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Best Analysis: Money and Materialism in The Great Gatsby

Posted by Dr. Anna Wulick | May 21, 2016 2:00:00 PM

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In The Great Gatsby, money is a huge motivator in the characters’ relationships, motivations, and outcomes. Most of the characters reveal themselves to be highly materialistic, their motivations driven by their desire for money and things: Daisy marries and stays with Tom because of the lifestyle he can provide her, Myrtle has her affair with Tom due to the privileged world it grants her access to, and Gatsby even lusts after Daisy as if she is a prize to be won. After all, her voice is “full of money—that was the inexhaustible charm that rose and fell in it, the jingle of it, the cymbals' song of it. . . . High in a white palace the king's daughter, the golden girl. . . .” (7.106).

So how exactly does materialism reveal itself as a theme, how can it help us analyze the characters, and what are some common assignments surrounding this theme? We will dig into all things money here in this guide.

 

Roadmap:

  1. Money and materialism in the plot
  2. Key quotes about money/materialism
  3. Analyzing characters via money/materialism
  4. Common assignments and analysis of money/materialism in Gatsby

 

Quick Note on Our Citations

Our citation format in this guide is (chapter.paragraph). We're using this system since there are many editions of Gatsby, so using page numbers would only work for students with our copy of the book. To find a quotation we cite via chapter and paragraph in your book, you can either eyeball it (Paragraph 1-50: beginning of chapter; 50-100: middle of chapter; 100-on: end of chapter), or use the search function if you're using an online or eReader version of the text.

 

Money and Materialism in The Great Gatsby

In the opening pages, Nick establishes himself as someone who has had many advantages in life – a wealthy family and an Ivy League education to name just two. Despite not being as wealthy as Tom and Daisy, his second cousin, they see him as enough of a peer to invite him to their home in Chapter 1. Nick’s connection to Daisy in turn makes him attractive to Gatsby. If Nick were just a middle-class everyman, the story could not play out in the same way.

Tom and Daisy’s movements are also supported by their money. At the beginning of the novel they move to fashionable East Egg, after moving around between “wherever people played polo and were rich together,” and are able to very quickly pick up and leave at the end of the book after the murders, thanks to the protection their money provides (1.17). Daisy, for her part, only begins her affair with Gatsby after a very detailed display of his wealth (via the mansion tour). She even breaks down in tears after Gatsby shows off his ridiculously expensive set of colored shirts, crying that she’s “never seen such beautiful shirts” before (5.118).

Gatsby’s notoriety comes from, first and foremost, his enormous wealth, wealth he has gathered to win over Daisy. Gatsby was born to poor farmer parents in North Dakota, but at 17, determined to become rich, struck out with the wealthy Dan Cody and never looked back (6.5-15). Even though he wasn’t able to inherit any part of Cody’s fortune, he used what he learned of wealthy society to first charm Daisy before shipping out to WWI (in a uniform she had no idea he was poor, especially given his sophisticated manners). And then, after returning home and realizing Daisy was married and gone, he set out to earn enough money to win Daisy over, turning to crime via a partnership with Meyer Wolfshiem to quickly amass a huge sum (9.83-7).

Meanwhile, Tom’s mistress Myrtle, a car mechanic’s wife, puts on airs and tries to pass as rich through her affair with Tom, but her involvement with the Buchanans gets her killed. George Wilson, in contrast, is constrained by his lack of wealth. He tells Tom Buchanan after finding out about Myrtle’s affair that he plans to move her West, but he “[needs] money pretty bad” in order to make the move (7.146). Tragically, Myrtle is hit and killed that evening by Daisy. If George Wilson had had the means, he likely would have already left New York with Myrtle in tow, saving both of their lives.

Hardly anyone shows up to Gatsby’s funeral since they were only attracted by his wealth and the parties, not the man himself. This is encapsulated in a phone call Nick describes, to a man who used to come to Gatsby’s parties: “one gentleman to whom I telephoned implied that he had got what he deserved. However, that was my fault, for he was one of those who used to sneer most bitterly at Gatsby on the courage of Gatsby's liquor and I should have known better than to call him” (9.69).

