Excess, Social Values and Social Class as Portrayed in “The Great Gatsby”

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‘The Great Gatsby’ is a novel by F. Scott Fitzgerald that was published in 1925 during the ushering in of the Jazz age. The author uses the novel to display his own early life as reflected in the character of Nick Carraway, a young educated man from Minnesota who moves to New York after World War I to learn about business. He rents a house in the wealthy Long Island in West Egg District where he becomes a neighbor to a mysterious man named Jay Gatsby who lives in a large gothic mansion. Jay Gatsby throws extravagant parties in his mansion every weekend with the hope of meeting Daisy Buchanan, the lady who was his former lover before he went for war. When Gatsby went to war, Daisy betrayed him by getting married to another wealthy man, Tom Buchanan, who is a former classmate to Nick. Daisy is now stuck in his marriage with the wealthy Tom Buchanan but is still in love with another wealthy man, Jay Gatsby.

Fitzgerald’s novel, The Great Gatsby, is a significant media for studying the theme of social values and social class in ancient America. The author meticulously brings out the social and attitudinal position of America during the time of Jay Gatsby who is the main character in the novel. This was the beginning of the social history that dominated throughout the 20th century in America. The novel is a symbolic epitome of a society that was dominated with social and moral decay, greed, false material values, and unprecedented pursuit for wealth. Fitzgerald’s novel, ‘The Great Gatsby’ is therefore a literary work that uses its characters and nature to bring out the multiple faces of America’s social structure in the 20th century as morally corroded, socially disintegrated and driven by humans’ unstoppable quest for wealth.

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Social structure in America in the 20th century is mostly defined by the prevailing social classes during the time The Great Gatsby was published. The novel which was published in 1925 examines the outcome of the generation of Jazz, a new form of music which was cropping in during that time. The jazz age came with a lifestyle and social revolution that could neither be ignored by the elite of the society nor the Americans of the lower social class. Jazz was a wild form of music that broke the normal rules of music, got promoted through various forms of media such as radio and phonography, and captured the imagination of Americans nationally.

With the introduction of the Jazz age rose a new generation of young, wealthy and reckless men who found their pleasure in partying, women, playing jazz, drinking and spending carelessly. This is seen in the extravagant parties that Gatsby throws in his mansion every Saturday with an aim of finally getting to meet his long-time lover, Daisy Buchanan. Men competed for social class in order to impress women as evident between Jay Gatsby and Tom Buchanan using their wealth to impress Daisy. The wealth and glamor of a man was symbolized by new, flashy automobile.

The social setup of America during the time of The Great Gatsby was also dominated by moral and social decay amongst the wealthy class. This is evident in the prevalent cynicism, greed, dishonesty, illegal businesses, and unprecedented pursuit for wealth and pleasure. Social climbers are seen in the parties at Gatsby’s house with their greedy speculations about the source of Gatsby’s wealth. Gatsby’s wealth is apparently from selling bootleg liquor and engaging in organized crime. He did this to accumulate wealth in order to get to Daisy who seems to be only attracted to men of wealth.

Due to the undying quest for wealth amongst Americans, it turned out to be a materialistic society that is motivated by wealth and material gain. This is mostly portrayed in the character of Daisy Buchanan who is a materialistic woman motivated by wealth. Her love for wealth is first seen when she tolerates her husband’s infidelity because of the wealth, power and social status she benefits from being married to Tom. Furthermore, the reader would initially think Daisy has found true love when she re-unites with Gatsby but this is logically not the case. Daisy only enjoys the attention she gets from Gatsby and love is not one of the considerations in her mind.

