Elites in "The Great Gatsby" and "American Psycho". A Comparison of the Illustration of Elites

Bachelor Thesis, 2014
28 Pages, Grade: 2.0


Table of Content

1. Introduction

2. Explanation of the literary choices

3. Theoretical Approach

4. New York as a social and cultural sphere

5. The Definition of Elites

6. The Great Gatsby
a. The Jazz Age
b. About the author

7. The illustration of elites in The Great Gatsby

8. American Psycho
a. The 1980s
b. About the author

9. Illustration of elites in American Psycho

10. The comparison
a. Differences
b. Similarities
c. Summary and Tendencies

11. Outlook and further research questions

12. Works cited

1. Introduction

Media and artists had and still have enhanced interest in the life and doings of elites. The reasons for that might be diverse and range from pure voyeurism to complex social criticism. Nonetheless, elites occupy artists’ minds ever since and the list of authors who incorporated elites into their plays, stories or novels is long and prestigious. Even until today, the concept of elites has an undeniable impact on both, society and art. Both kind of influences play a crucial role for this paper, as it aims at comparing the illustration of elites in two different temporal episodes. The novels, which will be the basis for this comparison, are F. Scott Fitzgerald’ s The Great Gatsby and Bret Easton Ellis ´ American Psycho. The explanation of the literary choices will be delivered in the next section. Both, F. Scott Fitzgerald and Bret Easton Ellis, have created characters larger than life which partly represent the perversion of the upper classes but both also provide literally, symbolically and figuratively different approaches to escape the problems they are facing. May it be Jay Gatsby or Patrick Bateman; they both feel uncomfortable in their respective environments and strive for something their current life cannot provide. Those desires reflect the bygone and contemporary decoupling of the upper classes lives and thereby comment on society as a whole in their respective temporal context.

After explaining what makes those novels predestinated for a comparison, New York as a social and cultural concept and its history will be depicted. Considering that both novels take place in New York and the geographical space clearly has an impact on the progression of the plot but also the mindset of the protagonists, New York needs to be understood first, to then derive sense from the novels taking place there. Afterwards, the term elites will be defined and set into context. After having created a working definition of the term elites, the work on the two novels will start with a temporal contextualization of the novel and the authors’ lives. After doing so, the actual illustration of the elites will be analyzed. In a second step, the two novels and their depiction of the upper classes will be compared and contrasted. After identifying both, differences but also uniting factors, the conclusion will pick up the hypothesis from the beginning and on the basis of that, new questions for further research will be raised.

This paper will investigate whether American Psycho can be considered the logical and radicalized continuation of the tendencies discussed in The Great Gatsby, in which the upper-classes are portrayed as bored and narcissistic. Additionally, Fitzgerald lets his characters from different social backgrounds compete against each other, which can be considered a direct comment on the situation in the early/mid 1920s and this paper will aim at finding out whether, and if so, how this conflict has radicalized in the late 1980s as described in American Psycho .

2. Explanation of the literary choices

The idea this paper pursues is to extract the illustration of the upper class in the chosen novels. To obtain comparable and expressive results, all other variables should remain the same. One of the most important variables is the geographical sphere as the following section will prove. One reason why these novels have been chosen for a comparison is that they both take place in New York. Furthermore, they both cover the social sphere of upper class society and thereby provide an in-depth understanding of the upper classes’ perception during their respective times. New York is probably one of the most diverse and pluralistic cities in the world and especially the racial, social and class differences turn it into a perfect setting for this kind of analysis.

As stated above, both novels take place in almost the same geographical and social sphere and the only difference is the temporal dimension. The Great Gatsby has been published in 1925 and the story takes place in 1922, whereas American Psycho has been published in 1991 and the story ’s setting is in the mid/late 1980s. This allows us to compare how the illustration and perception of elites has changed over a timeframe of about 70 years or roughly two generations.

