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Social Classes In The Great Gatsby

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Category: English

Autor: anton 04 April 2011

Words: 4084 | Pages: 17


F. Scott Fitzgerald is famous as one of the greatest authors of the twenties. He is referred to as a member of the “Lost Generation”. His books deal with the idealism and the disillusion of the post-World-War-1 decade and also with the struggle of the American society to find spiritual happiness and material wealth (Di Bacco 525). Long describes Fitzgerald as “central to the American twenties” or “historian of the golden twenties”. “He names the Jazz Age” (177). In his novel The Great Gatsby Fitzgerald describes the social circumstances in the USA in the 1920s with typical representatives of in this time existing social classes in the post-war decade.

Wilson can be seen as a representative of the poor people of those days. This class is widely ignored by numerous sources but so important for that time because they made up the majority.

The former poor Gatsby stands for the newly rich because he lives the “American Dream”. Although he takes the illegal way he succeeds. In most historical reviews, this class is regarded as the symbol of the Twenties although it made up the minority.

Tom and Daisy Buchanan represent the established rich, the leisure class. They provide a contrast to the impoverished Wilson and the former poor Gatsby.

Fitzgerald gives the reader a good insight of how life was in the twenties through contrasting the different classes.

2.Social Classes of the Nineteen-Twenties in The Great Gatsby

The twenties are also called “The Roaring Twenties” or “The Gilded Age” because prosperity flourished in those times. Various classes existed and co-existed during this decade like I mentioned before: the established rich, the newly rich, and the poor. But, of course, there was also a middle-class.

2.1 The Established Rich: The Buchanans

People who were born into rich families, into the lap of luxury, e.g. by inheritance of family estates or savings, are called the “established rich”. The source of their riches come from the time of World War I or even before. Only few really made profit in the war, e.g. people who were in the war industry. The extended family clans of those people and their business allies to a high status made up the high society.

Tom and Daisy Buchanan are part of this high society. Tom is even richer than Daisy. To Nick, belonging to the middle class, TomÒ‘s wealth appears to be beyond imagination.

His Family was enormously wealthy- even in college his free-

dom with money was a matter for reproach- but now he′d left

Chicago and come East in a fashion that took your breath away;

for instance, he′d brought down a string of polo ponies from

Lake Forrest. It was hard to realise that a man in my own gene-

ration was wealthy enough to do that. (Fitzgerald 10)

By reading Nick′s first description of Tom, one could think that Nick admires him or at least once admired him for being "one of the most powerful ends that ever played football at New Haven" (Fitzgerald 12). But you can recognize immediately that this former "national figure" is now "one of those men who reach such an acute limited excellence at twenty-one that everything afterward savours of anti-climax" (Fitzgerald 12), and that he deserves rather pity than admiration or envy, that one could feel when regarding Tom′s "enormous wealth" (Fitzgerald 12). In contrast to his "supercilious manner" (Fitzgerald 13) and his "arrogant eyes [that...] had established dominance over his face and gave him the appearance of always leaning aggressively forward" (Fitzgerald 13), Nick "always had the impression that [Tom] approved of [Nick] and wanted [him] to like him with some harsh, defiant wistfulness" (Fitzgerald 13). This contributes to his authoritative appearance with his "body capable of enormous leverage" (Fitzgerald 13), able to silence his wife with one biting retort and break the nose of his lover with one sharp blow (Fitzgerald 43). Also his voice with "a touch of paternal contempt in it, even toward people he liked" (Fitzgerald 13) reveals that he treats Nick like a kind of a younger brother, for instance by turning Nick around "politely and abruptly" (Fitzgerald 14) or "literally forc[ing him] from the car" (Fitzgerald 30).

The only weak moment the reader witnesses is when he learns that Myrtle has been killed. Nick records his reaction: "In a little while I heard a low husky sob, and saw that the tears were overflowing his face. `The God damned coward!′ he whimpered. `He didn′t even stop his car.′ " (Fitzgerald 148)

But that is altogether how the narrator sees him; Tom sees himself as a refined person, who believes to know about the superiority of the Nordic race, who is "standing alone on the last barrier of civilization" and has to defend "family life and family institutions"(Fitzgerald 136). But he fails to see that his own adultery endangers such values and that his social strength only derives from his family′s wealth.

