“We are living in a material world”, says the famous line from Madonna’s song “Material Girl”. Materialistic pursuits seem to be discussed everywhere throughout the whole course of art and culture for centuries. In this vein, the theme of materialism which is so important in western culture is often addressed in the works of American literature, and as “Mr. Lionel Trilling has remarked, in a certain sense all fiction is ultimately about money” (Lane, p. 21). The two novels “The Great Gatsby” by Francis Scott Fitzgerald and “Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” by Mark Twain can be acclaimed as a thought-provoking address to the theme of materialism and material wealth. Generally, the two novels discuss material wealth-related matters from a rather similar angle of negative overtone and harmful effects on the lives of those who strive to acquire money by all means possible.
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Comparing the approach of the two novels to the material values, the first important matter to be addressed is the summary of these literary works. Speaking about “The Great Gatsby”, this novel is, first of all, a story of a man who was consumed by his unlimited thirst for material riches. As the story develops, we see Gatsby losing his morality in a reckless pursuit for money and his position in society. The climax of this novel can be seen in the very moment showing Gatsby as a corrupted man; nothing more than a money-obsessed creature ready to sacrifice anything in this world just to proceed in his constant strive to have more. With regards to the novel “Adventures of Huckleberry Finn”, its main idea is in condemning the South with all its inhumane way of thinking and vain pursuits. Huckleberry Finn’s adventures along with his close companion Jim reveal all the absurdity of the materialistic way of thinking and money obsession of people from the South. According to Lane,
At the heart of Huckleberry Finn lies a story about real human figures with genuine moral and ethical problems and decisions, figures placed in a society which we recognize as having everywhere in it the flavour of authenticity – the the whole combination-treated, for the most part, as directly and realistically as possible (p. 18).
Secondly, speaking about these two novels and their significance for understanding the materialistic way of thinking, the period when they were written is to be considered. Mark Twain’s “Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” was first published in 1884. This period in the history of the United States can be described as the new beginning of the race for riches and glory and to the development of the American dream along with its speedy elaboration. Scott Fitzgerald’s “The Great Gatsby” was completed in 1925. This date can be related to the triumph of the process of industrialization, and the formation and development of a new social group of nouveau riches and arrivistes. During this period materialistic obsession becomes a prevailing power controlling the minds of people. Given these points, the period when “The Great Gatsby” was written is to be understood as the time when materialistic wealth was put at the top of everything; this phenomenon found its deepest reflection in the novel.
Thirdly, discussing the matters related to the comparison of these novels with regards to the theme of materialism, their main protagonists along with their outlook on material values should be addressed. In particular, Gatsby is a man of materialism; everything he values and desiderates is mere money and fame. We read about him in the novel:
He was a son of God – a phrase which, if it means anything, means just that – and he must be about His Father’s business, the service of a vast, vulgar, and meretricious beauty. So he invented just the sort of Jay Gatsby that a seventeen- year-old boy would be likely to invent, and to this conception, he was faithful to the end (Fitzgerald, p. 63).
Fitzgerald, here, describes Gatsby with an ironical address to religious notions, and, thus, stating how many materialistic matters meant for his character, they were just as important as religious matters for many people. Alluding to the character of Gatsby, “Fitzgerald is saying that the spirituality of America is misplaced because of [its] obsession with material wealth, which creates a sort of national delusion” (Millett par.43). Definitely, in Gatsby’s character, the whole country of the United States with its obsession with material wealth and spiritual breakdown can be seen. Similar to Gatsby who used to have high-minded and noble pursuits, but failed to preserve these valuable things, the country used to be the one organized in accordance to exalted principles of spirituality, religiousness and faith in God, but “sold” all of those precious gems for “30 pieces of silver”. Addressing the character of Huckleberry Finn, the readers may see a different picture. Huck appears as opposition to the materialistic way of thinking. At the beginning of the novel, we find him scraping up some fortune as a result of his adventures described by Twain in his earlier books of the sequel. However, seeing a threat for his peace of mind presented by the society that he so badly wants to be made a part of, Huckleberry escapes leaving his possessions. This is the first of the many addresses to the situations when Huck gives up material things for something that means more for him including freedom, friendship, loyalty, and the spirit of filibusterism.
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Further, a row of important events from the novels is to be addressed to understand the similarities and the differences in the approach to materialistic wealth by the authors. On the subject of this, the first event to consider will be the moving of the main characters of the novels. In “The Great Gatsby”, the characters move from west to east motivated by their materialistic pursuits, while in “Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” the main protagonist along with his companions escapes from the rich territory of the South to the North to evade the badness of material corruption. According to Millett, When the early explorers first came to America, escaping the corruption of their old world in search of the promise of a new world, they travelled from east to west. Now, America itself is corrupted, so the characters in The Great Gatsby travel from west to east – in search of wealth and sophistication – leaving the moral values and stability of the west behind (par.35).
This place where the main characters desire to appear so badly is called the “valley of ashes” by the author of the book. Speaking about east resorting to the use of such a term, Fitzgerald seems to emphasize its corrupted nature along with its “crucifixion” of morality and prevailing of evil values such as materialism, cynicism and dejection caused by the “killing” of the soul as a result of these vein pursuits. In this place, only material-driven and superficial individuals can live in peace and satisfaction. Millett (par.39) comments on the situation, Fitzgerald uses this change in direction as a symbol for the deterioration of American ideals and the American Dream, helping to prove that [American] quest for wealth and sophistication is corrupting [American] culture, and causing [the people] to live in a wasteland of morals – an ash heap of civilization.
