation in the world literature. It’s a representative work of the Jazz Age. Both the story and the themes tell us that no matter what age we live in, we should pay more attention to our spiritual pursuit rather than material enjoyment.
Allen, Frederick Lewis. Only Yesterday: An Informal History of the Nineteen-Twenties. Online edition,1931
Best, Gary Dean.The Dollar Decade: Mammon and the Machine in 1920s America. Praeger Publishers,2003
Curnutt, Kirk.A Historical Guide to F·Scott Fitzgerald. Oxford University Press, 2004
Gross, Dalton.Understanding The Great Gatsby: A Student Casebook to Issues, Sources, and Historical Documents.Westport,Connecticut: Greenwood Press,1998