Social Classes in The Great Gatsby: The Money Classes
In his book, The Great Gatsby, Fitzgerald illustrates various themes such as power, justice, greed, the American dream and betrayal. However, none of these themes have been well portrayed like that on social stratification. The Great Gatsby is an excellent piece that offers social commentary on the life of the Americans in the 1920’s. The opening phrase of the book, “Whenever you feel like criticizing anyone,’ he told me, ‘just remember that all the people in this world haven’t had the advantages that you’ve had,” sets its tone on class and society (Fitzgerald, 3). The novel revolves around the issue of stratification of the society based on wealth with the central conflict being among the various classes. There are intense clashes in the novel that are illustrated by different individuals. Among such characters, Jay Gatsby has been used to mark the epitome of the social stratification based on wealth.
One of the social structures that Fitzgerald portrays is the old money class. The old money class comprises individuals living in East Egg. This social class is depicted as the highest rank in the society. Moreover, individuals in this class are considered to be elites. The old money is an established upper class where individuals inherit and are brought up using money from their respective previous generations. The characters Daisy and Tom are the perfect representations of this social class. In their entire lives, Daisy and Tom had been brought using money passed on by their families. Fitzgerald portrays this class as being careless, unloving, dishonest and luxurious. He states that Tom and Daisy, “smashed up things and creatures and then retreated back into their money or their vast carelessness or whatever it was that kept them together, and let other people clean up the mess they had made.” ( 191).
The old money class is also superficial as they fail to consider the essence of their neighbours and theirs as well. They only live a life whose aim is to perpetuate their social superiority while judging others of the new money and the no money classes based on the refinement they perceive to have (Fitzgerald & Maurer, 76). The relationship of Daisy, despite being married to Tom, with Gatsby illustrates the dishonest nature of this class. Among other negative views of this class, greed and money are shown to be its core values. These values are represented by the presence of the green light in her bay (Fitzgerald, 100). They use these values to remain in power. Moreover, they have self-proclaimed to be the sole proprietors of civilisation.
The existence of the West Eggers illustrated a different but rather overlapping class to that of the East Eggers. The people of the West Egg are wealthy similarly to the East Eggers and they represent the new money class. They are self-made millionaires who are represented as being opportunistic and lawbreakers. Fitzgerald says that, “‘He’s (Gatsby) a bootlegger,’ said the young ladies, moving somewhere between his cocktails and his flowers. ‘One time he killed a man who had found out that … ” (66). Although the new money class is wealthy, their behavior is different from that of the East Eggers. West Eggers do not have the freedom of life without ambitions or goals (Fitzgerald, 160). Such freedom is entitled to the old money class and they perceive life as being in such state of mind of living without ambitions or goals. Such state of mind is illustrated in, “They had spent a year in France, for no particular reason, and then drifted here and there unrestfully wherever people played polo and were rich together,” (Fitzgerald, 8).
Gatsby is a typical character illustrating the life of the new money class. He lives a life characterised by luxury and lavishness with frequent parties at his home trying to seek approval and acceptance in the old money class. However, such social acceptance of the new money by the old money does not happen as depicted by Gatsby’s feeling of separation and withdrawal from the class through his longing desire for Daisy (Fitzgerald, p. 99). The behavior of the new money class is no different from that of the old money class. They are unloving, superficial, opportunistic, selfish and mysterious. Moreover, this class is also deceitful, arrogant and careless. These traits can be deciphered from Fitzgerald and Maurer’s assertion that:
The people with the newly acquired wealth, though, aren’t necessarily much better. Think of Gatsby’s partygoers. They attend his parties, drink his liquor and eat his food, never once taking the time to even meet their host (nor do they even bother to wait for an invitation, they just show up). When Gatsby dies, all the people who frequented his house every week mysteriously became busy elsewhere, abandoning Gatsby when he could no longer do anything for them.” (77)
With the old and new money classes being wealthy but distinct in their elite nature, another class, subject to the two social classes is delineated. This class comprises individuals of the working class who Fitzgerald symbolises as residents of the Valley of Ashes. The Wilson’s, George and his wife Myrtle, are typical representatives of this class. This class is vulnerable and desperate. Gross D. and Gross M. state that, “After Wilson discovered his wife’s infidelity and after she had been killed by a hit and run driver, he says while staring at the billboard (Doctor Eckleburg’s billboard who was an optometrist), “God sees everything.”His friend … The eyes are a failed dead god of a wasteland…” (10). This phrase indicates the abandoning of the poor people.
Regarding the Valley of Ashes, Fitzgerald says that “This is a valley of ashes—a fantastic farm where ashes grow like wheat…, where ashes take the forms of houses and chimneys and rising smoke and … of men who move dimly and already crumbling through the powdery air” (26). This phrase draws out a social class that is living in filthy and desolate conditions that has been rejected by other social classes. Beuka, through his description of the Valley of Ashes as being, “ … the “waste land” serves …” portrays this section in the community as having been rejected and ignored (140). Moreover, other classes exploit the no money social class as they use them to facilitate their crooked motives. This inference can be made from Tom’s affair with Myrtle. Goldsmith says this of Myrtle, “ … (her) thwarted desires for self-improvement, her sexual imprisonment, and her ultimate demise through the “list of things” that Myrtle has to “get,” which include “a massage and a wave and … ” (160). This statement by Goldsmith indicates a nature of exploitation in which Myrtle lives in.
Social class is an integral part of personal Identity. People struggle to belong in a particular social class of their desire. Often such efforts are faced with various challenges. The novel, The Great Gatsby by Fitzgerald, is based on such struggles of various individuals seeking to belong to particular social classes. Through social dramas and the bickering in the novel, there are clear and distinct social boundaries that are characterised by differences in behavior and mentality. The discussion above illustrates the existence of various socioeconomic classes consisting of the old money, new money and no money classes. These groups cannot coexist despite any efforts to do so and neither can one change from one class to the other. Through the setting in New York during Tom’s visit to Myrtle’s apartment (40) and Tom and Gatsby in Plaza Hotel (79-80), Fitzgerald portrays the difficulties these different classes have with each other. Using these socioeconomic classes, Fitzgerald portrays a message to people to take inventory of their lives as a way of restoring charity and compassion as basic human tenets.
Fitzgerald, F. Scott.The Great Gatsby. New York: Scribner, 2004. Print.
Fitzgerald, F. Scott, and Kate Maurer. The Great Gatsby. Foster City, CA: Wiley Publishing, 2000. Print.
Goldsmith, Meredith. “White Skin, White Mask: Passing, Posing, and Performing in The Great Gatsby.” Modern Fiction Studies 49.3 (Fall 2003): 443-468. Rpt. inChildren’s Literature Review. Ed. JelenaKrstovic. Vol. 176. Detroit: Gale, 2013. Literature Resource Center. Web. 31 Jan. 2016.
Gross, Dalton, and Mary Jean Gross. Understanding “the Great Gatsby”: A Student Casebook to Issues, Sources, and Historical Documents. Westport, Conn. Greenwood Press, 1998. Print.
Robert, Beuka. American Icon. Rochester: Camden House, 2011. P 118-142. Rpt. In Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism. Ed. Lawrence J. Trudeau. Vol. 311. Farmington Hills, MI: Gale. From Literature Resource Center. Web. 31 Jan. 2016.