The Great Gatsby Through a Marxist Literary Criticism Lens

In my report I will be analysing the presence of Marxism in F.S.K Fitzgerald’s book, ‘The Great Gatsby’. Whilst viewing this book through a critical lens, I discovered that many examples in the text work together to show the Marxist literary theory, of how everything relates back to wealth and financial status, reflecting on the economic experiences of the author. The particular aspects of this novel I will be focusing on are theme and characterisation. ‘The Great Gatsby’ is quite centred on the theme of money and how it will inevitably affect one’s life. Money, wealth and class are central themes which fuel the plot, and the way in which characters act, think, interact with the other characters, and are portrayed. Power and money are intricately co-related, as having one typically – but not always means the other is present, whilst lacking one means the other is absent.

 

In the Jazz age of the 20’s, when this book is set, the amount of money you had defined what class you were in. Even within the category of ‘rich’ there were sub-categories, such as safer or ‘old’ money, which is when families have been wealthy for many generations. ‘New’ money is somewhat frowned upon, and looked on with suspicion and contempt by the aristocracy, who pride themselves on having been affluent for generations. The characters portray Marxist ideas, through Fitzgerald’s representation of the different classes, and his interpretation of how their class defines their experience.

 

The theory of Marxism was created by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels in the 19th century, who perceived human history to have ‘consisted of a series of struggles between classes – the oppressed and the oppressing.’ The bourgeois and the proletariat are the two classes of people in society. According to Marxists, the proletariat are the peasants, the hard working low class with very little to show for their efforts and the bourgeois is the upper class, who according to Marx and Engels reap the benefits of the proletariats labour. Marx believed that for the uprising and rebellion of the proletariats to be successful, it must be swift and violent and many of the current ruling class will perish because the former presiding class will not give up without a fight and their death will be the only way to win the revolution. [1]

 

Marxism believed that the class system and the large gap between the rich and poor would be bridged by the removal of capitalism, and returning the means of production to the lower and middle class people. This would lead to a ‘classless’ society which governs itself, where everyone is equal. Marxism in literature relates to class differences; economic and otherwise, as well as the implications and complications of the capitalist system. It attempts to reveal the ways in which our socioeconomic system is the ultimate source of our experience.[2]

 

Marxists, as well as many other scholars believe that literature reflects ‘those social institutions out of which it emerges,[3]’ i.e. the times and society in which it was created, as well as the background and ideology of the author. It reflects struggle within and between classes as well as whatever materialism was prevalent in the society which the author lived in. Frequently, an entire book will revolve around the protagonist’s quest for wealth, and ‘rags to riches’ type stories, like ‘The Great Gatsby,’ are really a reflection of our fascination with classes, and how people can ‘move up’, no matter how lowly their origins. So Marxists generally see literature ‘not as works created in accordance with timeless artistic criteria, but as ‘products’ of the economic and ideological determinants specific to that era’ (Abrams 149). Works of literature tend to reflect the author’s class, and their analysis of class relations from the point of view of the class they come from. Marxist literary criticism determines whether its social content is progressive, or detrimental to the Marxist movement.

 

The author of ‘The Great Gatsby’, Francis Scott Key Fitzgerald was born in America, 1896. He attended Princeton University, but dropped out before graduating, and then joined the army. Edward Fitzgerald, his father, came from ‘tired, old stock’ who worked in an office job [2]. Although Catholic, Irish, and the son of an unsuccessful businessman, Scott went to dancing school with children of Saint Paul’s elite. In one of his many romances, with a girl named Ginevra from a wealthy family, her Father allegedly told him that ‘poor boys shouldn’t think of marrying rich girls.’[4] Fitzgerald seemed to take this message to heart, and consciously or not, this theme was worked into many of his stories, and indeed Gatsby, the main character of this book seems to embody this theme in his pursuit of ‘rich girl’ Daisy.

