Posts tagged class warfare
Posts tagged class warfare
catcher in the rye was stupid
thinking back on that book
have a seat
Really rich white people being pretentious with each other and the rich white lady kills somebody and gets away with it.
I’m really, really sorry for what’s about to occur. (Except kinda not). But I was an English major, you know? I can’t help it.
THIS IS AN APPROACH TO THE GREAT GATSBY THAT HAS ALWAYS FRUSTRATED ME. Granted, the above basically summarizes the deep loathing and boredom I experienced when reading “Tender is the Night,” so when I had to read “Gatsby” for another class, I thought I’d hate it.
But I didn’t.
A big part of that is the professor I had, who was amazing. He did a great job of contextualizing “Gatsby.” So here are a few things that the above approach totally misses:
1. The title “The Great Gatsby” is meant to be ironic because Gatsby isn’t great. He gets murdered before the age of 30 and hardly anyone gives a shit.
2. Gatsby himself is not, technically speaking, “white” according to the culture he inhabits. In the early twentieth century, being ethnically Jewish made you not white. It made you an ethnic minority. Gatsby’s Jewish background is suggested all throughout the novel:
2a. Jay Gatsby’s real name is Jimmy Gatz, Gatz being, if I remember correctly, a germanicized Yiddish surname. He changes his name when he starts climbing the social ladder so that he’ll seem more Anglo.
2b. The narrator learns about Gatsby’s true identity from Meyer Wolfsheim, who is described first and foremost by the narrator as a Jew. Later, we find out he’s also involved in a Jewish crime syndicate with which Gatsby is also involved. Another character briefly described as being part of that operation is Stella, whom the narrator immediately describes as a “lovely Jewess,” demonstrating again just how much Jewish Americans were considered different from white Americans.
3. Fitzgerald goes out of his way to emphasize just how poorly Jewish Americans were treated. In one scene, a bunch of white women discuss the terrible perils of getting involved with a a Jewish man: “‘I almost married a little kyke who’d been after me for years. I knew he was below me. Everybody kept saying to me: “Lucille, that man’s way below you!” But if I hadn’t met Chester, he’d of got me sure.’
‘Yes, but listen,’ said Myrtle Wilson, nodding her head up and down, ‘at least you didn’t marry him.’
‘I know I didn’t.’
‘Well, I married him,’ said Myrtle, ambiguously. ‘And that’s the difference between your case and mine.’
‘Why did you, Myrtle?’ demanded Catherine. ‘Nobody forced you to.’
Myrtle considered. ‘I married him because I thought he was a gentleman,’ she said finally. ‘I thought he knew something about breeding, but he wasn’t fit to lick my shoe.’”
Their emphasis on Jewish suitors being “below” them and not knowing about “breeding” further illustrates the association they made between being Jewish and being lower-class, being poor. Which brings me to my next point.
3. Gatsby is not originally rich and upper-class. The narrator gets into the details of this when he meets a reporter later in the book. Jimmy Gatz was a kid who dressed “in a torn green jersey and a pair of canvas pants,” Jimmy Gatz who “had been beating his way along the south shore of Lake Superior as a clam digger and a salmon fisher or in any other capacity that brought him food and bed,” Jimmy Gatz whose “parents were shiftless and unsuccessful farm people”— who, in short, grew up poor as fuck, and as a teenager had to run around figuring out where he was going to get the money for clothes, food, and a roof over his head.
3a. This point is further emphasized when Gatsby’s father arrives in town after Gatsby’s death. His father enters dressed in a “cheap ulster” and finds himself “awed” when he lays eyes on “the height and splendor of the hall and the great rooms opening out from it into other rooms.” The wealth of these people is totally alien to him, and was once to Gatsby, too.
3b. As with Jewish identity, Fitzgerald goes out of his way to emphasize just what a huge class gap there was in 1920s American culture. At one point, a friend of Gatsby’s sings a song for them, with the lyrics ”ONE THING’S SURE AND NOTHING’S SURER/ THE RICH GET RICHER AND THE POOR GET—CHILDREN” (emphasis not mine, for once - the book has this bit in all-caps).
4. Gatsby’s identity as non-white and lower-class is the secret he desperately tries to hide in the book; for the majority of the narrative, he’s enjoying his passing privilege and the class upgrade his change of identity afforded him. But when he’s murdered and his killer isn’t brought to justice, it’s because the people around him had identified him for who he really was. What was he really being punished for? Lusting after a married woman? We all know that was a common occurrence in that community of privileged white people. The whole part of the book devoted to “rich white people being pretentious with each other” was to make it clear just how above moral reservations they really were. No— he was being punished for not staying where he belonged. The white women’s conversation earlier foreshadowed that; non-white men who loved white women were considered so repulsive that they weren’t even “fit to lick [her] shoe.”
5. For this reason, the novel as a whole is essentially claiming that, much as we love to talk about upward mobility, post-racialism, the separation of church and state— the American dream, basically— what we really mean is that it’s available to you if and only if you’re born privileged, white, upper-class, and Christian. Otherwise, if you try to mingle with the upper crust, if you think you’re worthy of that kind of money, that kind of lifestyle, even that kind of lover, they’ll fucking destroy you for it. To depict what is more or less class warfare with literal casualties, to condemn the American dream as an oppressive myth suffocating under the control of a sexist, racist, classist, anti-Semitic society obsessed with preserving the status quo was a pretty damn progressive focus for a book published in 1925.
And that— not the hijinks of rich white people— is the point.