THE ADVERTISEMENT OF THE MAN: CONSUMERISM AND THE CORRUPTION OF THE AMERICAN DREAM IN THE GREAT GATSBY
We learn very early in Fitzgerald’s novel that Jay Gatsby has a very distinctive smile, a smile that “concentrated on you with an irresistible prejudice in your favour… believed in you as you would like to believe in yourself, and assured you that it had precisely the impression of you that, at your best, you hoped to convey”. It presents Gatsby as both salesman and product, and his smile his advertisement. His appeal is in making those around him feel appealing, and making the customer feel valued was a sure way of persuading them to value, and therefore buy, the product advertised – something Fitzgerald, with his own background in advertising, would have understood. And the product, in this instance, is Gatsby himself. Even the novel’s title is a strikingly alliterative modified-noun, The Great Gatsby advertising the man long before we meet him.
A Self-Made Man
Advertising sells us our dreams, shows us what we think we want, and it’s one dream in particular that this text focuses on: the American one. Whilst the American Dream means different things to different people, for many in the 1920s and 30s the dream meant belonging to the right class. This is certainly true for Gatsby, eager to attract the attention of Daisy, and money plays a crucial role in achieving this goal. You could buy the American Dream, or so the advertising culture would have you believe. In this respect, Gatsby personifies the success myth that advertising promotes, quite literally making a name for himself (creating Gatsby from Gatz) and amassing a fortune to accompany his new identity.
But his new identity lacks substance. As Daisy tells him more than once, “You resemble the advertisement of the man,” the repetition emphasising her point. She may not know the real Gatsby, but she knows a false one when she sees him. Not that it stops her buying into a dream of her own, albeit only for a little while.
Advertising in the twenties and thirties (and even now, for that matter) suggested satisfaction could be achieved simply by being among the right people or wearing the right clothes. The popular parties thrown by Gatsby are clearly a reflection of this, occasions where “men and girls came and went like moths among the whisperings and the champagne and the stars”, the simile highlighting the attraction money can have. Gatsby’s clothes reflect this too, particularly his “silver shirt, and gold-coloured tie”. The well-known proud display of his shirts grants them a symbolic status, with the syndetic listing of “shirts with stripes and scrolls and plaids in coral and apple-green and lavender and faint orange, with monograms of Indian blue” indicating the wealth he was previously without. The shirts are “piled like bricks”, and this simile shows how Gatsby builds his identity via his appearance. However, what you see isn’t exactly what you get, as we soon see.
Gatsby has created this new identity for Daisy, though he was already “extravagantly ambitious” prior to meeting her. To him Daisy represents not only a desirable woman but also a desirable class: “Her voice is full of money” he observes, and it lures him like a Siren’s song. Indeed, she deliberately manipulates her voice to draw people close, Nick telling us that “Daisy’s murmur was only to make people lean toward her”. To Gatsby she represents success, and he is motivated not only by a dream to be part of her life but by a dream to be part of her lifestyle.
Yet Daisy, the creator of dreams, also has a great capacity to destroy them. She personifies the idea, despite her white dresses, that America in the 1920s was no longer a virginally innocent, promising land but was in fact corrupted by wealth. She has a look that promises those she looks at “that there was no one in the world she so much wanted to see”, but it differs to Gatsby’s smile in that it values the receiver in relation to her rather than to themselves. As an advertisement it focuses very much on selling the product rather than satisfying the consumer.
During a drive with Nick, Gatsby reveals something of his life because, he claims, “I don’t want you to get a wrong idea of me”. It’s a comment thick with irony for that’s precisely what Gatsby does want, not only of Nick but of everyone else. In order to sell himself as Jay Gatsby he has a number of ‘autobiographical’ stories, advertisements of the man he wishes to seem, and Nick is forced to suppress “incredulous laughter”. He compares Gatsby’s stories to “skimming hastily through a dozen magazines”, and yet…
And yet Gatsby has a number of items as evidence. He has a medal, and he has a photograph, and they’re enough to convince Nick “it was all true”. As a reader, though, we are somewhat doubtful; it seems likely that however genuine these articles may be, they are little more than props to support the fictions hidden between them. There’s a conflict between the real and the illusory here, and thanks to Gatsby’s evidence and Nick’s not-so-reliable narration, we’re not sure what to believe.
Our first experience of one of Gatsby’s parties, for example, shows us a man inspecting the books of Gatsby’s library. They’re “absolutely real” he tells Nick with amazement, having expected the opposite. He hurriedly replaces a volume in fear the entire library will collapse, an action that suggests it wouldn’t stand up to prolonged or intensive scrutiny.
Gatsby himself is much the same.
This conflict between the illusory and the real, and its potential for destruction, is illustrated via other characters in the text as well. Myrtle, for example, seeks to escape her life in the valley of ashes and manages this in part by living a double life. Her affair with Tom began with her noticing his appearance. “He had on a dress suit and patent leather shoes, and I couldn’t keep my eyes off him,” she tells us, adding significantly “I had to pretend to be looking at the advertisement over his head”. Tom, having successfully sold himself and the life he seems to offer, begins an affair with Myrtle which allows her to buy into dreams of social status and romance. She marks this by changing her appearance, and “with the influence of the dress her personality had also undergone a change” Nick observes. Myrtle is a different person with Tom, or tries to be, which in turn allows him to pretend his life is different. When the real world threatens to intrude upon his newly constructed one he reacts violently, so much so that when Myrtle persists in reminding him of Daisy, “Tom Buchanan broke her nose with his open hand.”
Indeed, whenever reality clashes against illusion in this novel the result is violently destructive and Gatsby is far from immune - his constructed identity is “broken up like glass” against the reality Tom confronts him with. Fitzgerald illustrates the violent repercussions of a conflict between the real and the illusory most successfully, though, via Myrtle’s death. Mistaking Gatsby for Tom due to his car (another symbol of his wealth), Myrtle runs into the path of the vehicle and is killed.
The Ultimate Price
Fitzgerald’s novel explores the price attached to the American Dream, presenting it as an ideal which money, in fact, cannot buy. He prepares us for this early with the billboard eyes of Doctor T. J. Eckleburg, put in place to promote a practice only to fade beneath the sun and rain as the business adds its ashes to others in the valley. “God sees everything,” Wilson later says of the eyes which, combined with the reply “That’s an advertisement”, serves as a suitable comment on the importance of advertising in the novel. Advertising may be society’s ‘green light’, granting people the go ahead to buy into the false dreams that motivate them, but they certainly pay a high price for it in The Great Gatsby. It is Jay Gatsby, though, who pays the ultimate price. In acquiring and spending his riches, Gatsby becomes not only his own advertisement and product but his own dream, a dream from which he is awoken abruptly by a reality he had refused to acknowledge.