 

Fitzgerald and his wife lived overseas in France, where ‘The Great Gatsby’ was written, as well as in New York. They were well known for their alternative style of life and ceaseless partying, and Fitzgerald earned a reputation as a symbol of the Jazz Age. Fitzgerald saw things from a double perspective, as he was raised amongst the upper class, yet came from more humble stock, and so is inclined to have a broader perspective than either class, which may be overly critical of the other. Fitzgerald’s reading included the work of Karl Marx, which may be why so many of his stories’ wealthy protagonists face unhappy endings, as Marxism believes the excessive wealth of one class at the expense of all others is wrong.

 

F. Scott Fitzgerald set this story during post-World War I, (which both he, Carraway and Gatsby all fought in) economic boom of the 1920’s. However, it doesn’t celebrate the vibrant capitalist culture it portrays, but reveals the darker side of society at the time. It highlights how the pursuit of money decays personal values, as happened with Gatsby, when he lost everything because of his life’s goal to reach the top of the ‘heap’. The richest characters, like Tom and Daisy, as well as the people who attend Gatsby’s parties are really the most unpleasant and shallow ones, making a mockery of the ‘American Dream’ which was the height of American ambition in the ‘Roaring 20’s’.[5]

 

Fitzgerald’s stance would appear to be critical of the upper class, as ultimately the rich characters come to unhappy demises, yet, unintentionally or not, he reinforces stereotypes of the different classes, and portrays poor people in a fairly negative light. The class that ‘The Great Gatsby’ represents in the most positive light is the narrator himself, Nick Carraway, who comes from a middle class family and seems to be the only one content with his lot in life.

 

The Great Gatsby starts out displaying the theme of Marxism almost immediately with the introduction of the narrator, Nick when he describes his socioeconomic status as a ‘bonds man’. He describes his class pretty quick off the bat, saying; “My family have been prominent, well-to-do people in this middle-western city for 3 generations.” The bourgeois status of Nick is contrasted by the extremely wealthy Gatsby and his grand mansion. The extent of the splendour Gatsby lives in is described in great detail by Nick, as is the Buchanans house; ‘The one on my right (Gatsby’s house) was a colossal affair by any standard – it was a factual imitation of some Hôtel de Ville in Normandy, with a tower on one side, spanking new under a thin beard of raw ivy, and a marble swimming pool, and more than forty acres of lawn and garden.’ Nick represents Fitzgerald’s view, as he comes from a well-off family, but he also works long, hard hoursas a bonds man, commuting daily to New York.

 

Nick’s experience of society is very similar to Fitzgerald’s, as although Nick comes from a richer family than Fitzgerald, the author was basically raised as if he were rich, so would be used to being around people like Nick, and would know how they view things. His social status allows him to see things objectively, as he isn’t quite in the same class as any of the other characters. There is Tom and Daisy who both come from wealthy families who have been ‘in the money’ for generations. Then you have Myrtle and her husband Wilson, who both represent the lower working class, and finally Gatsby – who started life as low class, and moved up in the world with his questionably acquired wealth. It is undeniable that these character’s experiences stem directly from their class, and the downsides of each class lead the reader to the conclusion that society would indeed be better off without all these classes that cause more trouble than good. [6]

 

When describing the lavish parties that Gatsby holds, Nick is quite an objective viewer. He acknowledges the superficial ‘introductions forgotten on the spot and enthusiastic meetings between women who never knew each other’s names.’ Early on, the upper class is being outright criticised for its falseness, which reinforces the Marxist view that classes should not even exist. They have little interests outside themselves, and are quite selfish and rude in their treatment of less fortunate persons.

 

Jay Gatsby represents all the ambitious poor boys who believed in the land of opportunity, as he followed his dream until the very end. He is unquestionably rich, and the descriptions of his ostentatious house and parties uphold this. He is the archetypal rags to riches story – but with no happy ending. His family were ‘unsuccessful farm people’, and he changed his name from James Gatz to Jay Gatsby in order to disassociate himself from them. If he had admitted to being from a poor background, it is likely he would not have been as popular as he was. The goal of the main character, Jay Gatsby is to win back Daisy, who he lost the chance to marry back when he was an officer, as a direct result of his inadequate monetary status in Daisy’s eyes. At the beginning of Gatsby’s courting of Daisy, when he was just a soldier, the ambitious young man realises that his current status is not going to be enough to maintain her interest. “However glorious might be his future as Jay Gatsby, he was at present a penniless young man without a past, and at any moment the invisible cloak of his uniform might slip from his shoulders.”Her current husband – Tom Buchanan is very wealthy, and would be considered old money, which Gatsby cannot compete with as he came across his wealth through his own means.

