The Debauchery of Decadence The 1920s was a period of significant change for many Americans. After the U. S. emerged victorious from the Great War, an economic boom resonated throughout the land. A new, fervently capitalist America emerged, as the innovations and efficiencies of a new rapid age of industrialization took hold of the spirit of the people. All the while, this spirit tended to beat stronger in the hearts of some than in others; those wealthy enough to rejoice in the newly-conceived luxuries did so at length.
Resultantly, what was once deemed a strong American work ethic quickly fell into a society based on partying, decadence and the pursuit of personal fulfillment. Those with less capital, however, could not partake in the nation’s newfound wealth; as the evils of a newly capitalist society served to disparage those less fortunate among the American people, a class society was born. Now, despite the evident disadvantages of such a situation, the exciting times only served to motivate and inspire a new generation of writers.
An era noted for a high number of novels rated, even to this day, as among the best of the 20th century, the 1920s was a great period in the history of American literature. It is from lines of methodically conceived prose and phrasings that we have drawn much of our knowledge and understanding of the time period. Amongst a sample of the literary talent, it is notable that two such authors released books to critical acclaim in the year 1925; taking cues from the world around them, they drew on experiences with such topics as love, science, class separation and capitalism.
While each novel centres on a separate facet of American lifestyle, Sinclair Lewis, through Arrowsmith, as well as F. Scott Fitzgerald, through The Great Gatsby, both successfully make use of the literary form to preserve, in their works, the ideology of the 1920s as a period of both great social change and moral decline. This is demonstrated through each novel’s use of three elements: central theme, the journey of the central character, and the use of contrasting pairs of symbols to create imagery.
As many authors of fictional writing tend to draw their inspiration from the world around them, it is evident that the social progress of the 1920s, as well as the sense of moral ambiguity it held, can be directly related to either novel’s central theme. Common to both novels, however, are the historical circumstances which lead to their conception. Despite the advancements that the post-war boom brought to the American lifestyle, a new-found societal drive for self-indulgence and and personal profit lead to the hollowing and corruption of accepted moral standards.
As a result, a general theme of decline prevails across both works. In Gatsby, the central theme is the decline of what was once considered the American Dream. The reader is introduced to a facet of the 1920s in which not only does self-indulgence reign supreme, but it does so only for a certain and small portion of the population. Daisy and Tom Buchanan, members of the “upper class” during the era, are deemed separate from the “middle class”, of which Nick is a member, and further apart from the “lower class”, of which Myrtle and George Wilson are members.
Much like the song goes, “The rich get richer, and the poor get – children” (Fitzgerald, 92), and while the other classes toil beneath, the Buchanans seem entirely able to live lifestyles emanating with prosperity. They enjoy a lifestyle of the era; they live in a large mansion, own a stable of horses, and partake in discussion regarding the latest philosophical and scientific views. They are concerned only with the fulfillment of their desires, as they meanwhile hold disregard for those deemed socially beneath themselves.
When an equal, a stranger by the name of Gatsby, appears one day, he is initially accepted for who he appears to be: a good-hearted, lavish, successful yet mysterious man. With a burning passion to seek out a lifestyle he has dreamed for his entire life, as well as the hand of a woman he has pined for throughout a five year span, he is nonetheless ultimately rejected for belonging to a lower class than the Buchanans. While Nick consoled his friend, stating that “They [are] a rotten crowd.
You’re worth the whole damn bunch put together. ” (Fitzgerald, 146), the ultimate reality of the situation was that despite the Buchanans’ unfair judgement of a man who would otherwise be characterized as decent and ambitious, Gatsby falls victim to a new society: where, for those in power, the definition of morality is deemed entirely variable. In Arrowsmith, the central theme is the decline of science with regard to American medicine.
The reader is introduced to a separate facet of the 1920s, in which not only does personal profit become a sacrosanct objective, but it does so at the expense of everything a “good doctor” is known to stand for. This new society has brought forth a business-like aspect to the medical practice, and as such, they harvest the benefits of capitalism for personal gain; shiny medical equipment, limousine rides, political appointments, and heightened salaries.