In short, money both drives the plot and explains many of the characters’ motivations and limitations.

 

Key Quotes about Money

Then wear the gold hat, if that will move her;
If you can bounce high, bounce for her too,
Till she cry "Lover, gold-hatted, high-bouncing lover,
I must have you!"

 —THOMAS PARKE D'INVILLIERS

The epigraph of the novel immediately marks money and materialism as a key theme of the book – the listener is implored to “wear the gold hat” as a way to impress his lover. In other words, wealth is presented as the key to love – such an important key that the word “gold” is repeated twice. It’s not enough to “bounce high” for someone, to win them over with your charm. You need wealth, the more the better, to win over the object of your desire.

 

“They had spent a year in France, for no particular reason, and then drifted here and there unrestfully wherever people played polo and were rich together.” (1.17)

Our introduction to Tom and Daisy immediately describes them as rich, bored, and privileged. Tom’s restlessness is likely one motivator for his affairs, while Daisy is weighed down by the knowledge of those affairs. This combination of restlessness and resentment puts them on the path to the tragedy at the end of the book.

 

“There was music from my neighbor's house through the summer nights. In his blue gardens men and girls came and went like moths among the whisperings and the champagne and the stars. At high tide in the afternoon I watched his guests diving from the tower of his raft or taking the sun on the hot sand of his beach while his two motor-boats slit the waters of the Sound, drawing aquaplanes over cataracts of foam. On week-ends his Rolls-Royce became an omnibus, bearing parties to and from the city, between nine in the morning and long past midnight, while his station wagon scampered like a brisk yellow bug to meet all trains. And on Mondays eight servants including an extra gardener toiled all day with mops and scrubbing-brushes and hammers and garden-shears, repairing the ravages of the night before….” (3.1 – 3.6)

The description of Gatsby’s parties at the beginning of Chapter 3 is long and incredibly detailed, and thus highlights the extraordinary extent of Gatsby’s wealth and materialism. In contrast to Tom and Daisy’s expensive but not overly gaudy mansion, and the small dinner party Nick attends there in Chapter 1, everything about Gatsby’s new wealth is over-the-top and showy, from the crates of oranges brought in and juiced one-by-one by a butler, the “corps” of caterers to the full orchestra. Everyone who comes to the parties is attracted by Gatsby’s money and wealth, making the culture of money-worship a society-wide trend in the novel, not just something our main characters fall victim to. After all, “People were not invited – they went there” (3.7). No one comes due to close personal friendship with Jay. Everyone is there for the spectacle alone.

 

He took out a pile of shirts and began throwing them, one by one before us, shirts of sheer linen and thick silk and fine flannel which lost their folds as they fell and covered the table in many-colored disarray. While we admired he brought more and the soft rich heap mounted higher—shirts with stripes and scrolls and plaids in coral and apple-green and lavender and faint orange with monograms of Indian blue. Suddenly with a strained sound, Daisy bent her head into the shirts and began to cry stormily.

"They're such beautiful shirts," she sobbed, her voice muffled in the thick folds. "It makes me sad because I've never seen such—such beautiful shirts before." (5.117-118)

Gatsby, like a peacock showing off its many-colored tail, flaunts his wealth to Daisy by showing off his many-colored shirts. And, fascinatingly, this is the first moment of the day Daisy fully breaks down emotionally – not when she first sees Gatsby, not after their first long conversation, not even at the initial sight of the mansion – but at this extremely conspicuous display of wealth. This speaks to her materialism and how, in her world, a certain amount of wealth is a barrier to entry for a relationship (friendship or more).  

 

"She's got an indiscreet voice," I remarked. "It's full of——"

I hesitated.

"Her voice is full of money," he said suddenly.

That was it. I'd never understood before. It was full of money—that was the inexhaustible charm that rose and fell in it, the jingle of it, the cymbals' song of it. . . . High in a white palace the king's daughter, the golden girl. . . . (7.103-106)

Daisy herself is explicitly connected with money here, which allows the reader to see Gatsby’s desire for her as desire for wealth, money, and status more generally. So while Daisy is materialistic and is drawn to Gatsby again due to his newly-acquired wealth, we see Gatsby is drawn to her as well due to the money and status she represents.  

