F. Scott Fitzgeralds novel The Great Gatsby is a glimpse into the elite social circles of Long Island society during the prosperous period of the 1920s. In this decade a class of “new rich” was born, and the class of “old rich” enjoyed continued prosperity. Gatsby showcases the conflict between the two groups, as the newly rich tried to carve a place for themselves in the exclusive social circles of those who inherited their wealth. The book concerns itself with Jay Gatsbys attempt to transcend social boundaries and enter this exclusive circle, to live the American dream of betterment. Fitzgerald shows that this dream has been made corrupt and unattainable by the hunger for power and insecurities of the often immoral old rich. Despite living in such a prosperous time, it is impossible for Gatsby, originally a poor man from North Dakota, to be accepted in privileged society.
In the first chapter of the novel the reader is introduced to the narrator Nick Carraway and to many of the storys central characters, all of which come from privileged backgrounds. It is only at the end of the chapter that we meet Jay Gatsby. Nick observes him walking alone in the early evening:
Something in his leisurely movements and the secure position of his feet upon the lawn suggested that it was Mr. Gatsby himself, come out to determine what share was his of our local heavenshe stretched out his arms toward the dark water in a curious wayI glanced seawardand distinguished nothing except a single green light, minute and far away (Fitzgerald 25-26)
This passage is extremely symbolic of Gatsbys character, and his fated inability to have what he wants most. His expansive mansion makes it clear that financially, Gatsby is very well off. He throws lavish parties every weekend, and his wealth appears limitless. As he strolls through his property he seems to have an air of confidence, until he spies the distant green light across the bay. The light is from the dock of Daisy Buchanan, and symbolizes everything that is unattainable to Gatsby, despite his financial rise.
Daisy and her husband Tom are both from privileged families, much like Nick. Daisy is a former love interest of Gatsbys from the war that he has spent years trying to find again. Daisy represents not only love, but also the key Gatsby needs to enter the elite social circle he has spent his life aspiring to. “Her voice is full of money” (127) he tells Nick, illustrating the difference between working for ones fortune, and inheriting it. Gatsby has spent the majority of his life bettering himself, as is seen in his daily schedule found by Nick and Gatsbys father later in the novel. “Jimmy was bound to get ahead. He always had some resolves like this or something. Do you notice what hes got about improving his mind? He was always great for that” lamented Mr. Gatz (182). He has become very wealthy on his own account, rising from almost nothing, to a level of extravagant affluence. Gatsby loves Daisy, but it seems her ability to progress him socially that is most attractive to him. Gatsby believes in his dream, and will follow it at any cost.
The inability of Gatsby to fulfill his dream of climbing the social ladder is chiefly due to the contempt held by the old rich towards the new rich. Daisys husband, Tom Buchanan represents the attitudes of many of the old rich at the time. He is constantly worried about losing power, of losing dominance, as is demonstrated by his reading of “The Rise of Colored Empires” (17). Tom feels threatened by Gatsby, and insists on investigating his background hoping to prove him a fraud. The same investigation occurs at Gatsbys parties, where his own guests gossip and make monstrous assumptions on how he built his fortune, even while they are enjoying his hospitality. Two girls prattle on about whether or not he was a German spy and whether he has killed in cold blood before, while others are surprised to find that his vast library is not for appearance only (48). When Tom and Daisy arrive at one of Gatsbys parties Tom is immediately condescending. “Who is this Gatsby anyhowSome big bootlegger? A lot of these newly rich people are just big bootleggers, you know” (114). Toms view of Gatsby, and thus the new rich is very evident during an argument at his house when he defines Gatsby as “Mr. Nobody from Nowhere” (137). It is clear that though Gatsby is popular with much of the class he aspires to be part of, he will never be accepted by them. This is exemplified at his own funeral, where the boisterous throngs that attended his parties are nowhere to be found during his final tribute (182).The very social circle that Gatsby wishes to enter holds him in such contempt that it is clear he could never be part of them.
Fitzgerald raises the question of morality in the upper echelon society with which the novel is concerned. Though it turns out that Gatsbys new wealth was not completely compiled by legal means, other members of the society which he strives to be a part of are far from moral. The leisure class is often depicted in the novel as being extremely careless. At Gatsbys party, there is a large car accident in the driveway as two drunk and completely careless drivers collide. This exemplifies the “I dont have to worry, others will worry for me” attitude held by this class. Jordan Baker excuses her horrid driving skills by saying “Well, other people are carefulTheyll keep out of my wayIt takes two to make an accident” (63). After this insight into Jordans character, it is not very surprising to hear rumors that she cheated in a golf tournament.
Tom, who often raises the question of Gatsbys character, is hardly moral in his own right. He is having an affair with a woman right under his wifes nose, and during their childs birth, Tom was nowhere to be found (21). After the car accident with Myrtle Wilson, Tom and Daisy flee the area to avoid the police and the press. Tom even admits to holding some of the responsibility for Gatsbys death, but dismisses it saying, “I told him the truth… What if I did tell him? That fellow had it coming to him” (187). At this point Nick finally realizes that “They were careless people, Tom and DaisyThey smashed up things and creatures and then retreated back to 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” (188). In a class of careless people and immorality, Gatsbys illegal businesses seem inconsequential. In fact it is Gatsbys dedication to Daisy and his determination for his dream that keeps him from fleeing his house, ultimately results in his death. Fitzgerald seems to raise the question of whether it is possible for one to advance financially and socially while remaining virtuous.
The American dream, a hope held by many people throughout the history of this nation, is a very prevalent theme in Fitzgeralds novel. Gatsbys financial rise from a homeless teenager to affluent party-host is one piece of the dream, but what he truly longs for is social acceptance from the elite leisure class. His love for Daisy and his longing to transcend social barriers drive him to constantly strive for his dream, even until death. Even in Americas financial golden age, the exclusive powerful make it impossible for “Mr. Nobody from Nowhere” to climb the social ladder. Fitzgerald shows that this American dream which so many have pursued, is corrupt, and is an impossibility. The average American, like Gatsby, will always remain separated by the bay, only able to watch our own green lights from a distance.