Thoughts on Class Tension in USA Literature

I try to get my students to plan a level essays for OCR by foregrounding the possible contextual (AO3) elements and only then to look at the specific ideas coming from the texts. With this in mind, here are my thoughts about the essay ‘American Literature often depicts tension between social classes’ which was the Gatsby question in summer 2018.


Here goes:

Socio-Historical AO3 to explore:

The original settlers did not really consider class as an issue, however by the 19th century we can see a number of class diviners:

  • Old money against the nouveau riche
  • The East against the Mid-West
  • Race – not just polarised as white and black or masters and slaves, but reflecting the way in which all races might seek to discriminate against other races and thus develop a class structure.
  • The ruling class and the ruled.

Having outlined these ideas, students might then find links to their text – beginning with Gatsby, and using ‘at least two others’ – in my case I would use Huckleberry Finn and one or two others -probably Grapes of Wrath and mention of Native Son.

1: Here Gatsby is a clear focus. One can look at the development of East and West Egg – the old money despising the new as seen in the attendees at Gatsby’s parties and particularly the sequence when Tom and his two companions visit the Gatsby mansion late in the book. We might look a the disdain in which Gatsby is held and consider the studied rudeness of the party as they leave. From here, to move to Tom’s ‘Mr Nobody from Nowhere’ is quite a short step. It is not just his sexual jealousy, but his inability to cope with the ostentatious disregard for ‘form’ and ‘dress codes’ which serve to alienate Gatsby from Tom and those like him. Whilst I am fascinated that Tom turns up in the same subterranean eatery as Gatsby and Wolfshiem, there is no indication that the Brahmin classes of East Egg want anything at all to do with the people across the water.

Nick is even further away from them – he is related to Daisy, but out of his element. His house is squeezed into Gatsby’s garden, possibly suggesting that he is one of a class being squeezed out of polite society by the arrival of the new monied classes. Nick is honest yet he is not wealthy – he stands little chance of being truly accepted. He simply is used as a pawn by both sides – Tom needs to show off his appalling mistress and Gatsby needs a pandar to procure his lover to an illicit tryst. Nick is happy to oblige, yet he realises that he has to take sides. It seems appropriate that he should opt for Gatsby over Tom and Daisy: his sense of Mid West fair play, something long lost by the Buchanan’s has to win out in the end.

2: The tension between Old and New Money is also seen in the tension between the grandees of the East and the Mid West, as typified by Mark Twain who was himself treated as something of an outsider by the intellectual elite. Twain’s response can be seen in Huckleberry Finn by his use of an innocent Picaro (Huck) who explores in a series of Picaresque adventures the weakness and potential immorality of ‘sivilised’ society throughout the book. In Twain’s critique, the Southern gentry of 1830 show all the ‘sham chivalries’ which will come to blight wider society by the time of writing. Huck, as a lower class outsider is able to look on in bemusement and to explore in his innocence the issues of class, from the appalling misappropriation of honour seen in the Feud, to the stereotypical conmen figures the King and the Duke. This pair adopt aristocratic identities to enable them to gull the slovenly townsfolk as they float down the river. The message is clear: a sense of aristocracy conveys the ability to gain power and to strip the lower classes of their wealth. More importantly it also conveys the message that the aristocracy is a sham. The only real moral centre in the text is Huck himself as he battles with his conscience regarding the situation of Jim, the runaway slave.

  1. Race is thus central to Huckleberry Finn in establishing that the slave community was constantly treated as an underclass by the white society – Huck is clear that his deeply moral actions will be viewed as immoral by society and Twain is able to present the wider white society as complicit in this behaviour through his text. Fitzgerald treats race differently: he seems to present us with an utterly whitewashed text. Despite this being 1920s New York, Harlem does not appear and even the Jazz has been whitewashed to be presented by a full pit orchestra and a central European composer – Vladimir Tostoff. Whilst there may be a dig here at George Gershwin who presented for some the acceptable (white) face of Jazz, Fitzgerald has other fish to fry: Jews and the later European immigrants such as those who fill the parties at the Gatsby mansion. Nick is disdainful of these guests and their behaviour displays an utter lack of class in their drunken debauchery. The fact that Tom, when he attends, moves from hating the party to falling to the level of the debauchees as he seeks to have a sly sexual liaison whilst unknown to him Daisy is occupied in exactly the same manner with Gatsby suggests just how far in Fitzgerald’s mind the state has fallen. It is only Michaelis who emerges with any credit from this text – the lower class immigrant showing empathy and consideration whilst the tension between Tom and Wilson, not solely due to the sexual activity, suggests a world in which the lower classes are seen as nothing more than pawns for the wealthy to play with.
  2. In this model Tom represents the ruling class. For him Wilson is an irritant to be brushed aside or to be used as a tool to clean up the mess left behind him. His subsequent death is seen as acceptable collateral damage – after all he does kill Gatsby before he commits suicide. Tom is able to return to the Mid West seemingly utterly unscarred by events. His wealth allows him to find self-preservation. In Huckleberry Finn the ruling classes might be represented as those representing authority. In this text they display hypocrisy and arrogant stupidity – the small hypocrisies of Widow Douglas are clear to Huck and by the end of the novel, the self-appointed leader of the trio of Tom, Huck and Jim is simply seen as so cruel and so out of touch in his assumptions about race and about authority that Huck would rather leave altogether than spend any more time in the presence of Tom. Here Tom represents the future: a future of complacent misuse of authority to which there is no real opposition. Even the motives of the Judge in accepting Huck’s money ‘for a consideration’ need to be examined and look little different to the motives of the bond business in Fitzgerald’s 1920s vision of America – self interest will always serve to keep the lower classes down.

Authority, in the place of true ‘ruling classes’ can be seen in Grapes of Wrath too in the actions of the police once the Joads arrive in California.  The hostility and open abuse of power by the police and the locals serve again to highlight the inherent tension between the classes and the intolerance for the ‘have nots’ facing the closed minds of the ‘haves’. The fact that this xenophobia may be driven by fear is no excuse. The tension is clear and the lower class will never be accepted by the wealthy.  A Land of the Free? Not really.

To end with Gatsby: the class divide is such that new money will never be seen as a member of the old money aristocracy, despite Gatsby’s desperate attempts to be seen as such – the pathetic schedule, the name changes, the acquisition of money by illegal means all fail to give him anything apart from property and material wealth. Ultimately his life is doomed to end in tragedy as he submits to the lure of Daisy. Huck will light out for the territories when offered an entrée into the new world order represented by the foul Tom Sawyer; Gatsby will never be offered this chance: the clear tension between the classes represented by old and new money will forever bar this world from him.

Enough here to get on with? I would hope so, yet no AO5 as yet… that’s your turn. Find articles to sustain these ideas if you can. You might start with Alan Krueger’s Great Gatsby Curve, a theory of economic injustice which posits the idea that the more unequal a society is, the more a person’s chances of progression are decided by their parents’ status and income. Go on – look it up!