 

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. . . . (9.146)

Here, in the aftermath of the novel’s carnage, Nick observes that while Myrtle, George, and Gatsby have all died, Tom and Daisy are not punished at all for their recklessness, they can simply retreat “back into their money or their vast carelessness… and let other people clean up the mess.” So money here is more than just status – it’s a shield against responsibility, which allows Tom and Daisy to behave recklessly while other characters suffer and die in pursuit of their dreams.

 

body_shrug.jpgMoney: the ultimate shrug-off.

 

Analyzing Characters Through Materialism

We touched on this a bit with the quotes, but all of the characters can be analyzed from the point of view of their wealth and/or how materialistic they are. This analysis can enrich an essay about old money versus new money, the American dream, or even a more straightforward character analysis, or a comparison of two different characters. Mining the text for a character’s attitude toward money can be a very helpful way to understand their motivations in the world of 1920s New York.

If you analyze a character through this theme, make sure to explain:

  1. Their attitude towards money.
  2. How money/materialism drives their choices in the novel.
  3. How their final outcome is shaped by their wealth status and what that says about their place in the world.

 

Character Analysis Example

As an example, let’s look briefly at Myrtle. We get our best look at Myrtle in Chapter 2, when Tom takes Nick to see her in Queens and they end up going to the New York City apartment Tom keeps for Myrtle and hosting a small gathering (after Tom and Myrtle hook up, with Nick in the next room!).

Myrtle is obsessed with shows of wealth, from her outfits, to insisting on a specific cab, to her apartment’s decoration, complete with scenes of Versailles on the overly-large furniture: “The living room was crowded to the doors with a set of tapestried furniture entirely too large for it so that to move about was to stumble continually over scenes of ladies swinging in the gardens of Versailles” (2.51). She even adopts a different persona among her guests: “The intense vitality that had been so remarkable in the garage was converted into impressive hauteur. Her laughter, her gestures, her assertions became more violently affected moment by moment and as she expanded the room grew smaller around her until she seemed to be revolving on a noisy, creaking pivot through the smoky air” (2.56).

In Myrtle’s eyes, money is an escape from life with her husband in the valley of ashes, something that brings status, and something that buys class. After all, Tom’s money secures her fancy apartment and allows her to lord it over her guests and play at sophistication, even while Nick looks down his nose at her.

Obviously there is physical chemistry driving her affair with Tom, but she seems to get as much (if not more) pleasure from the materials that come with the affair – the apartment, the clothes, the dog, the parties. So she keeps up this affair, despite how morally questionable it is and the risk it opens up for her – her materialism, in other words, is her primary motivator.

However, despite her airs, she matters very little to the “old money” crowd, as cruelly evidenced first when Tom breaks her nose with a “short deft movement” (2.126), and later, when Daisy chooses to run her over rather than get into a car accident. Myrtle’s character reveals how precarious social climbing is, how materialism is not actually a path to happiness/virtue.

 

body_climbing-3.jpgIn this novel, actual mountain climbing is safer than social climbing.

 

Common Assignments and Discussion Topics About Money and Materialism in The Great Gatsby

Here are ways to think about frequently assigned topics on this theme.

 

Discuss Tom & Daisy as people who “smash things and retreat into their money”

As discussed above, money – and specifically having inherited money – not only guarantees a certain social class, it guarantees safety and privilege: Tom and Daisy can literally live by different rules than other, less-wealthy people. While Gatsby, Myrtle, and George all end up dead, Tom and Daisy get to skip town and avoid any consequences, despite their direct involvement.  

For this prompt, you can explore earlier examples of Tom’s carelessness (breaking Myrtle’s nose, his behavior in the hotel scene, letting Daisy and Gatsby drive back to Long Island after the fight in the hotel) as well as Daisy’s (throwing a fit just before her wedding but going through with it, kissing Gatsby with her husband in the next room). Show how each instance reveals Tom or Daisy’s carelessness, and how those instances thus foreshadow the bigger tragedy – Myrtle’s death at Daisy’s hands, followed by Tom’s manipulation of George to kill Gatsby.

