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Social Classes in The Great Gatsby

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Spencer W

on 20 July 2015

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Transcript of Social Classes in The Great Gatsby

In short, social classes are a device used to
un-
even the playing field. By granting each class a certain set of attributes, it creates more engaging dynamics, and compelling characters within the plot line.
Thesis:
In The Great Gatsby, class distinctions are crisp, defining sectors that govern the dynamics between characters. They have a prominent impact on how the novel plays out, due to the various advantages and disadvantages it gives its characters.
Introduction:
The Great Gatsby
, by F. Scott Fitzgerald is best-known for its tragic love story, along with the decline of the American Dream. However, what is not so commonly explored are the underlying structures of the novel, the lines drawn in the dirt between characters. Among them, the most defining of these lines is social class, the relative wealth and economical success of a person.
Social Classes in
The Great Gatsby

But first, let's have a quick break-down of social classes.
Social Classes:
Social classes
are a way to categorize a population, based on wealth, economical standing and social status. There is no set model for dividing people, however most agree upon separating into three main strata: Upper, Middle and Lower Class.
Upper Class is comprised of the wealthy elite. They have the highest social-economic rating out of the three, and are very secure financially.
Lower Class, by contrast, is the poorest of the three. They have low-income, generally low-skill jobs and have very little financial security.
Middle Class is a mixture of these two. They have decent security, and tend to work white-collar jobs like business and office-work.
Social Classes:
So, where do our characters fall into place?
Thomas and Daisy Buchanan fall into the
High-Class category
, being extremely wealthy and belonging in the social elite.
Nick Caraway falls somewhere in the
Middle-Class
zone, coming from a solid income and a standard job in the finance sector.
George and Myrtle Wilson fall into the
Lower Class
sector. They have poor financial stability and relatively low income.
But what about the Great Gatsby himself?
Jay Gatsby has the wealth to be considered Upper Class, but he has comparatively low social standing. For this reason, Upper Class in this novel can be separated further into two categories: Old Money, those who have made their own wealth, and New Money, those who have inherited it.
Attributes:

Each social class has certain attributes, all found in certain degrees; they, in turn, affect characters and their interactions with each other. Wealth, being the most obvious one, impacts the struggles of each character depending on how much he or she has. Gatsby, for example, is fixated on reconciling with Daisy, while George Wilson is more preoccupied with keeping his business afloat. Nick, being from the middle class, has enough wealth to keep himself secure, but not enough to, say, seek out a lost love and buy a mansion across the water from her house. Rather, his conflict is more internal, showing his self-proclaimed honesty and his concerns about it. That said, the allure of wealth is ever-present in the novel. Nick himself buys his house in West Egg, with his reasoning "I had a view of the water, a partial view of my neighbor's lawn, and the consoling proximity of millionaires—all for eighty dollars a month." (1.14) Though it may be unattainable, mere proximity to wealth in this regard is proven to be attractive, which is one aspect all classes have in common. They congregate around the sumptuous, which is precisely what the characters in this novel do.
Power:
Each class within The Great Gatsby features some degree of power, with those in the upper crust having the most. Much like modern celebrities, because of both their prestige and political ties, characters like Tom and Daisy are granted leeway when it comes to affairs like crime. This also shows in Tom's interaction with the lower classes. He bends Nick along to his will, demanding his attendance at events, and takes Myrtle as a mistress with surprising ease, not caring about the clues he leaves for her husband. Conversely, lower class figures like George Wilson have little to no power, and never exercise authority in the duration of the novel.
Acknowledgment:
Depending on what class a character, it will determine how well they show up on another character's radar, so to speak. The Low Class are continually aware and in awe of the High Class, the High Class largely endures the Middle Class, ignoring the lower class; and the Middle Class is aware of both in equal measure. This isn't to say those that are ignored aren't made aware of, but little regard is given from the high class to the low class in general.
Reception:
How
a person is received by another is also highly dependent on class, and this is complicated by the divide between the Old and New Money. Old Money is regarded in the ideal frame, and seen as sophisticated and sociable. New Money, by contrast is seen as unrefined, garish and acquisitive by the Old Money, and worldly by the lower classes. Lower Class is regarded as crude and unmotivated by the higher classes, while Middle Class is seen as a mixture of the two.
Personality:
Strength of Character:
Note:
As you may have already noticed, while each class has distinct advantages and disadvantages, it's important to realize they do not come in an equal blend for each class. Higher classes come with more inherent perks, such as wealth and power, while those in the lower classes are less fortunate.
So, with all of this in mind, what impact does it have on the story?
Effects:
The division of Classes
Because of the distinct lines dividing each class, relationships of any kind between classes are extremely difficult, and in
The Great Gatsby
they fail entirely. Take Gatsby's relationship with Daisy, for example. Each person's perspective is entirely different than the other, where Gatsby wishes to recreate the past with Daisy, and Daisy wishing to continue her lifestyle as she is accustomed to. It's not the only factor, but because each class develops its own distinct mentality, it's difficult to see another person's perspective. As a result, conflict emerges between characters, enhancing the plot and drawing in the reader's interest.
Different Brands of Unhappiness:
Dominant/Submissive Dynamic:
Because each class is placed in various degrees of power, as mentioned earlier, there is always one character that towers over the other. Due to these different 'weights' of power, there is always a very clear idea of who is dominating, and who is submissive. This dynamic creates intrigue and a clear line of progression, that makes individual scenes easier to follow.
Us vs. Them Mentality:
You know the saying, "Birds of a feather lock together" ? This is the very case in The Great Gatsby. There is a natural desire for people of the same class to group together, which often results in an us vs. them mindframe. There is the rivalry of Rich vs. Poor, and Old Money vs. New Money. From these rivalries, conflict inevitably emerges and creates another point of interest for the reader.
The Old Money:
Conclusion:
As Nick so self-righteously says near the beginning of the novel, "a sense of the fundamental decencies is parceled out unequally at birth." (1.3) Meaning in the broadest sense, a person's inherent 'goodness' varies even at birth. Despite this, wealth, and all that it entails has a major effect on the personality of a character. In the High Class, people generally develop a mentality that they are naturally superior over the other classes, usually leading to a sense of entitlement. A higher level of education often means they are more refined in appearance. However, they have a complex system of social cues and slights, that often mask over the truth. Middle Class citizens in the novel tend to be more empathetic towards both High and Low classes, as they can see from each vantage point with the most ease. In Nick's case, the class is mild-mannered, somewhat honest, and very judgemental. Finally, the Low Class is generally the most honest of the three, unrefined and bitter towards the High Class citizens.
One's social-economic standing has a profound impact on how 'strong' a character is in
The Great Gatsby
. As stated before, in the High Class they generally come to assume they have innate superiority over the lower classes. Tom Buchanan is the best example of this. He continually imposes his will upon others, usually lower-class men like Nick and George. Those in the Middle Class, such as Nick have no specific aspirations, so they tend to become passive, being swept along by the tides and affairs of the other classes. Those in the Low Class are driven one of two ways: They resign themselves to their current social standing and accept fate, or they come to actively pursue wealth. Examples of the latter are Jay Gatsby and Myrtle, who both desired a lavish lifestyle, and achieved it in their own way. An example of the former if George Wilson, who has no grand dreams of splendor and only a desire to maintain hs current lifestyle.
Because each class its own unique set of wealth, power and status, they tend to have their own unique set of grievances as well. High Class citizens in the novel find the need to dominate over others, and soothe emotional turmoil. In Gatsby's case, this leads to his pursuance of Daisy. The Middle Class tends to have problems looking into the future, and self-definition. The Low Class is shown to simply desire security, by remaining financially stable and maintaining happy relationships. In each case, these distinct flavours of unhappiness generate radically different motivations for each character, which enhances the plot through its added complexity.
In every instance, the High Class, specifically the Old Money, is given the most freedom, and the ability to leave their messes for the lower classes to clean. While unfair, it highlights various themes, including the decline of the American Dream, by showing how corrupt the Upper Class has become. It also allows Daisy to let Gatsby take the blame of Myrtle's death, due to her selfishness and lack of integrity. In turn, this makes room for the tragic ending of the novel, where Gatsby is shot for the crime Daisy committed.
In summation, class divisions in The Great Gatsby profound barriers between characters, and influence the interactions between them. They provide a dynamic background for the main plot to take place, also helping to generate further conflict. By watching each class' unique hardships and struggles, we are given a better variety of characters, and it makes the novel multi-dimensional by providing these multiple distinct perspectives.
Thanks for watching.
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