Luhrmann’s film The Great Gatsby serves as a symbolic tribute to 1920s America. The movie emphasizes a society of materialism and corruption while also portraying a sense of the social structure and spiritual desolation associated with the 1920s. In the movie, Baz Luhrmann uses symbolism and irony to build the theme that materialism breeds unhappiness.
Using symbolism, the movie brings to life a society whose attitude was affected by the recent ending of World War 1. At the center of this morally decadent and corrupt society is Jay Gatsby. Gatsby is a reinvention of James Gatz and is a symbolic representation of a world of materialism. No longer is the “American Dream” one of hard work and honesty. Gatsby’s version of the American Dream is “rising from rags to riches, of amassing a great fortune that will assure a life of luxuriant ease, power, and beauty in an ideal world untroubled by care and devoted to the enjoyment of everlasting pleasure and nothing to intervene between wish and fulfillment” (Roberts 70).
The movie goes on to symbolize a kind of corruption through the marriage of Tom and Daisy Buchanan. Corruption unites both Tom and Daisy. From the start, Tom’s corrupt nature is obvious. Daisy refers to him as a “brute” (Luhrmann). Early in the story, we learn Tom is having an extramarital affair which he does not try to hide. Daisy’s corrupt nature is a little less obvious, giving the impression that she is unhappy with Tom. During one of Gatsby’s lavish parties, problems in the marriage of Tom and Daisy become more evident. Daisy spends a good deal of time dancing and talking with Gatsby while Tom is busy pursuing another female partygoer. Daisy and Tom remain united in their bond. Also, various comments made by Tom that show him to be a racist and Daisy’s nonchalant demeanor when she accidentally kills Myrtle Wilson are both symbolic of the underlying corrupt nature of both characters.
Symbolism is strongly tied to the relationship between Jay Gatsby and Daisy Buchanan. Daisy represents an entirely different social class, one of money and status. Gatsby falls in love with what he thinks Daisy represents than the young girl herself. Based on lies told to Daisy by Gatsby regarding his social standing, Daisy promises to wait for Gatsby to return from the war. Sometime later, Daisy in submission to all that material wealth has to offer, marries Tom Buchanan. When Gatsby re-enters Daisy’s life, Daisy-like Gatsby also sees through the eyes of a materialistic society. Gatsby becomes a possible contender to Tom once Daisy sees his vast collection of shirts. Luhrmann uses the collection of shirts as a way of symbolizing the wealth of Gatsby. When Daisy sees the shirts, she starts to cry. The various shirts symbolize what can be seen as a representation of wealth, charm, and self –representation.
The movie goes on to symbolize the corrupt and materialistic nature of the 1920s using New York City to represent a place of immorality. Luhrmann uses Fifth Avenue, a place associated with wealth, as the place that Nick used to love, but in the end, made him “sick” (Luhrmann). Regarding the fixing of the 1919 World Series, not even the game of baseball, an American tradition, is free from corruption. It is also interesting to note how the movie uses a play on names to encompass the corruption and materialism associated with the Roaring Twenties. The name Gatsby or Gat which is slang for the word pistol or Gatlin Gun the name Buchannan whose first syllable is a homonym for a buck or dollar bill both symbolize the spirit of the 1920s.
Masterfully, Baz Luhrmann brings to light a strong awareness of materialism from the social class characterized in the 1920s. By the use of East and West Egg, by type of wealth old money versus new money, and by one’s behavior or conduct as seen by Gatsby’s partygoers. Home to the old money wealth of Tom and Daisy Buchanan is East Egg with its single green light flashing at the end of the dock. This green light helps to symbolize Gatsby’s hope and dreams for his and Daisy’s future. But in the end, it shows his inability to attain full status as a gentleman regardless of his wealth. As members of the nouveau riche, Gatsby, as well as Carraway, are sentenced to West Egg. Also, seen through Gatsby’s lavish parties is debauchery associated with the nouveau riche that Daisy finds vulgar, defining Daisy as a non-member of the world of the nouveau riche.
The movie The Great Gatsby is a symbolic representation of the moral decay of the 1920s. The characters of the movie all display a non-existent moral code and show no concern for how their actions affect others. Tom Buchanan continually has extramarital affairs while married to Daisy, which Daisy is knowledgeable about. When riding with Nick, Tom insists that Nick meets his girl, showing no shame for his infidelity. Jordan Baker cheats at golf and is careless when driving her car. It is also when Daisy leaves the scene after she hits and kills Myrtle Wilson that she shows her true nature and conscienceless existence. Tom finds justification in telling Wilson that Gatsby was the owner of the car, which leads to the events of Gatsby’s death. A lack of concern for one’s fellow man was shown through the absence of mourners at Gatsby’s funeral.
The Valley of the Ashes home of Myrtle and George Wilson, introduces us to another social class, the poor. With its gray and black colors, and dirty streets and clothing, the Valley of Ashes is used to represent the moral decline of society which comes from the constant pursuit of wealth and the wealthy having no concern for anyone’s happiness but their own. Poor persons like the Wilsons symbolize the circumstances of the poor who because they are in the ashes lose the ability to have full and happy lives.
The billboard of the eyes of Dr. T. J. Eckleburg in the Valley of the Ashes, serves as an introduction to the absence of a traditional God in the 1920s American society. The God of Gatsby is a God incapable of having any real influence over the people and the things that he sees. However, when Mrs. Wilson was killed, God is nowhere to be found in the mind or heart of Mr. Wilson. So, again, it becomes clear that God exists but exerts no power.
Ironically, Gatsby’s wealth, the huge gaudy mansion, the lavish parties did not result in Gatsby getting the girl. Everything Gatsby did was to win Daisy and become a respected member of the upper class. Instead, Jay Gatsby dies and is known as a murderer. No one comes to his funeral, and we see that materialism does not always bring happiness.
Through the characters of Gatsby, Daisy, Tom, Nick, and Myrtle the years of 1920-1929 are brought back to life again and again. The movie The Great Gatsby utilizes the power of symbolism and irony to tell of a generation’s past and expresses concerns of a society gone astray.
- Roberts, Marilyn. “Scarface, The Great Gatsby, and the American Dream.” Literature/Film Quarterly, vol. 34, no. 1, 2006, pp. 71-78. ProQuest, https://search.proquest.com/scholarly-journals/scarface-great-gatsby-american-dream/docview/226996909/se-2?accountid=11245.
- Luhrmann, Baz, director. The Great Gatsby. Warner Home Video, 2013.