You can also compare Tom and Daisy’s actions and outcomes to other characters to help make your point – Myrtle and Gatsby both contribute to the conflict by participating in affairs with Tom and Daisy, but obviously, Myrtle and Gatsby don’t get to “retreat into their money,” they both end up dead. Clearly, having old money sets you far apart from everyone else in the world of the novel.

 

What do Nick’s comments about money reveal about his attitude towards wealth?

This is an interesting prompt, since you have to comb through passages of Nick’s narration to find his comments about money, and then consider what they could mean, given that he comes from money himself.

To get you started, here is a sample of some of Nick’s comments on money and the wealthy, though there are certainly more to be found:

“Only Gatsby, the man who gives his name to this book, was exempt from my reaction—Gatsby who represented everything for which I have an unaffected scorn.” (1.4)

“My own house was an eye-sore, but it was a small eye-sore, and it had been overlooked, so I had a view of the water, a partial view of my neighbor's lawn, and the consoling proximity of millionaires—all for eighty dollars a month. (1.14)

“They had spent a year in France, for no particular reason, and then drifted here and there unrestfully wherever people played polo and were rich together.” (1.17)

Nick’s comments about money, especially in the first chapter, are mostly critical and cynical. First of all, he makes it clear that he has “an unaffected scorn” for the ultra-rich, and eyes both new money and old money critically. He sarcastically describes the “consoling proximity of millionaires” on West Egg and wryly observes Tom and Daisy’s restless entitlement on East Egg.

These comments might seem a bit odd, given that Nick admits to coming from money himself: “My family have been prominent, well-to-do people in this middle-western city for three generations” (1.5). However, while Nick is wealthy, he is nowhere near as wealthy as the Buchanans or Gatsby – he expresses surprise both that Tom is able to afford bringing ponies from Lake Forest (“It was hard to realize that a man in my own generation was wealthy enough to do that” (1.16), and that Gatsby was able to buy his own mansion (“But young men didn't—at least in my provincial inexperience I believed they didn't—drift coolly out of nowhere and buy a palace on Long Island Sound” (3.88)), despite the fact they are all about 30.

In other words, while he opens the book with his father’s advice to remember “all the advantages [he’s] had,” Nick seems to have a chip on his shoulder about still not being in the highest tier of the wealthy class. While he can observe the social movements of the wealthy with razor precision, he always comes off as wry, detached, and perhaps even bitter. Perhaps this attitude was tempered at Yale, where he would have been surrounded by other ultra-wealthy peers, but in any case, Nick’s cynical, sarcastic attitude seems to be a cover for jealousy and resentment for those even more wealthy than him.

 

Why does Gatsby say Daisy’s voice is “full of money”? What does it reveal about the characters’ values?

Gatsby’s comment about Daisy’s voice explicitly connects Daisy the character to the promise of wealth, old money, and even the American Dream. Furthermore, the rest of that quote explicitly describes Daisy as “High in a white palace, the King’s daughter, the golden girl…” (7.106). This makes Daisy sound like the princess that the hero gets to marry at the end of a fairy tale – in other words, she’s a high-value prize.  

Daisy representing money also suggests money is as alluring and desirable – or even more so – than Daisy herself. In fact, during Chapter 8 when we finally get a fuller recap of Daisy and Gatsby’s early relationship, Nick notes that “It excited [Gatsby] too that many men had already loved Daisy—it increased her value in his eyes” (8.10). In other words, Gatsby loves Daisy’s “value” as an in-demand product.

But since Daisy is flighty and inconsistent, Gatsby’s comment also suggests that wealth is similarly unstable. But that knowledge doesn’t dampen his pursuit of wealth – if anything, it makes it even more desirable. And since Gatsby doesn’t give up his dream, even into death, we can see how fervently he desires money and status.

