Failure Of The Capitalist Ideal In Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby

1089 words - 4 pages

 The most striking element in Fitzgerald's demystification of the world of the capitalist ideal is not the human insecurity and moral ugliness bred by the fever of glamour but the absolute failure of the work ethic quite literally to deliver the goods. Only the upper ten percent of the population enjoyed markedly increased income in the 1920s, for as Spindler notes, by 1929 perhaps 50,000 individuals received half of all national share income (166). In 1921, Zinn records, 4,270,000 Americans were unemployed, two million people in New York City lived in tenements condemned as firetraps, and six million families (42 per cent of the US total) made less than $1,000 a year (373); Gatsby opens in the spring of 1922. "Shocking to tell," records Ann Douglas, "71 percent of American families in the 1920s had annual incomes below $2,500, the minimum needed for decent living; in New York in the years just after the war, the average worker earned only $1,144 a year" (18). In addition to the dramatic new polarization of wealth, corporate mergers between 1919 and 1930 swallowed up some 8,000 businesses (there were 80 bank mergers in 1919 alone), in a momentum of monopolistic concentration of wealth and power at the very top that rendered the traditional entrepreneurial dream a hollow fiction for virtually all. By 1929, the 200 largest non-financial companies held nearly half of all corporate assets and over one-fifth of the entire wealth of the nation (Spindler 103). In view of such developments, it is no wonder that Nick finds Tom and Daisy "remotely rich" and feels "a little disgusted" (20), a resentment of privilege shared by the cottagers of the old West Egg fishing village who refuse the offer by the original owner of Gatsby's mansion to pay five years' taxation if they will thatch their roofs. ("Americans . . . have always been obstinate about being peasantry" [89].) Their pride does not save them, however: a few years later even Daisy will feel offended by the "too obtrusive fate that herded its inhabitants from nothing to nothing" (108). For the truth of this economy gives the lie, as Fitzgerald firmly shows, to glamour's promise. Wilson, worn away by a decade's straining at the gasoline pump, pitied even by Tom (138), knows better than Klipspringer that the economy's real law is unavailing drudgery: "one thing's sure and nothing's surer / The rich get richer while the poor get - children" (96). In this society, where the "stern" names of "the great American capitalists" find no contemporary exemplars save the "gray old man who bore an absurd resemblance to John D. Rockefeller" and sold mongrel pups on the sidewalk (63, 27), there is only one way from rags to riches, and that is crime. The choice is a simple one between drudgery and a "gonnegtion." The reach of official corruption suggested in the successful "fixing" of the 1919 World Series is re-echoed on a more mundane plane in the white card sent Gatsby ...

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