The significance of social class structure in The Great Gatsby is enormous and cannot be downplayed. All the main characters in the novel- Tom, Daisy, Gatsby, Nick, and Jordan- are from the West. They all move out East in an effort to elevate their social status, because New York, Long Island, and the East is home to the true aristocracy in America, and they so much want to be a part of the highest social strata in society. But what we learn from their downfall is “[they] possessed some deficiency in common which made [them] subtly unadaptable to Eastern life” (Fitzgerald 176). The American dream failed them, and to see why we need to understand the American dream as a flawed ideology, and identifying the cultural conditioning of ideology is the goal of the Marxist analyses of literature.
The ultimate motive in Marxism is “getting and keeping economic power,” (Tyson 53) and this is the reason Tom acts they way he does in flaunting his wealth and material possessions. In fact, Daisy herself becomes a commodity for Tom and he uses her sign exchange value to elevate his social status.
Gatsby’s efforts to become wealthy and acquire material possessions are an attempt to raise him from the lower to higher social classes. It’s not enough for Gatsby to be a wealthy man though, he has to win Daisy’s love to prove to himself and others he’s worthy, and not “just some nobody” (Fitzgerald 67). It’s not enough to just be rich; you have to show your worth through proper lineage, expansive mansions, lavish parties, charming friends, and a beautiful wife to be accepted by the upper classes. But in the end, even though he’s incredibly rich, Gatsby looses Daisy because Tom argues he’s still “Mr. Nobody from Nowhere” (130). Acquiring his wealth through criminal activity is below Daisy, below her social circumstance, Gatsby cheated the rules of the American dream and therefore he isn’t good enough for Daisy.
But the American dream is a flawed ideology, argues Marxism. “The acquisition of a wealthy lifestyle for a few- rests on the misery of the many” (Tyson 58). The Wilsons, living in the valley of ashes- the dreadful home of the lower classes, the poor, the socioeconomically disadvantaged- are the ones who suffer because of the inequitable distribution of wealth in society. They have bought into the false ideology that they are less than the rich, and this is why Myrtle is so eager to be with Tom, because he is her ticket to higher social circles and privilege.
The Great Gatsby criticizes the capitalist system, the American dream, and the people who fight to win and maintain economic power. The novel “reveals the debilitating effects of capitalism on socioeconomic ‘winners’ such as Tom, Daisy, and Gatsby, as well as on the ‘losers’ such as George and Myrtle” (Tyson 75). Likely, the only character capable of finding happiness is Nick, when he decides to move back west to his roots.
Fitzgerald, Scott. The Great Gatsby. New York: Scribner, 1925. Print.
Tyson, Lois. Critical Theory Today: A User-Friendly Guide. New York: Routledge, 2006. Print.
Originally published at www.happinessfootprint.com on April 10, 2012.