In ‘The Great Gatsby’ by F. Scott-Fitzgerald, the setting has an extremely central part to play in the reader’s appreciation of the text as a whole. ‘The Great Gatsby’ is set in 1920’s America and is a highly symbolic reflection of this time in America as a whole, in the particular collapse of the American Dream in an era of extraordinary wealth and materialism. The two main sections of America referred to in the novel, are the East, and the West. Each have entirely different connotations and the people living in each, differ greatly. West egg represents old money, and so the people who live here have inherited their fortune, and because of this, they look down on the East Eggers, who have worked in organised crime and Hollywood and earned their fortunes. Both eggs are characterised in completely different ways, those in the West were fair, relatively innocent, unsophisticated, while those who lived in the East were corrupt, and materialistic (Tom and Daisy). The Easterners who moved West, furthermore, take the mannerisms of the East egg to their new lives in the West, a prime example of this is Gatsby. The Valley of the Ashes is also a symbolic setting within the novel as it symbolises the represents the moral and social decay that results from the unconstrained search of wealth, as the rich treat themselves thinking about nothing other than their own pleasure. It is a colourless, desolate area as a result of it being a dumping ground for ashes. The parties here are noisy and drunken compared with the mellow and relaxed parties of the west.
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The ethical geography of the novel is backed up by the symbolism of the American East and Midwest. The west symbolises New money-people who have gained their money through illegal practices like bootlegging- the illegal selling of alcohol and in comparison, the East symbolises Old money- people who inherited their fortune. The Midwest includes states such as Minnesota, Nick’s hometown and North Dakota, Gatsby’s hometown. For Fitzgerald, the Midwest is identified with the hopeful spirit, which is shown clearly in Gatsby. Here, old fashioned, stable values are seen and it is built on close relationships and comfort of old traditions. It is therefore significant that Gatsby originated from the Midwest. Nick feels sympathy towards Gatsby because of his similar origins, as they are both Midwestern. However, the Buchannan’s, who were also originally from the Midwest have an entirely different view on life and have lost the caring values of those from the west. They have taken the more harsh values of New Yorkers and followed them as a result of staying in the East for a long period of time. After moving to the East, they adopted a careless, aimless way of life, caring only about material things and no longer about the beauty and purity of life in itself. Tom and Daisy Buchanan have been in the influence of corruption for so long that they have absorbed the traits of moral decay in their characters. “Even when the East excites me most, even when I was most keenly aware of its superiority to the bored, sprawling, swollen towns beyond Ohio…even then it had always for me a quality of distortion” This quality of distortion referred to by Nick is moral decay and how appearances can be deceptive. A great example of this fact is The Valley of the Ashes. This aspect of setting symbolizes the moral decay hidden behind the beautiful concealment of the two Eggs, and suggests that beneath the exaggeration of West Egg and the false charisma of East Egg lies the same ugliness as in the valley. This is a personification of the message that things are not always as they seen and even although the West is beautiful, it is a concealment of corruption as the riches of the inhabitants here are through illegal deeds. Thus, we can work out the fates of the characters by their geographical setting, especially Gatsby. The setting, here is an important factor as it shows the superficial world in which we are stuck- like East Egg.
Fitzgerald uses setting to reflect his characters, but also to illustrate the key theme in the novel, corruption of the American dream. This is represented by The Valley of the Ashes which symbolise the moral and social decay which Fitzgerald saw behind the false image of happiness and wealth. “This is the valley of the ashes-a fantastic farm where ashes grow like wheat into ridges and hills and grotesque gardens, where ashes take the forms of houses and chimneys and rising smoke and finally, with transcendent effort, of men who move dimly and are already crumbling through the powdery air” The idea of the word “ashes” suggests death and suffocation as ashes are like dust and when in the air, gets stuck In your throat and makes you look and feel grey. The idea of the men “already crumbling through the powdery air” is a grotesque image which suggests the people are vague or almost dead which shows sympathy to the poorer people living here who must work in harsh conditions. The people living in the valley are almost described as to blend into their grey surroundings and therefore almost impossible to differentiate between. It is clear in this section that Fitzgerald was heavily influenced by T.S. Elliot and his novel ‘The Wastelands’. It is extremely fitting that this is where Myrtle and Tom met and also where Myrtle was killed, as their relationship was