The Great Gatsby: Themes - The Empty, Unsatisfying and Hollow Lives of the Wealthy



One of the key ideas explored in the Great Gatsby is the empty, and unsatisfying nature of the lives of the upper class elite of New York. Throughout the novel, we see multiple instances of characters concealing their true emotions and genuine personalities in order to maintain an exterior of sophistication, taste, and class. Regardless of the source of wealth, whether earned or inherited, everyone’s “American Dream” appears to take part in the glamorous lives of the wealthy. Yet, through his portrayal of Tom and Daisy’s discontent, both of whom epitomize the elite of New York, Fitzgerald suggests the fruitlessness of these ambitions, implying that this kind of lifestyle are hollow and unsatisfying.


Quotations & Analysis:





Almost before I had grasped her meaning there was the flutter of a dress and the crunch of leather boots, and Tom and Daisy were back at the table.

After Daisy and Tom’s quarrel over Myrtle calling Tom during the party at the Buchanan’s house, the couple were able to reenter the room as if nothing happened. Fitzgerald uses ‘flutter’ to depict Daisy as light and beautiful, similar to a butterfly. The ‘crunch of leather boots’, implies masculinity and power. Both ‘flutter’ and crunch’ illustrates Tom and Daisy as the perfect wealthy couple. Fitzgerald’s use of this characterization right after the call from Tom’s mistress emphasizes the hollow nature of the wealthy as they conceal their dissatisfaction through a mask of beauty and power.



I’m glad it’s a girl. And I hope she’ll be a fool -that’s the best thing a girl can be in this world, a beautiful little fool.

When Daisy describes her child, a sense of poignancy is created. Throughout the party at the Buchanan’s house, Fitzgerald describes Daisy and the house she was in with lively detail and beauty, suggesting Nick’s fascination with the wealth and status of the Buchanans. Furthermore, Daisy was illustrated as a beautiful woman with a wealthy husband, a seemingly perfect image of a wealthy couple. However, for Daisy to wish that her daughter should turn out to be a “beautiful fool” suggests her dissatisfaction with her life of wealth and status. Fitzgerald emphasizes the poignancy of this moment through the irony that Daisy herself is not a “beautiful fool” as she is aware of Tom having an affair. Daisy’s comment implies that “the best thing” a wealthy girl “can be in this world” is a person who lacks the awareness and can thus be happy with the hollowness of a life lived based solely on appearance.



What thoroughness! What realism! Knew when to stop, too -- didn’t cut the pages. But what do you want? What do you expect?

In the first party that Nick attends at Gatsby’s house, the impression created is that everything people know about Gatsby is just a facade that Gatsby created of himself. Fitzgerald uses the fascination that Owl Eyes has with the verisimilitude of Gatsby’s facade to emphasize the hollowness of the wealthy and once again suggest that the creation of a perfect appearance is the best that can be hoped for. Owl eyes notices that all the books in Gatsby’s library are real, however they are all uncut, i.e. that the pages are still sewn together and thus the books must be unread. This image of books that are only used for their appearance, concealing their content in uncut pages perfectly parallels the hollow nature of Gatsby’s life and the lives of the wealthy in general.


Interestingly, however, Fitzgerald provides a different perspective on the hollow nature of the wealthy, where Owl Eyes praises Gatsby for how well he can pretend to be something he is not, going to lengths such as buying a library filled with real books just to suggest an education that he does not really possess.



“Anyhow, he gives large parties,” said Jordan, changing the subject with urban distaste for the concrete. “And I like large parties. They’re so intimate. At small parties there isn’t any privacy.”

This quotation reveals Jordan’s desire for the privacy to be found at large parties which suggests the impersonal nature of parties as one can easily slip away from the scene, unnoticed because of the insignificance of any one individual. Moreover, the irony that Jordan likes large parties because of the privacy that can be afforded demonstrates the lack of privacy in her life, that she enjoys those sporadic moments in large parties where she can be unscrutinized perhaps implying a dissatisfaction on Jordan’s part with her current lifestyle, where she is constantly expected to maintain a collected and composed facade.



A sudden emptiness seemed to flow now from the windows and the great doors, endowing with complete isolation the figure of the host, who stood on the porch, his hand up in a formal gesture of farewell.

After Gatsby’s party, Fitzgerald depicts Gatsby bidding farewell to Gatsby’s guests with an image of him in “complete isolation” who is seen as just a “figure” which implies the emptiness of Gatsby’s lifestyle. Fitzgerald creates the impression that Gatsby spends all his time creating a facade and flamboyant parties to attract attention, however when all of this ends, when he is alone and does not need to play a role, he is just an ordinary “figure”. Without the party guests, Fitzgerald creates a sense of hollowness about Gatsby where his house is just an ordinary wealthy person’s home, and Gatsby is just the host of the party. Fitzgerald’s use of “flow” also emphasizes the inevitability of this upsurge of emptiness in the lives of the wealthy, where the party was able to conceal this emptiness only for so long.



