Setting in The Great Gatsby  Essay

Setting in a story provides a great deal of necessary information that contributes immensely to the understanding of a story including the time period, the geographic location, the socio-political environment and sometimes even spiritual realities or perceptions.  Setting in books like The Great Gatsby, in which the characters move through a split world of old and new money, and Animal Farm, in which the animals are permitted human characteristics within the human world, are an essential part of the themes of each of these stories.  In addition to describing the ground upon which the story is built, oftentimes the story has a great deal of impact upon the setting, building a two-way relationship between character and place, reader and story.  This important aspect of setting can be seen in the novels The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald and Animal Farm by George Orwell.

In The Great Gatsby, setting plays a key role in establishing the story’s structure, language and plot even as it is shaped and controlled through the clever use of literary forms and contexts.  The structure of the book as a narrative allows the setting to be largely described by the character Nick.  He delivers this description in language and tone that instills everything with a cynical point of view that serves to add to the decadent and otherworldly nature of Gatsby’s life.  Describing a smile delivered upon him by Gatsby himself, Nick says “it understood you just as far as you wanted to be understood, believed in you as you would like to believe in yourself, and assured you that it had precisely the impression of you that, at your best, you hoped to convey” (48).  Through this description, he not only describes Gatsby’s smile, he also describes Gatsby’s character, the personalities of all the other characters within the book, and describes the reader and the story itself as something that will deliver only what the reader searches for, yet contains a variety of levels for the reader to find – a perfect example of how setting is established by context and how context is defined by setting.   

The rhetoric used in Napoleon’s government also establishes the setting as it is intentionally characteristic of the language used during the revolution.  Despite the physical realities they saw around them, it is told how Squealer, “Reading out the figures in a shrill, rapid voice, he proved to them in detail that they had more oats, more hay, more turnips than they had had in Jones’s day, that they worked shorter hours, that their drinking water was of better quality, that they lived longer, that a larger proportion of their young ones survived infancy, and that they had more straw in their stalls and suffered less from fleas” (93).  Throughout the novel, it can be traced how the words of old Major are twisted and manipulated to mean what the pigs want them to mean.  By the end of the story, Squealer’s adjustments of the seven commandments that guide the farm reflect this outrageous manipulations in the simple statement “all animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others.”  In dealing with the animals, several catchy songs and poems are created that serve to reinforce this superiority of the pigs upon the other animals, further instilling their words, despite any noticeable contradictions, with more weight than they might have held otherwise.

Within the context of the story, there are several motifs that are developed through the use of setting.  For example, the story of The Great Gatsby takes place primarily in East Egg, West Egg and the Valley of Ashes.  The novel starts off with Nick describing how he ‘accidentally’ fell into renting a small house on the West Egg, an area of town that represents the new rich, while his cousin Daisy and her husband live across the bay at East Egg, the area of the old rich.  They are separated by a gulf of water that neither side seems likely to cross.  As the story develops, the gulf that separates them becomes more obvious and more abstract.  Daisy and Tom are selfish, cynical, uncaring and unattached.  They play with people the way others might play with toys and care even less when one gets broken as evidenced by their ability to just pack up and leave when Daisy kills Myrtle.  Gatsby, on the other hand, has gained his money illegally (as opposed to Tom who did it the old fashioned way, by inheriting it), but demonstrates that he is still very capable of feeling.  He stands outside Daisy’s window for hours after the accident to be sure she’s all right even though he’s taking the blame for Myrtle’s death just like he’s stood in his back lawn staring across the water at the green light at the end of Daisy’s dock, which represented for him the promise and hope of America.  

Between these two parts of town lies the Valley of the Ashes, through which they must drive if they are to get to New York, which is painted as oddly empty whenever the characters venture there.  This no man’s land contains, as far as the reader is aware, only one dwelling and one business, the store where Myrtle and her husband reside under the giant billboard of Dr. T.J. Eckleburg.  It is described how this area of desolation has been created by the regular dumping of industrial waste into the area, making it impossible for anything else to live there and representing the destruction of America caused by this type of activity.  It is only by passing through this dead zone that they are able to reach New York, which, when described as empty as it is, indicates the death of the city and the decline of the American Dream because of its lack of activity and prosperity.  It is also within the Valley of Ashes that Daisy kills Myrtle, emphasizing the idea that the middle class will be consumed by the jealousies and actions of the ruling rich. 

