Veblen v. Gatsby (1922)


Source: Wikimedia Commons
Photograph Georges Biard (1988), Source: Wikimedia Commons










The court will now convene the case of Thorstein Veblen v. Jay Gatsby.  The plaintiff accuses Mr. Gatsby of conspicuous consumption.  Mr. Veblen purports that during his pursuit of one Mrs. Daisy Buchanan, the defendant diverted his disposable surplus “to the purpose of a conspicuous decency, rather than to added physical comfort and fullness of life.” [1]  As defense attorney for Mr. Gatsby, I will prove that my client’s so-called conspicuous consumption did not result from arrogant or elitist tendencies, but was instead carried out for the purpose of love.

The prosecution highlights Mr. Gatsby’s status as a nouveaux arrivé, or new arrival to the elite class.  According to Mr. Veblen “barring accidents, the nouveaux arrivés are a picked body.” [2]  As evidence the prosecution brings forth Mr. Gatsby’s “education” under the precious metal tycoon, Dan Cody and the gambler Meyer Wolfsheim.   Mr. Veblen also claims that Mr. Gatsby was “unscrupulous [in his] conversion of goods and persons to his own ends, and in callous disregard of the feelings and wishes of others and of the remoter effects of his actions.” [3]  In support of this the prosecution has cited two specific instances of extravagance and conspicuous consumption: Daisy’s visit to his home and Gatsby’s parties.

Mr. Veblen called to attention my client’s purchase of a mansion across the water from the Buchanan residence as part of a scheme to woo Mrs. Buchanan.  He cites the instance when my client invited Mrs. Buchanan to his residence to showcase his vast home and belongings.  The prosecution specifically alluded to my client’s vast collection of clothes, which were selected and shipped to him by an English merchant.  Yes, it is true that my client posses a substantial collection of clothes, but I argue that his only reason for this was to assume the appearance of elite society.  As a young officer, Mr. Gatsby met Mrs. Daisy, a rich and popular girl from Louisville, KY with a voice that “was full of money…High in a white palace the king’s daughter, the golden girl.” [4]  As the son of poor farmer, Mr. Gatsby could not pursue the woman he loved without bettering himself socially.  Though his sharp military uniform afforded him the chance to get to know her, his complete absence of wealth led him to lose Daisy.

Regarding his parties, Mr. Veblen accuses my client of exploiting his wealth and others by using these occasions to increase his social standing.  My client does not deny that he kept his home “always full of interesting people, night and day.  People who do interesting things. Celebrated people.” [5]  However, the claim that my client was the exploiter at these parties is a blatant distortion of the facts.  Mr. Gatsby held his parties with the sole hope that Mrs. Buchanan would happen to wander into one.  Rather than the exploiter, I believe it is clear that my client was the exploited.  Not only was my client seen as someone who could pay for a good party, but his personal reputation was put into question “by the hundreds who had accepted his hospitality and so [became] authorities on his past.” [6]  Following his tragic murder nobody came to his funeral, having received what they wanted from him in drink and music.  Even his “love”, Daisy, failed to show any compassion.  Her like always “[smash] up things and creatures and then [retreat] back into their money or vast carelessness.” [7]

In closing, my client was a man with aspirations of success. Is that a crime?  But Mr. Gatsby’s primary motivation was love, not an elite social status.  For him, wealth was a means to an end and he often rejected its allures in favor of the pursuit of love.  When he saw no more use in parties, they ended.  When his personal privacy was endangered, he got rid of his servants.  These are not the actions of a man who is preoccupied with his own wealth and social status; they are attempts by a troubled man to possess the love that had eluded him for years.  Maybe he was “picked” by Mr. Cody or Mr. Wolfsheim, but it was not Mr. Gatsby’s fault that his charm and intelligence attracted such men.  Using Mr. Veblen’s own words, my client was only a victim of the elite’s “prescriptive canon of conduct for the rest of society.” [8] In order to fulfill the basic human emotion of love, he was forced to follow a creed that eventually killed him.

[1] Thorstein Veblen, “The Theory of the Leisure Class,” in The American Intellectual Tradition: A Sourcebook; Volume II: 1865 to Present, eds. David A. Hollinger and Charles Capper, 3rd ed. (New York: Oxford University Press, 1997), 135.

[2] Ibid, 138.

[3] Ibid, 138.