corrupting the moral views of society as cheating on a partner is an extremely disrespectful and shows lack of morals, as does murder. Myrtle is a victim of moral decay in this novel which is unmistakably shown to the reader. “Over the great bridge, with the sunlight through the girders making a constant flicker upon the moving cars, with the city rising up across the river in white heaps and sugar lumps all built with a wish out of non-olfactory money. The city seen from the Queensboro Bridge is always the city seen for the first time, in its first wild promise of all the mystery and the beauty in the world.” The city of New York is, here, being described at it’s most idealistic, as if from the eyes of someone just seeing it for the first time, seeing only the shining possibilities of it and none of the ugly realities and corruption. To Nick, New York is concurrently fascinating and repulsive, fast-paced and dazzling to look at but lacking a moral centre. While Tom is forced to keep his affair with Myrtle relatively discreet in the valley of the ashes, in New York he can appear with her in public, even among his friends, without causing an outrage. Even Nick, despite being Daisy’s cousin, doesn’t seem to mind that Tom shows off his unfaithfulness in public. This shows the corruption of New York in the novel as deeds which, back in West egg would be considered unholy and appalling, in New York, nobody seems to care. The colour white is used as a symbol to show that things may look innocent and pure, but corruption lies on the inside. White is concealing the dishonesty which lies within the powerful city. People living here, become morally and socially corrupt as a result of the obsession for material things taking over their lives and money and fame becoming more important than life itself. Therefore the American dream is being corrupted. Meyer Wolfsheim is a Jew who fixed the World Series and is symbolised by the criminal underworld, his character is for that reason corrupted. He is linked with New York and this adds to the fraud exposed in the reader’s thoughts to the surroundings. Through Fitzgerald’s vivid imagery, the vital theme of corruption and unfaithfulness is clearly evoked and this is vital to our understanding of the messages included in the story.
In The Great Gatsby, there are two small islands, East Egg and West Egg, which are “identical in contour, separated only by a courtesy bay”. Among them, the West Egg is “the less fashionable of the two”, on which live Nick and Gatsby. Across this courtesy bay “the white palaces of fashionable East Egg glittered along the water”, on which Tom and Daisy live their carefree and leisurely lives. The two Eggs represent a difference of social class, while the bay symbolizes a tremendous gap between the two which will never be able to come together as one. Although only a bay separates them, the differences between the two eggs could not be greater. As well as representing old and new money, the two Eggs also represent the ideas of living in the past and present. East Egg epitomizes how Daisy and Tom both live with old world ideas and an old fashioned way of thinking. As a result of this, they refuse to move on into the west where new, exciting things are. West Egg tells us how Gatsby and Nick are living in the present, trying to be ideals of today’s society, and so having the greatest and most extravagant possessions. We know, through this, that the west eggers live in the future and aren’t afraid to move on in life. Gatsby and Daisy live on different eggs and this means that the come from entirely different social backgrounds. Gatsby and Daisy, before the war had a fling but when Gatsby moved on to fight in the war, Daisy met Tom and married him as she knew Gatsby wasn’t wealthy like Tom. Daisy moved on in life, but Gatsby still held onto Daisy in his heart. When he became rich, he bought a house right across the bay from her so he could always see her and his extravagant parties, we find out are held in the off-chance that Daisy attends one. Gatsby’s luxurious house and parties are in reality, a facade. Even although the wealth barrier is overcome when Gatsby becomes wealthy, the social barrier still remains as they live on the different islands. In reality, Gatsby’s dream useless as it will never progress further. He does not realise that he is, throughout the whole time, separated from daisy forever by his social inferiority. The setting enhances our understanding of this as the contrast between the two eggs is lucidly described to us.
West egg is a place of old money, ancestry, class and style. Daisy and Tom’s house epitomises these things. Tom and Daisy both come from extremely wealthy families and this is how they achieved their money, through inheritance. “Their house was even more elaborate than I expected, a cheerful red-and-white Georgian Colonial mansion, overlooking the bay” The symbol of the colour white concealing corruption is used again by Fitzgerald here. This suggests that Tom and Daisys house, although looking beautiful, innocent and pure, masked the true colour of the inside where unfaithfulness and corruption lies. In reality, the glitter of the outside conceals emptiness and moral decay of the interior. Once again, the differences in the two Eggs, enhance our understanding as to what is happening in the novel as we are shown the importance of the comparison between them.
