The philosopher Simone Weil once said “the glossy surface of our civilization hides a real intellectual decadence”. In the Great Gatsby, the surface-level sophistication of Jay Gatsby, Daisy and Tom Buchanan hides a shallowness of spirit, made possible through inherited extreme wealth and privilege. The conflict comes to a deadly and tragic end between Daisy between her husband, Tom Buchanan and Jay Gatsby who has developed all-consuming infatuation for Daisy developed after a single fling many years earlier. Underlying this specific tragedy, are streams of entitlement and decadence running through each of the central characters in the story in different ways.
Tom Buchanan comes to his decadence as a birth-right. He inherits obscene wealth and privilege. Moving from place to place around the globe before taking residence in an upscale neighborhood near Manhatton. His wife, Daisy, of similar wealth and social standing enters the marriage for purely transactional reasons, taking Daisy as another possession he could just acquire at his desire. Tom “came down with a hundred people in four private cars and hired a whole floor of the Seelbach Hotel, and the day before the wedding he gave her a string of pearls valued at three hundred and fifty thousand dollars.” For her part, Daisy is drunk a half hour before the bridal dinner wanting to back out of the marriage altogether, her bridesmaid and hired helped straighten her up and set her back on a path back into Tom Buchanan, wealth, privilege and decadence. Meanwhile, Tom carries on an affair with a Myrtle Wilson, the wife of Tom’s mechanic. An affair he barely attempts to conceal and everyone seems to know about except for Daisy and Myrtle’s husband.
Jay Gatsby comes at his decadence from different circumstances. As a young officer, he had a romantic fling with Daisy, doomed by the war and economic class differences. While Daisy quickly moves on with Tom, Gatsby can’t shake her. Back from the war, he takes advantage of bootlegging during prohibition to quickly develop an enormous amount of wealth. Using that wealth in hopes of luring Daisy, he buys a mansion across the bay from Daisy’s and throws regular parties, inviting all the elites in the area hoping to get Daisy come without having to directly invite her. This scheme doesn’t work, but he soon learn’s Daisy’s cousin, Nick Carraway, the story’s narrator, happens to be his next-door neighbor. Jay uses Carraway to connect with Daisy and the conflict between Gatsby and Buchanan takes lift.
Tom is at first dismissive of Gatsby’s wealth and suspicious of his intentions. In an early conversation with Nick, he asks “‘Who is this Gatsby anyhow?’ demanded Tom suddenly. ‘Some big bootlegger?'” Tom’s suspicion of Gatsby’s designs on his wife grows. But at the same time, Jay Gatsby presumes too much of Daisy. “He wanted nothing less of Daisy than that she should go to Tom and say: ‘I never loved you.’ After she had obliterated three years with that sentence they could decide on the more practical matters to be taken.” Tom eventually gets to the bottom of Gatsby’s ill-begotten wealth, planing to use it against him to stop his design on Daisy. The event culminate in a confrontation in New York with Tom trying to pin down Gatsby’s identity and history. Gatsby retaliates with the claim that Daisy never loved Tom, something Daisy can’t fully admit to. Tom accuses Gatsby of criminal activity, shaking Daisy’s confidence in Gatsby. Daisy “hesitated. Her eyes fell on Jordan and me with a sort of appeal, as though she realized at last what she was doing—and as though she had never, all along, intended doing anything at all. But it was done now. It was too late.”
Daisy’s wavering confidence in Gatsby instills Tom with confidence ‘She’s not leaving me!’ Tom’ words suddenly down over Gatsby. ‘Certainly not for a common swindler who’d have to steal the ring he put on her finger.” Tom dismisses Daisy and Jay allowing them to drive back home together in Gatsby’s car. Daisy ends up driving and in the ultimate irony, kills Tom’s mistress and flees the scene. Gatsby ultimately gets blamed for the killing. Wilson murders Gatsby in retaliation and then kills himself. Daisy and Tom flee all responsibility leaving others to clean up the massive mess they leave behind.
Underlying this tragedy, ultimately is decadence. Obscene parties prioritizing casual indulgence over meaningful relationships. Tom’s unearned wealth puts him in a position that he can play around with other’s lives without consequence, and that inherited wealth makes him believe in the false superiority over Gatsby. Gatsby who believes his machinations can wipe away five years of Daisy’s life so that things can be as he imagines them, believing wealth no matter how ill-gotten can bridge the chasm of class. Daisy, without the courage to follow her emotions, follows through on a marriage of convenience with Tom despite serious reservations and unable to leave Tom once the instability of Gatsby’s wealth reveal themselves. Decadence all the way through.