The Problem Of Morality In F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby And Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid's Tale

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Both texts, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s ‘The Great Gatsby’ and Margaret Atwood’s ‘The Handmaid's Tale’, show aspects of conventional behaviour not always being moral. Gatsby is involved with criminal activities in order to obtain his highly sought-after ‘American Dream’. The conventional system in the futuristic city of Gilead in is indefinitely immoral; Atwood’s primary representation of Gileadean society presents a corruption of morals, the death of female rights and an ingrained class structure - as Linda W. Wagner-Martin puts it “It is a brutal horrifying culture.' These novels that rely so heavily on strict societal structures, allows the modern reader to experience a lifestyle completely foreign from theirs and explore the spaces ‘within and without’ conventional norms.

Firstly, the society of Gilead destroys conventional societal morals in this novel through its characters. Offred, the narrator and protagonist of ‘The Handmaid's Tale’ is depicted as a bystander who only cares about her own survival over anyone else’s; “Moira was right about me. I’ll say anything they like; I’ll incriminate anyone. It’s true, the first scream, whimper even, and I’ll turn to jelly...” (THT Ch44) . As a result of her submission into Gileadean society, Offred develops a defensive personality, choosing to quietly observe the people and events surrounding her rather than reacting to them. Offred’s initial reaction with Ofglen demonstrates her survival-orientated attitude as she never makes any attempts at camaraderie and it takes two attempts of Ofglen taking a chance to get them talking. Offred then continues her relationship with Ofglen out of a mostly selfish desire to rid herself of her monotonous everyday routine, rather than a genuine desire to assist the disguised rebellion troupe ‘Mayday’. This is exemplified when Offred refuses to search the Commander’s study and when her relationship with Nick resulted in her neglecting Ofglen; “Ofglen is giving up on me... I don’t feel regret about this, I feel relief” (THT Ch41), we are able to infer that Offred is so smitten with Nick that she would rather stay under the regime than become part of the Underground to which Ofglen belongs. In addition, Offred agrees to meet with the commander in his study for her own benefit, giving her a sense of dominance over the powerful status of ‘men’ and giving her the opportunity to read and ask for forbidden things such as facial creams; “There must be something he wants, from me. To want is to have weakness... that entices me.” (THT Ch23). Pretending to love him, playing fruitless games with him and passionately kissing/sleeping with him seem all ‘worth it’ to Offred in her Gilead-distorted state of mind; “Fake it... move your flesh around, breathe audibly It’s the least you can do.” (THT Ch39). She is similarly using Nick, mainly to be impregnated by him, although she seems to appreciate his company as he can provide a sense of an emotional escape to her. Nick, however, doesn't really stand to benefit from their relationship since Offred doesn’t have much to offer him other than carnal pleasure; “He seems indifferent to most of what I have to say, alive only to the possibilities of my body.” As such, there is an imbalance in the quality and value of both these characters towards each other. (THT Ch. 41) Moira, on the other hand, starts out to be characterised as a strong-willed individual who strives to maintain her original sense of freedom and morality, unhindered by Gilead's own notion of morality. Moira exemplifies her tendency towards rebellion in her first major appearance in which she commits as a dangerous escape of her confinements. By threatening her overseer, Aunt Elizabeth, and then subsequently defeating her in order to escape, Moira proved that she was not afraid of her surrounding and was not discouraged by their threats of punishment; “In the light of Moira, the Aunts were less fearsome...” (THT Ch22). However, once Moira was caught and captured, she was given an ultimatum of living the rest of her life in the colonies cleaning up toxic waste (indefinitely leading to an early death) or working at the Jezebels as a prostitute she remorsefully chooses the degrading latter. Whilst rebellion would traditionally be seen as going against one's morals, Atwood, here, presents the need for rebellion in order to try to extinguish such immoral conventions from a women's mind, therefore rebellion is necessary to overcome immorality. This choice between life and death is when Moira finally loses her sense of independence; “Nevertheless Moira was our fantasy, we hugged her to us, she was with us in secret, a giggle...” (THT Ch22), Moira clearly had nostalgia for the life she once knew, and her expressive displays of rebellion against the system that took her away most definitely influenced her weakened peers, who all looked upon her with awe and amazement, as if she held a legacy. “Have they really done it to her then, taken away something - what? - that used to be so central to her?”, upon her capture, Moira was diminished to a lowly state of life, solidly proving that even the strongest of spirits can be broken by ruthless, autocratic societies.