 

When talking to Nick about his mansion, Gatsby says; “It took me just 3 years to earn the money that bought it.” Gatsby lives in this vast house all by himself, with the single goal of ‘winning’ Daisy. For 5 years he has held the belief that when she sees his house, and the wealth he has accumulated, she will be his again. This reinforces the Marxist view that the upper class holds all the power, as Gatsby believes that money is the key to gaining Daisy’s affections. It seems like he will be successful, as they start seeing each other, and Daisy even tells Tom she will leave him. However, the class above Gatsby, who is represented by Tom Buchanan, wins out, as he puts doubt into Daisy’s mind by telling her that Gatsby is just a ‘bootlegger’. Even though Daisy claims that she loves Gatsby, she never sees

him again after she goes home, not even turning up to his funeral. In Daisy’s world, security and money are everything, and she will not let love get in the way of these things. Classes are in essence the driving force behind Gatsby’s goal, and definitely a realistic portrayal of the time frame the book was set in, the 20’s. Marxism says that society involves a struggle between the upper and lower class, which is in essence what Gatsby is struggling against, as he fights to be accepted as upper class for once and all, ridding himself of his more humble origins.

 

Tom is the stereotypical aristocrat of America, who is fearful of white-black integration – yet another example of the vast chasm between social classes. He represents the very top of the social hierarchy, who always gets what he wants – which is both the attraction and repulsion of his status, as he is very arrogant. Throughout the novel, Gatsby is put down, especially by Tom, for being ‘new money’. An example of this is when the truth comes out about Gatsby’s and Daisy’s relationship. Tom scorns the very idea that an upper class girl would love a poor man, saying; “She’s not leaving me! Certainly not for a common swindler who’d have to steal the ring he put on her finger.” From a Marxist point of view, this was to be expected, as someone as rich as Tom would never see Gatsby as a viable candidate for his wife’s love. Like Ginevra’s Father who crushed Fitzgerald’s dream of marrying his daughter,[1] Tom scoffs at the idea of a poor boy marrying above his class.

 

Gatsby has certainly worked hard in his life, and is more self-invented than any other character in the book. He knew from a young age that he wanted to be rich, and did whatever it took to achieve this. When he moved up from his ‘despicable’ previous work as a janitor, clam digger and salmon fisher to work for Dan Cody on his yacht, he is taking his first step up the rungs of classes. To Gatsby, Cody’s yacht ‘represented all the beauty and glamour in the world.’ He saw the class above him with rose-tinted glasses, as well as his love interest, Daisy, but neither of the two are as wonderful as he imagines them to be. No one in ‘The Great Gatsby’ is really happy in their class; they either want to become richer and move up a class, or if they are one of the few in the very top order, like Daisy, they see the ‘awfulness’ of everything. This lines up with the Marxist idea that life is a continuous struggle between the bourgeois and the proletariat[2].

 

Daisy is Gatsby’s ideal woman, who is destined to be forever out of reach for him. Throughout the novel she is held up on a pedestal; described as a ‘sweet and exciting’ girl, who can basically do no wrong. Even her affair with Gatsby isn’t really seen as an immoral action, and her husband isn’t mad at her when he finds out. Through Daisy, Fitzgerald glamorises the upper class women as better than all others, and Jordan and Daisy are definitely portrayed as a lot classier than working class women Myrtle and her sister Catherine. Nick says of Daisy’s voice that, “It was full of money – that was the inexhaustible charm that rose and fell in it, the jingle of it, the cymbals song of it… High in a white palace the King’s daughter, the golden girl” Contrastingly, Myrtle is described as ‘fairly stout’ with a ‘coarse’ voice, and Catherine’s ‘rakish’ eyebrows are emphasised above all other physical features. This is quite possibly the manifestation of Fitzgerald’s view of classes, and the women in the ones above him. He engaged in many romances, including with one wealthier woman in particular, Ginevra, who in the end evaded him as a direct result of his lower class.[3] Daisy can have any man she wants, but this would not be the case if she were poor. This is also the case with Tom, who although has won the elusive Daisy as his wife, still wants more. He isn’t satisfied even with the crème de la crème of the women available to him, and so he greedily takes a mistress – Myrtle.

