I have been thinking a great deal about Gatsby recently – specifically why I find the text so distasteful. I think one reason is the ‘Othering’ which is such an important part of the narrative and is found in the colonial attitudes of Carraway as well as of Buchanan. Presumably also of Fitzgerald, though that is a much thornier question.
If we accept that a Colonial attitude is one in which any group of self elected ‘masters’ who wish to establish their right to rule subjugate a lower group of the populace of their world, then we can see this subgroup not only in the true colonised Native Americans who were driven from their lands and their livelihoods by the colonising forces of the post -pioneer period of expansion, but also in the groups of people in a text held in thrall by the masters. In this case, in Gatsby, the WASP community of Ivy League Plutocrats who dominate the tale and who seek to justify their right to rule by systematically undermining the outliers in society as presented in the text.
Colonisation requires both the physical and mental subjugation of the lesser in order to create in the ruler a state of mind which not only accepts their role as master but also ensures that it is reinforced at every turn. In short, the colonisers show:
- A sense of entitlement to their position
- A wish to establish cultural pre-eminence
- A wish to establish financial control of the subgroup.
As we consider Gatsby, it is easy to see Tom in this light and i will return to him later. More interesting is Nick; since the story is his, then his position in terms of coloniser, whether intended or accidental, colours the whole narrative.
When we first meet Nick, we meet a man who is, by his own terms, tolerant and understanding -he is ‘inclined to reserve judgement’ and in terms of his social group, this seems relatively true. Possibly because he needs to establish a foothold in the higher echelons of the society he now inhabits he seems to tolerate significant moral weakness in his peers, even if he can see the selfishness by the end. Of course Nick is himself a WASP from an old family from the mid West (don’t start me on their moral position…). He belongs and has to be seen in this context.
What he seems to have a need to do in his narrative is to establish his right to belong and he does this in part by actively beginning to ‘other’ the rest of the subgroup with whom he comes in contact. It is by foregrounding their ethnicity that he does this. At his new house he has a serving maid – ‘my Finn’. The woman is not mentioned without the her ethnicity being established – ‘her Finnish tread, the Finn…’ and so on. Likewise, when he visits Wolfshiem’s office he finds his secretary to be a ‘lovely Jewess’. Consequently he is comfortable knowing her to be beneath him. Other similar ethnic otherings exist: the ‘scrawny Italian child’ or the people with the ‘tragic eyes and short lips of Southern Europe’ are further examples. Nick sees ethnicity before he sees people.
In Wolfshiem this is further heightened: he notes the Jewish Capo and reduces him to his stereotypically Jewish characteristic -his nose. In description equally suited to Goebbels’ pamphleteering in Nazi Germany we read of the ‘small flat-nosed Jew’ who looks at him and Nick notices the look from ‘two fine growths of hair which luxuriated in his nostrils’. He ‘covered Gatsby with his expressive nose’, a nose which shows emotion when ‘his nose flashed … indignantly’ and his nose ‘turned to me as though replacing his entire being. And this is a ‘flat nose’. Perhaps the racial stereotype of the hook nose was too far even for Fitzgerald. In essence, Wolfshiem has been utterly dehumanised by Nick and reduced to his nose – and the threat of the cuff buttons made form ‘human molars’. He has become a representation of the Jew-as-criminal in as certain a manner as any ‘Jud Suss’ conceived by Goebbels.
He achieves the same effect with his treatment of African Americans. I have written more on the ‘whitewashing’ of this text here. The dehumanised black ‘bucks’ who roll their eyes in the limousine on the way into New York are obviously there to act as a mirror for Gatsby. Both are upstarts in this world, but he has the advantage of the white man – he can cover his tracks. Though he is not good at it. They are seen as part of a racial and societal subgroup bearing the hallmarks of stereotypical depiction of African Americans – focus on colour rather than person, childish, overdramatic and ultimately seen as figures of fun. Nick immediately takes this position, one that allows him to regard the overblown fantasist in the car with him as one of the same group of masters as himself.
Nick is in this position largely because he needs to establish is own right to membership of the top table. Yes he is a WASP, but he is not of great wealth. He has earned the right by dint of his colour, longevity of his family -3 generations – and his Yale education. But he has no independent wealth, is supported by his father at the age of 30, lives in a small house on the unfashionable West Egg and sees himself as having ‘a thinning list of single men to know, a thinning briefcase of enthusiasm and thinning hair’. He is no doubt using his perceived racial superiority as a cover to hide his relative lack of wealth and/or true blue blood in an East Coast sense.