 

Connecting new/old money and materialism to the American dream

In the world of The Great Gatsby, the American Dream is synonymous with money and status – not so much success, career (does anyone but Nick and George even have a real job?), happiness, or family. But even Gatsby, who makes an incredible amount of money in a short time, is not allowed access into the upper echelon of society, and loses everything in trying to climb that final, precarious rung of the ladder, as represented by Daisy.

So the American Dream, which in the first half of the book seems attainable based on Gatsby’s wealth and success, reveals itself to be a hollow goal. After all, if even wealth on the scale of Gatsby’s can’t buy you entry into America’s highest social class, what can? What’s the point of striving so hard if only heartbreak and death are waiting at the end of the road?

This pessimism is also reflected in the fates of Myrtle and George, who are both trying to increase their wealth and status in America, but end up dead by the end of the novel. You can read more about the American Dream for details on The Great Gatsby’s ultimately skeptical, cynical attitude towards this classic American ideal.

 

Connecting money to status of women

Daisy and Jordan are both old money socialites, while Myrtle is a working class woman married to a mechanic. You can thus compare three very different women’s experiences to explore how money – or a lack thereof – seems to change the possibilities in a woman’s life in early 1920s America.

Daisy maintains her “old money” status by marrying a very rich man, Tom Buchanan, and ultimately sticks with him despite her feelings for Gatsby. Daisy’s decision illustrates how few choices many women had during that time – specifically, that marrying and having children was seen as the main role any woman, but especially a wealthy woman, should fulfill. And furthermore, Daisy’s willingness to stay with Tom despite his affairs underscores another aspect of women’s roles during the 1920s: that divorce was still very uncommon and controversial.  

Jordan temporarily flouts expectations by “"[running] around the country," (1.134) playing golf, and not being in a hurry to marry – a freedom that she is allowed because of her money, not in spite of it. Furthermore, she banks on her place as a wealthy woman to avoid any major scrutiny, despite her “incurable dishonesty”: “Jordan Baker instinctively avoided clever shrewd men and now I saw that this was because she felt safer on a plane where any divergence from a code would be thought impossible. She was incurably dishonest. She wasn't able to endure being at a disadvantage, and given this unwillingness I suppose she had begun dealing in subterfuges when she was very young” (3.160). Furthermore, by the end of the novel she claims to be engaged, meaning that like Daisy, she’s ultimately chosen to live within the lines society has given her. (Even if she’s not actually engaged, the fact she chooses to tell Nick that suggests she does see engagement as her end goal in life.)

Myrtle feels trapped in her marriage, which pushes her into her affair with Tom Buchanan, an affair which grants her access to a world – New York City, wealth, parties – she might not otherwise have access to. However, jumping up beyond her roots, using Tom’s money, is ultimately unsustainable – her husband finds out and threatens to move out west, and then of course she is killed by Daisy before they can make that move. Myrtle – both working class and a woman – is thus trapped between a rock (her gender) and a hard place (her lack of money), and perhaps for this reason receives the cruelest treatment of all.

So all three women push the boundaries of their expected societal roles – Daisy’s affair with Gatsby, Jordan’s independent lifestyle, and Myrtle’s affair with Tom – but ultimately either fall in line (Daisy, Jordan) or are killed for reaching too far (Myrtle). So Gatsby ultimately provides a pretty harsh, pessimistic view of women’s roles in 1920s America.  

 

What’s Next?

In The Great Gatsby, money is central to the idea of the American Dream. Read more about how the American Dream is treated in The Great Gatsby and whether the novel is ultimately optimistic or pessimistic about the dream.

Money (or the lack of it!) are also why the novel’s symbols of the green light and the valley of ashes are so memorable and charged. Read more about those symbols for a fuller understanding of how money affects The Great Gatsby.

Want the complete lowdown on Jay Gatsby’s rags-to-riches story? Check out our guide to Jay Gatsby for the complete story.

 

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Dr. Anna Wulick
About the Author

Anna scored in the 99th percentile on her SATs in high school, and went on to major in English at Princeton and to get her doctorate in English Literature at Columbia. She is passionate about improving student access to higher education.



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