[4] F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby (New York, NY: Scribner, 2004), 120.

[5] Ibid, 90.

[6] Ibid, 97.

[7] Ibid, 179.

[8] Veblen, 133.

13 thoughts on “Veblen v. Gatsby (1922)

  1. Good work, Gross. I’m especially impressed by your ability to defend a dead man in a court of law, which I did believe was impossible. Apparently exceptions are made when the so-called “criminal” bears a striking resemblance to the Sundance Kid.

    Word on the street is that, in a rare moment of vulnerability, Gatsby once broke out into a late-night rendition of “Daisy Bell” outside his lover’s home in Louisville, exposing his penniless existence under the protection of the twilight sky. Daisy was said to have leaned delicately out her window to scoff at the mere audacity of his suggestion that a lady such as herself would ever celebrate her wedding day on a bicycle built for two. The only one claiming to have witnessed this discourse was the town drunk, whose incoherent warblings about said conversation were dismissed as the vivid dreams that often plague the sots. (Perhaps things would’ve turned out differently had Daisy forsaken a stylish marriage and rode off into the sunset on the tandem–apparently she and Gatsby make for a lethal pair when operating a motor vehicle.) If this tale is in fact true, one could cite it as further evidence of Gatsby’s desire to pursue wealth not for its ability to elevate him in the social ranks, but as a means of attaining his one true love.

    1. It’s too bad that the poor inebriate didn’t have a recording device on his person at the time of this supposed incident. Perhaps Gatsby’s performance sounded like this:

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      1. A good lawyer can make anything possible. They can even raise the dead to defend them in a court of law. Defense Attorney Gross is definitely going on my speed dial for the inevitable moment that I need representation.

        I definitely agree with him that Gatsby’s main motivation was love. It drove his every action and consumed his every thought. Gatsby’s tragedy is his inability to realize that, although Daisy was indeed a prize to be won, he didn’t have the right currency. All of the dirty money in the world wouldn’t be enough to buy him credibility and win him Daisy.

        Ironically, had Gatsby managed to survive, hold onto his money, marry, and have a son, it would have been possible for that child to win a woman like Daisy. Born to privilege and raised in the ways of the rich, with just enough distance from the illegal origins of his father’s money, a son of Gatsby’s would have had the legitimacy he lacked.

      2. My client had quite the flair for performance. His rendition of “Daisy Bell” was his first try at winning back Daisy. Clearly, he tried for a time-tested romance technique, the serenade. Seeing as this failed, he needed to take more drastic measures, such as buying a massive Long Island mansion across the bay from her. Even more evidence that his expenditures were for the purpose of love.

  2. I definitely agree with Sarah–Gatsby’s currency was “dirty”, and even though he acted and dressed the part, his credibility would always be moot. While I think the motivation was love, couldn’t he have done a little better? Talk about a passive approach (at least initially)…With the car accident/murder, I think that Gatsby’s love of Daisy kept him from turning her in, but I also wonder what may have happened in the days, weeks, or months following the murder. Would her opinion of him continually declined, or would she have brushed the incident off?

    1. I think her opinion of him would have declined, with Gatsby taking the blame as only one factor. After the accident and before Gatsby’s death, Daisy had already turned her back on Gatsby. The fact that he’s “new money” (and dirty money at that) could definitely have something to do with this. I’m even surprised she deigned do go to West Egg and to rekindle her relationship with Gatsby. In addition, perhaps part of her attraction to Gatsby was a reaction to Tom’s cheating. With Myrtle conveniently out of the picture, that desire for revenge, and therefore her attraction to Gatsby, might not be so potent. Also–and I don’t know about you–being so obsessed as to take the fall for a homicide and to buy a house across the water for convenient creeping is kind of a turn-off.

    2. One of the key factors in Gatsby and Daisy’s relationship is how it began. When he first met Daisy, her way of life “amazed him” (148). He realized the station in society she accompanied and he struggled to hold on to her though he was woefully unable to fulfill such high expectations at the time. While off at war, he simply lost control and Daisy “didn’t see why he couldn’t come” (151) back and be with her. Daisy’s status and its influence on her decision-making brought her to move on from a man deeply in love with her and who “tried frantically to get home.” (150-51). Gatsby actively worked for her love, but suffered a crushing loss.

