The Great Gatsby was set in the 1920s and in this time wealth was spread all over America, particularly in New York, and in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s fictional villages of the East and West Egg, where The Great Gatsby was set. In America many people had made their money by themselves without the help of an inheritance. Wealth was displayed in the type of car you drove, to the size and position of your house, and this idea that each person, no matter what their background, could succeed, was known as the ‘American Dream’.
This occurred because unlike England where there was a clearly defined class system, in which people remained within their class level, in America a poor person born into poverty could by whatever means, become a wealthy person, mixing in society with other wealthy people. This is no more evident than in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s character Jay Gatsby. However, such wealth often attracted jealousy, and in turn, corruptive behaviour. In the 1920s, America was a financial goldmine with many individuals making huge sums of money.
Post-World War One, many women entered the workforce, and factory production methods improved, creating a significant boost to America’s economy. More often than not, however, some of the money that people made was earned through corruptive methods. Two characters, Gatsby and Myer Wolfshiem, both acquired their money through illegal means, with Gatsby illicitly selling alcohol through pharmacies, which was banned during America’s unsuccessful prohibition between 1919-1929. To acquire his wealth, Gatsby was involved in fraudulent behaviour and was an example of the corruptive effect of wealth.
When Jay Gatsby was a soldier during World War One, he feel in love with the ‘bright eye[d]… passionate’ Daisy, but the pair did not marry (p. 14). Many years later, Gatsby retorts to Daisy’s husband, Tom Buchanan, ‘She only married you because I was poor’ (p. 124). Even though the two were madly in love with each other, Daisy would not marry Jay because he was not affluent enough. Rather than marrying someone for true love, 1920s American society dictated that it was also a requirement that the married couple were rich or of equal wealth.
In addition, the same situation occurs between Nick Carraway, the protagonist, and Jordan Baker, Daisy’s friend and a competitive golfer. Nick cannot seriously expect a relationship with Jordan, because he has so little money. In this way, The Great Gatsby shows that love too can be easily corrupted by the effects of wealth. Tom and Daisy often behaved carelessly throughout the novel, simply because they have been corrupted by their riches. Daisy does not worry about the rest of the world and becomes lazy in her actions.
Since she has such a large amount of money and is not burdened with financial concerns, she in turn believes that her wealth, not her thoughtfulness or caring actions, can fix any problems. From childhood, Daisy has been spoiled, and this has continued throughout her life. As Nick states towards the conclusion of the novel, ‘They were careless people, Tom and Daisy – they smashed up things and creatures and then retreated back into their money’ (p. 170). Daisy’s irresponsible behaviour and attitudes indicate that she has been infected by her own prosperity.
Daisy’s husband, Tom, inherited his assets from ‘his family [who] were enormously wealthy’, and also believes he can do anything he desires without any thought to the consequences of his actions (p. 11). This is clearly indicated when he buys his ‘sensuous’ mistress, Myrtle, a flat in New York. They use the apartment as a meeting place in which to conduct their illicit relationship, where no one will disturb them. Tom’s actions are showy and reckless, illustrating his lack of concern and regard about the rights and responsibilities of a marriage.
His wealth is a factor in his ability to easily conduct such a relationship, which again reveals the corruptibility of wealth. Throughout F. Scott Fitzgerald’s novel The Great Gatsby many characters significantly highlight the ways in which corruptive behaviour occurred because of the influences of wealth. Much of this relates to the prosperous, increasingly urbanised nature of American society in the 1920s. Jay Gatsby and Myer Wolfshiem acquire their wealth illegally under insalubrious methods during Prohibition.
Personal finances during the 1920s affected people’s relationships, restricting both Gatsby and Daisy, and Nick and Jordan marrying. Furthermore, the wealthiest personalities in the novel, Tom and Daisy Buchanan, both flaunt their wealth in a carless way, with little thought for other people. In doing so, these characters all perpetuate the notion that people’s wealth and riches played a major part in the careless and corruptive behaviour of 1920s American society.