Similarly, immoral conventional behaviour is also evident within the characters of The Great Gatsby. Jay Gatsby, the protagonist of this novel, is a prime example of conventional behaviour not always being moral, as critic H L Meneken states : Gatsby is ‘morally complacent’; he is likely to have committed crimes such as bootlegging in order to obtain status and wealth; 'He and this Wolfsheim bought up a lot of side-street drugstores here and in Chicago and sold grain alcohol over the counter. That's one of his little stunts. I picked him for a bootlegger the first time I saw him, and I wasn't far wrong.'(TGG Ch7) . He chose to ignore the possibility of managing a business ethically in order to improve his chances of upward social mobility. A further example of Gatsby's disregard for a moral regime is his choice to have an affair with Daisy and his indifference towards her marriage, and more importantly, Gatsby disregards the fact that daisy is a mother. This further exemplifies Gatsby’s willingness to desert conventional morality in order to acquire Daisy’s love, which amay be implored as equating to wealth; her voice was “full of money” (TGG Ch7).

Myrtle portrays similar attributes to Gatsby as, she, too, is engaged in an affair. Although, her lack of wealth contrasts with Gatsby she also wishes for the lifestyle of someone affluent and significant via, Tom, as a leverage, and in doing so, she exhibits infidelity towards her husband, George Wilson. It is apparent that Myrtle prioritises Tom and his money higher than she does Wilson; “I married [George] because I thought he was a gentleman,” (TGG Ch2). Fitzgerald shows the woman that Myrtle wants to be through her appearance: at home she is described as a 'thickish figure of a woman' (TGG Ch2) but when she was with Tom in his flat 'she was now attired in an elaborate afternoon dress of cream coloured chiffon'(TGG Ch2). Myrtle tells Nick that she knew she had made a mistake marrying George because 'I thought he knew something about breeding, but he wasn't fit to lick my shoe.'(TGG Ch2). When she meets Tom, she sees a way to escape but she continues to suffer as Tom doesn't treat her well. When she's with him, she feels like a rich person, 'she flounced over to the dog, kissed it with ecstasy, and swept into the kitchen, implying that a dozen chefs awaited her orders there.'(TGG Ch2). Myrtle is jealous of Tom's wife, however, and goes too far by talking about Daisy when he tells her not to so that 'Making a short deft movement, Tom Buchanan broke her nose with his open hand.'(TGG Ch2). Myrtle suffers because she doesn't love her husband, has dreams of a better life with Tom but he won't leave his wife and treats Myrtle badly. This is because Myrtle presumed that George shared her passion for upward mobility and that he possessed the necessary refinement to improve their lives, therefore demonstrating that Myrtle’s morals are clouded in materialism. However, feminist readers may sympathise with Myrtle as in that era social climbing was much more difficult for women than it was for men. Evidently, however, George did not live up to Myrtle’s expectations, and she, believing herself far superior, claims that “he wasn’t fit to lick [her] shoe”(TGG Ch2); the verb ‘lick’ implies she feels as though he is lower than her ,despite their equivalent social class, and feels as though she is far more superior to him. Considered in context, the quotation takes on contextual sense, but Myrtle exposes her own lack of 'breeding' by the way she phrases her remark; the sheer disrespect and immorality evident in her speech exemplifies this. She much rather prefers her immoral relationship with Tom Buchannan than her lawfully wedded husband. It is evident that affairs and unfaithful attitudes are a conventional and acceptable norm amongst this society, despite its lack of morality.