Daisy’s love for Gatsby’s wealth is seen when he throws the assortment of shirts at her and Daisy suddenly breaks into tears, claiming that the shirts are so beautiful. She bows into the shirts and sobs, displaying her materialistic interests in Gatsby’s wealth. One would think that her emotional reaction is because she is in love with Gatsby and is happy for their re-union but that is not the case. The reaction she portrays is due to the satisfaction she gets from material wealth. Daisy’s motivations are further questionable at the hotel when Gatsby challenges her to confess that she has never loved Tom but it becomes hard for her to confess it. If she really loved Gatsby and didn’t care about Tom’s wealth, she wouldn’t be scared to declare her stand during this time when they were all together in the same room. Tom is well aware that Daisy loves material wealth and that’s why he tries to mock Gatsby about his wealth, claiming that he gets his money from illegal businesses. He knows that Daisy will still stick by him due to his money and power.

Furthermore, Fitzgerald uses nature and physical features in his novel to emphasize on various other aspects of social values in America during this time. He uses the East Egg to portray the old aristocracy, represented by Daisy and Tom Buchanan, while the West Egg represents the newly rich class of young Americans. The newly rich population of the West Egg is a class of vulgar, flashy and ostentatious people who still possess the traditional social taste as seen in Jay Gatsby living in an ornate mansion, wearing a pink suit, and driving a Rolls-Royce. The old aristocracy of the East Egg, on the other hand, is a class of modern taste, elegance and grace as seen in the Buchannan’s elegant and classy home, the white flowers, and Daisy’s white dresses. The novel portrays the clash between the old money and the new money since the old aristocrats despise and scorn the newly rich as seen in Tom’s despising talks to Gatsby.

The valley of ashes between the East Egg and the West Egg also brings out the state of social and moral decay in America during the 20th century. It consists of a long stretch of land full of damped industrial ashes. This was an era of immoral quest for pleasure and easy money, dishonesty, corruption and illegal business. The valley of ashes is also a symbol of the plight of the poor people such as George Wilson who lives hopelessly somewhere amongst the dirty ashes while the rich indulge and enjoy the luxurious life. Tom, the wealthy man has a sexual affair with Myrtle, Wilson’s wife for her to get a few pennies from him for their survival. Fitzgerald also uses the valley of ashes to portray how people who originate from the west react to the lifestyle on the East. This is seen in Nick’s disillusionment from her experience in the East after which he feels disgusted with everyone and prepares to return to the Midwest.

Generally, the social values of America during the time of the Great Gatsby are seen as dominated by moral and social decay especially amongst the wealthy population like Jay Gastby and Tom Buchanan, discrimination and unfair treatment based on social status. Unfair treatment and discrimination based on social class in the society negatively affected the lowly and poor people like Myrtle and Wilson as seen in Tom Buchanan having an affair with Myrtle just for her to get a few pennies from him for their survival as a family. Furthermore, there was widespread dishonesty, extravagance, corruption and greed for material possession. Jay Gatsby and Meyer Wolfshiem are engaged in corrupt and illegal business deals just to appear wealthier than the other Americans. Tom on the other hand constantly cheats on Daisy with other women just because he knows Daisy would never leave him due to his wealth. Such social vices in the time of the Great Gatsby were mostly committed by the wealthy that belonged to the higher social stratum while the victims were the poor of lower social stratum. Not having the freedom or ability to resist or condemn such unfair treatment from the rich, the poor had to keep silent and assume like everything was fine just for the sake of their survival.

Therefore it is consequential that the American dream of everyone desiring to make a fortune despite their social status is what led to the emergence of moral and social decadence as well as a selfish society where everyone cares for none but themselves. Furthermore, this selfish and greedy attitude has negatively affected Americans both individually and collectively but no one is ready to condemn it since it has become like a norm in the society.


  1. https://www.sparknotes.com/lit/gatsby/section4/
  2. https://www.cliffsnotes.com/literature/g/the-great-gatsby/critical-essays/social-stratification-the-great-gatsby-as-social-commentary
  3. https://www.123helpme.com/social-and-moral-values-in-relation-to-the-downfall-of-jay-gatsby-in-the-great-gatsby–view.asp?id=152072

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Excess, Social Values and Social Class as Portrayed in “The Great Gatsby”. (2022, Aug 30). Retrieved from


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