Nevertheless, Tom strikes Nick as not being able to be content with what he possesses, as he feels that Tom will "drift on forever seeking, a little wistfully, for the dramatic turbulence of some irrecoverable football game." (Fitzgerald 12)

Daisy Fay was born into a wealthy family in Louisville, Kentucky. She is eighteen years old and already drives a roadster, one of the best type of cars in those days. Unlike her husband, Daisy is not that self-conscious. All that she wanted to achieve was a wealthy life, which was offered to her by Tom, and not by Gatsby - the one she actually loved. She had married Tom Buchanan, as "she wanted her life shaped now" - she couldn′t wait for Jay after the war - "and the decision must be made by some force [...]. That force took shape [...] with [...] Tom [...]. Daisy was flattered." (Fitzgerald 157)

In spite of being a charming and lovely young woman, she gives herself over to her passiveness; she allows it to happen that she lives an unhappy relationship with Tom cheating on her. But one can imagine that she longs for more attention when she asks Nick if she is missed by the people in her home town Chicago (Fitzgerald 16). Moreover, she takes into consideration to take back Gatsby, who actually made her feel like a cherished woman.

But this temporary change of mind cannot dissemble what she desires her daughter and herself to be, namely a fool. According to her opinion, "that′s the best thing a girl can be in this world, a beautiful little fool" (Fitzgerald 24). Surely feeling deceived by her husband, she actually wishes that she wasn′t so "sophisticated" (Fitzgerald 24) and had never got wind of Tom′s affairs. Nick fancies that Daisy is supposed "to rush out of the house, child in arms - but apparently there [are] no such intentions in her head" (Fitzgerald 27), for she somehow still loves that man she once was so mad about with "unfathomable delight" (Fitzgerald 83).

Although Daisy seems to be a charming person in the beginning, she turns out to be a careless, money-oriented hypocrite. Her "absurd, charming little laugh", her "low, thrilling voice" (Fitzgerald 15) and her whole appearance make the reader like her and understand Gatsby′s craving for her. But when Gatsby boasts about with his wealth and Daisy starts crying only because of his "beautiful shirts" (Fitzgerald 99), the fact that love and marriage are chiefly a matter of money for her can′t be concealed.

Nobody of the Buchanans ever worked. After their marriage they just travel around the world, spend three months in the South Sea and move “for no particular reason” (Fitzgerald 10) to France and spent one year there. This would not be possible with a fulltime-job of course. After their return to the States they just spend their time with playing polo and going to places where rich people meet. These make them stereotypical representatives of the leisure class. Although Tom cheats on Daisy and although she isn′t very happy in her marriage, those are two people who match up quite well. They both want to live a wealthy life without many commitments except towards each other. It seems to Nick that even though Daisy sometimes dreams of a more romantic ideal of her life, she "assert[s] her membership in a rather distinguished secret society to which she and Tom belong" (Fitzgerald 24)

It seems as Fitzgerald criticizes this class for its carelessness, their arrogance and their irresponsible handling of wealth. "they were careless people, Tom and Daisy - they 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..." (Fitzgerald 186)

2.2 The Poor: Wilson

Often disregarded is the situation or even the existence of the poor in those times. Prior to the economics boom, there was the post war depression of 1918. There was a high demand for lifestyle and luxury goods, but the industry was not able to adjust their facilities that fast. Nobody was in need of weapons anymore, the people wanted to have cars and electric appliances like washing machines. ThatÒ‘s why inflation rates increased. The production was under control in 1919 and business increased, but the extreme costs of living remained. The workers of the military industry went on strike in order to get higher wages. In consequence, a lot of them lost their jobs, especially those, who had joined labour unions. But they had no chance to find another job, so they found themselves in bad situations. They just had two options: eighter to start an own business, combined with risk or to work for lower salaries. At the end of 1920 the next recession followed.

During those days of inconstant economical circumstances, many people lost their savings and went bankrupt. Even in the “Golden Decade” only a small group of people was priviledged to live the American Dream and climbed the ladder from poverty to wealth like Hollywoods from-dishwasher-to-millionaire-stereotype. There is no universal definition of “The American Dream” - every citizen of the USA might have his own dream. For some it is the dream of liberty and equality, for others the dream of a satisfying life and others dream of wealth and fame. In general you can define the American Dream as the freedom to achieve your goals, get rich and get fame, if you work hard enough: from rags to riches. Frederick Jackson Turner defined the American dream as “moving westwards”:

American social development has been continually beginning

over again on the frontier: This perennial rebirth, this fluidity

of American life, this expansion westward with its new oppor-

tunities, its continuous touch with the simplicity of primitive so-

ciety, furnish the forces dominating American character. The true

point of view in the history of this nation is not the Atlantic coast,

it is the Great West.

Most of the people lived in the suburbs of big cities and tried to survive every day while a few had the fortune to make money. Even when real salaries for workers increased, it was not in proportion to the increase of productivity and profit. So a lot of workers remained poor. They would have needed the double salary to provide for universal well-being.

