MATERIALISM AND HAPPINESS IN AMERICA:
THE GATSBY ERA AND TODAY
Materialism: attention to or emphasis on material objects, needs or considerations, with a disinterest in or rejection of spiritual values.
The acquisition of material has been equated with happiness in this country. This is true today, and it was true during the 1920's, the setting of F.
Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby. That the majority of Americans believe that wealth and happiness are the same is a result of our market
economy that encourages consumption and conditions us to think that we need material possessions to be happy. According to Andrew Bard
Schmookler, "Wealth and human fulfillment have become equated in the predominant ideology of liberal society, even though the great spiritual
teachers of humanity have all taught otherwise." (17)
What happened to Gatsby's generation? The 20's was an age of a consumption ethic that was needed to provide markets for the new
commodities that streamed from the production lines (Cowley, 53). The same problem exists today ... our materialistic attitudes are a result of
the freemarket economy in this country. Consumers are taught that they need to have all these things that the businesses are trying to sell.
It's true that this desire for things is what drives our economy. The free market has given us great blessings, but it has in some ways also put us
on the wrong path -- the path to a selfish, unhappy society. Michael Lerner, who worked as a psychotherapist to middle-income Americans
"The problem is that the deprivation of meaning is a social problem, rooted in part in the dynamics of the competitive marketplace, in part in the
materialism and selfishness that receive social sanction. . . many Americans
hunger for a different kind of society -- one based on principles of caring,
ethical and spiritual sensitivity . . . Their need for meaning is just as intense
as their need for economic security."
Jay Gatsby had all the trappings of wealth: a huge mansion, fancy clothes, and expensive cars. His lavish, decadent parties were designed to
impress Daisy. But why did Gatsby feel he needed to flaunt his material wealth to win Daisy's love? Why was he so materialistic, and why are
we? Are material possessions what we need to be happy? Part of the answer is that people "seek in material possessions fulfillment that is
lacking in other areas, especially human relationships" (Schmookler, 18). The very fact that our market society feeds on economic growth like a
fetish is a clue that excess consumption does not really satisfy. It is like an addiction. We can never have enough. A famous study done in the
early 1970's by Richard Easterlin, entitled "Does Economic Growth Improve the Human Lot?" found that "members of wealthy societies do not
seem happier than members of poor societies (119)." Perhaps they are more connected in their interpersonal relationships.
Our material yearnings are an attempt to satisfy the need for human relationships. Anthropologist Ashley Montagu had an important observation
about childrearing in capitalistic cultures: that "few peoples give their babies as little tactile contact as do Americans, especially as compared
with "poorer" societies (p )." The characters of The Great Gatsby had childrearing views that seem to confirm this observation. Tom and Daisy's
daughter is barely mentioned in the story and is treated as a minor appendage in their lives. Jay Gatsby's "insecure grasp of social and human
values (Bewley 47)" are reflected in his reaction toward the child:
"Gatsby and I in turn leaned down and took the small reluctant
hand. Afterward he kept looking at the child with surprise.
I don't think he had ever really believed in its existence before
Having lots of things is not what makes happy humans. The characters of The Great Gatsby, like many in America today, were engrossed in the
pursuit of private wealth. Jay Gatsby flaunted his material possessions in order to impress Daisy, but was he happy? Even if he had lived and
won Daisy back, true fulfillment would come to them both only when they realized "the need to switch from an ethos of selfishness to an ethos of
caring (Lerner)." Material belongings are not what he or Daisy needed to be truly happy.
The 1920's was an era, like the 1980's, of "mindless materialism and consumption and the pursuit of private wealth over public purpose
(Denton)." The "Roaring Twenties" of Gatsby's day was followed by the great Depression, which although it included painful economic
restructuring, had a positive side by forcing us to refocus our materialistic and human priorities.
Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby is a social commentary. Literary critic Marius Bewley suggests that Jay Gatsby is "the 'mythic' embodiment of the
American dream" (47) and that
"...the terrible deficiencies are not so much the private deficiencies
of Gatsby, but are deficiencies inherent in contemporary manifestations
of the American vision itself...Gatsby's deficiencies of intelligence and judgment bring him to his tragic death -- a death that is spiritual as well
as physical. But the more important question that faces us through our
sense of the immediate tragedy is where (these deficiencies) have brought
The very definition of materialism implies unhappiness because without spiritual values there cannot be true and lasting fulfillment. For although
The Great Gatsby captures the romance and glitter of the Jazz Age, it is more fundamentally a sad story --
the portrayal of a young man and his tragic search for happiness.
Bewley, Marius. F. Scott Fitzgerald: Modern Critical Views. ed. Harold Bloom. New
York: Chelsea House Publishers, 1985.
Cowley, Malcolm. F. Scott Fitzgerald: Modern Critical Views. ed. Harold Bloom. New York: Chelsea House Publishers, 1985.
Denton, Tommy. "Century's Already Ended, Welcome to the New." Houston Chronicle
1 Jan. 1993, 2 star ed.: A35.
Easterlin, Richard A. "Does Economic Growth Improve the Human Lot?". Nations and Households in Economic Growth: Essays in Honor of
Moses Abramovitz. Eds. Paul A. David and Melvin W. Reder. New York: Academic Press, Inc. 1974 (89-125)
Fitzgerald, F. Scott. The Great Gatsby. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1925.
Kasser, Tim, and Richard M. Ryan. "A Dark Side of the American Dream: Correlates of
Financial Success as a Central Life Aspiration." Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 65.2 (1993): 410-13.
Lerner, Michael. "Gurus of Cynicism vs. the Politics of Meaning." Houston Chronicle 24 June 1993, 2 star ed.: B11.
Montagu, Ashley. Touching. 2nd ed. New York: Harper & Row, 1978.
Schmookler, Andrew Bard. "The Insatiable Society: Materialistic Values and Human Needs." The Futurist July 1991: 17-23.
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