Social Stratification and Moral Decay in 'The Great Gatsby'
'The Great Gatsby' novel is a critic of social stratification that existed in America in the roaring 20s, Fitzgerald greatly utilizes the theme of social stratification by setting up distinct groups that existed in that era which were known for extensive economic success, new innovations, the existence of jazz and flapper culture, and illegal activities such as bootlegging. The theme of moral decay in 'The Great Gatsby' is one of the prominent themes which readers can notice through the plot of the novel. The 'old money', 'new money' and 'no money' social classes tell the reader about social elitism that ran throughout the society. 'The Great Gatsby' is greatly based on social commentary and uses the 1920s social developments to portray the prosperous society of the post-war era.
The Depiction of Moral Decay of Society in 'The Great Gatsby'
Fitzgerald tries to bring about a connection between social class and the social settings in the novel. The narrator, Nick Carraway, is a man from a wealthy family who has just come from war looking forward to connect with his neighbors. He settles close to a wealthy man, Jay Gatsby, who owns a mansion in the fictional town of West Egg, a less fashionable area compared to the East Egg, West Egg is portrayed as a place of 'new money'. Fitzgerald brings out the picture of Gatsby, a man operating illegal businesses, hence his mysterious rise to wealth. He throws parties on every weekend which many people in town attend.
Though governed by money, the rich in the novel are not unified by the same. There exist another distinct social class of wealthy people living in East Egg, the 'old money' group, the likes of Jordan Baker and the Buchanans, Their wealth is as a result of inheritance. Their families have been wealthy for many generations. The people in East egg are also educated and live quite fashionable lives. Fitzgerald portrays them as people who rarely get engaged in businesses or any other type of work. They spend most of their time in their fancy lifestyles. This group is considered as the most elitist and highly distinct from the 'new money' group. It's a matter of how much money, where it came from and the time taken to acquire it.
People like Gatsby in the 1920s were regarded as low-class men who were just working for a living and possibly differed from the social elites in some way. Their tastes and sensibilities differed. People in the highest social hierarchy were not nice to people at all. The fact that Gatsby had just acquired his wealth gave enough reason for the 'old money' group to hate him. Social elites are mainly negative and judgmental and, in most cases, they fail to see the importance of people around them including themselves, They live to be seen and to show their superiority over others. People who have recently acquired wealth are of no difference too. They become less sensitive, they live for the moment, their lives revolve around partying and other fancy things. For example, when Gatsby dies, the partygoers do not bother to attend his burial though they frequented his house every weekend with not much care about their host and in some cases uninvited
The 'no money' people are used to convey a very strong message in the novel. Nick for example, is a principled man and even though he comes from a slightly well-to-do family, he lives such an honorable life. On the other hand, Myrtle, living in the Valley of ashes, tries her best to make it out. She desires to climb the social ladder and ends up having an affair with Tom. She doesn't care about her moral obligation as someone's wife and ends up cheating on her husband in order to lead a lifestyle that she desires, just for a while. However, she can never be welcome into the social elites' circle. Tom is only interested in using the low-class women, due to their weakness hence expressing his superiority over the low-class in the society. He says, 'I hope she'll be a fool -- that's the best thing a girl can be in this world, a beautiful little fool'.
'The Great Gatsby' portrays a harsh picture of a 1920s world. An era of post-war characterized by strong economic growth as well as high social stratification. The world presented by Fitzgerald is a world likely to end up into a disaster. The people in this world have their own assumptions and world-views and they believe that their means of survival are based on social stratification and strengthening of social boundaries. They are highly insensitive and hold high regards for wealth and money.
Money in the novel, is presented as a way of reaching a particular dream. Gatsby is obsessed with an upper-class woman, Daisy Buchanan. Money has a way of creating an illusion in Gatsby's way of thinking as he desires to win Daisy's love. He relies on illegal money as a tool to reach his dream. His wealth is the main source of his power. Tom's superiority is also evident through money in the novel. He uses money to win women in the story. Money is portrayed as the only authority to Gatsby and the people around him. Eventually, Nick comes into an understanding that, the Buchanan’s are inconsiderate people, destroying other people's lives and hiding behind superiority and money. He notes, 'they were careless people, Tom and Daisy--they smashed up things and ... then retreated back into their money... and let other people clean up the mess they had made'.
These are the main values of the American dream, where people belief that power, wealth and money are the only means of achieving prosperity in this world. As evident in The Great Gatsby, this eventually leads to physical and emotional downfall as well as to moral decay of society. Gatsby is compared to the prominent people in the 20s and 30s society who faced frustrations in the society after acquiring wealth illegally and ended up facing problems later in life. Fitzgerald gives a clear social commentary which involves social climbing and emotional torture. He brings out a picture of a both fascinating and manipulative era. In that, he captures a given group of people and writes them into heroes, Fitzgerald was part of the upper-class in the society and a victim of the same.