Besides those two major fields of accordance, the narrators of the stories also share the same professional background as they both work in the field of finances. Nick Carraway tries to establish himself as a stock-broker in New York and so does Patrick Bateman, even though he already achieved an impressive professional standing. Ironically, both hardly ever talk or describe their working processes but only focus on their leisure time activities (cf. Voßmann 83). This time distribution between work and leisure time allows the reader to get a deeper insight into the life of the elites in which work, according to the novels, does not play an essential role.

Both narrators are almost at the same age, work in the same field and socialize in the same circles during different times but these two literary works share another crucial characteristic: Both authors comment on the American Dream (cf. Schnatwinkel 181, Fitzgerald (1991) 183) and illustrate it as a negative concept. Due to superficiality, constant competition among each other and out of sheer boredom the dream of achieving a better status quo for oneself has turned into a nightmare. Both depicted upper class societies have passed the point of material security a long time ago but are still far away from a fulfilled life as “Jordan [Baker] seems not only situational “bored” but also existentially” (Berman 11) and also Bateman is constantly searching for new kicks to escape the monotony and boredom of diner parties. Boredom serves as a catalyst for the underlying message in both novels.

Finally, both novels were written in times of economic and psychological recovery, which also influenced the mindset of the characters. The Great Gatsby was published after the horrors experienced during the First World War, which can be considered as the first time that life seemed to improve after the war. The same applies for American Psycho, which has been written during the times of the Ronald Reagan era. This time was dominated by laissez-faire economics and the “everything is possible” attitude, which has also been thematized by Fitzgerald 1 70 years before. Surely, only a small percentage of people benefitted from Reagan’s politics but those who did show a resemblance to the people during the 1920s.

3. Theoretical Approach

This paper urges at comparing two novels from different times. To compare those novels, at least to some extent, a theoretical approach must be chosen which allows breaking down the novels to a common denominator. After investigating the novels under different approaches, post-modernistic criticism has been chosen as the theoretical framework for this paper. Peter Barry breaks down postmodern criticism to six points which, even though they cannot exclusively be ascribed to post-modern criticism, provide a general view how postmodern criticism and thereby this paper will work.

According to Barry, postmodernist critics focus on “postmodernist themes, tendencies, and attitudes within literary works of the twentieth century and explore their implications” (Barry 87). This will constitute the majority of this paper’s literary analysis. Not just the temporal frame fits the needs of this analysis but also the nature of the investigated hypothesis. Themes, tendencies and attitudes are predestined to derive a comprehensive image of the elites in the two novels.

As a second characteristic of postmodern analysis, Barry points out the enhanced interest in “fiction which might be said to exemplify the notion of the “disappearance of the real”, in which shifting postmodern identities are seen, for example in the mixing of the genres” (ibid.). Shifting identities are certainly a topic in both novels2 and that is also partly reflected in the mixing of genres. American Psycho cannot be ascribed to only one genre and also The Great Gatsby unites the topics of a love-story, a story of a self-made man and many more.

Furthermore, Barry points out the importance of intertextuality (ibid). Allusions, pastiches and parody work between texts and refer to each other. Intertextual references are very frequently used in American Psycho especially by mentioning music, theatre plays, shows or movies (Les Miserables, U2, Iggy Pop, Tina Turner, etc). Even though The Great Gatsby uses less allusions to well-known media, it still responses to other works of its time (i.e. Tom Buchanan ’s book on white supremacy).

Also the dealing with the past and the narrative technique of both novels show resemblance with the characteristics Barry points out. He states that “postmodernist realizes that the past must be revisited, but with irony” (Barry 88). Also he states that “novels focus on and debate their own ends and processes, and thereby “de-naturalize” their content” (ibid). Both tendencies can be found in the two novels. However, the manifestation of irony and the meta-level of observation differ in both novels. Nick Carraway, as the narrator of the story, clearly reflects more the events taking place in The Great Gatsby, whereas Patrick Bateman ’s behavior and attitudes can be, in some occasions, interpreted as irony.

Lastly, Barry mentions postmodern critics in the context that “they challenge the distinction between high and low culture, and highlight texts which work as hybrid blends of the two” (ibid.). The Great Gatsby is widely considered one of the best American novels. American Psycho in contrast was illustrated as very poorly written when it was first published (cf. Vo ßmann 23-26). Attitudes towards the latter changed over time but still the novel serves as an example of how low and high cultures experience a blending during the late 1980s.

