The tale of The Great Gatsby was told from the perspective of Nick Carraway and that from his traditional moral codes we are shown the carelessness and the corruption at the heart of the world of the wealthy America. It is from his point of view that we got to know the protagonist of the story, Jay Gatsby and his rival, in the person of the nativist Tom Buchanan. This paper will compare how these two characters were depicted and how their roles and interaction were pivotal in the recreation of the roaring 20’s and the unfolding of the story’s deeper theme, which was the discourse of the corruption of the American dream, wherein there was an unrestrained desire for money at the expense of the more noble goals.
Jay Gatsby and Tom Buchanan were Fitzgerald’s symbols for the sociology of wealth in the 1920’s. Gatsby was the nouveau riche while Buchanan came from the old aristocracy of America’s richest families. The former came from the ranks of the newly minted self-made millionaires who emerged out of the explosion of wealth during the period. He was characterized to be unpolished, vulgar and notoriously lacking social graces and taste. He wore pink suits, lived in a gaudy mansion, and drove a Rolls-Royce, among other things. Tom Buchanan, on the other hand, was the provincial man who assumed the part of the Long Island gentleman. He was born a millionaire and was powerful and corrupt.
Gatsby’s route to wealth was also reflective of the 1920’s way of achieving the American dream. During the period, liquor , speakeasies and sports fixing were the tools to gain wealth. A modern Gatsby would have taken a different route today wherein the path to the American dream is likely to be legitimate and based in business, entertainment or information technology. (Mahony 2003, p. 180)
In terms of their effect on the narrative and other characters, there is a big difference. Gatsby was mysterious and this resulted to a high degree of interest from other characters and the readers. In a way, despite his shady past, he also inspired others. Part of his appeal, wrote Bercovitch and Patell (1994), came from his heightened sensitivity to the promises of life and a Platonic conception of himself wherein his commitment to self-invention enabled him to make contact with tradition dating back to the Renaissance, which helped shape modern lives in history. (p. 145) Carraway, particularly, was prompted to defend him and came to associate him with light and the charismatic glow that attracted the social butterflies. He said that out of all Gatsby’s faults, he turned out all right in the end.
Buchanan, meanwhile, had a particular brutality demonstrated in his contempt for people who do not belong within his circle. For example, in an incident with Mrs. Wilson, whom he kept as a mistress for idle amusement and to stave off the boredom of his social standing:
Sometime toward midnight Tom Buchanan and Mrs. Wilson stood face to face, discussing… whether Mrs. Wilson had any right to mention Daisy’s name.
“Daisy! Daisy! Daisy!” shouted Mrs. Wilson. “I’ll say it whenever I want to. Daisy! Dai-” Making a short deft movement, Tom Buchanan broke her nose with his open hand. (Fitzgerald 47-48)
Interestingly, Fitzgerald used the automobiles that they own to describe how the characters, and the class that they represented, related to the materialism and the culture of consumption during the 1920’s. Gatsby’s Rolls Royce was the ultimate status symbol, functioning as the vulgar display of Gatsby’s wealth. For Buchanan, his blue coupe served to demonstrate several aspects that established his character: First, the car was no more a piece of hardware, pure technology and a tool to get to one place from another. Of course, it also functioned as a status symbol – a commodity that told everybody about the social and financial status of the Buchanans. Along with the fabulous parties, expensive clothes, Gatsby’s and Buchanan’s automobiles both highlight the growth of materialism and several other underlying issues such as masculine independence, consumerism, and their relationship to individual fulfillment.
A deeper examination of Gatsby and Buchanan characters tells us a difference so pronounced but so intertwined that it is analogous to the relationship of body and soul because a mortal barrier has risen up between them. Just like the class he represented, Buchanan was clearly depicted to have satisfied Fitzgerald’s concept of selfishness, carelessness and brutality in American life. Gatsby, on the other hand, embodied the American approach to pursuing his dream. It was not surprising, hence, when he did everything – racketeering, bootlegging, shady deals – in order to amass the fortune that could win his dream back. Both of these characters were doomed, one way or another in the novel reflecting Fitzgerald’s critique.
In The Great Gatsby, Fitzgerald identified the 1920s with the decay of social and moral values, a period of cynicism, greed and emptiness – all in all, the corruption of the American dream. Gatsby and Buchanan in their roles, characterization and interaction were used as means to demonstrate this theme. They represented two important composition of the American society during the period and have sufficiently described them and criticized the social flaws in his characters.
Bercovitch, Sacvan and Patell, Cyrus. The Cambridge history of American literature. Cambridge University Press, 1994.
Fitzgerald, Francis Scott. The Great Gatsby. R. Prigozy (ed.) Oxford University Press, 1998.
Mahony, David. Excel Preliminary English. Pascal Press, 2003.