His companion in the car is surely more subject than master despite the outward display.The white mid-westerner misses the key criterion: good birth. In order to claw his way to the top table he has had to work and cheat and reinvent himself, yet the evidence is clear that he does not really know the code:
- He offers Nick the chance to sell false bonds – an offer no Yale man could possibly accept
- He does not read the signal around the invitation to dinner with the Sloanes
- He introduces Nick to Wolfshiem’s world
- He lives in the unfashionable West Egg
- He invents a ludicrous back story – living ‘like a rajah’
- He is a criminal
- He courts the ‘king’s daughter’, Daisy, as a means of attaining social recognition. So strong is this need that he cannot cope with the idea of sharing her with Tom in any way.
Indeed he shows again and again the quintessential behaviour of the subject seeking to be advanced – mimicry. His house is a facsimile, not of a palace, but of an hotel de ville. He is pretending and copying the mansions of the East Eggs, but it is not quite right. His speech is borrowed from a version of an upper class English fantasy, his clothes are not even worn, they just mimic those of the aristocrats. Indeed so far removed from his dwelling is he in his mind that he does not even notice the presence of Klipspringer or of the dirt accumulating under his eyes in the second half of the novel.
He is therefore ripe to be put down by the arch colonial figure: Tom. Tom has little refinement and little intellect – his place at Yale is presumably earned by his football prowess, yet he has the mark of the master: extreme wealth and good breeding. His ridiculous expenditure on a necklace and his polo ponies are outward symbols of his position – the master of all he surveys, who has bought a wife of good status in order to boost his own position in society. Despite this he needs to constantly barricade his position against those who might threaten his power.
We see this in what is best described as his Classist response to those around him. He takes every chance to suggest his superiority over Gatsby. His parties are ‘menageries’, his car a ‘circus wagon’. Not only is this a clear attack on Gatsby, but also on those around him – the milieu of his parties is that of animals, his car linked immediately to what Nick has noted already; the morals of the ‘amusement park’ which pervade the party evenings. Nick and Tom share some of the same cloth. More concerning is Tom’s use of power to degrade women by sexual conquest.
Tom’s affairs are all with lower class women. Nick may be repulsed by Myrtle, but it is Tom who is treating her as a sexual plaything on whom to prove the virility of the master race. Indeed the one time we see Myrtle challenge this by repeating Daisy’s name, as though an equal, Tom breaks her nose. Tom has cheated with hotel maids, even on his honeymoon, yet although this may not be to Daisy’s liking, she will not voluntarily separate herself from colonial empowerment despite the clear moral vacuum at its heart.
Yet Daisy belongs, for Myrtle there is little apart form her attempts to mimic her target. At the appartment, her behaviour changes as soon as she arrives – she puts on airs and her ‘laughter, gestures… became more violently affected moment by moment’ as Nick notes. She is heard referring to the locals as ‘these people’ dripping with disdain as for a moment she revels in her tawdry triumph, yet all is a charade and she will have to return to the reality of the Valley of Ashes, where Tom will taunt her husband by cuckolding him in a sort of droite de seigneur whilst holding out the ever unattainable offer of the sale of the car. Indeed so scared is Tom of the rise of the coloured classes – and of all subjects – he even finds time to be hostile to the lowest of the low -the dog seller – feeling the need to let him know that Tom sees through his money making scheme.
So why is he so insecure?
He is a Mid-Westerner and in the carefully graded hierarchy of the master race, he will never be a pure, blue-blooded East coaster, let alone an original settler family. He feels this loss. His home is Georgian and dates form the founding of the USA therefore, but somehow that is not enough, for whilst he is the master of his world, there is another world – unseen in the book – of even purer and older money. We notice that Tom is found in Wolfshiem’s lair at one point – why is he there? Surely so we can note that despite all his pretension to grandeur, he is still just under the top tier. It is his need to justify and maintain his position that has created the money-flaunting bully who needs to rely on outward show just as much as does Gatsby.
I believe that this is an accurate analysis of the social hierarchy in GG and i interpreted the message that characters such as Tom, Gatsby and Nick will never be satisfied with their status, even though they are in the top percentage of wealth in America at this time. Moreover, it’s evident that Tom must always put others down, whether it be Myrtle, the dog-seller or his coloured staff because it empowers him and fills the void of insecurity that he feels about his social status despite his prestige reputation.