As stated above, the postmodern approach of literary analysis serves the aims of this paper the best and has therefore been chosen. The main focus will be set on finding and comparing themes, tendencies and attitudes as they can illustrate the elites in the most efficient way. Furthermore, all of the before mentioned sub-items of postmodern literary analysis will be employed whenever necessary and useful. One element, which Barry did not mention in his list, is the revaluation of autobiographical elements. As this paper will later prove, autobiographical elements are not only necessary to derive a deeper understanding of each novel but crucial. However, Barry’s list of postmodern reading approaches will be extended by the autobiographical importance of each author. So, the applied theoretical framework will be a slightly modified version of postmodern analysis as illustrated by Barry.

4. New York as a social and cultural sphere

In 1626 Dutch traders purchased an island which was called “Manna-hata” by the natives. In respect of the “Geoctroyeerde West-Indische Compagnie”, the investors group which financed the venture, the traders named the island “Nieuw Amsterdam“(cf. Rademacher 29-33). From the beginning on Nieuw Amsterdam was a space of diversity in many respects. After deciding that Nieuw Amsterdam should become a permanent part of the foreign trade, the company recruited people to live overseas permanently (cf. 30/33-34). Due to Holland’s prosperous economic situation, very few Dutch people could be lured into migration to an unknown world. As a consequence, most of the early settlers were not Dutch but persecuted minorities who tried to escape the purgatory, inquisition or other forms of violence (ibid). Even though the man who shaped the early days of New Amsterdam the most, Petrus Stuyvesant, had to surrender to the British forces in 1664, New York(e), how the British renamed it, was still a melting pot of various cultures, races and religions.

During the following century New York was part of the British crown and developed into a metropolis. The strategically advantageous position of the city helped to develop its extensive trade and enhance its prosperity. During the time of the war for American independence, from 1775-1783, New York suffered tremendously due to its crucial importance for both parties, the crown but also the colonists (cf. Klüver 45). Nonetheless, also its political importance was consolidated as New York was in the centre of attention and even became temporally capital of the US in 1784. After the American independence, trade flourishes again and New York reached its former population of 25,000 inhabitants (cf. 56). Especially after overcoming the threats of the war, New York developed into a popular destination for people of all classes and origins. Especially Europeans migrated into one of the most flourishing cities of that time.

But not everybody who settled over to New York became prosperous and successful and so a lower class established itself in some parts of New York. The most famous and notorious slum of New York in the 19th century was the Five Points. Amplified by the Secession War (1861-1865) and the forceful recruitment methods3, the conflict of classes sparked. The “Draft Riots” agitated New York City. Around that time the city counted roughly 900,000 inhabitants and more than a half was considered poor (cf. 63). But the “Draft Riots” were not the only conflict which occupied New York around that time. Also territorial fights took place, mostly held by gangs which represented different groups of society. The majority of gangs had an Irish background, brought to New York by the Great Famine, and generally it is safe to claim that most gang members belonged to the lower classes (cf. 67). New York’s diversity is once again underlined and a mutual toleration of the different groups was not a necessity. Exemplarily, the “Bowery Boys” were anti-Irish, anti-Catholic and anti-British and were bitter enemies of the “Dead Rabbits”, “Forty Thieves” or “Kerryonians” (ibid.). During that time and also later, New York was a place of conflicts and contrasts of all natures, which were often fought out physically. In the 1890s the Five Points were demolished and replaced by Chinatown.

