The Role of Social Status during the 1920s in America. Fitzgerald's "The Great Gatsby" as a Representative Literary Work

Seminar Paper, 2020

15 Pages, Grade: 2


Table of Contents


1. Background on the 1920s
1.1. Politics, Culture, and Economy
1.2. Changes of the Decade
1.3. The Gatsby Image

2. Representation of Class in The Great Gatsby
2.1. Relationships
2.2. The Different Settings as a Representation of Social Status and Wealth
2.3. Symbols in the Novel

3. Quotes on Race and Social Status




The Great Gatsby, a novel written by the American author F. Scott Fitzgerald, published in 1925, is considered to be one of the greatest novels ever written in American history. The story of The Great Gatsby has had a long-lasting influence not only in America, where it is considered to be a literary classic, but also in European countries, in many of which the novel has become a part of literary education in the course of teaching English as a foreign language.

Furthermore, numerous stage and film adaptations of the novel have been published throughout the 20th century. Next to five different movie versions, John Harbison, an American composer, known for his symphonies, operas, and large choral works, but also a recognized jazz pianist and founder of a jazz band, composed an opera version of The Great Gatsby, commissioned by the New York Metropolitan Opera. The work, bearing the same title as the original version of the novel, premiered on December 20, 1999. The libretto of the opera, written in two acts, was adapted from the novel and also added by Harbison.

The Great Gatsby, set in New York in the summer of 1922, tells the tragic story of Jay Gatsby, whose life is dominated by the pursuit of his youth love Daisy Buchanan. In order to find her and win her back, he enters a world of the upper-class society, in which he, as a newly self-made millionaire, apparently, does not belong. The story is narrated by Nick Carraway, a stockbroker who seeks his American Dream in New York, thereby thrown into the intriguing world of the super-rich, in which he gets aware and becomes a witness of the differences and underlying tragedies between the emerged millionaires of the 1920s and the old aristocracy of the country’s richest families. Both characters, Nick Carraway and Jay Gatsby, find themselves in a society in which wealth and social status seem to have the upper hand, reigning over love, infinite dreams, and tireless hope.

The era of the 1920s, in which glitter, jazz, illegal businesses, loosening morals, the stock market, alcohol and entertainment played a central role, has had a huge influence on the popular perception of this decade in America. McParland argues that the 1920s not only changed American culture, but also made it possible for American literature, thanks to the classic novels of this decade, to “finally have arrived on the world stage, with its own voice, style, and subject matter” (16). The Great Gatsby can be seen as one of these classic novels McParland mentions, its subject matter definitely representing American culture and the characteristic features of that time. “Through novels, readers of the 1920s were interpreting themselves. They were looking at where life was going during a time of precipitous change. For some readers, such novels were not only a means of escape or solace, they were cultural signposts” (18). Not only from today´s viewpoint, also back then, the novels written in the 1920s were seen as an interpretation of the culture of a certain nation or local society. McParland argues that “novels and their film versions influenced how people saw the world and thought about America – about love and belonging, wealth and power, and dreams and ideals” (18).

According to this viewpoint, next to being a source of entertainment, novels also offer insights into the culture and the values of the affected society, thereby stimulating critical thinking in the reader about certain features. In the case of The Great Gatsby, the features that call attention are, amongst others, the relationships between the individual characters in relation to their social background, which, apparently seems to be very important during this era. Therefore, the purpose of the following paper is to examine the role of social status, connected with wealth, prestige, and reputation, during the 1920s in America.

In order to provide an overview of the time in which the story of The Great Gatsby takes place, the first chapter will give a brief introduction about politics, culture, the economy and the changes of the 1920s. Afterwards, the representation of class in the novel will be analyzed, thereby having a look at the relationships between the different characters, and, additionally, at the different settings that appear in the plot and serve as a representation of social status and wealth. Another part of the analysis of the occurrence of social status in the novel is the use of symbolism. In examining the symbols, the meaning of the first lines of the novel, consisting of a poem, as well as the green light that appears various times in the story, will be taken into account. The last part of the paper consists of several quotes taken from the novel, which represent both the self-made millionaires of the 1920s and the old aristocratic families of New York´s society. The importance of social background and status in the society and the resulting impacts on the characters will thereby be a central theme.

