In F. Scott Fitzgerald’s novel, The Great Gatsby, the narrator, Nick Carraway, provides insight on the life of the rich during the roaring twenties. Through Carraway, it is revealed to readers how luxuriously the rich live in East and West Egg. He explains Gatsby’s life of parties in the hopes of gaining the affection of Daisy and how it leads to his eventual demise. Fitzgerald uses conspicuous consumption as a means to highlight Gatsby and Daisy’s lavish lifestyles as proof that no amount of money can lead to true happiness. Focusing on consumerism in the roaring twenties, the novel posits the idea that it is not accruing wealth, but building relationships and sharing experiences that makes one happy. In the end, similar ideas resonate in the 21st century: people buy material goods in order to prove to others that they are successful and rich or just to fit in. However, the focus should be less on the amount spent than on what it is spent. While money can help facilitate building experiences with others, it should be a means to attain happiness rather than an end.
It is not conspicuous consumption designed to show off one’s wealth but targeted consumption designed to create and support relationships with others that has a chance at making people happy. Learning more about Gatsby’s parties, it becomes evident that people “came and went without having met Gatsby at all” (Fitzgerald 45). Gatsby puts a lot of effort into his parties, indicated in part by the fact that “five crates of oranges and lemons” arrive every Friday from New York (Fitzgerald 43). Despite the fact that Gatsby spares no expense for his parties, he does not even appear to spend any time with his guests. Instead, he throws parties every weekend to show off his wealth in the hopes that Daisy will give him another chance. This fails to bring Gatsby happiness because it is a ploy designed to convince someone that he can provide for her financially rather than an attempt to build a healthy relationship with those who actually attend. Using wealth can lead to happiness; however, it must be done in a way that makes it possible to connect with and enjoy the company of others. In a study by Thomas Gilovich and Iñigo Gallo, they state that people “provide for more pleasure” with purchasing “hedonic goods” such as touring New York or a trip to Los Angeles (Gilovich, Gallo). Their purchases allow them to be “grateful for experiential purchases than material ones” (Glaser). Purchasing experience allows people to be happier: experiences provide memories for a lifetime and allow for people to enjoy quality time in the presence of others. As social animals, these opportunities allow humans to thrive. Gatsby’s purchases fail to bring him happiness because they are being used to impress rather than gain experience and connection with others.
Though capable of demonstrating wealth, conspicuous consumption cannot sustain people emotionally; therefore, it cannot provide happiness. For example, Tom bought Daisy “a string of pearls valued at three hundred and fifty thousand dollars” and yet, on their wedding day, she “had a letter in her hand” explaining that she could not marry him (Fitzgerald 80). By gifting Daisy a string of pearls valued so highly, Tom highlights his wealth, implying that his life with Daisy would be filled with riches and would be very luxurious. However, despite all the money that Tom invests in Daisy, she is still unsatisfied, indicated by the fact that she was holding “a letter.” The letter, from Gatsby, causes Daisy to break down and start crying and at one point, tells Jordan to give back the pearls because she “change’ her mind’ (CITATION). Immediately reacting to Gatsby’s letter brings out Daisy’s underlying feelings for him, and by crying, crying that she could have had a life with Gatsby, she displays a sense of dissatisfaction with her marriage to Tom, despite the fact that he had given her pearls. Additionally, changing her mind in the moment further shows her feelings for Tom, she is willing to immediately change her mind about her marriage to Tom, which further shows a lack of happiness with him. In a study of consumer versus experiential purchases, Gilovich and Gallo concluded that “materialistic people are less happy… and have difficulty establishing nourishing social relationships”(Gilovich, Thomas, Gallo, Iñigo). Materialism refers to the obsession with real-life objects; things that are tangible. Objects such as Tom’s pearls demonstrate the materialism that was especially prevalent during the roaring twenties. Gilovich and Gallo state that this creates “difficulty establishing nourishing social relationships,” making Daisy and Tom’s love a rather shallow one that is “less happy.” On the other hand, Gilovich and Gallo also state that social events are “almost certain to advance their well-being.” Before Gatsby had gone off to the war, he had met Daisy outside her house as a means of saying goodbye. It is revealed that they had a summer fling and before leaving, they could “communicate more profoundly with another” (Fitzgerald 160). Communication is an important aspect of relationships and this social event allowed them to be more happy with each other. From the first chapter, Daisy seems a bit hesitant to talk to Tom about his affair, which is something that people in love should not have nor fear talking about. With Gatsby however, they communicate profoundly, indicating that Daisy is content with Gatsby enjoys his presence. Daisy’s lack of love for Tom, as well as studies detailing what kinds of purchases can have long term effects on people’s emotions, show that no matter how expensive material goods are, in the end, they are not enough to buy emotions as strong as love or happiness.
