The first half of the twentieth century saw dramatic changes in the social structure of the United States. In the nineteenth century, it was relatively unusual in many parts of the country to meet a Roman Catholic — similarly odd to meet someone whose native tongue was not English. Anyone who fit these descriptions was likely to be unabashedly working class. Suddenly, however, the country saw an enormous influx of people whose backgrounds were very unlike those of the founding fathers: Italians, Poles, Russians, Hispanics, Greeks, Slovaks. Some were Roman Catholic, some Orthodox, some Jewish. But their languages and their customs made them suspect to the white Anglo-Saxon Protestants who had come to consider themselves indigenous to the continent, and, taken together with the freed blacks who were steadily making their way into the Northern cities, they reveal a different face from the one the wealthier side of America was used to.
We can see the degree to which this makes people like Tom Buchanan nervous from the context of his discussion of Goddard’s The Rise of the Colored Empires. According to Judie Newman and Douglas Tallack, this book did not really exist, but was intended by Fitzgerald to represent two real books of that era, T.L. Stoddard s The Rising Tide of Color Against White World Supremacy (1920), and Madison Grant s The Passing of the Great Race (1916) (Newman and Tallack, context.htm). These books were written to counter the “melting-pot” philosophy which so dominated liberal politics, particularly in the East. Tom says Goddard has written “a fine book . . and everybody ought to read it. The idea is if we don t look out the white race will be — will be utterly submerged. It s all scientific stuff; it s been proved” (Fitzgerald, 19).
When he says “white”, we need to realize that he means something completely different than we do when we use that term. He might not, for example, consider Jews “white”, or Italians “white.” White to Tom means people who are just like him. He is therefore expressing fear — fear that those people who have so far been confined to the working class will move up from the ghettoes and displace him socially. Newman and Tallack add that “The phase of mass immigration from south-eastern Europe which had begin in the 1890s [was] superseded by the Great Migration of blacks from the South which had begun in 1914 with the war boom so that [Fitzgerald's] reference to ’short upper lips’ and ‘the yolks of their eyeballs’ does not necessarily signify an endemic racism but a historically specific fear. In the case of immigrants, the fear provoked Congress in 1921 and then again in 1924 to pass acts establishing quotas for immigrants. These acts hit would-be immigrants from southern and eastern Europe particularly hard. In the case of blacks the fear manifested itself in an increasing ghettoisation in Harlem, Chicago s South Side and other urban areas as half a million blacks moved north between 1914 and 1919″ (Newman and Tallack, context.htm).
Isn’t it ironic, then, that Tom’s “got some woman in New York”, whom herself is of the working class? Not really, because Tom sees a man’s sexual relationship with a woman as being one of dominance and submission — just like one’s relationship with one’s butler. Tom would not have a problem with having a black man as his butler, because he would unquestionably be in charge. Similarly, Tom doesn’t have a problem having an unquestionably socially-inferior woman as his mistress, because there is no confusion about who’s running this situation.
Just as Tom’s choice of books indicates that he fears “uppity” minorities, his choice of mistresses shows that he fears “uppity” women. Fitzgerald says of Tom that “There was something pathetic in his concentration [on the topic of the racist book] as if his complacency, more acute than of old, was not enough to him any more” (Fitzgerald,17). In other words, Tom used to simply take for granted that white Anglo-Saxon Protestants were superior to everyone else, and he also assumed everyone else knew it too. But now it seems to be something he has to prove. It’s not that he doubts himself or his own worth; it’s more that he fears being required to prove the obvious.
On the ethnic issue, there is no doubt that Fitzgerald is mocking Tom’s xenophobia. But on the issue of the working class, Fitzgerald almost seems on his side. It is significant that Myrtle Wilson’s husband is not an Italian or a Pole; his name is as English as Jordan Baker’s. But he is nonetheless a member of a class which by the 1920s was being increasingly monopolized by minorities — a class whose encroachment men like Wilson fear.
There is no indication, at any point in the novel, that George B. Wilson could have done anything whatsoever to vault himself out of the working class. His place is in the Valley of Ashes, his characteristic color is gray; he therefore stands in opposition to the bright, colorful people who populate Gatsby’s world. His general attitudes, right up until the moment when he sets out to avenge Myrtle’s death, seem to be subservience and desperation. Fitzgerald never shows us anything joyful, anything extraordinary, coming out of the Valley of Ashes; it is a metaphor for spiritual death, and Wilson is trapped there because he cannot participate in the American Dream.
It should come as no surprise to most Americans that we as a society have two warring philosophies where it comes to the topic of money. On the one hand, we believe in the American Dream, which indeed is the theme of this novel: the idea — true or false –that if a person works hard enough, he can accomplish anything; and conversely, if a person has nothing, it must be his own fault and he doesn t amount to much. “Poor but happy” in the United States is a contradiction in terms. “Honest toil” gets one exactly nowhere.
The object, then, is to do whatever it takes to make oneself rich. The mythos of the 1920s argues this is eminently do-able, providing that one is a member of a race or ethnic group whose potential is not limited by prejudice — or, if one happens to be Jewish or a light-skinned black, if one is willing to create a new self that would “pass” in the white-bread world. Jay Gatsby is determined to take advantage of every opportunity (ethical, legal, or otherwise) to climb the ladder of success. It should be stressed that much of his success was the result of concerted hard work: Gatsby s father, Mr. Gatz, shows Nick a book Gatsby kept as a child, in which his determination to make something of himself was reflected in a precise itinerary for a day off from school, and a list of “general resolves” which included “no more smokeing or chewing [tobacco]” and reading “one improving book or magazine per week” (Fitzgerald, 153).
The tragedy of Gatsby s life, as Fitzgerald depicts it here, was that he actually could have made something of himself. He was hard-working and self-disciplined, almost to the point of obsessiveness. But the American Dream taught him that anyone could become anything they wanted, get anything they wanted, if they just tried hard enough — and indeed that they were worthless if they did not. Rather than use that philosophy as inspiration to move to the top honestly, Gatsby saw it as a license to get to the top however he could, regardless of the ethics involved — or the lack thereof.
The American Dream says nothing about ethics; it says everything about acquisitiveness, and power, and the ability to show off the spoils of one s climb. Part of the “spoils” included one’s ability to create as much distance between oneself and the working class as possible. We see no connection between Gatsby and labor, except for the waiters who serve his moth-like guests. We see only the roles of dominance and submission between Tom Buchanan and the Wilsons.
But we recognize that the glitz of the upper class’ lives rests on the toil and sweat of labor; at one party, for example, Nick observes that “I was immediately struck by the number of young Englishmen dotted about; all well dressed, all looking a little hungry, and all talking in low, earnest voices to solid and prosperous Americans. I was sure that they were selling something: bonds or insurance or automobiles. They were at least agonizingly aware of the easy money in the vicinity and convinced it was theirs for a few words in the right key” (Fitzgerald, 41).
Fitzgerald’s novel does not make the world of the wealthy attractive as much as it reveals its moral emptiness. And much of this emptiness is the direct result of a “let them eat cake” philosophy on the part of the characters at the top of the social scale. Fitzgerald’s characters seem completely oblivious of the real lives of working people. We could argue that the same is true today, but there would seem to be more mobility between classes than there was in Fitzgerald’s time, and more respect on the part of the general public for the working class.