All these people came to Gatsby’s house in the summer

The specificity of the guests who feature in Nick’s roll call of influential people that visited Gatsby’s house, especially where they came from, highlights the distinction between East and West Egg and the way in which the East Eggers are more successful in their attempts compared to portray an air of sophistication in comparison to the guests from West Egg, who come off as gaudy and ostentatious. The implied superiority of East Egg highlights the importance of appearing sophisticated as both East and West Eggers strive to be seen in this light and this focus on the importance appearing sophisticated once again reinforces the hollow and superficial nature of the lives of the wealthy.


Nick’s narration of Myrtle’s party early on in the novel suggests that the Middle Classes are equally fascinated with the attempt to appear sophistication and Fitzgerald seems to suggest that the pursuit of this hollow, superficial lifestyle is not only representative of the upper class elite, but is representative of most citizens in the period of the 1920s.



There are only the pursued, the pursuing, the busy, and the tired.

Fitzgerald created four categories that all people fall under to emphasize the dissatisfying and hollow nature of the lives of the wealthy. His use of “pursuing” and ‘tired’ suggests the emptiness of constantly searching for something and of those who have given up trying. The emptiness of this kind of continual pursuit can be seen most clearly in Tom whom Fitzgerald portrays as a man dissatisfied with the beautiful and wealthy wife who he has pursued and now possesses. As a result of his dissatisfaction, Tom is now pursuing Myrtle but she appears to be little more than the current target of his affections and we have little doubt that he will quickly find another mistress when he grows tired of her.


Fitzgerald’s use of “busy” once again suggests the emptiness of the lives of the wealthy as we see various characters attending going from place to place, yet in the end, attending all these social gatherings does not help them attain a lot more than the people who are “tired”. Therefore from these four categories that Nick had outlined, Fitzgerald seems to imply the underlying dissatisfaction and hollowness, where there is something lacking in the lives of the wealthy.



His bedroom was the simplest room of all --except where the dresser was garnished with a toilet set of pure dull gold.

Fitzgerald contrasts Gatsby’s bedroom with the rest of the house, reiterating the hollow nature of the wealthy, where the main function of Gatsby’s massive house is just to show his wealth, and not for himself. With all Gatsby’s wealth, choosing to sleep in the “simplest room of all”, shows that Gatsby is more satisfied or comfortable in a simpler environment, a simplicity that reflects favourably on him in comparison to the other characters who attend his parties.


Furthermore, owning a dresser that is “garnished with a toilet set of pure dull gold” accentuates the hollowness of Gatsby’s lifestyle as he does not know how to effectively make use of his immense wealth. The dullness of the gold also suggests something fundamentally disappointing about this, the purest form of wealth.



ˆSometimes a shadow moved against a dressing room blind above, gave way to another shadow, an indefinite procession of shadows, that rouged and powdered in an invisible glass

The lack of identity of these shadows in Gatsby’s party reinforce the impersonal relationships that exist between members of the upper classes of New York. The “indefinite procession of shadows” creates the sense that there is regularity in the actions of these shadows as they move from room to room which in turn implies that these “shadows” are familiar with the expectations of social behavior and that there is something routine and mechanical about their actions. Ultimately, the image of the shadows being “rouged and powdered” alludes to the idea of concealment once again emphasizing the superficial lifestyles of the upper class.



He broke off and began to walk up and down a desolate path of fruit rinds and discarded favors and crushed flowers.

The poignancy of the scene, established through the “desolate” path in which Gatsby walks in solitude, as well as the imagery of “discarded favors and crushed flowers” reinforces the superficiality of both the party guests and atmosphere. All that remains after the party are unwanted favors and crushed flowers, symbolizing the remnants of what originally was desired and admired. 


Furthermore, the “crushed flowers” and “discarded favors” may foreshadow the way in which there will be no future for Daisy and Gatsby. The “fruit rinds” also accentuate this sense of hopelessness in that what appears to be a beautiful and attractive fruit but are in fact hollow inside.


This series of hopeless images calls Gatsby’s future with Daisy into doubt yet Gatsby’s firm belief that his dream can be actualized creates a pathos which causes the readers to sympathize with his plight.



"About Gatsby! No, I haven't. I said I'd been making a small investigation of his past."