After overcoming the Civil War in New York, prosperity was spreading which again attracted many immigrants from all around the world. From the 1880s on, each year, over 400,000 people came to New York (cf. Lahusen 96). Southern and Eastern European influences entered the city and with them also a fear of foreigners but also of diseases. A mixture of racism and legitimate fear helped the “Immigration Act” to pass in 1882. The migration office moved to Ellis Island, which is roughly 1700 meters in front of New York. Doctors examined there over 11,000 people per day (cf. 98). New York became one of the most attractive cities in the world and at the same time tried to regulate the masses of immigrants. Undeniably, not every measure was reasonable; still New York has earned its status as one of the most diverse cities in the world. Neighborhoods being labeled as “Little Russia”, “Little Italy”, “Chinatown” or the African-American dominated “Harlem” are proof enough that multiculturalism has taken over the city. New York is in constant change and quarters which were built for amusement can accommodate the poorest people only a couple years later as the example of Coney Island illustrates (cf. Kreye 104/5). Very few institutions shaped the landscape of New York long-term; one of them is the Wall Street. Luring people with huge fortunes but also causing multiple economic crises, the Wall Street became metaphor for New York and America itself: Everything is possible, every fortune but also every misfortune.

Summarizing, one can say that there are very few things which really characterize New York. The city undergoes a constant change, immigration and the hope for a better life might be associations which are connected to New York since its early days. But also examples of gross and violent behavior were part of New York’s history. Maybe because of those extreme antitheses mixed with the hope for a better life, New York is the setting for various plays, novels and movies. The city has its own connotation and is multifarious as its inhabitants.

5. The Definition of Elites

“The word ’élite’ was used in the seventeenth century to describe commodities of particular excellence; and the usage was later extended to refer to superior social groups, such as crack military units or higher ranks of the nobility” (Bottomore 1). Later the usage of the word has been extended to entire social groups but since 1823, the first time the word was used in the English language (cf. ibid.), there is hardly any consensus about the definition of that group. The least common denominator, on which most scholars can agree on, is that elites can be considered minorities and went through a selection process (cf. Blaszczak 18). One of the most promising approaches advocates the idea that there is not only one elite but each subsystem of society generates its own elite (i.e. economical, religious, political elites) (cf. Wasner 16). Following the theory of systems, each subsystem is more or less loosely connected to all other systems of society. Furthermore, all systems interact and influence each other (Jensen 9). Thereby, each elite has different core competencies and its influence differs from system to system.

After making the observation that “in each society there is a minority which effectively rules” (Bottomore 105), the idea that some of society’s subsystems are more important than others, measured by their bigger influence on society, becomes explainable. Traditionally, in modern societies the monetary sector (banks and stock-broking) and politics/legislation can be considered the most important subsystems. This is the case because the monetary sector supplies all other systems with the universal good the society agreed on to use for exchanging goods and services, namely money. The importance of the political system can be explained by the fact that the political system sets the rules for all other systems by passing laws.

Furthermore, being elite is also equated with having resources and being able to use them to generate influence on institutions and society as a whole (cf. Blaszczak 18). In this context resources can be considered nearly everything from economical power (money), professional, but also social, positions and social capital.

As a working definition for this paper, elites are defined as the group which accumulates the most resources in each subsystem, simultaneously taking into consideration that certain systems are more important than others. Therefore, the defining factors for being elite can be broken down to four resources: Monetary resources, positions in society (jobs but also social standing), intellectual background/access and social capital.


1 Representative for that mindset is one of Gatsby’s most famous lines when Nick Carraway states that “[…] you can’t repeat the past” and Gatsby only replies “Can’t repeat the past? Why of course you can” (cf. Fitzgerald (1991) 106).

2 James Gatz who reinvented himself as Jay Gatsby as well as Patrick Bateman who is also equipped with two identity as (cf. Schnatwinkel 181)

3 People’s names were drawn from a lottery and were drafted. Getting drafted could be avoided by paying the amount of $300, the annual wages of a worker (cf. Strempel 62). This concept has been taken up in The Great Gatsby as Nick Carraway’s ancestors used this possibility to avoid serving in the army.

Excerpt out of 28 pages


Elites in "The Great Gatsby" and "American Psycho". A Comparison of the Illustration of Elites
Bielefeld University
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ISBN (eBook)
elites, great, gatsby, american, psycho, comparison, illustration
Quote paper
Till Neuhaus (Author), 2014, Elites in "The Great Gatsby" and "American Psycho". A Comparison of the Illustration of Elites, Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/470717


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