Despite the protagonist’s passion for science, and his desire to work in a world where doctors are altruistic and focussed on precision, the medical establishment gradually changes into one of competition and commercialism. As the story progresses, it would appear that a drive to do good no longer motivates or influences physicians of the era; a newly obtained minor celebrity-like status has brought forth promises of prestige, material goods, and personal pride… all luxuries at a cost of scientific advancement and the benefit of greater good.
As the plight of the researcher meant little in light of the newly competitive landscape of the physician, these ideas grew, and evolved into dangerous extremes. A friend, Irv Watters, eschews any idea of the greater good, stating how:“Sometimes I believe it’d be better for the general health situation if there weren’t any public health departments at all, because they get a lot of people into the habit of going to free clinics instead of to private physicians, and cut down the earnings of the doctors and reduce their number, so there are less of us to keep a watchful eye on sickness. (Lewis, 221)He reasons, “You can see now that you’ve got to support your wife and family, and if you don’t, nobody else is going to” (Lewis, 221), stating that the protagonist would be best off to, “tie up with good, solid, conservative, successful business men. ” (Lewis, 221) As the rest of the medical establishment agrees with Irv’s sentiment, it is apparent that the beneficent morals of the medical community have fallen in the face of personal prestige. The researcher falls victim to a new commercial society: one where the choice remains to either starve by one’s values, or be depressed by one’s selling out.
A time of great advancement in luxuries, personal and science alike, it is the corruption of those who enjoyed the spoils of these innovations who lead to the moral decline captured gracefully by the themes of both novels. Most novels involving fictional accounts necessitate a focus on the journey of a central character, whose actions and experiences revolve around the subject matter of the piece. Despite the great differences in persona in the central characters of both novels, and especially the difference in the final consequences of their actions, the setting of each book still took place in the same time period.
Resultantly, the social changes within the time period of the 1920s, as well as the moral abstruseness of the era, both serve to influence each novel’s central character throughout their journey, affecting the beliefs he started out with as he contends with the reality of a new world. In Gatsby, the central character of the novel is Jay Gatsby. Born Jay Gatz, he is seen as an ambitious youth, who followed a rigourous schedule aimed at propelling a child of North Dakota farmers towards greatness. Taken in by a wealthy copper magnate, one Mr.
Dan Cody at seventeen, he emerged from his internship – of sorts – ready to become a great success. His clothes, his past, and his lifestyle all changed, as he desired to position himself as a member of the upper class. As stated by the narrator, “he invented just the sort of Jay Gatsby that a seventeen year old boy would be likely to invent, and to this conception he was faithful to the end. ” (Fitzgerald, 95) Meeting a girl, a Miss Daisy Fay, before the Great War began, he fell into a deep, pragmatic love that had lasted for five years, up until the present setting of the novel.
When the reader meets Gatsby, he is perceived as a lavish, educated man; one who enjoys the presence of company, as well as a decent fellow who desires to take care of those around him in grand shows of generosity. This is all an act, we learn. He has changed himself in order to fit in with the upper class, and in doing so, sought decadent parties and wild jazz music in order to fit in with the rest of the entertainment-loving, carefree members of the upper class. The objective of this task being to court Daisy, who he hopes to eventually meet through one of the partygoers.
He succeeds, and maintains a cordial relationship with her. That is, up until her husband Tom becomes involved. Though Gatsby does not wish to fight Tom for Daisy’s hand, he succeeds in doing so, garnering from the latter an “I never loved him” (Fitzgerald, 126) with respect to Tom. When his shady dealings with Wolfsheim, however, and his membership to a lower class come into the open, he is forced to defend himself in front of a now unsurplussed Daisy: “It passed, and he began to talk excitedly to Daisy, denying everything, defending his name against accusations that had not been made.
But with every word she was drawing further and further into herself, so he gave that up and only the dead dream fought on as the afternoon slipped away, trying to touch what was no longer tangible, struggling unhappily, undespairingly, toward that lost voice across the room. ” (Fitzgerald, 128)Despite his best efforts, he falls victim to a less-loving, cheating, yet entirely more socially appropriate man and his whims, and loses the love of his life.