1. Background on the 1920s

1.1. Politics, Culture, and Economy

Also known as the Jazz Age or as the “Roaring Twenties”, the 1920s can be described as wild, loud and exuberant times full of entertainment and prosperous life, New York thereby being the cultural, economic and artistic center of Northern America. The city during this time is characterized by a particular mixture of recovery and economic boom after the First World War, event culture, promotion of commerce and art, opportunities for quick promotion and advancement, Prohibition, jazz music, flapper girls, theater and musicals in connection with the rise of the Broadway, clubs, craving for pleasure and amusement, but also hard work. (Berghorn and Hattstein 107)

According to Hartl, in terms of business, the 1920s were a time of great achievements: “New technologies, the standardization of production, efficiency and quantity of industrial output reached a new all-time high” (17). Unwavering optimism, a maintaining level of investments, and business strategies led to economic growth, whereby capitalism “was the key to stability and prosperity” (17). Also academics saw the 1920s as a “stepping stone into a bright future” (17), because of the newly emerging field of social sciences and scientific advancements: Albert Einstein and Sigmund Freud are just two of the famous personalities the 1920s gave birth to. The availability of science and academia lead also to major discoveries in medicine, such as, for example, vitamins and insulin.

Next to these achievements in business and science, the 1920s are also often considered as a time of transformation: women were given more rights, like, for example, the right to vote; liquor was made illegal due to the introduced Prohibition – a law resisted by many; and shared public events arrived with the advent of radio. (McParland 19) “This was an age of advertising and salesmanship, marketing an abundance of commodities” (19). Together with the appearance of radios, the possibilities for commercial advertising emerged, promoting newly emerged products like cigarettes, refrigerators, telephones, cosmetics, electrical devices, etc., “Media, advertising, and the popular arts fueled popular culture” (19). While American businesses were largely unaffected by the First World War, they grew very rapidly during those years, therefore the economy retrieved a great boost in the prosperity years of the mid-1920s. According to McParland, “keeping up materially was accompanied by the need to keep up with the new life” (19).

1.2. Changes of the Decade

Gross and Gross remark that American popular culture during the time of the 1920s was obsessed with rapid and easy acquisition of wealth. “It tended to make heroes out of almost anyone who had become wealthy, in almost any field” (Gross and Gross 150). In The Great Gatsby, the main protagonist Jay Gatsby was one of these heroes who achieved the goal of acquiring enormous amounts of money in a short time. Although, according to Hartl, “the source of Gatsby´s wealth is only alluded to, it is heavily implied that he made his money with bootlegging and other questionable business ventures” (58). The questionable business ventures, which also Gatsby made advantage of, were quite common during the time of the 1920s, and partly also responsible for changing class structures. Because of illegal businesses, which contributed, among others, to the booming economy, “immigrants and members of the working class were given the chance to seize career opportunities they would otherwise be denied because of their social status” (Hartl 58).

At the end of the decade, the prosperity and boom of the “Roaring Twenties” came to a brutal and very abrupt end. The crash of Wall Street in 1929 “marked a symbolic turning point in American life” (Gross and Gross 151). According to the two authors, few things were more typical of the 1920s than stock speculation, the common belief that easy wealth and nearly unlimited prosperity were available to anyone who would take them, and the resulting collapse of the stock market in 1929.