From Khari Bennett:
Comment on ‘The Other of Gatsby’
I stand in complete agreement with this comment as it always seems to be the poor who seek wealth and once they achieve this, still remain dissatisfied with their lives as their sense of what wealth and happiness looks like is constantly altered by the new societal norms that they are pressured to conform to in order to fit in with their new atmosphere. Gatsby is a prime example of this, as once he has everything he can wish for, he soon discovers that none of it matters if it isn’t enough for his ‘princess’ Daisy.
A similar evaluation can be drawn to Gatsby towards the end of the book, who focused his whole life after the war pondering on what he could have next, or as Nick depicts to the reader “A universe of ineffable gaudiness spun itself out of his brain”. Having this mind set meant that he could never truly be satisfied in life as the more ‘power’ and control he thought he had over people in his life, the more complex it grew. Trying to become a self-proclaimed ‘master’ of his environment in order to appear to be socially relevant absolutely backfires as it draws unwanted attention onto himself by the likes of Tom who actually lives the life he tries so hard to reciprocate. In addition to this, his gain of wealth and social status as you say, sprouts from the false fallacy that it would result in a contented life with Daisy as his sole inspiration.
Whilst i think that this blog post covers the main traits of the book that many people would be displeased about, i think that some things in this should be addressed. Whilst i think that Gatsby and tom and pretty much every other male character strive for pre-eminence, i think that this isn’t one of Nicks most dominant characteristics due to the fact that he is more fixated on learning about gatsby than focusing on where he wants his social status to be. It’s as if he blindly follows Gatsby, even if that ends up dragging his name through the mud. Further, its said that the fact that Nick is inclined to reserve judgement is ‘relatively true,’ yet when reading the book, we see that every new person Nick meets, he gives at least a paragraphs worth of observations, criticisms and opinions about them, including Gatsby when talking about the depth of his smile so id have to say i disagree with the comment of his réservé entre of judgement being true. Furthermore, its noted in this post that Mr peel has an issue with their ‘moral position.’ Whilst this is true and we see all characters’ moral position be compromised throughout the book, we also see Nick being the only character who stays with Gatsby even after his death so i think to approach the moral position of Nick in such a harsh way is relatively unfair however i do agree with the fact that morally, from a 21st century point of view, he is flawed in a number of ways. We go on to discuss his racial profiling and how much of an issue it is throughout the book, yet we see no discussion of the fact that this attitude that Nick and Tom represent to ethnic minorities is very much era appropriate and therefore must be looked at objectively. Whilst this isn’t an excuse one must take into account the social influence as we see Tom, someone who is on top of society, act in the same way. Something to add which i dont believe was mentioned is the fact that Nick actually has a sense of weak mindedness due to the fact that we never see him object to anything, including when we see him keep the affair of tom and Mertyle’’s a secret. I also think that althiugh we see Gatsby creating his ludacris backstory as bad, i look at it as more of a necessity as without this, not only would nobody believe he got his money from legitimate methods but also i think half of having people respect your wealth at the time is how you acquire it and the most respectable is to say it is from inheritance, which is what he said. I think that gatsby needed to do this, as if word spread of his ‘legitimate’ wealth, daisy would be more inclined to visit him.
Thank you Amman. Points well made. As ever, I like to take a single POV to allow students to explore their thought processes- here it is a post-colonial standpoint ignoring others deliberately. Your comments are all valid and you have thought widely around the topic.
Whilst i think this is an accurate representation of how some may see the GG nowadays, i think vital points of view and circumstances have been ignored. For example, i think that althiugh we see characters like gatsby strive for pre-eminence, it’s clear that Nick isn’t as fixated on this. In my opinion he is more fixated on the character of Gatsby and examining him than focusing on his social status. Furthermore whilst i think it’s important to address their moral code, i think that Nicks cannot be totally flawed as at the end of the book, he is the only one who stands by Gatsby, even in death so whilst he displays to the reader that he has moral flaws, its clear that not all of his qualities with regards to morality can be critiqued.in addition to this whilst its important to address the racial profiling aspect of the book, i think its also important to notice that this attitude towards ethnic minorities was seen as normal during this era so i think its important tot look at these sections of racism through the eyes of an American man in the 20s not through the eyes of a modern 21st centurion. Furthermore, i dont agree with the fact that it is relatively true how nick reserves judgement as every new character we see him. Meet gives nick an opportunity to give the reader at least a paragraph which is full of judgements, including the section based on the smile of Gatsby. Finally i think that the fact that in this blog Gatsby is criticised for making a fake backstory is in a sense wrong. This is because in my opinion, to earn respect in this day and age through wealth, people would look at two things, where you got your wealth from and how much you have. Gatsby has a large amount of money but if he told his true backstory, it would’ve been mocked, therefore i think to gain status among the people of society, a fake backstory of inheritance was vital, as we have seen that inheritance earns you a great deal of respect, from Tom.