As Gatsby is consumed by his attempt to fit into the mould, we see the consequences of his interference indirectly kill Myrtle Wilson, and he himself falls victim to he vengeful will of her much-mistaken husband. While it is debatable that such a grim fate be directly related to his actions, it is clear that the actions of Gatsby culminated in a tragedy. His dream was dead, and all hope was lost, vanquished by the skewed morals of a unfair and entirely changed society. In Arrowsmith, the central character of the novel is Martin Arrowsmith.
A bright young man, we first meet him at the age of fourteen, precociously reading Gray’s Anatomy in the chair of Doc Vickerson, his mentor, “muttering the long and perfectly incomprehensible words in a hum” (Lewis, 4). Under Doc Vickerson, and Professor Gottlieb of the University of Winnemac, he develops, through the course of his education, a deep passion for pure science as well as a desire for precision. He discovers that he feels best working alone, in a laboratory environment, impressing Gottlieb with his work ethic while angering other professors with his constant contradictions to their teachings.
Upon graduation from his medical internship, the reader observes his actions throughout the course of several jobs, in turn taking up a position as a small town doctor, a public health officer, a pathologist, and finally as a laboratory researcher. All the while, he is faced with constant opposition for his beliefs in the pure sciences, as well as his devotion to the scientific aspects of the physician trade, by his physician colleagues around him, and the authorities that govern his medical practice.
In light of an aura of profit and competition, he is gradually coaxed by these people into focusing on the business aspects of his job, as well as publishing his journals before his findings are complete, in the interests of others who care less about the greater good he seeks than their own personal gratification. For a brief moment, he appears to enjoy his immersion into this environment, though it is by the words of his wife, Leora, that he regains common sense:“Are you going on for the rest of your life, stumbling into respectability and having to be dug out again?
Will you never learn you’re a barbarian? ” (Lewis, 227)Soon thereafter, while on the isle of St. Hubert, while testing out his cure for the Plague, Leora falls ill from a contraction that Martin cannot cure. Upon her death, he realizes that he must stick to his values, and resigns from his workplace shortly thereafter. As Martin eschews his attempt to fit into the mould, we see him and a colleague travel off deep into the woods of Vermont, to do research.
While all around him, the social changes in 1920s medicine bring a great change to the priorities of American physicians, and the moral obscurity of his colleagues seek to bring the science aspect of matters to its knees, Martin finally attains a sense of happiness in doing what he enjoys most. Influenced entirely by the era’s social changes and moral ambiguities, the characters of Martin Arrowsmith and Jay Gatsby are very different, while each serves to exemplify the journey taken by a man alone, in a world of debauched decadence.
As skilled artisans of the written word, authors of the 1920s are noted for their extensive use of imagery in depicting scenes within their novels; no exception has been made for either Fitzgerald or Lewis, whose use of symbolism detailed not simply a period of great change, but also a period of questionable morality in daily actions, also. The use of symbols in both works serves to highlight two highly contrasting mindsets in the era’s lifestyle, the first of these being morality. In Gatsby, morality is represented by the eyes of Doctor T. J. Eckleburg.
The “persistent stare” (Fitzgerald, 27) seen permanently brooding “on over the solemn dumping ground” (Fitzgerald, 26) of the Valley of Ashes, it is a symbol of moral judgement. Although literally an advertisement for a New York optician, the gigantic blue eyes seem to burn with the fires of integrity, appearing prominently in two key scenes of morally questionable actions – Tom’s tryst with Myrtle, as well as Myrtle’s resulting death. Upon the latter, George Wilson becomes fixated with the billboard, and derives his own sense of symbolism from it. God sees everything” (Fitzgerald, 152), he states, as he ponders the actions of Tom which he believes lead to Myrtle’s demise. “[Myrtle] may fool me but [she] can’t fool God! ” (Fitzgerald, 152) Despite Michaelis’ reassurance George that it is only an advertisement, George still remains fixed with the billboard, “his face close to the window pane, nodding into the twilight. ” (Fitzgerald, 152) All the while, with the appearance of a higher power, the eyes of Eckleburg stare down on the moral decay present, seemingly judgmental of not just the Valley, but of American society as a whole.