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Lack of morality portrayed through the presentation of societies in both novels

It is unarguably true, that The Handmaid's tale is a novel addressing societal issues. Atwood states in the ‘Historical notes’ section of the novel that “When it first came out it was viewed as being far-fetched. However, when I wrote it, I was making sure I wasn’t putting anything into it that humans had not already done somewhere at some time.” She did this to, in theory, portray the extent of the lack of morality in society. The novel is much closer to home than some may believe and is evidently relevant to this day and age. The Handmaid’s Tale offers up a bleak world in which women’s ability to control their own reproduction, and particularly to access safe abortion, is non-existent . This idea is introduced gradually over time: for example, Offred sees the bodies of hanged doctors who have carried out abortions and comments that “in the time before… such things were legal.” (THT Ch6) She also witnesses the funeral procession of a miscarried foetus – and, towards the end of the novel, notes that there are no ultrasounds or scans carried out in Gilead. “What would be the point of knowing, anyway?” she ponders. “You can’t have them taken out; whatever it is must be carried to term.” (THT Ch19). When such procedures were found in 1956 and made available, early responses were repellent of new technology because it challenged their morals. Atwood, perhaps, may be reflecting such attitudes here. However, while this may feel incredibly removed from our own lives, it’s worth noting that more than 40% of women around the world aged 15-44 live in a country where abortion is highly restricted (according to research by the Guttmacher Institute ). El Salvador, Chile, Nicaragua, Vatican City and Malta do not allow abortion under any circumstances, with doctors who find evidence of abortion forced to report patients to the police, even if the women are in need of medical attention after desperately self-inducing a termination. In addition to this, Atwood comments on how society is “... seeing a bubbling up of it now,” she said, referring to moves under President Donald Trump to restrict the right to abortion. Trump said in 2016 women should face punishment if they receive abortions, a comment he later retracted. This overall, may indicate that the conventional ideology of negative stigma around abortion in Gilead (and even still now present-day America amongst several countries around the world) and Offred’s desensitised nature towards this proves that Atwood exemplifies that conventional behaviour may not always be seen as moral.

A stark contrast to the futuristic theocracy of Gilead, the 1920’s American society, also known as the ‘Jazz Age’, was characterised as a period of carefree hedonism, wealth, freedom, and youthful exuberance. Due to these nonchalant attitudes, society was consumed by immoral behaviours simply for the ‘fun’ of it. This is exemplified in the parties held at Gatsby’s house; many people felt compelled to go to Gatsby’s parties as it was seen as ‘fashionable’ and a standard for everyone who was available to attend. However, at these parties, few exhibited restraints, they would, for example, get so drunk that they were unable to drive; “a bottle of whiskey was in constant demand by everyone.” (TGG Ch2), which entirely violates Prohibition policies as alcohol was against the law during this period. Similarly, we also see these aspects during Tom Buchannan's party in New York which is a prime example for society’s lack of morality. Here, all the partygoers get drunk and argue over trivial matters, he becomes very violent as when “Making a short deft movement, Tom Buchanan broke her [Myrtle’s] nose with his open hand.”(TGG Ch2) simply because she mentions his wife, Daisy. His immediate reaction in becoming defensive and resulting to violence, proves that he is well aware of his immoral demeanour yet consciously chooses to disregard it to instead live in a fantasy world - elicited by the American dream. Truslow Adams says ‘The American Dream is that dream of a land in which life should be better and richer and fuller for everyone, with opportunities for each according to ability or achievement’ . The Great Gatsby may be perceived as a tragic love story on the surface, but it is most commonly understood as a demoralising critique of the American Dream. In the novel, Jay Gatsby attempts to overcome his poor ‘past’ however, he is eventually killed after being tangled up with the ‘old money crowd’ for the majority of the novel – which may be indicative of Fitzgerald commenting that this dream will also soon die. Thus, the American Dream is sugar-coated with a rosy view of American society that conceals societal problems such as: systematic racism, misogyny, xenophobia, income inequality and tax evasion. Effectively, the ‘American Dream’ presents a myth of class equality when in reality America has a rather clearly well-developed class hierarchy. Through Gatsby’s life as well as that of the Wilsons’, Fitzgerald critiques the idea that America is a meritocracy; where anyone can rise to the top with enough hard work. As Sarah Churchwell puts it “Fitzgerald detected the ephemerality, fakery and corruption always lurking at the heart of the Great American success story” . In the first chapter, we are presented with 1922 America alongside some background regarding World War 1. This is a time of hollow decadence among the wealthy social strata- evident in the extravagant parties; “There was music from my neighbour’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.”(TGG Ch1) We are shortly introduced to the working class people in the novel; George and Myrtle B.Wilson, these outcasts of society who are looking to improve their position in life; George through his hard work and through his business and Myrtle through her affair with Tom Buchannan. They both live in the Valley of Ashes- a virtual wasteland of the industrial products in New York City which alludes to the poem by T.S Eliot, “The Waste Land” , in which places and people seem dead spiritually and symbolically. Fitzgerald, who greatly admired the poet, connotes this same spiritual death in his description of the billboard of Doctor T.J Eckleburg, whose dimmed eyes, faded by repeated rains and sunny days, “brood on over the solemn dumping ground” (TGG Ch2), representing the ‘dimming’ morals of American society. Through these contrasting characters of the upper class and the working class, The Great Gatsby shows us both sides of the amoral Jazz Age the counterpart between a world of riches and an underworld of need, sleaze and violence (in the Valley of Ashes).