Orwell’s Animal Farm provides the same type of foundation and structure as the entire story takes place on a single farm in which the animals have taken control.  However, this farm is not able to exist without having some interaction with the surrounding farmers despite their best early efforts to remain self-sufficient.  In this way, the author demonstrates through setting that the book should not be seen as a contained entity within the structure of the animal farm, but that it could be read, as it was intended, as a commentary on the Russian Revolution, with Napoleon himself representing Stalin.  His conflict with Snowball is a direct commentary on the relationship between Stalin and Leon Trotsky, showing how the violent usurper leads to the downfall of the idealistic revolutionary while the purges, secret police dogs and show trials represent the corruption of the ideals under which the farm was overrun to begin with.  Their manipulation of the other animals to build the windmill becomes a symbol of the inability of the lower class to understand the workings of the pigs as well as the willingness of the pigs to brutally use their fellow animals to achieve personal gain as they increase their interactions with the outside world. 

Like in The Great Gatsby, Animal Farm demonstrates the social tendency to break into class differences that are exposed within the animals’ use of these spaces.  Where Gatsby’s world is divided by East and West Eggs, the city and the Valley of Ashes, Napoleon’s world is identified by the house and the farmyard where Napoleon and the rest of the ‘brain trust’ pigs naturally assume residence in the house to distance themselves from the lowly order of the working class animals.  The pigs are established as the intelligentsia because of their ability to understand concepts that come difficult to the other animals, adding the social dimensional idea of the common man’s willingness to be led, such as in Boxer’s endless repeating of “Napoleon’s always right” rather than working out an answer to a puzzle on his own.  This willingness of the common class to be ruled by the powerful can be seen slightly in Gatsby, as Myrtle allows herself to have an affair with Tom and as her husband works to move them far away from Tom’s reach, but doesn’t actually confront Tom with his knowledge of the affair.  In both books, it is through the working class’ willingness to allow the rich to get away with it that leads to their subjugation at the hands of their oppressors.  Only in Gatsby does the working class rise up to challenge this social order, but botches the job so badly that he ends up killing the wrong person and killing himself as well, demonstrating the impotence of the working class to establish himself as anything greater than dirt.  Any sign of resistance on the Animal Farm is similarly dealt with in destructive or self-defeating terms.

Through the use of setting in both of these novels, underlying meanings intended by the author are made clear.  In The Great Gatsby, the social commentary of old rich over new rich is made abundantly clear through the interactions, language and locations of the characters.  It is setting that provides Napoleon with his captive experiment in Animal Farm as well as the obvious linkage to external social events occurring in Orwell’s time in Russia.  The setting provides the necessary symbolism we need to help decipher these ideas, such as the green light on Daisy’s dock, the billboard watching over the Valley of Ashes, the farm house on the animal farm and the symbolic status of the windmill to the prosperity of the animals on the farm.  Without setting, the reader has no context on which to stand, but the form of that setting must also be shaped and defined by that context.

In addition, both novels, through the use of setting, work to indicate the author’s impressions of the effects of war in establishing a new society from the wreckage.  Fitzgerald wrote The Great Gatsby as America was experiencing what has since been called the Jazz Age, a period of prosperity and celebration following the close of the First World War.  Through the lavish lifestyles of his characters, deeply divided by class distinction, and the empty, wasted portrayal of the outside worlds of the Valley of Ashes and New York, Fitzgerald seems to be warning the country of an eminent social collapse.  Similarly, Orwell wrote Animal Farm some years after Stalin seized control in Russia.  By closely mirroring the activities of the Russian political upheavals from 1917 through 1940, but placing the events in the context of an Aesopian fable, Orwell was able to give more dramatic attention to the incongruity and inhumanity of these actions.  Through the use of setting, both authors are able to develop in-depth analogies to specific situations that can only lead, or have already led, to severe social decline.

Works Cited

  1. Fitzgerald, F. Scott.  The Great Gatsby.  New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1925.
  2. Orwell, George.  Animal Farm.  New York: Signet Books, 1996.