George Wilson represents the poor class. Wilson owns a garage in the “Valley of Ashes”. This name is a symbol for the hopeless situation of its citizens. The area is just grey, which also affects Wilson. He is “spiritless” and “anaemic” (Fitzgerald 23). Wilsons poverty is obviousless: His garage is old and ugly and he has no customers. The only car in his garage is covered with dust and not useful anymore at all. Wilson wants to buy the car Tom intends to sell, cause he needs the money to move to the West because he suspects Myrtle of having an affair with another man. But the “deal” is just a trick for Tom to see Myrtle.

Wilsonґs garage has had better days. There are still remaining signs of the former “better times” like the remaining paint on the huge advertising screen of Doctor T. J. Eckleburg. The repair and sell of cars was not a bad business because there was a huge demand for cars in those days. From 1921 to 1923 sales increased from 1.5 million to 3.5 million cars a year (cf. Di Bacco 518). More cars-more accidents, so garage owners always had something to do, except Wilson. This makes him a typical loser.

Outwardly being "a blond, spiritless man, anaemic, and faintly handsome" (Fitzgerald 31), the best description for Wilson is actually "Myrtle′s husband". Seeming to be a very inconsiderable person, he is "one of those worn-out men: when he [isn′t] working, he [sits] on a chair in the doorway and stare[s] at the people and the cars that [pass] along the road. [...] He [is] his wife′s man and not his own" (Fitzgerald 143). Tom describes him to Nick as "so dumb [that] he doesn′t know he′s alive" (Fitzgerald 32). His wife doesn′t treat him with respect; when Tom visits them, she is "walking through her husband as if he were a ghost" (Fitzgerald 31); she states that she "made a mistake [...] when [she] married him" (Fitzgerald 41). But she is actually the only contact he has. He loves her anyhow and canÒ‘t accept to loose her. When he finds out that his wife lives a double life, he decides not to accept that but to migrate together with her. In chapter VII he explains calmly to his neighbor, "I′ve got my wife locked in up [in the flat]. She′s going to stay there till the day after tomorrow, and then we′re going to move away" (Fitzgerald 143). This shows how desperate he really is. But his plans don′t work out even as his wife escapes and is killed in a car accident while she′s trying to escape from him. Being totally distressed about her death, he is really paralyzed at first so that Tom has to "pick up Wilson like a doll" (Fitzgerald 148) in order to prevent him from collapsing. But then he calms down and "the quality of [his] incoherent muttering change[s]" (Fitzgerald 163). He then seeks revenge and the only desperate thing he can do yet is to locate the driver of the "death car" (Fitzgerald 144) and kill him.

2.3 The Newly Rich: Gatsby

The newly rich were the reason why the 1920s were also called “The Roaring Twenties”. They were poor before and now lived a comfortable life. They were also called “snobs”.

The reason why they had climbed up the social ladder, was eighter through legal or illegal operations.

The presidents who ruled in that decade were Warren G. Harding and Calvin Coolidge. They were both Republicans and represented the philosophy not to influence the economy. Harding welcomed the support of business but not the intervention of it. He raised the loans and lowered the taxes the industry had to pay. The effect was, that the economy rose from 1923 on. After HardingÒ‘s death in 1923, Calvin Coolidge became the new president. Coolidge also left the economy to manage itself, it is called Open Market. Productivity increased and increased and wealth started to increase also.

In contrast to the established class, the new rich did not inherit their money, they gained it by themselves. This was the legal source of income.

Drinking alcohol was not allowed under President Wilson. The Volstead Act of October 1919 prohibited the manufacture, sale, transportation and possession of alcohol. Churches, representatives from rural areas and the Anti-Saloon-League supported this act. But lotґs of people, especially the high society of the cities, did not want to stop drinking alcohol, so they gave secret parties where they drank alcohol, listened to Jazz music and danced the Charleston. The typical women of that society, called “flappers”, wore short skirts or even trousers and went from one party to the next. The prison-cells were full of that kind of law breakers, so a lot of people just got a little punishment or even no punishment at all.

Of course there was an enormous demand for alcohol, so organised gangs, but also ordinary people, brewed liquor illegally and sold it in so-called “speakeasies”. Those –of course illegal- bars appeared everywhere.

One of the most famous gangs which produced alcohol, Al Caponeґs Chicago Gang, smuggled alcohol from Canada and Mexico into the USA. This kind of business was called “bootlegging” and promised making a lot of money. “The Chicago gang took in several million dollars a month during its heyday.” (Di Bacco 531)

Especially the Italian, Irish and Polish immigrants had their hands in this business. Drinking alcohol like beer and wine was -and still is- part of their culture. So they were the ones producing the stronger alcoholic beverages like whiskey, rum and gin.