Lack of morality portrayed through the authors motives of both novels

Concurrently, in an article for The Guardian Margaret Atwood explained that she intended to present a dystopia from a female point of view; “The majority of dystopias - Orwell’s included- have been written by men and the point of view has been male. When women have appeared in them, they have been either sexless automatons or rebels who’ve defied the sex rules of regime” (Margaret Atwood) . Therefore, Attwood presents Offred, as the female protagonist and narrator to highlight the injustices (mainly in accordance to women) faced by the lower ranks of society. Atwood turned American democracy into dictatorship, in her portrayal of the fictional, theocratic society, Gilead. While the totalitarian regime in her novel doesn’t resemble our current reality, the power of the book comes from the sinking feeling that Gilead could exist in the realm of possibility- should certain events occur. Essentially Atwood highlights the immorality in this day in age and enlarges it to warn us and invoke pathos to anyone who reads it of the possibility of the dangers that may (even if seemingly far-fetched) arise.

Similarly, ‘The Great Gatsby’ could be implored as a novel of caution in relation to morals being spiralled out of control. Fitzgerald wanted to explore the American Dream and the lessons that could be learnt from its facade, as the novel goes through Gatsby's desire to start anew and wipe away the past, which is part of the larger American dream of coming to a new continent and creating a new and improved society. As Richard Anderson states: “F. Scott Fitzgerald has the one thing that a novelist needs: a truly seeing eye” ; Fitzgerald beautifully accomplishes mastering a novel that was “consciously artistic” yet “beautiful and simple and intricately patterned” , according to the foreword to the novel written by Charles Scribner III. Therefore, Fitzgerald's purpose may be received as a warning of morality that is dying.

Overall, there is an apparent contrast created between the ways in which conventional behaviour is presented as immoral in The Great Gatsby and The Handmaid's Tale. F. Scott Fitzgerald conveys the idea that morality is something of little importance to many people, especially when it comes to obtaining status or wealth. As, Robert Orstein puts it: “In 'The Great Gatsby' Fitzgerald adumbrated the coming tragedy of a nation grown decadent without achieving maturity” , consequently, resulting into what they believe as conventional and ‘appropriate’ as the rest of society are engaging in this seemingly clouded way of living; ultimately disregarding their morals. Whereas, In the Handmaid’s tale it conveys a government taking complete control of women’s bodies through political subjugation which disables women from voting, holding jobs or properties, reading or essentially refrained from being independent to prevent them from undermining the state or their commanders. Despite the pro-women rhetoric that Gilead stringently enforce, women are evidently reduced to their fertility. Despite both novels varying extremely from each other they both show that society’s conventional behaviour is not always moral.

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The Problem Of Morality In F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby And Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale. (2021, August 18). Edubirdie. Retrieved May 21, 2024, from
“The Problem Of Morality In F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby And Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale.” Edubirdie, 18 Aug. 2021,
The Problem Of Morality In F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby And Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale. [online]. Available at: <> [Accessed 21 May 2024].
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