Theme Of Money And Greed In The Novel The Great Gatsby And Movie Wall Street
Undoubtedly, money is the ultimate driving force not only of business within America but globally too. To a certain degree, money provides power, freedom and time; it can be used to protect yourself and the ones you love and puts you in control of your life. Money is central to the plot of both The Great Gatsby and Wall Street, but although both Gatsby, Fox and Gekko were hungry for financial wealth and material goods, they soon discover that, ultimately, money doesn’t buy you happiness.
Initially, we observe that Gatsby essentially has everything, however, his extreme wealth fails to fill the Daisy shaped hole in his heart; despite his huge mansion and copious material objects, Gatsby cannot win Daisy over and his naivete and foolishness eventually lead to his tragic death. Gekko and Fox, too, lose everything; the result of their illicit trading lands them both in jail. In order to provide some focus to this essay, I will be concentrating on the relationships between love, morality and money in both texts.
Set in the Roaring Twenties, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby draws to attention to the glamorous and exciting but corrupt period in American history. After World War One ended in 1918, American’s were eager to return to normalcy. Following the defeat of Germany, the United States became a world dominant superpower and after a couple of years, the economy began to boom. The Twenties was a time of economic prosperity in the United States that saw the development of technology and brought about a new and distinctive culture of debauchery, modern values and consumerism.
The novel’s focus on money alludes to not only how much money the characters have but also how they acquired said money in the first place. Tom and Daisy Buchanan are of what is called “old money”. Tom was highly educated, and his parents were “enormously wealthy” and so the money he owned was mainly inherited by his family whose fortunes had probably dated back to the 19th Century. Jay Gatsby, however, represents “new money” in which money is usually gained during the 1920s’ boom; we are not told much about Gatsby’s family and eventually discover that the majority of his riches were made through the illegal selling of alcohol.
Money and the attainment of money is also a focal point of Oliver Stone’s film, Wall Street, which was released in 1987. The film was recognized as an attack on the excessive consumerist culture of 1980’s America and how extreme wealth and power dismissed all aspects of morality, decency and honesty. 1980s America experienced the rebirth of Wall Street after the stock market crash of 1929; as Ronald Regan’s economic programme began to take effect, the economy began to grow again after the recession in the early 1980s. Much like Gatsby, Gordon Gekko (Michael Douglass) and Bud Fox (Charlie Sheen) earn the majority of their money very quickly through illegal means. In this case, Gekko, who critic Peter Newman says “had an ethical bypass at birth”, buys a company called Bluestar Airlines for a small quantity of money and then sells its assets for a huge sum, leaving the staff unemployed, including Bud’s father (Martin Sheen). This is just one example in which Gekko’s insatiable greed bypasses any kind of moral or ethical consideration. Although he eventually realizes that money isn’t everything, influenced by Gekko, Bud also commits both moral and literal crimes in order to satiate his appetite for the luxury lifestyle.
Although the three men all have an obvious obsession over money and wealth, their attitudes towards money differ. For Gatsby, money was more than merely being able to purchase nice things; although we are aware that he enjoyed spending his money on expensive clothes and cars, money was initially a means of escape from his humble farming life in North Dakota. Despite never overtly admitting it, Gatsby, amongst many other gangsters of the 1920s, exploited the prohibition market and responded to the demands of the time by illegally producing alcohol and selling it through drugstores as medicinal spirits. Unlike Gekko and Bud, Gatsby earnt every penny of his money illegally, but the majority of it was used in order to win Daisy over. In a conversation between Nick and Jordan, the reader is made aware that “it wasn’t a coincidence at all” … “Gatsby bought that house so that Daisy would be just across the bay”. The money he illegally acquires and spends is all for her.
The relationship between love and money is at the heart of Fitzgerald’s novel and, as readers, we may be astounded by the efforts made by Gatsby in order to gain Daisy’s attention. Critic Maggie Gordon Froehlich writes that the novel reflects on how the patriarchal capitalism of American society meant that “there (was) little possibility for authentic love or desire separate from the economic realm”. In other words, there is no love without money. Gatsby truly believes that his riches will re-ignite the fire between himself and Daisy, and it does, to an extent, until she realises the methods through which he had obtained the money.