"And you found he was an Oxford man," said Jordan helpfully.


"An Oxford man!" He was incredulous. "Like hell he is! He wears a pink suit." (7.130-132)

This distinction between the nouveau riche and the aristocratic old class is made clear in Tom’s comment. The grace, taste and sophistication of true “upper class” is not something that can be taught; instead, it is inborn. No matter how hard Gatsby tries to imitate them, he will never be successful, thus characterizing the hollow and corrupt nature of the desire for wealth and actually how unachievable Gatsby’s dream really is



Tom talked incessantly, exulting and laughing, but his voice was as remote from Jordan and me as the foreign clamor on the sidewalk or the tumult of the elevated overhead. Human sympathy has its limit, and we were content to let all their tragic arguments fade with the city lights behind

Tom’s ability to act normally after the conflict between him and Gatsby demonstrates Tom’s lack of emotion and his swaggering arrogance here Is repulsive. The quick re-adoption of his original persona so soon after the realization of his wife’s affair may suggest the fundamentally superficial nature of Tom’s emotion as he seems to view the argument as a contest that he has won rather than an indication that there are serious problems with his marriage.


The idea that the emotional connections of the wealthy are always superficial in some way is accentuated by the way in which Daisy and Tom eat chicken in the kitchen while Gatsby is watching over her empty bedroom. Their ability to resume their normal routine after such significant events (Daisy has just killed someone) suggests the shallowness of their involvement with the other characters in the novel and their commitment to maintaining a collected, composed outer appearance. This empty and artificial lifestyle epitomizes the hollow and superficial lifestyle of the elite of New York that Tom and Daisy represent.


Moreover, the distance between Nick and Tom is highlighted through the “remote” nature of his voice to him; suggesting their increasingly irreconcilable differences. Tom lives as a disillusioned, arrogant man who feels the need to uphold his composure in any situation. Sadly, unlike Daisy, who also posses this superficiality, Tom is unaware of the hollow presence of his own life.



“She’ll be all right to-morrow,” [Gatsby] said presently.

Gatsby seems to think that Daisy will be “all right” the day after the car accident and the casual nature of this dismissal of Myrtle’s death suggests just how thoughtless and selfish the wealthy really are. This idea is accentuated in the later scene where Daisy and Tom are talking with each other when does indeed appear to be fine and calm.


Furthermore, Gatsby’s reaction is also significant because it appears that Gatsby believes he can just put the incident behind him. Consequently, this creates the impression that not only are the wealthy living empty and meaningless lives, but the people who are pursuing this quest for wealth and status are also similarly detached.



Daisy and Tom were sitting opposite each other at the kitchen table, with a plate of cold fried chicken between them, and two bottles of ale.

The “coldness” of the chicken mirrors the coldness of both Tom and Daisy to revert back to their original, unaffected state after dramatic events of the car crash and the confrontation. This accentuates the idea that the wealthy, because of their affluence, can do whatever they wish without regard for the consequences. This unfeeling attitude towards life and indifference to the sufferings of others is part of the hollow and superficial nature of the wealthy.



Gatsby was overwhelmingly aware ... of the freshness of many clothes, and of Daisy, gleaming like silver, safe and proud above the hot struggles of the poor.

A young Gatsby views Daisy as a possession, as the simile comparing her to silver would suggest. Furthermore, Gatsby is aware of the “freshness of many clothes”, which demonstrates that he is more concerned with the physical objects that Daisy owns rather than Daisy herself. Moreover, Fitzgerald’s description of Daisy as some sort of trophy indicates that the wealthy are meant to be placed on display. “[S]afe and proud” also suggests that the wealthy must be detached and remain ‘above’ the less wealthy, which is strengthened through Daisy being “above the hot struggles of the poor”. The use of the word “hot” can also be used to contrast with Daisy, as if she is unlike the poor, then she is ‘cold’, which has connotations of haughtiness and aloofness.


This section also reveals something about Gatsby’s conception of himself and the ‘poor’ class to which he belongs. Their ‘hot struggles’ suggest something tawdry and sordid … a struggle that, implicitly at least, is going to go on without end.



For Daisy was young and her artificial world was redolent of orchids and pleasant, cheerful snobbery and orchestras which set the rhythm of the year, summing up the sadness and suggestiveness of life in new tunes

Daisy’s world is suggestive of a “pleasant, cheerful snobbery”; this juxtaposition of snobbery with cheerfulness suggests that the this type of snobbery is deemed “sophisticated” and is carried out without malice as just another aspect of the charming life that the wealthy lead … an idea that both Nick and Gatsby may seem to admire. In this way Daisy’s behaviour seems innocent and excusable, it is just a function of the world in which she lives - nonetheless the negative connotations of the word remain and it may therefore be argued that this creates a lingering sense of unjustified superiority which undermines the sympathy that we might otherwise feel for Daisy here.


