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There are many themes in this complex novel. The central theme, however, is a comparison of the corrupting influence of wealth to the purity of a dream. Tom and Daisy Buchanan, Jordan Baker, Dan Cody, and Meyer Wolfsheim are examples of people who have been corrupted by their money. Daisy, born and married to wealth, has no values and no purpose in life. She finds her existence to be boring as she floats from one social scene to the next; usually she is dressed in white with accents of gold and silver (the colors of money); even her voices sounds like money. In spite of the wealth, she verbally wonders what she will do with the next day, the next thirty days, and the next thirty years; unfortunately, she does not have a clue. Even her daughter, Pammy, does not give any meaning to Daisy’s life, for she views the child only as a toy or a plaything. Because of her boredom, she has an affair with Gatsby when she is eighteen, for she is attracted by his good looks and his army uniform. After her marriage to Tom, she has another affair with Gatsby to relieve her boredom; it is a trifling entertainment to her. She does not value the feelings of others or even human life. When she hits and kills Myrtle Wilson, she does not even stop. When Gatsby is shot, she does not even telephone or send flowers. Daisy is only worried about protecting and entertaining herself.
Tom is probably more purposeless than Daisy. With no real career, he plays with polo ponies and race cars. He also has one sordid affair after another. During the course of the novel, his mistress is Myrtle Wilson. He has rented her an apartment in New York and commands her to go there for his entertainment whenever he desires. When he does not like her behavior, he strikes out at her, as evidenced by the fact he hits her and breaks her nose. For him, Myrtle is simply a toy to be used. Tom also toys with her husband, George Wilson, teasing him about selling him his automobile; it is his cover for hiding the fact that he is having an affair with his wife. When Tom realizes that Daisy is involved with Gatsby, in true hypocritical fashion, he is enraged and confronts his wife’s lover, exposing that he is a bootlegger and a nobody. Even though he admits to having various affairs, he says he always loves his wife and comes back to her. Daisy calls him disgusting, but refuses to leave
him because of his wealth. After Daisy accidentally kills Myrtle, the two of them flee together, refusing to own up to any responsibility.
Several of the minor characters are also corrupted in their chase of the almighty dollar. Dan Cody makes a fortune in his copper mining business, but his life is a mess; he drinks and parties excessively, has one mistress after another, and is often involved in violence. Jordan Baker, Daisy’s wealthy friend, is a champion golfer; still, she has no morals or values. She is an inveterate liar and cheat, even moving the golf ball during her matches. Like Daisy, she seems to drift from one place to another with no roots; in fact, she does not even have a home to call her own. Meyer Wolfsheim, a shady racketeer associated with Gatsby and the underworld, is a bootlegger and a gambler; in order the make a buck, he even toyed with the faith of the entire American populace, fixing the World Series in 1919.
It is only Gatsby who is not corrupted by his money. Although he has a large, ostentatious mansion, drives flashy cars, gives extravagant parties filled with excess and waste, and has far too many gaudy clothes, he has not amassed his wealth or its accoutrements for himself. Everything he has done in life has been done to fulfill his dream - to prove to Daisy that he is worthy of her. He believes that his possessions will convince his golden girl to forget the past five years of her life and marry him. When he takes Daisy into his house and shows her his belongings, he values each item according to the worth that she places on it. When she shatters his dream by accepting Tom over him, Gatsby has no need for any of his possessions. No longer searching for his holy grail, the house, the clothes, and the cars mean nothing. Nick, who has thought Gatsby to be vulgar throughout the novel, finally realizes that his neighbor has more worth than all of the East Eggers put together.
All of the wealthy characters, including Gatsby, use people and things and then discard them as trash, destined for the Valley of Ashes. Tom uses Myrtle, and she dies amongst the ashheap chasing after him. He also uses George Wilson, and he is so much a part of the wasteland that his eyes have become ashen. Gatsby uses the butlers and the cooks to provide for his parties. They are left to clean up the ravages of Saturday night on Sunday morning. Fitzgerald is clearly saying that the American Dream has gone awry. People are so into chasing the almighty dollar that they have forgotten real human values. Like Tom and Daisy, their lives wind up in the Valley of Ashes, devoid of meaning or purpose. The all-knowing eyes of T.J. Eckelberg, a symbol of God, looks sadly down on the wasteland that has been created by the extravagant and careless lifestyles of the wealthy.
Fitzgerald clearly intends for Gatsby’s dream to be symbolic of the American Dream for wealth and youth. Gatsby genuinely believes that if a person makes enough money and amasses a great enough fortune, he can buy anything. He thinks his wealth can erase the last five years of his and Daisy’s life and reunite them at the point at which he left her before he went away to the war. In a similar fashion, all Americans have a tendency to believe that if they have enough money, they can manipulate time, staying perpetually young, and buy their happiness through materialistic spending. Throughout the novel, there are many parties, a hallmark of the rich. But each festivity ends in waste (the trash left behind by the guests) or violence (Myrtle’s broken nose and subsequent accidental death.) Between the wealth of New York City and the fashionable Egg Islands lies the Valley of Ashes, the symbol of the waste and corruption that characterizes the wealthy.
When Gatsby’s dream is crushed by Daisy’s refusal to forget the past or deny that she has ever loved Tom, Fitzgerald is stating that the American Dream of wealth and beauty is just as fragile. History has proven that view correct. The sense of wonder of the first settlers in America quickly turned into an excessive greed for more wealth. The ostentatious, wild lifestyle of the wealthy during the 1920s was followed by the reality of the stock market crash and the Great Depression of the 1930s. Where there is great wealth, sadness and waste always seems to follow. The end product is always a valley of ashes.
Watching over the Valley of Ashes, that lies between the wealthy of the Egg Islands and the wealthy of New York City, are the all-knowing eyes of T.J. Eckelberg, a symbol of the omniscience of God; but his image is fading, as if he is totally tired of sadly looking down at the wasteland below. He seems ashamed of mankind’s extravagance that cause the ashheaps. His is a powerful image that is repeatedly referenced to hold the novel together and to emphasize Fitzgerald's key theme: wealth corrupts.
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