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The Great Gatsby: A Foreshadow of Present Social Dilemmas?

Heralded as one of the greatest works of American literature, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby offers valuable insight into the glitzy life of the Roaring Twenties. Being a staple in American English classes, the novel may be frequently seen with boredom by those who have been made to analyze it in a formal manner. Overused it may be in educational and literary fields, the work is vital for its precise, at times scathing views on the wealthy. With mounting millennial discontent and anger towards capitalism and billionaires such as Jeff Bezos in recent years, The Great Gatsby cannot be more relevant and perhaps prophetic for depicting the hedonism and materialism of the upper classes in a system where money reigns supreme. 

Hollowness of immense wealth

A defining aspect of The Great Gatsby is its poignant descriptions of the extravagant lifestyles enjoyed by the elite members of society. Lofty rooms, lavish dresses, cocktail parties and such are frequently mentioned in detail. Though there is a certain quality of beauty in these descriptions, there is always a critical side as these imagery depict the materialism and emptiness that is simultaneously exuded. For instance, when the protagonist scans a crowd at a party, he notes that there were a number of young men who were "agonizingly aware of the easy money in the vicinity." Even when present at a fanciful party, its partygoers were subliminally calculating to garner wealth. as evident in their exchanges that are riddled with trivial matters such as their expenditures and the fancy events they attended. At a glance appearing opulent, the lives of the wealthy in the novel are shown to be quite shallow.

Perhaps the best example is how Jay Gatsby, the titular character of the novel, achieved his financial zenith. Through the protagonist, the reader learns that Gatsby started as a poor, obscure young man who gradually acquired wealth by temporarily acting as a skipper to a wealthy man and later as a bootlegger who illegally sold alcohol during the Prohibition, a period where the manufacturing, distribution, and sale of intoxicating liquors were forbidden. It is important to note that Gatsby established his high financial status, in a sense, through dishonest methods - essentially "cheating" his way to the top. All of his grandeur was for one simple purpose: to gain the favor of the woman he desires. Throughout the novel, Gatsby strives to great lengths just to win her love with his material wealth, only to see it come to no fruition as she leaves him in a disgraced status at the very end. His rise and fall exemplifies one's desperate drive to appease their desires solely with materialistic means. In a time like today where in the face of economic stagnancy and threats of poverty money is everything, it is easy to lose track of what is most valuable.

Only the privileged win

Diversity is not The Great Gatsby’s strong point, as evident in its predominantly white cast, which is further made noticeable in its 2013 film adaptation. The only time race is discussed in the story is when the protagonist's wealthy and haughty friend rants that "it's up to us [white people] who are the dominant race to watch out or these other races will have control of things." These features highlight the fact that much of Black people, on top of still suffering from discrimination, were not able to benefit from the flourishing economy of the 1920s. While the period is renowned and romanticized in modern times as a lustrous time of wealth, in reality, life was harsh for non-white Americans as the upper white communities savored the benefits of a post-WWI economy. Unfortunately, this bitter reality of the past is still carried over to today’s world, where racial based police brutality remains rampant and wealth disparity remains nearly unchanged. 

Moreover, The Great Gatsby also includes class into its discussion of 1920s America. The following is a song played by a minor character at Gatsby’s lavish party, "One thing's sure and nothing's surer...The rich get richer and the poor get - children." This rings particularly true nowadays where billionaires increasingly garner wealth despite their already high economic status. Contrary to popular images of flapper girls and parties held every night, more than 60 percent of Americans lived just below the poverty line during the 1920s - an ironic fact considering the supposed booming economy of America at that time. Furthermore, the novel also features a so-called "valley of ashes," a grey, miserable zone that drastically contrasts the luxurious neighborhoods inhabited by wealthy figures such as Gatsby; a visual metaphor for the stark difference in living conditions between the upper and lower classes.

Ceaselessly into the past 

When combined, the various social “portraits” within The Great Gatsby indirectly echo present day economic inequality that disadvantage particular groups, especially people of color. As brought to light by recent events such as the Black Lives Matter movement and accumulating economic disparity particularly amidst the pandemic, the American Dream becomes more of a set of overly naive ideals instead of a description of future society as today’s world endlessly resonate the imperfections of the past and parallels The Great Gatsby’s final line, “we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.” 

Anna Kono

Waseda '20

Anna is a graduate from Waseda University in the SILS department. Likes art, animals, anything that is dandy and stylish. Needs to go to the sea every now and then to recharge.
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