 

From a Marxist perspective, this is symbolic of the fact that people will never be content with what they have, even when they appear to have everything. The theme of materialism and fascination with always ‘possessing’ more things filters through a lot in ‘The Great Gatsby,’ and in the end, although people earn, or simply have a lot of things, nobody is truly satisfied.

 

Daisy is a popular, well-to-do girl, and it appears she is one of the few who sees through her own society for what it really is. She is strangely detached from her daughter, and claims the first thing she said when she was born, was; “I’m glad it’s a girl. And I hope she’ll be a fool – that’s the best thing a girl can be in this world, a beautiful little fool.” It seems that Daisy wishes she was more of a fool, as she resents being ‘sophisticated’, because it makes her think everything’s terrible. Fitzgerald’s point of view is filtering through here, as he himself has a negative view on society, and sees it for the farce it really is. Marxism shares Daisy’s pessimistic view on society, although Daisy doesn’t think of changing the way things are, and just admits that girls should be ‘stupid’ to survive, while Marxism aims to overthrow all forms of hierarchy and achieve equality.

 

Wilson and his cheating wife Myrtle are Fitzgerald’s representation of the poor lower class, which is generally gloomy, and makes the lower class lifestyle seem very depressing. Throughout the novel, poor people are represented in a very negative way. While the rich people are the ones who have all the fun, attend parties and have frivolous romances, the less well-off citizens live in a ‘valley of ashes,’ where men move ‘dimly and already crumbling through the powdery air’. Wilson is a very pathetic character with no backbone or brains, who isn’t even aware that his wife is having an affair with Tom Buchanan. The fact that Tom is having an affair with a low class woman also reinforces the prejudiced view that poorer women lack sexual morals, and are more likely to sleep around than ‘classy’ ladies. It would seem that Fitzgerald is indicating that money makes you an interesting and happy citizen, while lack of this inevitably leads to a boring, ‘grey’ life in the valley of ashes. Marxism would dispute this, as Marx wants classes to be overthrown, implying that everyone is capable of living in the same standards as each other, and are therefore all equal. It is, however an accurate depiction of the 20’s, where the focus was very much on living the high life, as the men were fresh out of war and wanted to enjoy themselves. This piece of literature is most definitely a product of the era it came of, and the opinions that society had.[4]

 

Myrtle is happy only whilst with the richer and consequently more interesting Tom, who buys her anything she wants; including a puppy dog on a sporadic whim that she has. Parties are introduced to the story early on, and play a large part in the story. They are certainly frequent and occur most often at Gatsby’s mansion. At Myrtle’s little party which she holds in her apartment, even she, considered a low class woman, criticises the class below her – those working in servant roles. She says of them; “All they think of is money… These people! You have to keep after them all the time.” The idea of class is always present. In a truly Marxist world, there would be no excess wealth, nor poverty, and criticisms of the lower class would never occur.

 

Although George Wilson, like Gatsby works hard, the American Dream of gaining prosperity through hard work eludes him. It seems that Fitzgerald is alluding to the fact that it is much easier to get rich fast through unscrupulous means as Gatsby has done with his backstreet deals, while George has done the hard yards, owning his own car shop, and is tired all of the time. George is described as a ‘blond, spiritless man,’ and is under the power of his wife who bosses him around, as well as Tom, who he desperately asks to buy a car from, to keep his floundering business alive. He doesn’t hold any bargaining power whatsoever, and is completely oblivious to Tom and his wife’s deceit. When Myrtle goes off with Tom, he says of George; “He’s so dumb he doesn’t know he’s alive.” Meanwhile, Gatsby, who’s a criminal, lounges around in a mansion with constant parties and a pool he doesn’t even use all summer.