Thus, in “The Great Gatsby” the tendency to move for “evil” destroying real values is explored. On the contrary, in “Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” the main character and his companions escape from the society of materialistic concerns which “kills them softly” by its every desire and pursuit. Huck feels uncomfortable while being socialized in the new society; his will for peace of mind and freedom is disturbed by all those people who try to implant a materialistic way of thinking into his mind and corrupt his heart with money-related ideas. Here, a conclusion can be made as for the difference between the novel’s approaches: both of them present movement of the main heroes motivated by money-related matters; however, in “The Great Gatsby” it is a negative approach, and in “Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” it is a positive one.
Next, the results of people’s obsession with the symbols of material wealth can be explored through the life experiences of Daisy Buchanan’s in “TheGreat Gatsby” being compared to Huckleberry Finn in the cognominal novel. Daisy Buchanan’s case eventually shows to which sad outcomes might the materialistic way of thinking and living lead. According to Lane (p. 20), in this case, it is “evident throughout the novel that materialistic properties of wealth and status triumph over love”. Fitzgerald explained that “she only married [her husband] because [she] was poor and [she] was tired of waiting for [the man she loved] (Fitzgerald, p. 137). At the end of the novel, the heroine is shown frustrated and empty by all those vain pursuits for money and a better position in society. A different situation occurred to Huckleberry Finn who wanted to become rich initially, but after a row of life lessons to learn, eventually, he realized the real values which were to be treasured and increased including loyalty, friendship, freedom, morality and spirituality. By way of this contrast, the readers may explore varied negative results to which materialism leads.
In addition, the disparity between the poor and the rich can be also explored in both of these novels. In “The Great Gatsby”, the author shows the different stages of life of the main protagonists and the way their life satisfaction is connected to possessing material benefits. The reader can also explore the way different people are seen by Gatsby; he values them on the reason of what they have, but not who they are in reality. Similar to this, in “Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” the examples of Huck and his companion Jim help to understand the disparity between those who have money and those who want to have them. According to Lane, “Huck demonstrates a relaxed attitude towards wealth…he does not view money as a necessity, but rather as a luxury” (p. 19). Jim evaluates material wealth differently: “for Jim, who is on a quest to buy his family out of slavery, money is equivalent to freedom” (Lane 19). More than this, Jim sees money as a means to improve his status within society by acquiring wealth. In contrast to this, Huck remains apathetic and frigid to money.
Finally, each of the novels features a character that the author uses as his voice to show the sad consequences of being overly preoccupied with material concerns. In “The Great Gatsby”, this character is Nick Carraway, a decent man who knows the real value of money and the sad consequences of being obsessed by them. Through the expressions of this character, the readers may explore all the vanity behind material wealth, its harmful effects on the souls and the relationships among people. In “Adventures of Huckleberry Finn”, Huck, the main character himself is the person applied by the author as a “speaking-trumpet” of morality. Huck does face the “knocking” of materialistic desires into his soul but evaluating all the related matters and the possible consequences of the love for money he concludes to stay away from being obsessed with this false virtue. In the final chapter of the novel we read “No, he hain’t,” Tom says; “it’s all there yet–six thousand dollars and more; and your pap hain’t ever been back since. Hadn’t when I come away, anyhow” (Lane, p. 23). These words well show how far Huck abstains from being dedicated to materialism.
In conclusion, it is important to emphasize that the theme of materialistic wealth and being obsessed with it is one of the central themes for both novels under consideration. Generally, in “The Great Gatsby” the reader may see the sad outcomes of the main protagonist’s mistake in dedicating his entire life to materialistic values, and, thus, experiencing moral breakdown as a result; whereas in “Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” the audience may see how through his life path the main character rejects the temptation of material wealth and maintains peace of mind and saves his soul as a result. In “The Great Gatsby”, we may see the way the spirituality of America is misplaced because of [its] obsession with material wealth, which creates a sort of national delusion” (Millett par.43). As the story develops, we see Gatsby losing his morality in a reckless pursuit for money and his position in society. The climax of this novel can be seen in the very moment showing Gatsby as a corrupted man; nothing more than a money-obsessed creature ready to sacrifice anything in this world just to proceed in his constant strive to have more. In contrast to this, Huckleberry Finn does face the “knocking” of materialistic desires into his soul but evaluating all the related matters and the possible consequences of the love for money he concludes to stay away from being obsessed with this false virtue. All in all, the important lessons concerning being obsessed with materialistic values are the precious heritage which Mark Twain and Francis Scott Fitzgerald left not only for their nation suffering from the loss of spirituality in pursuit for money but to all the people on the entire planet.
Fitzgerald, Francis. The Great Gatsby. The United States: Scribner, 2004. Print.
Lane, Lauriat Jr., “Why Huckleberry Finn Is a Great World Novel.” College English, 17. 1 (1955): 17-24. Print.
Millett, Frederick. n. d. Analysis – The Great Gatsby. n. d. Web.