The Great Gatsby, written by F. Scott Fitzgerald in 1925, is a highly acclaimed novel which follows the Relationship between wealthy ‘Oxford Man’ Jay Gatsby, and married woman Daisy Buchanan, narrated from the perspective of Daisy’s second cousin Nick Carraway. Coming home from war, Nick finds himself dissatisfied with his life in the American Midwest, choosing instead to move to a fictional area near New York called ‘West Egg’, where he is neighbors with the aforementioned Gatsby. Following a dinner with Daisy and her husband, Tom, Nick observes that the pair, despite being inordinately wealthy, are not entirely happy. Additionally it transpires that Tom Buchanan is having an affair with a poor, married woman — a rude awakening to the ‘moneyed’ glamor of the twenties for Nick. Invited to one of Gatsby’s grand parties, Nick is astounded to find that half of the city appears to decamp to his mansion every weekend for illicit debauchery. Peculiarly, despite the scale of his parties, not much is known of Gatsby other than that rumors of the underhand dealings involved in acquiring his wealth; another rumor that features heavily throughout the book is the supposed ‘darker undercurrent’ to Gatsby’s history — his alleged murder of another man. After befriending Gatsby, Nick discovers that he once knew Daisy and that they had been in love before Gatsby had amassed his fortune. The appeal of Tom Buchanan’s money and reputation, as well as Gatsby’s military absence might have stolen Daisy in the past, however Gatsby is convinced that Daisy’s love for him endures and may be revived. It is a sweetly sentimental motivation for Gatsby’s actions — one whose resolve is followed through the eyes of Nick.
Throughout the book, Fitzgerald offers up commentary on a variety of themes — justice, power, greed, betrayal, the American dream, et cetera. Of all the themes, none is more well developed and emphasized than that of social stratification, a clear focus in conveying the book’s criticism of contemporary society. The Great Gatsby is frequently heralded as a brilliant work of literature, offering a vivid glimpse into American life in the 1920s. Fitzgerald carefully divides his novels into distinct groups that — despite their differences — all have a final problem to contend with, leaving a powerful reminder of what a precarious place the world really is. By creating distinct social classes — old money, new money, and no money — Fitzgerald heavily condemns the elitism running throughout every echelon of society, as well as how this fractionates 1920s USA.
The first group Fitzgerald ‘attacks’ is the rich — mistakenly as one monolithic group. The majority of literature critiquing social stratification tends to group the wealthy as one — unified by their money and privilege. Fitzgerald refreshingly challenges this in The Great Gatsby with his presentation of two distinct types of wealth. Firstly, there are people like the Buchanans and Jordan Baker who were born into wealth, those whose families have had money for many generations, hence they are “old money.” As portrayed in the novel, those with “old money” do not have an active job, and thus do not have to work; rarely, if ever, speaking about business arrangements.
Alternatively, they spend their time on pleasure and amusement. Daisy, Tom, Jordan, and the distinct social class they represent are perhaps the story’s most elitist group, imposing distinctions on the other people of wealth, like Gatsby, based not so much on how much money one has, but whence and when it was acquired. For “old money” , the fact that Gatsby, among many other people like him in the 1920s, has only just recently acquired his money is reason enough for disdain. In their way of thinking, he can’t possibly have the same refinement, sensibility, and taste as them. Not only does he work for a living, but he comes from a ‘lower-class’ background which, in their opinion, means he is forever separated from them’.
In many ways, the ‘social elite’ are correct in their thinking. “New money” cannot be like them, and in many ways that works in their favor — those in society’s highest echelon are shown by Fitzgerald to be generally unpleasant. They are judgmental and superficial, failing to look at the essence of not only the people around them, but also themselves. Instead, they live their lives in such a way as to perpetuate their sense of superiority, however unrealistic that may be. This is not to say, however, that those with the aforementioned ‘new money’ are not equally as judgemental, superficial, and ignorant towards the lives of those around them — quite the contrary. Gatsby’s guests attend his parties, drink his liquor, and eat his food — never once taking the time to even meet their host, let alone even bother to wait for a formal invitation. Upon Gatsby’s death; all those who frequented his house every week are mysteriously elusive, abandoning Gatsby as soon as his ‘utility’ is exhausted. This image that Fitzgerald constructs of exploitative, shallow relationships between Gatsby and his ‘partiers’ shows the facile nature of new- moneyed individuals, contradicting the expectation that they would be more aware of the struggles of the poor having lived without money before the 1920s. Fitzgerald uses this to further his criticism of the party culture within the USA at the time and his belief that people quickly become blind to the struggles of the poor when they themselves become wealthy, no matter how recently they may have also been suffering. Just as he did with the wealthy, Fitzgerald uses the people with less money to convey a strong, opposing message. Nick, although he comes from a family with relative wealth, does not have nearly the capital of Gatsby or Tom. By the end of the book, however, he shows himself to be an honorable and principled man — far more so than the likes of characters like Tom. However, Myrtle (Tom’s mistress) is entirely different. She is trapped, as are so many others, in the ‘Valley of Ashes’, spending her days trying to escape its desolate poverty and grime; in fact, her desperation to move up the social hierarchy is what propagates her affair with Tom. Tragically, the misery pervading her life enables Myrtle to distance herself from her moral obligations as she engages in adultery and lying. What Myrtle fails to recognise — thus reinforcing Fitzgerald’s position on the elitist snobbery of ‘old-money’ characters — is the fact that Tom and his friends will never accept her into their social circle. Tom habitually associates with lower-class women, their powerlessness almost reinforcing his own superiority complex. In a strange way, these relationships perpetuate his illusion that he is a benevolent and powerful man. Myrtle is no more than a source of entertainment to Tom and, ultimately, to the type of men he represents.
Fitzgerald is both subtly and more overtly critical in The Great Gatsby as he presents a harsh but fair picture of the world he sees around him. The 1920s marked a time of booming post-war economic growth, and Fitzgerald captures the consequent frenzy of the society well. Although, of course, Fitzgerald could have no way of foreseeing the stock market crash of 1929, the society he depicts in The Great Gatsby seems clearly to be destined for disaster. They assume skewed worldviews, believing their survival lies in staunch stratification and reinforcing social boundaries. They erroneously place their faith in superficial externalities, like money and materialism, whilst neglecting the compassion and sensitivity that Fitzgerald would otherwise have them cultivate — perhaps the deeper tragedy of The Great Gatsby.