The Great Gatsby, considered by many as F. Scott Fitzgerald’s greatest literary
work, depicts a man’s journey in acquiring love and success during the Jazz Age. The protagonist, Jay Gatsby, attempts
to win the love of an upper social class woman named Daisy Buchanan by becoming wealthy through illegal means. The most significant
underlying theme of the novel, however, is the moral decay and decline of the American Dream after World War I during the
As a leading literary figure of the Lost Generation, Fitzgerald aimed to capture the essence
of that society. Although it was a period of soaring economy, ethical and social decay also arrived in this height of materialism.
Hence, everything part of this novel reflects the immorality that was taking place. Throughout the story, Fitzgerald carefully
examines the mentality of individuals in relation to the nation as a whole. He mainly conveys the major theme of moral decline
through symbolisms and the actions of the characters.
Example conveying the theme through the symbol of the Valley of Ashes: About half way between
West Egg and New York the motor road hastily joins the railroad and runs beside it for a quarter of a mile, so as to shrink
away from a certain desolate area of land. This is a valley of 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 a transcendent
effort, of men who move dimly and already crumbling through the powdery air. Occasionally a line of gray cars crawls along
an invisible track, gives out a ghastly creak, and comes to rest, and immediately the ash-gray men swarm up with leaden spades
and stir up an impenetrable cloud, which screens their obscure operations from your sight.
In the selection above, Fitzgerald utilizes the symbol of Valley of Ashes to suggest
the theme of moral decay, and ultimately the decline of the American Dream. This long stretch of desolate land is created
by the dumping of industrial ashes, which corresponds to the current societal relationship between immorality and wealth.
In others words, wealth is the cause of individual downfall and moral corruption. In describing this land, Fitzgerald has
portrayed a group of people who mistakenly confused happiness with pleasure due to the blind pursuit of wealth.
Geography also plays a role in expressing the theme of moral decay in The Great Gatsby.
Fitzgerald uses East and West to imply the old and the new, the immoral and moral. The East (New York) is associated with
ethic corruption and decay of American Dream, while the West (Northern and Midwestern region) still retains some traditional
principles and ethics.
Example conveying the theme through the immoral actions of the characters: I
couldn't forgive him or like him, but I saw that what he had done was, to him, entirely justified. It was all very careless
and confused. They were careless people, Tom and Daisy--they smashed up things and creatures and then retreated back into
their money or their vast carelessness, or whatever it was that kept them together, and let other people clean up the mess
they had made…
Fitzgerald filled the novel with acts of sins and immorality. Because every character
in the novel commits some from of indulgences, the bigger picture essentially hints at the fall of mankind, which in this
case, is the decline of the American Dream. Although Fitzgerald includes the theme of aspiration, it is a different kind than
that of the original American Dream. Characters in this novel do not pursuit wealth for the want of better lives. They pursuit
wealth for the sake of wealth and have lost the understanding of true happiness. Instead, they live idly off of empty and
excess pleasures. Even Gatsby’s pursuit of Daisy is related to that of moral decay because one of the fundamental reasons
why he is attracted to Daisy is due to her wealth and privilege. In a way, Daisy is just another form of status symbol. Finally,
the absence of mourners at Gatsby’s funeral represents the ultimate moral decay.