Class Consciousness in The Great Gatsby

I recently finished reading The Great Gatsby for the first time. It’s a classic often taught in high school, but not in my particular case. I also managed to somehow dodge it in college. These things happen, but we have our whole lives to read the books we missed in school, right?

Literary critics have spilled a lot of ink about this short book. I suspect this is one that improves with re-reading, or maybe it’s a victim of its own hype. For much of the book I couldn’t help but think that it was a beautifully written soap opera. Rich people, tawdry affairs, murder. I was perhaps being a little uncharitable, but I like a little more *truth* with my beauty, you know? I was mostly watching a TV drama because it was on, my interest waning but not quite enough to change the channel.

Maybe the mystery man thing was new when The Great Gatsby was written. Fitzgerald does a passably good job making us interested in learning the truth about Gatsby’s past (and present). The wild rumors, the aloofness, the “skipped” scenes that might have revealed the truth (the yacht scene, in this case). But it’s nothing I haven’t seen a hundred times elsewhere.

I’ve often explained to people who hate Tolkien that Tolkien seems cliche because so much fantasy has taken the ideas he created and beaten them into the ground over the last several decades. It wasn’t cliche when he wrote it, so we’re essentially complaining that Copernicus’ model of the Universe isn’t as thorough as Stephen Hawking’s. Perhaps the same applies to the character of Gatsby – an enigmatic figure we’ve seen a thousand times in fiction and film, but that may not have been the case when Fitzgerald wrote him.

When people want to try reading fantasy for the first time ask me for a recommendation, I don’t recommend Tolkien. The pacing is meandering. The values of society have changed (where are the women?). And even someone unfamiliar with the genre might pick up on the familiar tropes (even non-fantasy people have usually read Harry Potter). It’s awesome to do some research on an ancestor who was some kind of master cobbler in the 18th century, but you’re more likely to have more in common with your cousins, you know?

That said, I found pretty much everything from the showdown in the hotel to the end quite interesting as a critique of social class. As many times as I’ve seen our current age’s wealth distribution compared to that of the 1920s (during which The Great Gatsby is set), it seemed particularly applicable. Gatsby (lower class) falls in love with Daisy (old rich) but loses her essentially because of their difference in class. He proves himself in battle but that doesn’t elevate him above his low birth. He becomes the loyal personal assistant to a rich man, but despite his devotion this fails to elevate him above his low birth. He falls in with criminals and becomes a self-made millionaire who throws all the best parties, which turns Daisy’s head and seems on the point of winning her over, but as soon as Tom reveals the source of Gatsby’s wealth, he is put in his place, once more failing to rise above his low birth. He loses the girl and then his life, and with it all his “friends.”

George (lower class) loses his wife first to Tom (through adultery) and then to Daisy (through accident or murder), but he somehow blames this tragedy on Gatsby (another man of lower station) and murders him before killing himself.

Nick (highborn but kinda middle class in most respects) meanwhile stands as mute, useless witness to the whole thing. He lets Gatsby use him to arrange a meeting with Daisy. He romanticizes Gatsby (the self-made man) and expresses (in his thoughts) disdain for Tom and Daisy (the old rich). But when he has an opportunity to see justice done he sides with blood, the old rich, and the status quo over friendship, the self-made man, and change.

The old rich, meanwhile, commit adultery and possibly murder. Their punishment? They live happily ever after. How sweet.

It might not be fair of me to demonize Nick’s inaction. I’m not sure it was a decision with intention behind it. Gatsby reveals this information (Daisy was behind the wheel, not Gatsby) to Nick in confidence, which strongly implies he wanted to shield Daisy from the consequences. Nick is shaken by the incident, so he just follows Gatsby’s lead without realizing what the consequences of his silence will be. He bears his cousin no grudge, either, and while it isn’t clear to what degree the death was an accident, I doubt Nick immediately leapt to the conclusion (as we readers surely did) that this had the odor of possible foul play. If Gatsby wanted to keep it a secret and Daisy wasn’t fessing up to anything, why should he kick up a fuss? It wasn’t going to bring back the accident victim, and the information might not have seemed relevant. Daisy was driving? Gatsby was driving? Jesus was driving? Who cares? It was just an accident, you know?

By the time it was clear that Nick’s failure to speak might have unintended, fatal consequences, Gatsby and his killer were both dead. What would going to the police accomplish at that point? Gatsby, George, and George’s wife would all still be dead. Daisy would suffer exactly the way Gatsby clearly didn’t intend for her to. And although he doesn’t think it aloud, Tom is still a social connection that Nick doesn’t necessarily want to burn bridges with.

Nick was passive when he needed to be active, indecisive when decisiveness was required of him, but it was too late to do anything to correct that.

I don’t mean to say that Daisy’s interest in Gatsby was rooted in his money. Tom had as much money and more, after all, so it wouldn’t be “trading up” financially. However. wealth was an insurmountable obstacle when Daisy and Gatsby first fell in love, and his new-found wealth suddenly removed that objection. Daisy has strong romantic feelings toward Gatsby (and has for many years), but I don’t think she could bring herself to marry a poor man. Money isn’t the main attraction, but lack of money is a deal-breaker – the same as a disagreements on whether to have children, where to live, or religion can be a deal-breaker in a relationship.

All in all, I’m glad I didn’t read this book in high school because I would have hated it. I might have thrown it across the room if I had read it in college. I kind of loathed early 20th century American literature’s realism back then (which is in large part why I didn’t bother taking the class that read The Great Gatsby). Now? It was a thought-provoking, discussion-inviting read that didn’t take a lot of time to consume. Books like it will never be a staple of my literary diet, but I don’t regret reading it.

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One Response to Class Consciousness in The Great Gatsby

  1. I’ve never been a fan of Baz Luhrmann’s filmography, and his new Gatsby project is no exception. This is an amazing book, but his adaptation to the screen employs rap music and modern references here and there that do not fit the story at all. Now, I’m not a cinema purist when it comes to adding modern hints in period pieces, but the way Luhrmann does it is too obvious to benefit from subtlety. Also, Carey Mulligan and Isla Fisher should’ve switched their respective roles as Daisy and Myrtle: the casting choices there were not great. Each woman would’ve played the other character better, and the movie would’ve benefitted greatly. As for DiCaprio and Maguire, they played their characters on par with Fitzgerald’s writing, and added some character nuances that only great actors can pull off, so bravo to them. If you’re a fan of the story, it might be worthwhile to check out the movie, but don’t set high expectations.

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