Possibly one of the most well-loved American novels, one of the most read and the most famous, Fitzgerald’s story of the booming ’20s in New York was the definition of a sleeper hit. Fitzgerald himself was long dead before he could see it appreciated and its legacy is still being debated today. At its beginning, it seems like a celebration of the American Dream, but stick with the story a little longer and the paint starts to blister. Read over the beginning again and, beneath the surface of celebration, is also a deep criticism of American society in the 1920s. Due to its social commentary, the book feels incredibly like a warning prelude to the 1929 Wall Street Crash, which brought the decadence of the 20s to a bitter and detrimental end. However, Gatsby was published in 1925 and was very much a commentary of the time, yet strangely prophetic. Fitzgerald’s critique is of the “careless people” who “smashed up things and creatures and then retreated back into their money”. His criticism of their self-indulged, over-the-top lives has stood the test of time, but what can it really tell us about class and society in 1920s America?
Set in 1922, The Great Gatsby follows the story of Nick Carraway, a veteran of World War I who has moved East in the search of a new life and, of course, the American Dream. This book has fascinated me from my first reading and one description of it I was given of it was that “it’s a book about rich people and their [unimportant] problems”. And this is exactly why this book, from a social commentary perspective, is so interesting. The U.S. experienced a very large economic boom in the 1920s, with expansion of business, innovation and – for those who could afford it – an increased standard of living. One big, decade long post-war celebration, which in reality left many poor and non-white citizens trailing behind. The need to fulfil the ‘American Dream’ – to achieve wealth and prosperity, no matter where you came from – was the aim of many, and the upper classes found themselves divided: those who had inherited wealth from a long line of ancestors, and those who’d found their new wealth through prosperous business ventures and stock market investments. In Fitzgerald’s novel, these two groups are distinctively divided: Daisy and Tom Buchanan are Old Money living in the village of East Egg; Nick and Gatsby and their New Money live over in the West Egg. It’s Fitzgerald’s metaphor for New Money’s incapability to live amongst the Old – the villages are both as extravagant, as affluent and as wealthy – they can look across the bay at one another. But for the West Egg inhabitants, East Egg is an allusive dream, in reach but unreachable.
However, another metaphor for the lack of opportunity – the real truth of the ‘American Dream’ – is underlined by Fitzgerald’s description of the Valley of Ashes, a dumping ground between the high-living, party-going upper classes of Long Island and the vibrant, blooming, economic centre of New York City. This dumping ground is, literally, what sits beside the rich and their pleasures, only passed through and given any attention because of necessity – the wasteland it has become means nothing to the upper classes who have bigger things to do and better places to be. Can the American Dream, Fitzgerald asks, be achieved by the people in the Valley of Ashes – can you really achieve the highest goals no matter what background you come from?
Fitzgerald wrote Gatsby in a time of change, a time when many were climbing social ladders. In reality, it was a time of eugenics and white supremacy. Race is an issue in his novel, and not just in the commentary of white rich people enjoying the riches of Black jazz music. Tom Buchanan acts as the voice of racism in Gatsby, which is evident from the very beginning of the novel when he claims, “it’s up to us [white people], who are the dominant race, to watch out or these other races will have control over things”. Tom embodies the ideals of white intellectual superiority and fears that other races take more control. Through this Fitzgerald suggests this was not an uncommon fear among upper-class white Americans. In one heated argument with Gatsby, Tom exclaims “Nowadays people begin by sneering at family life and family institutions, and next they’ll throw everything overboard and have intermarriage between black and white.” At first, it could seem like another racist line from a very racist character, but it’s a point he’s trying to make – and a point he seems to be making against Gatsby. Theories of Gatsby’s race have been discussed, and arguments of him being a white-passing black man have been put forward. When Tom says this, Jordan Baker, a character known for being a liar, retorts, “We’re all white here.” Gatsby as a black man, in Fitzgerald’s world, would in all respects make complete sense. The Old Money of East Egg are not just suspicious of Gatsby because of suspicions he’s a bootlegger or because he was once poor and somehow climbed into the Upper Class, but because of doubts about his race. With Gatsby, Fitzgerald truly underlines the impossible nature of equality in opportunity. Gatsby is the definition of New Money and he fails in every effort: to marry the woman he loves, to be considered respectable by the Old Money, to have any one turn up to his funeral. The achievement of wealth and prosperity was not a sign of its openness to all, Fitzgerald is saying, but a sign of ever-increasing inequality within even New York alone.
This book is about rich people and their “unimportant problems”, and those “unimportant problems” underline other issues of 1920s America that Fitzgerald puts alongside them. As the hundreds enjoy Gatsby’s raucous parties, the Valley of Ashes lies not so far away, left to be destitute. As the rich enjoy their bootlegged alcohol in a time of prohibition, they condemn Gatsby for making money from it – they condemn the bootleggers who are getting rich off crime, while simultaneously indulging in it. As Tom Buchanan rages on about how other races will try to control the white population, the other races live without any rights, while their music and culture is appropriated by the upper classes who can afford to. As Jay Gatsby stretches out and tries to reach across to East Egg – a society that will never accept him on any more than a surface level – he is killed, and that gives away precisely what Fitzgerald thought of the American Dream that dominated the 1920s: a dream which could only be half achieved and at the expense of others. Fitzgerald’s novel gives an incredibly interesting insight into 1920s American society and how it should not just be seen as a period of economic prosperity and parties.