1.3. The Gatsby Image

As Hartl argues, most popular depictions of the “Roaring Twenties” present the decade as “a time of decadence and excess, of champagne-drenched parties and liberated morals set to the soundtrack of frantic jazz music” (3). A lot of these features can be recognized in Fitzgerald´s novel as well, probably even more in the movie adaptations. McParland (19) even refers to this time of prosperity and glamour as the “Gatsby Image”: smoking, drinking liquor, girls with short, bobbed hair and slender figures, freedom and motion caused by the rising of the automobile branch, the emergence of garages, rest stops, and skyscrapers are only some of the characteristics of this decade that can also be noticed in the novel or the movie and opera versions of The Great Gatsby.

Besides the obvious images of the popular culture in the 1920s that appear in the different versions of The Great Gatsby, the story also has a lot of underlying themes and background motives, like for example the role of social status at that time. This theme will be analyzed in more detail in the following chapters.

2. Representation of Class in The Great Gatsby

2.1. Relationships

“Fitzgerald‘s novel documents the changing social structures of the 1920s where men who had inherited their wealth and social status stood opposite those who had earned their money in the booming business sector” (Hartl 57). The opposition Hartl mentions between the society containing members from the old aristocracy of the country’s richest families and the newly risen millionaires is also a theme present in The Great Gatsby, in which the two positions are represented by Tom Buchanan on the one hand, and by Jay Gatsby on the other. (Hartl, 57)

“Gatsby is aware that in order to be a suitable contender for Daisy‘s affections and, more generally, to gain access and acceptance in her social circles, wealth alone is not sufficient” (Hartl 57-58). In order to reach his dream and to win his long-desired love Daisy back, money and wealth do not suffice for Gatsby. In a rich people´s world, class and social status seem to be more important than anything else, which can be proved by the attempt of the low-class born millionaire Gatsby to become a part of the upper class. Even though Gatsby spends a lifetime believing that by acquiring wealth and all the features that make him seem to be a rich person, he is able to enter the upper class and thereby become equate to his love Daisy. Nonetheless, even though Gatsby succeeds in earning a huge amount of money and in acquiring lots of valuable possessions, he is never accepted as a member of the upper-class and therefore neither as a suitable husband for his youth love Daisy. “There is a bond stronger than money between people like Tom and Daisy Buchanan” (Fälth 10). The bond Fälth refers to is connected to social status and the contempt of people like Daisy and Tome against the lower society. According to Fälth (10), both the contempt against people with a lower social status and the bond that connects the married couple can be explained with their similar upbringing and education. This is also the reason why Gatsby, no matter how hard he tries, is not able to overcome the circumstances that were allocated to him in his past and his origin, in other words, even though he succeeded in making money, he will never become a part of the upper class society.

An important kind of relation between the different members of society that seems to be dependent on social status is the relationship between men and women. There are two marriages described in the story, both rather relationships of advantage than of actual love: the marriage between Tom and Daisy Buchanan and the one between George and Myrtle Wilson. The Buchanans, portrayed as careless and indifferent people, both have secret and unequal relationships: while Daisy is secretly in love with Gatsby, Tom Buchanan pays for an apartment in the city for his mistress Myrtle Wilson, a woman belonging to the lower working class. In their relationship, Tom´s superior status is clearly displayed, as Myrtle´s city life, containing an apartment and lots of other luxuries that are not available to her husband George Wilson, is dependent on Tom and his money. (Fälth 10) The scene in which Tom breaks Myrtle´s nose because of an argument about Daisy also demonstrates that Tom is clearly the dominant and commanding figure of their secret relationship and that Myrtle is, due to her lower social background, in an inferior position. (Fälth 10)


Excerpt out of 15 pages


The Role of Social Status during the 1920s in America. Fitzgerald's "The Great Gatsby" as a Representative Literary Work
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ISBN (Book)
role, social, status, america, fitzgerald, great, gatsby, representative, literary, work
Quote paper
Alexandra Warter (Author), 2020, The Role of Social Status during the 1920s in America. Fitzgerald's "The Great Gatsby" as a Representative Literary Work, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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