Gatsby suggests that Daisy’s voice is “full of money” because she, too, is obsessed with wealth; she never ceases to be impressed by Gatsby’s riches. Critic Roger Lathbury addresses Gatsby’s phrase and adds that “Daisy’s charm is allied to the attraction of wealth; money and love hold similar attractions” and that “even when the sentiments are genuine, they are formulated in monetary terms”. This is reiterated when Nick says, “I think he revalued everything in his house according to the measure of response it drew from her well-loved eyes”. Ultimately, Gatsby knows that the way to Daisy’s heart is through money.
Although not as overtly as in The Great Gatsby, we do see traces of the conflict between money and love and relationships in Wall Street. Unlike Gatsby’s romantic vision of Daisy, Gekko has no time for pure love; he is too self-obsessed to put anyone else’s needs before his, and so he sees women more as mere objects of sex and desire. Gekko has an interesting relationship with Darien Taylor (Daryl Hannah), an interior decorator and a self-proclaimed “great spender of other people’s money”. We get the sense early on in the film that the affair between Gekko and Darien was purely of a sexual nature. Gekko says to her, “You and I are the same, Darien. We are smart enough not to buy into the oldest myth running; love.
A fiction created by people to keep them from jumping out of windows”. This simply reiterates that Gekko, unlike Gatsby, isn’t a believer of true love, rather his only true love is money and everything else is secondary. Critic John Stone writes that “There is no time or need for others. If watching Gekko coldly feed birthday cards into his paper shredder doesn’t affirm this, listening to him proselytize to Bud does: “You win a few, you lose a few. But you keep on fighting. And no feelings. You need a friend? Get a dog””. Here, Stone perfectly underlines just how callous and brutal Gekko can be and affirms his absolute obsession with money and power.
We see this concept of no love without money in Wall Street as well as The Great Gatsby when Darien threatens to leave Bud if he opts to take revenge on Gekko. Darien values Bud’s money much more than she values his love; she says to him, “When you’ve had money and lost it, it can be much worse than never having had it at all!”, suggesting that she couldn’t cope with the consequences of being with Bud if he lost his riches. She has to be as ruthless as Gekko if she wants to uphold her status within the rich and elite circle. We also observe the infatuation over money by women in Fitzgerald’s novel too, not just through the character of Daisy, but through Myrtle Wilson. Myrtle seeks an escape from her life in the Valley of Ashes with her violent husband and does so by having an affair with the wealthy Tom Buchanan.
The relationship between Myrtle and Tom is founded upon money and sex; Tom buys his mistress clothes and rents her an apartment in Manhattan. Interestingly, Myrtle almost becomes another person when she is around Tom and his lavishness; Nick expresses how “with the influence of her dress her personality had also undergone a change”, emphasising how effective money can be in completely changing someone. Ironically, Myrtle explains to her sister that “most of these fellas will cheat you every time. All they think about is money”. Without realising it, she describes not only Tom, who has cheated on his wife, but also herself for cheating on her husband all for the purpose of experiencing life with copious amounts of money.
With regards to the corruption that lies behind money and money making in both Wall Street and The Great Gatsby, we see that morality is a huge concern. Even today, money and morality are closely related, and, in both texts, we may question whether the ability to be morally good and ethical is lost in the characters who possess the most money. I believe Stone’s primary concern in creating Wall Street was to uncover the brutality, immorality and dishonesty identified in the world of business in the late 20th Century, and there are a number of examples of poor morals within the film. The most significant moral conflict in the film is undoubtedly the moment when Gekko intends to sell his stocks in Bluestar Airlines, the company Bud’s father works for, in order to make a large earning rather quickly; this, however, meant that Carl Fox and his colleagues would lose their jobs.
Gekko feels absolutely no remorse for what he is about to do to Bud’s father, his colleagues and their families, and attempts to turn Bud away from his own family. When Bud asks Gekko, “How much is enough?”, Gekko replies, “It’s not a question of enough, pal. It’s a zero-sum game, somebody wins somebody loses…”, and in this case, he wins and everyone else loses. The situation is worsened by the fact that Carl Fox isn’t a stranger to Gekko; he is essentially the father of Gekko’s business partner and the way he is able to deceive people with “no feelings” is rather sickening to watch. After his father suffers a heart attack from the stress of potentially losing his job that he has worked so hard for, Bud has a moral realization and decides that something must be done to stop the ruthless Gekko.