In Arrowsmith, morality is represented by the magnifying glass given to Martin by his mentor, Dr. Vickerson. In a drunken stupor one evening, Vickerson comes upon Martin reading Gray’s Anatomy and poring over the doctor’s vast collection of specimens. “Want to give you something – start your training” (Lewis, 8), the doctor said. Holding out the “beloved magnifying glass which for years he had used in botanizing” (Lewis, 8), he watches, sighs and slumbers away as Martin pockets it.
Vickerson’s gift emphasizes the noble scientist’s dedication to precision in life, and the attention to detail necessary in Martin’s future study, while in the laboratory and through his general scientific pursuits alike. Despite an increasingly commercial lifestyle within the American medical community, the importance of knowledge and substance could now never be forgotten. Contrastingly, however, the second set of symbols serving to highlight the era’s lifestyle are those depicting superficiality.
In Gatsby, Myrtle’s dog is symbolic of the era’s focus on the material aspect of things. Purchased during a tryst between her and Tom, it is a living animal being sold off of a street corner, though it is never seen as such by either. Merely a result of Myrtle’s earnest cry of “I want to get one of those dogs,” (Fitzgerald, 29), the creature is used merely as a token, an object of Myrtle’s desire to “have one for the apartment. ”(Fitzgerald, 29). While she fawns briefly over its breeding and gender, Tom responds rather tersely to the seller, stating that “It’s a bitch.
Here’s your money. Go and buy ten more dogs with it. ”(Fitzgerald, 30) This complete lack of attention to a living being serves not only to demonstrate the carelessness of Tom, but the immoral – yet entirely socially appropriate – aspects of a living thing being brought into a home without love or attention, objectified as a mere material good. In Arrowsmith, Gladys the Galloping Centrifuge, a rare and very priceless centrifuge at the McGurk Institute, is symbolic of the era’s decadence.
Despite the McGurk Institute being a place founded on the principles of pure science and honourable research, the prestige-influenced doctors desire only the best equipment for their laboratories. Prided by Dr. Holabird, the four foot across, electrically driven, submarine hatch-like constructed centrifuge is an exceptional display of the Institute’s vanity. “There’re only three of these in existence,” (Lewis, 294) Holabird explains, as he prides over the fact it is the “fastest in the world. (Lewis, 294) Although Martin, along with the rest of the staff, is awed by the object, the priceless centrifuge, overly large and practically unexceptional, is but a mark of the willingness of the medical establishment of the era to pay for prestige rather than concentrate on the research they are meant to be concentrating on – much of whose research funding was also likely diverted for the machine. An entirely luxurious item, it shows the power of a material object’s influence of personal pride at the expense of morals – though it is, once again, entirely socially acceptable.
While important to the novels, the real symbolism lies in the fact that through only two items each, a time of rapidly changing morals and entirely socially-appropriate superficiality is used by both novels to illustrate a true sense of the dynamics which existed in the 1920s. An epic time in the history of the United States of America, the historical significance of the 1920s could only ever fall second to the era’s literary magnificence. Sinclair Lewis, through his novel Arrowsmith, as well as F.
Scott Fitzgerald, through his novel The Great Gatsby, sought to use the art form of literature, so as to share the ideology of the 1920s for future generations to look back on. Certainly a period of great social advancement, it was nevertheless a time of consistent moral decline. Through use of theme, the journey of the central character, and the use of symbolism, both authors accomplished a common preservation of the quintessential 1920s lifestyle in their works. Works Cited Fitzgerald, F. (1973). The Great Gatsby (Modern Classics). London: Penguin Books Ltd. Lewis, S. (1952). Arrowsmith. Orlando, FL: Harcourt, Brace & Company.
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The Debauchery of Decadence: a Comparison of Arrowsmith and the Great Gatsby. (2018, Jan 25). Retrieved from https://graduateway.com/the-debauchery-of-decadence-a-comparison-of-arrowsmith-and-the-great-gatsby/