The Cost of Consumerism
Consumerism. Everyone, especially Americans, knows what it means. It is the buying of things. It’s the money-back-guarantee-no-risk-batteries-not-included ethos that that has behooved the American experience. But in this land of more, more, and more, there is a cost. In the Great Gatsby, the ramifications of excessive consumption are explored through the tragedy of Nick Carraway, Jay Gatsby, and the Buchanans in the context of the Jazz Age and America at large. Specifically, this story exemplifies how the commodification of goods inevitably saturates the social fabric of society, leading people not only to objectify the world into a series of dollar signs and zeros, but also to commodify each other by status and wealth, ultimately, leaving the characters consumed by a culture where enough is never enough. This way of living can only be predicated on a convention of illusion, hypocrisy, and futility as seen countlessly throughout the book. What is antithetical about this brand of consumerism is that in search of more—accolades, image, love, wealth— the characters lose what is valuable about being human: honest connection. That’s the great tragedy of this classic, and a uniquely American tragedy at that.
In a culture of consumerism, nothing is safe from commodification, not even people themselves. In the Great Gatsby and America historically, women especially are objectified as something to be ‘marvelled at’ and hardly a whole person unto themselves (109). This perspective seeps into the every-day vernacular, with Fitzgerald often drawing parallels between women and objects in his language: “Daisy and Jordan lay up on an enormous couch, like silver idols weighing down their own white dresses” (115). Because women are treated as commodities, the subsequent entitlement men feel of their ownership is of natural consequence. For Gatsby, this takes the shape of owning Daisy; namely, Gatsby implores that Daisy must revoke her love of Tom, as Gatsby must be the sole owner of her heart for it to be a worthy bargain (130). Having been inundated in this culture, Daisy seems to have internalized her position, and is prepared to pass it on to the next generation. Regarding her daughter, Daisy once famously states: “‘All right... I'm glad it's a girl. And I hope she'll be a fool—that's the best thing a girl can be in this world, a beautiful little fool’” (17).
As much as women are commodified in American culture, few other characters are quite as manufactured as the Great Gatsby himself. James Gatz, unable to stomach the shame of his birth, repackages himself with all the glory and splendor known as “Jay Gatsby”: “The truth was Jay Gatsby of West egg, Long Island, springs from his Platonic conception of himself… [he was consumed by] the service of a vast, vulgar, and meretricious beauty...and to this conception he was faithful to the end” (98). His status, spread by the hundreds who attended his parties, created Gatsby as a caricature that “fell just short of being news” (97). Despite his infamy, his parties served not as a point of celebration, but of advertisement, providing “a universe of ineffable gaudiness... these reveries provided an outlet for his imagination; they were a satisfactory hint of the unreality of reality, a promise that the rock the world was founded securely on a fairies wing” (99).
However, a life of commodification inevitably falls prey to false advertising. As Carraway once noted: “The east... it had always for me a quality of distortion” (176). This ‘distortion’ manifests itself in the futility and hypocrisy of the consumerist lifestyle, a trope peppered in oxymorons throughout the book. Gatsby himself is bootlegger that doesn’t drink, “has a pool he has not used all summer,” and is famous in complete isolation (152). The people who attend his parties are prey to this distortion as well; they go to parties to talk about parties they’ve been to before, keep “the air...alive [in] casual innuendo and introductions forgotten on the spot, and enthusiastic meetings between women who never knew each other’s names” (40). The mass manufacture of connection has a shelf-life, however, as Carraway notes: “there were the same people, or at least the same sort of people, the same perfusion of champagne, the same many colored, many keyed commotion, but I felt in it an unpleasantness in the air” (104). Yet it is from this futile embryo that Gatsby “came alive, delivered suddenly from the womb of his purposeless splendor” (78). As John Greene brilliantly encapsulates, in the Jazz Age, “everyone wanted enough money to buy fancy cars and enough whiskey to crash them.”
Amidst all this pageantry is a tragic underpinning, a hidden fee of sorts: the loss of honest connection with others. Social alienation is the duplicitous by-product of a consumerist culture, because in the land of “more, more, and more”, one can never be enough. Gatsby, despite his rebranding as a man of every conceivable achievement by society's standards, dies a man of complete isolation, a man whose parties were attended by the hundreds and whose funeral was attended by three. This is the folly of consumerism: one is not who they are or who they know, but who they seem to be and who they seem to know; individuals, devoid of the dimensions of a full character, become a commodity like any other, used up until they’ve been worth their price, then thrown away to be replaced by what is shinier and newer, a “planned obsolescence” that is rooted in the capitalist ethos of American culture. As Fitzgerald encapsulates, “If that was true he must’ve felt that he had lost the old warm world, paid a high price for living too long with a single dream... A new world, material without being real, where poor ghosts, breathing dreams like air, drifted fortuitously about” (161).
But no amount of advertisement, manufacture, or product could mask the simple truth Gatsby and Daisy refused: “No amount of fire or freshness can challenge what a man will store up in his ghostly heart” (96). The simple truth is consumerism consumes: not only the environment and ethos of a culture, but most poignantly, the humanity of people. Upon reflection, a culture of “more, more, and more” can be more truthfully redefined by its antonym: less, less, and lost.
Fitzgerald, F. Scott (Francis Scott), 1896-1940. The Great Gatsby. New York: C. Scribner's
sons, 1925. Print.
“Like Pale Gold - The Great Gatsby Part I: Crash Course English Literature #4 –
YouTube.” John Greene- YouTube. Web.
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