Carl Fox represents everything that Gekko is not; he is hard-working, selfless and honest. His outlook on money is that it is “only something you need in case you don’t die tomorrow” and doesn’t approve of Bud’s attitude towards his growing wealth. There is an interesting contrast between two particular lines of speech of both Carl and Gekko that really epitomises the disparity between them. Carl pleads with Bud to “Stop going for the easy buck and start producing something with your life. Create, instead of living off the buying and selling of others”, whereas Gekko tells Bud, “I create nothing. I own”. Here, we see Gekko’s utter reliance on other people’s naivety and innocence to make him rich; this contradicts Carl’s insistence to “produce” and “create” something original and individual that doesn’t involve betraying other people.
Critic Larry E. Ribstein expresses that “The film contrasts the superficiality and get-rich-quick nature of Gekko’s business with the down-home substance of Carl’s working-class environment” and addresses Carl as “the voice of sensible values”. I believe it is important to have a character with “sensible values” as it reiterates the heartlessness of Gekko, and even Bud at times. The stark contrast between the characters of Carl and Gekko may also have been used within the film to represent the huge gap between classes in society. This is also observed in The Great Gatsby with characters like Tom and Mr Wilson; Tom represents the upper-classes who want for nothing and have everything, and the “spiritless” and “anaemic” Mr Wilson embodies the working-class who live in places like the Valley of Ashes.
Immorality and corruption are also both products of extreme wealth in The Great Gatsby. Nick’s opening words of the novel state, “In my younger and more vulnerable years my father gave me some advice that I’ve been turning over in my mind ever since. ‘Whenever you feel like criticizing anyone,’ he told me, ‘just remember that all the people in this world haven’t had the advantages that you’ve had’”. This suggests that it should, theoretically, be easier for wealthy people to be moral because of the “advantages” they have had in life, but this certainly isn’t true in either The Great Gatsby or Wall Street. Nick, however, seems to embrace his father’s wise words and undeniably acts as the novels most moral character.
Much like Carl in Wall Street, the character of Nick provides the novel with a “sensible” personality. Just as Carl stands as an opposite of Gekko, Nick often contrasts with Tom and Daisy; critic Jeffrey Steinbrink writes that “Nick has neither the callousness nor the moral opacity to behave with the vast carelessness of Tom and Daisy”. Gatsby, too, is guilty of placing his need for wealth before considering his moral compass. In his article focusing on ethics in business, Tony McAdams proposes that “Jay Gatsby is a boorish fraud. He is adolescent in love. He makes use of others for his selfish purposes”, and I believe this to be true, to an extent. Although Gatsby illegally worked his way up the social ladder, he has experienced a life within a poor family, but unfortunately his illusion blinds him to any immoral behaviour he presents, and so, personally, I don’t believe he is entirely aware of it. Tom and Daisy, however, are “careless, shallow people living in eternal moral adolescence” and always have been.
For people of wealth, it seems there are a different set of rules that fail to consider morality or ethics, and they go by uncriticized because they have money, and therefore power. An example of this in The Great Gatsby is when Daisy hits Myrtle in her car and kills her. She will escape punishment because of her social status; as readers, we can’t help but wonder what the outcome would have been if it had happened the other way around. To that end, money, in both texts, provides freedom. Nick tells us that “Gatsby was overwhelmingly aware of the youth and mystery that wealth imprisons and preserves, of the freshness of many clothes, and of Daisy, gleaming like silver, safe and proud above the hot struggles of the poor”. Ironically, this freedom that money supposedly provides the characters with does not last long; Gekko and Bud end up in jail, both Gatsby and Myrtle are killed, and Tom and Daisy are forced to move away. It is only the characters that didn’t dedicate their lives entirely to money that get to go on living guilt free.
We recognize that in both texts the theme of money is highly significant, and the way characters acquire and use money has not only an impact on the individual, but also on society as a whole. I believe the underlining message in both The Great Gatsby and Wall Street is that money does not buy you happiness; it may provide temporary comfort or satisfaction, but ultimately, there will be voids in your life that money just cannot fill. Gordon Gekko may say “Greed is Good”, but his greed only gets him a prison sentence; he has no true friends and nothing to show for his riches apart from material goods and a dislikeable personality. Bud eventually understands the ridiculousness of his situation, and for that, he will suffer, but only for a short time.
Gatsby’s delusions regarding the power his wealth provides him with ultimately leads to his death; much like Gekko, Gatsby is left with all his material goods but has nothing to show for it in terms of what really matters in life. In conclusion, the downfall of nearly all the characters within The Great Gatsby and Wall Street is a result of excessive wealth and greed; both texts show the reality of choosing money over honest relationships and morality.
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