Lost Generation And The Jazz Essay, Research Paper
THE LOST GENERATION AND THE JAZZ AGE IN THE WORKS OF HEMINGWAY AND FITZGERALD
The post-World War I generation in America, where the war experiences left the country altered forever and the people emotionally barren is usually referred to as the Lost Generation. More specifically, the term is used for a group of American writers who came of age during the war and established their literary reputations in the 1920’s. The term embraces Ernest Hemingway, Francis Scott Fitzgerald, John Dos Passos, e.e. cummings and many other writers who made Paris the centre of their literary activities in the 1920’s. Works of those writers represented the distinctive stamp of the post war period, capturing the attitudes of the young at that time, greatly disillusioned and materialistic. The generation was ‘lost’ in the sense that its inherited values of patriotism, honour, success and love were no longer relevant in the post war world because of spiritual alienation of America on the international scene. Even most basic notions rooted in the American mentality, such as the American Dream, seemed to be devalued and no longer served as a path to follow for the young. Hemingway and Fitzgerald, though spent much time during their literary active life in Europe, still knew the exact pains of the young Americans and skilfully portrayed them in their works.
‘The Great Gatsby’ by Francis Scott Fitzgerald shows the disillusion and moral disintegration of the post war America as well as the promise and failure of the American Dream. Jay Gatsby, the young, romantic American, is an embodiment of the American Dream: starting from nothing, he gains a vast fortune. However, his attempts to pursue happiness through the American Dream end in a complete failure and finally lead him to tragic death. Love as a value is no longer important in the new world – though Gatsby loves Daisy and she seems to have the same feeling for him, for the second time they fail to be together. The whole society, which is portrayed in the novel through Daisy and tom Buchanans, suffer from moral relativity – steady and comfortable life is placed above conscience, when they are faced with a tragedy and a difficult choice is to be made. The whole generation perceived the world in such a way and the narrator’s perspective only strengthens the effect; Nick Carraway’s decency is more conspicuous in the indifferent and dishonest world and makes the contrast with the rest of characters even sharper.
In Ernest Hemingway’s ‘The Sun Also Rises’ the Lost Generation is shown as even more unemotional and dry, probably thanks to Hemingway’s prose style: short, simple sentences, from which all comment or emotional rhetoric have been eliminated. The main characters of the novel, portrayed through understatements and simplicity of words, lead the life typical for young American writers at the post war time. Their existence was limited to going out, drinking, talking about trifles and looking for pleasure in love affairs; by means of this morally ambiguous life they sought escape from spiritual alienation. Again, the pre war values of love and faith were devalued, they had little relevance if compared with the unbelievable scale of violence and the atrocities of the war. Reading between the lines it can be noticed that all main characters are afraid of final solutions; Brett Ashley is acting against her feeling for Jake, Cohn is fleeing from his long-time lover Francis, Mike is observing his fianc e getting involved in one affair after another. Searching for the meaning of life, they are all afraid of finding it. In the same way as Fitzgerald, Hemingway leaves some solution by bringing in the positive character, again in the role of the narrator. Jake Barnes is the only one who realises the truth: ‘You can’t get away from yourself by moving from one place to another’. To survive in such a world, one must behave well in the lonely, losing battle with life to show ‘grace under pressure’, and that is exactly the way of Jake.
The Roaring Twenties or the Jazz Age was by all means a period of tumultuous change. New trends entered almost all areas of life and they were not limited to the young. Good state of economy and productivity gains brought most Americans up to at least a modest level of comfort. New consumer goods – radios, phones, refrigerators and above all the motor car, which plays the key role in ‘The Great Gatsby’ – made life easier. The echoes of changes in this period create a good background for the ideas presented in the works of Fitzgerald and Hemingway.
In the 1920’s leisure activities became more important as a result of the newly acquired wealth. Professional sports boomed and the rapid growth of tabloid newspapers, magazines, movies and radios enabled millions to share in the exciting world of flappers and jazz music. This leisurely lifestyle, going to movie theatres, dining out, afternoon drinks, and above all luxurious parties is actually background to the story of Jay Gatsby. The scene in the Gatsby’s garden epitomizes the Jazz Age. The place all glittering with affluence, abundance of food, drinks, light, jazz music, cars with guests rushing to and fro, it all makes the whole scene look sumptuously. Characteristically, the place is crowded, but yet empty: there is lots of alcohol, laughter, ‘enthusiastic meeting between women who never knew each other’s names’ and somehow forced enjoyment. There is no place for real feelings of friendship or true joy of life. What was significant, it was exactly the aim of Gatsby to throw such popular, impersonal parties, to which nobody needed invitation. Old traditional forms of socialising, with their courtesy and manners failed into oblivion. The pursuit of entertainment seemed to cover emotional vanity and internal pains. The new Americans visibly rebelled against what they viewed as unsuccessful, outmoded pre war conventions and attitudes.
The Jazz Age brought, apart from economic boom and what followed, the new mentality and fresh outlook on social roles. Women at that time, having won the right to vote in 1920, demanded to be recognised as man’s equal in all areas. They adopted a masculine look, cutting their hair and abandoning corsets, they drank and smoked in public and were more open about sex. This concept of the ‘new woman’ is brought into ‘The Sun Also Rises’ – lady Brett Ashley perfectly suits the image of new emancipated female. She chooses partners for herself, manipulating them, she drinks with men as if she was one of them, and refuses to grow her hair long. The same type is Jordan Baker from ‘The Great Gatsby’ – an arrogant, sporty girl, looking down on men and their feelings.
On the darker side, there was xenophobic atmosphere in the post war isolated America and the revival of the racist Ku Klux Klan. During the early 1920’s the Klan achieved a large membership and gained control of, or influence over many cities and state governments. The racist attitude of Americans is shown through words of Tom Buchanan in ‘The Great Gatsby’ ; his deepest conviction is that a Negro will never be able to drive a car. He avidly reads ‘The Rise of the Coloured Empires’ and his remarks about the book are quite familiar to the reader born after World War II: ‘The idea is if we don’t look out the white race will be – will be utterly submerged. This idea is that we are Nordics. It is up to us who are the dominant race, to watch out or these other races will take control of things’.
Another characteristic and influential factor, which left the mark on social life in America in the 1920’s was the Prohibition. This was also notable as devaluation of people’s trust in righteousness of government actions. Another authority failed to be important to people. Millions of otherwise law-abiding citizens drank prohibited alcohol, prompting the growth of organised crime. Curiously enough, Fitzgerald mentions prohibition only in the connection with Gatsby’s bootlegging; it seems there is no problem with getting illegal liquor in East America, even for great and fabulous parties.
In conclusion, both ‘The Sun Also Rises’ and ‘The Great Gatsby’ are somehow summarising the Jazz Age, with its origins and atmosphere. Many new social trends give an accurate background to the actions of protagonists, to some extent explain their mentality and lifestyles. This new world, involving struggle with the war trauma, new values, or perhaps the lack of any values explain why Gertrude Stein called the post war people ‘ a lost generation’ and why this remark became popular on the spot. Young Americans felt she was perfectly right, as their generation had to deal with many questions and insecurity brought by the new world.