Though I am in favour of much of this commentary, my belief in the idea of a colonial attitude in which one certain group assert their dominance on another, no matter of their size, status or power. Though, in this specific case, it is true to say the Native Americans were usurped of their land by the English and Europeans who intended to strengthen their religion whilst merely using this as an excuse to increase their own influence and control of the world.
This idea that colonisation comes from underlying wishes to imply cultural, racial and religious superiority is a valid and heavily backed point. Though it does tie in with the themes of power and wealth to control a land other then one’s own. These exact ideologies are ones that many would be upset about and rightfully so. However, I am not persuaded entirely on the notion that these are core parts of such displeasure.
From my own standpoint, I am constantly met with the internal and hidden sexism of this book. At many points, women are shown to us as coniving and treacherous. Their main goal is the pursuit of wealth and power, this is true, but this only comes from the innate sexism in real life. Myrtle hopes to achieve status and thus, power, through her affair with Tom which will undoubtedley provide her with sufficient wealth. Daisy is a ravenous stereotype of the female “gold-digger” who’s main goal is to live a lavish life of expensive and rich things. She marries Tom for the life he may provide her. She only truly falls for Gatsby when she discovers the rich life he leads himself and the “colored shirts” she so desperately adores.
This is a constant theme, in my opinion, as Fitzgerald’s vendetta against women is so avidly put forth. Hierarchy is a crucial and pivotal point in the book and bound to be a huge critiscim of the life in which we see the characters in. But I believe that sexism proves much more distasteful to me in this book and, though unknowningly, Fitzgerald presents it so vivdly as if to explain the lives women are forced to lead.
By and large I find this analysis accurate, taking into account the social context of the novel and Fitzgerald’s personal biases in order to create a well informed article. I am in particular agreement with the concept of Gatsby’s mimicry, and would like to add the example of his contentious Oxford education, and the irony of this deceit – which was meant to impress Daisy – ends up being what Tom uses to drive a wedge between them.
I must admit, I struggled to agree with the analysis of Wolfshiem here. Whilst to an extent, I agree with the dehumanisation of him, I personally do not agree that the motive was primarily racial. Wolfshiem is a threatening and dangerous character for Nick, and I believe it is natural for him to then exaggerate his features and make him a ‘monster’ in order to cope with the otherness he feels in Gatsby’s world. I think it would have been more interesting to question why Fitzgerald decided to make him Jewish, as opposed to accepting it in the first place as a given. Although I struggle to like any of the characters within the novel, I find Tom the clear antagonist, as I think many would. During his dinner party with Nick, Daisy and Jordan, he talks about his interest in eugenics, a theory largely linked with Mengele and the Nazis. I would not deny that Fitzgerald was a racist, however I do not think he would distinguish between different religions, as long as they were all white. My belief as to why Wolfshiem is Jewish is that Fitzgerald leans into an outdated stereotype to form a metaphor. The stereotype linking Jews and money has existed since the days of the publicians, and the idea of making Wolfshiem, a Jew, the source of Gatsby’s money, may be part of the reasoning behind this.
I agree with a large majority of this article, with all honesty there were a couple of thing that I couldn’t fully comprehend- however, this probably has to do with an immense gap of knowledge I have to do with historical predicaments. One point that stood out to me was when you said, “He offers Nick the chance to sell false bonds – an offer no Yale man could possibly accept”, I appreciate this comment, it adds to the sense that Nick is an outsider compared to the others who all have a somewhat connection to money-oriented corruption- he is, however, involved in some duplicity but that’s irrelevant to this point. As you said, when Gatsby offers Nick a way to make some money he seems to decline mostly because he sees it to be tactlessly offered in return for assistance. However, Nick does in-fact concede that if this offer had been given at another point, it would have been “one of the crises of my life”- it seems as though Fitzgerald splinters Nick’s (Yale descending) moral values and beliefs- he rejects the offer but does hint at a time where he would’ve been tempted. Yes, he does ultimately turn the offer down, but Nick’s honesty and goodwill is being undermined in this instance.
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