 

The Wilsons are a reinforcement of the rags to riches goal, with an unhappy ending just like Gatsby’s. They never progress beyond the ‘rags’ status, although each try their hardest to improve their lot in life – George by working hard in his store, and Myrtle by associating herself with the high class Tom Buchanan. Classes are always prevalent in ‘The Great Gatsby’; there is always someone richer and poorer than each character, whom they are either resentful, or contemptuous of. Myrtle dies in the end, without marrying Tom, while Wilson goes crazy. His murder of Gatsby could be read as an attempt to ‘overthrow’ the higher society, as a step towards a more equal society. Marx predicted this would happen in the future, and even warned that it may involve violence, as the uprising must be swift in order to be successful. [5]George finally overcomes his ‘weak, pathetic’ stereotype, and takes a stand for what he believes is right – no matter how misinformed he is. It is the only instance where he has any real power, as throughout the book he was dominated by everyone, including Tom and Myrtle who walked all over him.

 

From a Marxist perspective, the portrayal of George and Myrtle Wilson is a flaw in the Great Gatsby. Fitzgerald is clearly critiquing the American dream, and the capitalism which consumes everyone, but by giving this couple such a glum existence, there is no real moral to the story.[6] If they were happy, it would be a truly Marxist novel, but they are portrayed as negatively as the rich people. With or without money, people are unhappy, according to this book. The lavish lifestyles of the Buchanans and Gatsby are much more glorified than that of the poor, through the lush language that describes their mansions and parties. We can see that they are unpleasant people, through quotes like; “They were careless people, Tom and Daisy – they smashed up things and creatures and then retreated back into their money, or their vast carelessness, or whatever it was that kept them together, and let other people clean up the mess that they had made.” However, the vivid description of their beautiful clothing, houses, friends, and even their physiques, makes them much more alluring to the reader, than the pitiful lives of lower classes, even including Nick Carraway, who seems to be one of the only fully sane people in the novel. He notes, that; “Gatsby was overwhelmingly aware of the youth and mystery that wealth imprisons and preserves, of the freshness of many clothes, and of Daisy, gleaming like silver, safe and proud above the hot struggles of the poor.”

 

Throughout the book, it is implied that it is impossible to rise above one’s class. Gatsby tries, and it seems like he may be successful in getting Daisy to love him. But in the end, Daisy stays with her rich husband, disregarding her heart which wants Gatsby, for the security and wealth that Tom offers. This is a mockery of the American Dream which was conceptualised around this time, and gave hope to everyone that if they worked hard, they would reap the rewards, no matter their surname or beginning in life.[7]

 

Upon reading this book for a second time, with the Marxist theory in mind, it was quite interesting to see how something that I had perceived as purely romantic in Gatsby’s pursuit of Daisy, could be interpreted as being all based around money. I realised that the characters were all stereotypes of their classes, and none of them portrayed in a very positive light. High society was mocked, yet at the same time glamorised, while a poorer lifestyle was downright scorned by Fitzgerald. Being aware of the author’s own social class was definitely helpful in understanding his views of society, and how they linked in with the narrators observations. My sympathies didn’t change, as I felt pity for Gatsby’s doomed dream in my first and second readings, and disliked the upper class both times as well. In the first reading I was more disdainful of the Wilsons, but felt more sympathy for them the second time around, as they were really victims of their time and the values it held dear. They could never hope to be happy when all around them people were only being seen as content if they had money. I would say that the most important result of applying the Marxist critical theory on the primary text is that it really helps you understand how classes affect everything so profoundly in the setting of ‘The Great Gatsby.’