Unfortunately, even when people realize what would bring them happiness, fear of what they may lose can get in the way. In a heated argument between Gatsby and Tom over Daisy, she threatens to leave Tom, but upon Tom calling Gatsby ‘a common swindler who’d have to steal the ring to put on her finger,” she begins to doubt a future with Gatsby by “drawing further and further into herself” (Fitzgerald 142, 144). Though Gatsby lives on the West Egg – a place where the rich reside – compared to Tom’s wealth, he is a “common swindler.” This connotes someone poor and without integrity, as people who swindle others must steal what they do not have. By saying that Gatsby has to “steal the ring” to get Daisy, he further demotes Gatsby’s wealth status, showing how much wealthier he is than Gatsby. After the argument, Tom and Daisy are at home eating dinner and Nick states that they ‘weren’t happy.. yet they weren’t unhappy either” (Fitzgerald 155). After Tom reminds Daisy of the difference between his and Gatsby’s wealth, Daisy realizes that although she may be happier with Gatsby, it is Tom who ultimately is able to support her luxurious life. However, while she will never want for anything with Tom, she will never have the love or happiness that is possible with Gatsby either. In contrast, billionaire Warren Buffet, is easily satisfied as he still lives in his family home that he bought in 1958. For him, “that’s the happiest house in the world… it’s got memories” (Christofferson 172). By saying that his home has “memories,” Buffet indicates the sentimental value that his house has for him. Buffet even said that he could buy a house valued at one hundred million dollars, but he stays in his current house because it is the “happiest house” (Christofferson 172). While buying an expensive house could grant him a temporary feeling of exhilaration, his original house is filled with memories of his past and family, and that it is where his family always returns to for holidays and big events. Over time, monetary value depreciates, but with people and experiences, each memory becomes more and more meaningful over time. Daisy has regrets when deciding to follow Gatsby or Tom; she understands that money is what allows her to live her life of luxury, while with Gatsby she can be truly happy. Unfortunately for her, she chooses safety over happiness. On the other hand, Warren Buffet understands the difference between momentary happiness with an expensive house without memories, versus an older house, filled with memories of a lifetime, showing the value of sentiment over luxury.
In the end, Fitzgerald’s use of conspicuous consumption critiques the self-delusion that the rich displayed during the roaring twenties. He follows its purpose, its impact on emotion, and explains that some people choose consumption over emotion in an attempt to bury their feelings of hopelessness and loneliness, if only for a moment. Unfortunately, without understanding and approaching these emotions in a positive way that emphasizes prosocial behavior, behavior focused on improving the well-being of a group of people, the consumption will always lead back to the loneliness at which it started. Today, conspicuous consumption is as relevant as it was in the roaring twenties, with happiness linked to what kind of purchase is made – material or experiential. Throughout The Great Gatsby, the love triangle between Jay Gatsby, Tom Buchanan, and Daisy Buchanan goes deeper and deeper, revealing Daisy’s real emotions towards the two men. Through Jordan’s flashbacks, readers come to realize that Daisy never had true happiness with Tom despite his lavish expenditures on her. Though conspicuous consumption in The Great Gatsby focuses more on the material value than the experiential, Fitzgerald uses these characters to warn readers about the effects of choosing luxury over happiness. While it may seem to be a better option to have luxury for momentary satisfaction, in the end, it is the people one surrounds oneself with and the experiences one has with them that brings permanent happiness.