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Social class plays a dominant role in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby. In fact the title character is living proof that the American dream really exists. Readers recognize the importance Fitzgerald places on social class throughout the novel, but for the purpose of this essay, I will examine how Fitzgerald links social class with race through his portrayal of African American characters in the novel. The notion of the African-American dream would have been a fairly new one in the 1920s, but since the black characters in the novel are paired with Jay Gatsby, it is plausible to think that they would triumph and suffer in the same way Gatsby did as a result of their newly found achievements. This theme can be traced through the actions of Tom Buchanan and in the two scenes that black characters are present in the novel.
The Great Gatsby in set in New York during the Harlem Renaissance, a period of artistic explosion within the black community, so racial issues are bound to be present in the novel. Tom Buchanan voices his opinion about those people outside of the white race. By referring to The Rise of the Colored Empires and stating its ideas – “if we don’t look out the white race will be. . .utterly submerged”(13) – Tom alerts readers to the tensions between blacks and whites. He also remarks: “It’s up to us, who are the dominant race, to watch out or these other races will have control of things” (14), indicating that he believes whites need to stay in control of social happenings to ensure the morality and wealth of the future.
Fitzgerald wants readers to view Tom as a farcical character, because even the other characters don’t take him seriously. Daisy winks at Nick and Jordan several times during Tom’s ranting about race relations, signaling to readers that Tom’s views are not the ones Fitzgerald wants readers to subscribe to. Daisy’s gestures behind her husband’s back also indicate that she does not agree with his opinions. Daisy whispers to Nick and Jordan: “We’ve got to beat them down” (14), talking about the “colored” race. However, she is “winking ferociously” (14) as she is talking. Daisy realizes that her husband’s views are dated, especially for a man living in the East during the Harlem Renaissance. She speaks sarcastically later in the chapter about her “white girlhood” (20) with Jordan and about the Nordic race with Nick. Daisy knows that her husband’s greatest fears have already been realized and she does not agree with his ridiculous, though “scientific” argument.
The relationship between race and social class is further played out in two scenes that portray middle or upper-class blacks. When Nick and Gatsby see a limousine with three black passengers and a white chauffeur, Fitzgerald is telling readers that times are changing. This is an extreme example of role reversals within both race and social class. Since these characters possess both an expensive car and a hired white driver, readers can assume that they are affluent. During this scene Nick thinks: “Anything can happen now that we’ve slid over that bridge” (70) and the limo suggests that anything already has happened. So, times are not really changing; they already have changed. Sixty years after the abolition of slavery, blacks can afford to ride in (or perhaps own) a limousine and hire a white driver.
So, instead of identifying with Tom Buchanan, Fitzgerald implies that readers can identify with Gatsby (or even Daisy, Jordan, or Nick), a man who plays jazz music at his parties, and his implied view of black culture. Jazz music originated in the African American communities before seeping its way into white upper class homes. Jay Gatsby is linked to the black characters in the limousine because they all are representative examples of people who are living the American dream. They also represent the idea of “new” money and the idea of having to work one’s way to the top. However, readers only get a small glimpse of the blacks in the limo. Since they are paired with Gatsby in their affluence, readers can draw the conclusion that blacks who rise into the upper social classes might be susceptible to the same kinds of problems that eventually lead to Gatsby’s downfall. This logic can be applied to all people and races: when people are equal to one another, they have the same chances at success as they do at failure.
The second scene in the novel in which a black man appears is equally, if not more, striking than the first. After Myrtle has been killed, “[a] pale well-dressed negro stepped near”(143) to identify the car. Again, since this man is well-dressed, readers are led to believe that he is probably well off financially. However, what makes this scene striking is his audacity to step up and identify the car so specifically without being solicited. Although slavery has been abolished and there is a cultural boom in Harlem, this novel was written and set long before the Civil Rights Movement. This man shows great courage at a time when there was strong racial tension. Not only does he identify the car without being asked, he also goes on to talk with the police and fill out a statement.
Although these actions do not seem extreme to the modern day reader, they could be considered daring for the time period. Again these actions can be equated to Gatsby, because he is a risk taker as well. He moved away from his family to earn his wealth and find the American dream. His movement can be paralleled to the movement of blacks from the South to the North.
The notion of social class is an inarguable theme dominant in the pages of The Great Gatsby. Although the theme of race is less recognizable and seemingly subordinate to that of social class, it is present as well as important. When these two themes are examined in relation to one another, The Great Gatsby can be read as a novel not only about the “American dream,” but the African American dream as well.
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