 

Although many people today still hold money up as the reason for all their actions, criticisms are made much more openly regarding classes – about rich people in particular. Literature, TV shows like South Park and Banksy-style art all make people ask questions about the way things are through satire and subtle undertones that can often be found easily enough, if you look at the creator’s background, and what their view on the world is. To link this back to Marxism, they are undermining the status quo, and could be interpreted as championing the Marxist cause of equality. In Fitzgerald’s case, he was raised amongst the privileged. Therefore, he saw the glamour in which they lived, yet understood the frailty and uncertainty of it all for those who were not born into it and were ‘new money.’ ‘The Great Gatsby’ is a ‘progressive’ attack on materialism and corruption of the higher classes, through a Marxist literary lens.

 

Although Marxism is in some ways an agreeable idea, it is highly unlikely that it will ever come to fruition. It is all very well to say ‘everyone should be equal,’ but the reality is that hardly anybody would be happy with this. Money is still seen as the symbol of success in our world – the more the better, and this isn’t going to change anytime soon. Even in so-called Communist countries, such as Russia it wasn’t a truly communist regime, as there were still a few individuals who held all the power, which is really what Marxism is against. ‘Essentially, the Soviet government, “representing the people”, dictated what people needed and forced its citizens to generate the needed supply in the allotted time’.[8]  People naturally strive to gain power – in their workplace, relationships, over their family, or even whole countries. Promotions, increased responsibility and owning more possessions are all things humans desire in their lifetimes, along with the yearning to better themselves. Everyone is in effect, chasing the ‘green light’, which so often translates to money or power. Gatsby, who was chasing love, actually ends up chasing only these materialistic things to impress his ‘love’.

 

This classic story is still relevant today, as are the Marxist ideas present in it, which ridicule those wealthier than us, while being fascinated with their lifestyles at the same time. Celebrity news and gossip intrigue us, as do rags-to-riches stories of entrepreneurs or successful people who have come from poverty, or a ‘tough life.’ ‘The Great Gatsby’ is truly a timeless tale, and the popularity of the recent movie rendition in 2013 is testament to this. People love beautiful, unattainable things – whether they be material or otherwise, and they love watching others go on a journey to reach their goals – moving up the ‘class system’ if you will, just as Gatsby did in the roaring jazz age of the 20’s. Coming up to a century later, it’s still exactly the same. Men, even 80 year old, sick and frail ones, ‘win’ young, gorgeous women simply by having fortunes, hard work doesn’t necessarily equal reward, and crime still pays.

 

Fitzgerald sums up the materialistic theme, and driving force of the characters in ‘The Great Gatsby’ with a quote by Thomas Parke D’Invilliers at the beginning of the book;

 

Then wear the gold hat, if that will move her;

If you can bounce high, bounce for her too,

Till she cry “Lover, gold-hatted, high-bouncing lover,

I must have you!”

 

Gatsby tried everything he could think of to ‘move’ Daisy, but it wasn’t enough. He ‘believed in the orgastic future that year by year recedes before us. It eluded us then, but that’s no matter – tomorrow we will run faster, stretch out our arms farther… And one fine morning ’—This closing paragraph of the book admits the futility of the society ‘The Great Gatsby’ is set in, how people never really get what they want, but still always hold onto hope that one day they will finally have it all.

[1] http://public.wsu.edu/~delahoyd/marxist.crit.html

[2] http://people.brandeis.edu/~teuber/fitzgeraldbio.html

[1] F. Scott Fitzgerald

[2] Marxist Literary Criticism

[3] F. Scott Fitzgerald

[4] A Marxist Reading of the Great Gatsby

[5] Marxist Literary Criticism

[6] A Marxist Reading of the Great Gatsby

[7] http://prezi.com/ueomohep89ni/marxism-in-the-great-gatsby/

[8] http://wiki.answers.com/Q/What_was_the_reason_for_the_failure_of_Soviet-style_communism_more_commonly_Bolshevism

 

[1] Marxist Literary Criticism

[2] Marxist Literary Criticism

[3] Marxist Literary Criticism

[4] F. Scott Fitzgerald

[5] A Marxist Reading of the Great Gatsby

[6] A Marxist Reading of the Great Gatsby

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4 thoughts on “The Great Gatsby Through a Marxist Literary Criticism Lens

  1. Is this article about how Marxism and the great gatsby published or a scholarly entry ?
    I am trying to find out for my assignment
    Thank you

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