      As for his “dirty” money, I do not believe Gatsby was emotionally or morally attached to his work. Unlike Meyer Wolfsheim, he did not seem “slimy” or scheming. As illustrated by his mysterious identity throughout much of the book, Gatsby worked hard to acquire an air of respectability and I believe he would have welcomed a more honest occupation. However, just like with Dan Cody, a certain allure in Gatsby caught the attention of Wolfsheim. Gatsby, penniless and vulnerable, saw an opportunity. It was an opportunity to be successful and have another chance to acquire the love he had lost. We do crazy things for the things we want the most. For Gatsby, that was Daisy and to get her he adopted a less-than-admirable profession.

  3. The first time I read this novel I was fifteen. I thought it was the most romantic novel of all time – a true love story. Now, as I re-read it more than ten years later, it is story about greed. Have I become more pessimistic, or have I become wise to the world’s ways?

    I now see the characters as symbols for the types of people I have met in my life journeys. Nick is the naive moral center, Gatsby is the “Don Draper,” new wealth character, and Daisy is his holy grail.

    In the 1920s, the abundance of money changes American society forever. This novel graphically displays the mutation of the American dream from idea of finding a true self to creating a self dictated by wealth. It predicts today’s society which has created an America that is too far away from its founding hopes and beliefs. No matter how much we front about it, all we care about is other’s perceptions of ourselves.

    What happened to my romantic hopes? When did I become so dark? I wish I could go back to the time when I saw Gatsby’s love, but I can’t. Sometimes I think American society also wishes it could go back to an ideal time we have created in our minds when outside perceptions about class didn’t matter. This is why we love to recreate images of happy pilgrims, idealize arts and crafts, talk about the good old days, and hope to find love in stories about money. It makes us feel more comfortable about ourselves.

    1. I found myself in a very similar position while reading this book, but I am glad now to have reread it, even though I too picked up these less-desirable qualities of characters that I used to like. I find myself now wanting more than Nick’s outside, yet oddly close perspective of Gatsby’s and Daisy’s “love.” How did Gatsby think of his love for Daisy? To me, I could see his love, but often wondered if it was directed solely towards her or was it an adoration that encompassed her lifestyle and reaction to it. To him, I believe it is one in the same. For Daisy, well, her complex nature and the distortion of her character through the lenses of the men in her life makes an assumption more difficult.

  4. I definitely felt that Gatsby, Tom and Daisy were a to some degree products of their class. I think that Gatsby’s treatment of Nick in the beginning was a bit sneaky and I think that though he amassed his fortune all for the love of Daisy, his desire to return to the past and have Daisy give up her child and her life for him is a bit..well..selfish…and presumptuous. When he yells at Nick for criticizing him about bringing back the past, wanted to smack him…I don’t know maybe me and Christine are in the same boat here in thinking that greed is a pretty large part of the story. I read this book when I was young and I still don’t see how this could be seen as a romantic classic. Commentary about white men, violence towards women in the 1920s, and white male suppression of white female freedom in order to assert their superiority, yes.

  5. Love might explain Mr. Gatsby’s conspicuous consumption, but does love truly excuse it? Gatsby’s pursuit of his former girlfriend enabled the conspicuous consumption of hundreds, maybe thousands of people at his lavish parties. Did he really not know what he was doing? Clearly he did.

    Furthermore, the most damming evidence against Gatsby comes from his own hand, and from the testimony of his father after Gatsby’s death. Gatsby had clearly embarked on a premeditated course of conspicuous consumption, in the service of social elevation, long before he ever crossed paths with Daisy.

    1. Was Gatsby really bent on a path of conspicuous consumption? Doesn’t the evidence from his father just go to show that he was resolved to better himself? If you look at the Gatsby’s schedule in the Hopalong Cassidy book all the items are based around education, clean living, and personal health. I see this as being different from conspicuous consumption as he is aiming to be a successful, well-rounded person.

  6. As I read, I found myself applying the idea of “passing” to Gatsby. Often used in a racial context (i.e. the historical example of runaway slaves “passing” as whites), Gatsby tried to pass through his conspicuous consumption toward the end goal which you highlight nicely, Matt, of winning Daisy. But even though Gatsby tries to walk the walk and buy the talk, Tom sees through his stories and purchases, ultimately leading to his downfall. I think Veblen is thus a great lens through which to consider Gatsby’s relationship to wealth.

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