Moreover, the fact that Daisy follows the “rhythm of the year” may imply that individuals within New York’s elite lack individuality and personality as they tend to follow trends without acknowledging their own tendency to only imitate, and not lead lives of themselves.



You know, old sport, I’ve never used that pool all summer?

The idea of emptiness is shown here, as Gatsby has not “used [his] pool all summer”. This revelation indicates that Gatsby’s pool was just for show, and although it enhanced the reputation of his parties and also helped make Gatsby look more affluent, ultimately, it was only used as a object for Gatsby to display to others instead of being used for its original purpose. This enhances the fact that lives of the wealthy are unsatisfying, because even though they have many things, they don’t use them and only use them to build their reputation.



"They're a rotten crowd," I shouted across the lawn. "You're worth the whole damn bunch put together." (8.44-45)

At the end of the novel, Nick realizes the corrupt nature of the rich. His admiration for the wealthy has been marred by the ugly behavior of Daisy and Tom, their carelessness and ability to retreat back into their old lives, pretending nothing had happened. Nick’s comments cause readers to be similarly revolted by the actions of the Buchanans as he reveals their superficial and shallow personalities.



I called up Daisy half an hour after we found him, called her instinctively and without hesitation. But she and Tom had gone away early that afternoon, and taken baggage with them.

"Left no address?"


"Say when they'd be back?"


"Any idea where they are? How I could reach them?"

"I don't know. Can't say."


The 1920’s produced frivolous and wealthy characters such as the Buchanans who are able to remain careless and irresponsible despite their actions by hiding behind their money and their family names. Daisy and Tom’s ability to just leave everything behind despite the trouble they caused shows their selfish personalities. They have little regard for those around them and they seem to think that human life is disposable. Moreover, the fact that they didn’t acknowledge Nick before taking off shows their disregard for him too. Overall, they are only concerned with maintaining their sophisticated lifestyle, and once that isn’t possible, given the turbulent events that happened, they cope by simply moving away to restart their lives.



Gatsby’s house was still empty when I left -- the grass on his lawn had grown as long as mine.

The emptiness of Gatsby’s house emphasizes the superficiality of his relationships. Gatsby’s parties were so famous that people would always show up at his house but the fact that no one comes to mourn for him reveals that Gatsby was only famous for his parties and that without them, he would be nothing. Through this, Fitzgerald creates pathos because only Nick seemed to fully understand Gatsby, as all the others just saw the facade that Gatsby put up.



"They were careless people, Tom and Daisy — they smashed up things and creatures and then retreated back into their money of their vast carelessness, or whatever it was that kept them together, and let other people clean up the mess they had made."

This outlines the characteristics of characters like Tom and Daisy: they feel that they are above all others such that they can recklessly do as they desire without regard for the consequences. The description of their carelessness being “vast” emphasizes their indifference towards those around them. Moreover, the use of the word “creatures” suggests their contempt for “lowliness” and insignificance of the people around them. Furthermore, by associating Tom and Daisy together as a collective “they”; Fitzgerald implies that there were a group of people, not just the Buchanans, who acted this way; reinforcing the hollow nature of the upper classes in the 1920s.



Overall Effect on the Reader:

Throughout the novel, Fitzgerald depicts the allure that the life of the wealthy has for people of lower and middle classes. We can see this in Myrtle’s decision to have an affair with Tom as the access that he grants her to higher social status and more wealth seems to give her a sense of superiority to her friends and family. We can also see this in Nick’s fascination with the lives of the wealthy who, for example, feels flattered at being the only one who received an invitation to Gatsby’s party. However, the most significant example of the desire to climb the social ladder is seen through Gatsby, as Fitzgerald explores his dreams and hopes of becoming wealthy, gaining status, and reuniting with Daisy, who is wealthy as well. However, Fitzgerald undermines this hunger for the wealthy life by implying that the lives of the wealthy are empty, unsatisfying and hollow thus suggesting that the lifestyle that many people strive for may not be as happy and perfect as they believe.


Furthermore, this theme also appears to be used to show that in some instances, the wealthy may not be any better than the people of the lower classes, as they only have wealth and status on the exterior. Through Nick’s slowly changing perspective of the extravagant lifestyle of the wealthy, Fitzgerald implies the undesirable nature of wealth and reiterates the idea that although people often strive for wealth and status when they finally achieve their aims, they find their life no more satisfying than it was before.