The lower class characters – Gatsby, Myrtle, and George – are all so consumed by their own illusions that they fail to recognize the flaws in their society. All three characters are dreamers but fail to be successful due to the social pressure implanted by the upper class that prevents them from co-existing with old money. All the beauty they see in East Egg – wealth, pedigree, sophistication – contribute to their desire of gaining social mobility. However, dreamers can never match the greed, selfishness, and snobbiness of old money people, whose agency comes from suppressing people who are not born into the upper class: “They were careless people … they smashed up things and creatures and then retreated back into their money … and let other people clean up the mess they had ….” (179). Gatsby acts as a tool for Daisy to regain her agency in her marriage with Tom, and for Nick to be enlightened about class prejudice which led him into writing the book. Tom, even if he loves Myrtle, torments George and treats Myrtle as an object. Therefore, all non-East Eggers only exist as pawns for the upper class to control and deepen their power within the social hierarchy. Throughout the book, Gatsby’s existence is merely based on the illusion he created for himself; since he is unable to accept reality, he cannot survive the pressure that is placed on him by society. James Gatz is so absorbed by the creation of Jay Gatsby that he is able to transcend reality and constantly live in a dream state that allows him to achieve his goals: “For a while these reveries provided an outlet for his imagination; they were satisfactory hint of the unreality of reality…” (99).
The class, pedigree, and wealth of people in the East Egg blinds Gatsby so much that he is willing to sacrifice himself in order to preserve his ideal image of East Egg, which is projected through his lover, Daisy Buchanan. His fall and ultimately, his death, is the result of the amorality and selfishness from people in East Egg: “If that was true he must have felt that he had lost the old warm world, paid a high price for living too long with a single dream” (161). His death seems to be certain because Daisy’s rejection, which signifies old money’s refusal, kills his illusion, and Jay Gatsby cannot continue to exist without living in his fabricated dreams. George Wilson, who is also a failed dreamer, represents the working class of society who does not possess any agency and live to only serve the wealthy. He is the incarnation of the Valley of Ashes, a hell-like industrial wasteland for the wealthy; he has no social mobility and is a “dust-covered wreck” (25). After Myrtle’s death, Tom’s action of “picking up Wilson like a doll” (141) highlights the idea that George is physically and emotionally weak and therefore must be guided by Tom, the aristocrat of upper class society. Wilson’s living conditions in the Valley of ashes make him desire to move West in order to find salvation and rebuild his agency; however, he cannot even acquire justice for his wife’s death due the rigid social hierarchy which led him to fabricate his own justice from T.J. Eckleburg’s eyes which he perceived as “God” (160).
He and Gatsby exhibit the danger of illusions since they are both intensely engulfed by the power of their imagination that they are willing to attach power to inanimate objects. Nonetheless, their tragic falls result from the women who they loved, but rejected, them for Tom Buchanan, who represents high class and social capital. They both fail to realize that social pressure had ensured the failure of their dreams from the start of their dreams—whether their goals were wealth or status, the upper class will always remain at the top of the social pyramid. Even Myrtle who willingly commits adultery with Tom in order to move up the social ladder, can only remain as his mistress or, rather, his object because of her background. She desires to live a life of privilege and become Daisy, but Tom can never accept her as his wife because he can’t bear to lose his status as an aristocrat. She tries to duplicate Daisy by reconstructing her image, but she will always lack Daisy’s pedigree, class, social queues, and character: “Mrs. Wilson rejected the compliment by raising her eyebrows with disdain” (31). By not accepting the reality that she can never live in East Egg with Tom, Myrtle runs to the road in order to stop the yellow car, which she thought was Tom’s, resulting in her death. Like Gatsby and George, she is only a pawn for the people in the upper class to assert their power in society. No matter how much they tried, whether it’s by gaining capital or “love”, they can never coexist with people of East Egg: “… dream must have seemed so close that he could hardly fail to grasp it, he did not know that it was already behind him…” (180).
By believing that they can gain social capital and mobility by dreaming, they do not have the ability to acknowledge reality or survive the social inequality of America in the 1920s. Hence, while the people of East Egg seems to live a perfect life of privileged, the rest of society must suffer the injustice of society because of their selfishness and immorality. Unlike Myrtle, Daisy’s character is distinctively distinguished by her pedigree which embodies the ideal image of an upper class woman. Her approval is what Gatsby longs for as it will allow him to integrate and live within the upper class society without being discriminated. Although she does “love” Gatsby, her love for the upper class life prevents her from leaving Tom for Gatsby: “with every word she was drawing further and further into herself, so he gave that up, and only the dead dream fought on as the afternoon slipped away … toward that lost voice across the room” (134). Like Tom, she is self-centric, selfish and only cares about her own survival without any thoughts about others’ well-being. Nonetheless, she is still portrayed as an object of exchange between Tom and Gatsby and does not have any intrinsic value. She is only loved for her association with money and her upper class image. Her point of views are often neglected since she is a woman, which leads to her to be seen as foolish or stupid; thus, she uses Gatsby as a tool to regain her agency by making Tom jealous and as a scapegoat to cover up her crimes relating to Myrtle’s murder.
Tom, similar to Daisy, is a character full of arrogance and prestige that is fueled by his single-minded point of view. His white supremacist way of thinking correlate with his “cruel body” which reflect the way he judges people that he believes to be beneath him – whether it’s because of class, wealth, or pedigree. “Flushed with his impassioned gibberish, he saw himself standing alone on the last barrier of civilization … the transition from libertine to prig was so complete” (130). He seems to be constantly restless and always seeking confirmation of his agency. His only way of maintaining power is by objectifying Daisy and Myrtle or by oppressing George Wilson and Gatsby. Like Daisy, he uses people inferior to him to assure his own rank as the pinnacle of the social hierarchy. Although Nick considers himself to be different from Tom and Daisy, he still protects them from the crimes they committed because of his upper class heritage. In the book, Nick is the ultimate observer who is able to transgress between East Egg, West Egg, and the valley of Ashes. Although he owns less capital than Gatsby, he does not experience extreme discrimination because of his superior pedigree and his connection with Daisy. After the death of Gatsby, George, and Myrtle, he could not bring himself to tell the truth even though he knew everything that had happened: “There was nothing I could say, except the one unutterable fact that it wasn’t true” (178). He cannot expose the Buchanans’ crimes to the police because he is afraid of being shunned by the upper class and losing his own social mobility. Even if he describes himself as someone who is unbiased and fair, he is still part of East egg’s society and has an innate nature of hiding the truth and justice in order to maintain the upper class’s social power and influence.
Although people who are not born into aristocratic family dreams to be part of East Egg’s society, they all fail to see the reality that East Egg is full of corruption, greed, and selfishness. They will never be able to transcend the threshold of class even if they deceive themselves and recontrust their perception of reality. Those who try, always end up being used as puppets for people like Tom and Daisy to manipulate and discriminate. Dreamers in America during 1920s can only dream for a better life because the social ladder built by the upper class is too steep for them to climb.
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