All the new richs were busy making their money, but it was “their” money. This attitude did not help the poor of course.

James Gatz, also known as Jay Gatsby is one of those new rich who got his wealth by illegal acts. His parents were farmers, but he never wanted to live like his parents. He never really liked farming life. In order to achieve this he wrote a schedule to lead him out of this situation. He always worked hard and saved his money. After he comes back from the war his opinion about moral is changed.

He has to find out that the girl he loves - Daisy – has already married another and also extremely

rich man while he fought against the Germans in Europe. He believes that his only chance to get her back is to achieve her social status. So he needs a lot of money, in less than no time if possible. Meyer Wolfsheim, having his hands in the illegal betting-business, introduces Gatsby into that business. Tom suspects Gatsby and Wolfsheim to have something to do with the selling of alcohol and the manipulation of betting games.

His bootlegging activities and his materialistic behaviour which you can conclude from his opinion “that money will buy back the girl” (Hoffman 133) makes him a member of the typical new rich of the 1920s. The parties, his car and his house are also indicators to think so.

The only thing that distinguishes him from the other bootleggers is that he doesnґt really drink alcohol. His lifestyle is typical for the Roaring Twenties. He lives the American Dream “from rags to riches”. But the price is that he looses his moral believes. His only individual reason is his romantic motivation: winning back Daisyґs heart.

There is one feature about Gatsby that the narrator admires a lot:

It is [...] one of those rare smiles with a quality of eternal

reassurance in it [...]. It face[s] - or seem[s] to face - the

whole eternal world for an instant [...]. It [understands]

you just so far as you wanted to be understood [...],

and assure[s] you that it[has] precisely the impression of

you that, at your best, you [hope] to convey (Fitzgerald 54).

Nick states in the beginning, "Gatsby represented everything for which I have an unaffected scorn.” But he "turned out all right at the end" (Fitzgerald 8), what probably means that although Jay is a bootlegger and makes up rumors about his past, he is always candid in his relationships towards other people. To Nick, he is "worth the whole damn bunch put together" (Fitzgerald 160). Their relationship is a friendly contact. Gatsby is grateful to meet someone who doesn′t make up any stories about him, but meets him with candidness and tolerance. In contrast, Nick admires Jay and his charisma, although he doesn′t admit that. Moreover, they are connected by their experiences of the war; they both belong to the so-called "lost generation".

As I said before, Jay makes Daisy and winning her back the very center of his life; he buys a house that looks across the bay straight to where she lives and he tells Jordan that "he′s read a Chicago paper for years just on the chance of catching a glimpse of Daisy′s name" (Fitzgerald 86). He would have done everything for her; so when he perceives that he can only have a chance by achieving a certain financial status, he isn′t even reluctant to become a bootlegger.

When they finally meet in chapter V he passes through three states. "After his embarrassment and his unreasoning joy he [is] consumed with wonder at her presence" (Fitzgerald 99).

A revealing scene occurs when Nick and Jay discuss Gatsby′s dream of Daisy taking him back: "`You can′t repeat the past.′ `Can′t repeat the past?′ he cried incredulously. `Why of course you can!′ [...] `I′m going to fix everything just the way it was before,′ he said, nodding determinedly. `She′ll see′ " (Fitzgerald 117). Unlike Nick, who is a realist, Gatsby is a dreamer. Even when Gatsby has achieved a status, in which Daisy would be at his feet, he hasn′t the heart to contact her, but hopes that she will sometimes appear at one of his parties. Believing that he won her back in the end, he is surprised and crestfallen at Daisy′s confession that she didn′t love only him but also her husband (Fitzgerald 139), as he already "felt married to her" (Fitzgerald 155).

His love for Daisy finally dispatches him. He would never tell her, so he is made responsible for Myrtle′s death and is killed.

The reader canÒ‘t really say, if Fitzgerald has a positive or negative opinion about this class of people. On the one hand you are forced to admire the glitter and glamour, but on the other hand you know that the base of it is crime and fraud.

3. Conclusion

I tried to show that the Buchanans are the representatives for the established rich, Wilson for the poor and Gatsby for the class of the newly rich in this novel.

I found analogies and evidence for the existence of all three groups in fact and also in the novel and I confirmed the affiliation of the characters to the three classes as well.

The Buchanans inherited all their riches, they never worked for it. ThatÒ‘s why they personify the established high society. Wilson tries to make his American Dream come true but fails. ThatÒ‘s why he stands for the poor people. Gatsby was willing to work hard for his money but canÒ‘t wait for any longer. He starts bootlegging and therefor belongs to the class of the new rich.

Of course a novel like The Great Gatsby is not a social study to present sociological facts, but as the novel plays in the 1920s it shows the social reality of that time.

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