Gatsby’s mansion is another important aspect of setting in ‘The Great Gatsby’. At the beginning of the novel, it is the centre of all the extravagant parties and luxurious things. The look of his house mirrors his character. Although his home is amazingly extravagant, it is bland and vulgar. If his house was in East Egg instead of the West, it would be completely out of place. Gatsby lacks social identification. Even although his house is magnificent, it is all for show and is all superficial. “It’s a bona-fide piece of printed matter. It Fooled me. This fella’s a regular Belasco. It’s a triumph. What thoroughness! What realism! Knew when to stop too–didn’t cut the pages. But what do you want? What do you expect?” This is said by Owl eyes, describing the books it Gatsby’s library. It shows Gatsby’s ignorance of knowledge and blindness in impressing Daisy with a misleadingly intellectual concealment. It describes how Gatsby’s library is filled with genuine books, but these books are only for show. When Owl eyes mentions that Gatsby had not cut the pages, it tells the reader that Gatsby has not read these books. Owl eyes also compares Gatsby to Belasco, who was a Broadway producer who was famous for how close his sets were to the real thing. Gatsby’s library is just an expensive collection, again as a facade to attract Daisy and show people his wealth. Gatsby’s dream represents his dream as through it, he wished to get back with Daisy. He thinks that if he makes his house the best it can be then Daisy will come back to him. In reality, this is not going to happen. After the death of Myrtle Wilson and Tom and Gatsby’s argument in the Plaza hotel, Gatsby realises his dream is well and truely over and knows now that he will never be able to win Daisy back. As well as his character changing, his house also changes. In Chapter 8, the house is nearly deserted. Gatsby is alone, the house is quiet. It “seemed so enormous” because the parties had ended, the guests had gone. Suddenly it is dark and dusty, without the ‘ornaments’ of the superficial life of the house to cover up the neglect. “This house had never seemed so enormous to me as it did that night when we hunted through the room for cigarette… there was an inexplicable amount of dust everywhere” This mirrors Gatsby’s character at this moment in the novel as he has lost Daisy- his dream and so the loss of atmosphere is a bit like his shell being lost, he is not longer a charismatic, exciting character, but a dull, lifeless man which is exactly the same as his house, which coincidently links extremely closely in description with the lifeless Valley of the Ashes . This setting, once again helps our understanding as to the storyline as Fitzgerald relates everything back to Gatsby’s character to enhance our understanding of the main issues of the corruption of the American dream and how money and dreams corrupts society in the section.
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Following Daisy’s decision to choose Tom over Gatsby and after killing Myrtle, she disappeared and this is when the world collapsed for Gatsby. His dream fell away just as quickly as it was formed and whilst doing so, his whole life was taken away from him in the blink of an eyelid. The change in Gatsby’s life was symbolised by the way in which Fitzgerald uses imagery at the end of the novel when Gatsby uses his swimming pool to commit suicide in the summer of 1922. Nick imagines what it must have seen and felt like to Gatsby: “He had lost the old warm world…He must have looked up at an unfamiliar sky through frightening leaves and shivered as he found what a grotesque thing a rose is and how raw the sunlight was upon the created grass. A new world, material without being real, where poor ghosts, breathing dreams like air, drifted fortuitously about” Gatsby’s dream had died just as it was born. His world appears empty and his dream is dead so the world seems empty and foreign to him. The setting described here reflects the deterioration and death of Gatsby’s dream. Gatsby wass chasing his dream for so long and trying to lead a life which was perfect, through this, he failed to see the negative side of life. So in the end when his possessions are no longer important and he doesn’t have this perfect dream to follow, he becomes lost and doesn’t know what to do anymore, so resorts to entering a new world where everything is not as pleasant as in his old world, a place where a rose is not beautiful but grotesque and the only things now, which can dream are the ghosts. The vivid imagery of his last moments in our world here, shows the reader how Gatsby’s world filled up with things which e didn’t need and as he exits our world, he looks at them and is afraid of the destruction he has created. It ultimately, shows the price he has paid for his dream, through the description of the setting and this helps us to understand the weaknesses in his character and to understand the main problem here.
In conclusion, the setting in ‘The Great Gatsby’ by F. Scott Fitzgerald is significant as it plays a very important part in our appreciation of the text as a whole. It gives us an insight into the symbols and messages in the novel which are key to our understanding as to what is happening in the novel at certain parts. The setting also adds to our enjoyment of reading the novel as we learn more about the characters which makes us able to comprehend the more complex ideas of the novel easier. The setting expressed the social position and how the characters spend their lives which is a vital part of the storyline as it is the contrast in social background which destroys Gatsby’s character and leads to the destruction of his dream and aspects of other people’s lives in the novel. Setting, in reality, is the foundation to our understanding of everything in the novel, from the beginning, Fitzgerald describes each and every part of the surroundings clearly throughout the entirety of the novel and without this, it would not have as strong a message as it does, which is vital in every aspect of Fitzgerald’s ‘work of art’.
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