F.Scott Fitzgerald’s the Great Gatsby can be considered as a sort of prequel to the Great Depression. Its tale of social-climbing Midwesterners, illicit money making activities, lavish parties and economic class distinctions makes the novel appear as a critical study of the wealth and excess that largely defined the 1920s before the infamous stock market crash. For the most part, Fitzgerald’s novel is taught to high schoolers in conjunction or as an introduction to the 1920s and the eventual Great Depression, the US’s biggest economic catastrophe and likely AP Macroeconomics topic of discussion.
The character Jay Gatsby can seen somewhat to be a foreshadowed symbol of the excess that characterized pre-Depression times. Yet, by the time we meet the title character Gatsby-the bootlegging Gatz who builds a illegal bootlegging empire arguably in attempt to win back his true love, the high class but married Daisy-he has already been dead for a while. The narrator Nick Carraway’s purpose in telling this story is largely to admonish high society for its cold cruelty and to ponder the downsides of the mythical American Dream-all told through a post-mortem of the final weeks leading up to Gatsby’s death. Gatsby, with his unbridled affluence and attempt for social ascension, has come to be our tragic hero of 1920s boom and the eventual bust.
We can see this idea in Fitzgerald’s critical construction of the Great Gatsby setting. Set in the wealthy “West Egg” and “East Egg”-respectively, that’s Long Island and New York City to you-we as readers are emerged in a social setting characterized as wealthy, educated and socially exclusive and restrictive. The characters do not dare to associate with others considered to be below them socially, particularly in geographical locations. In fact, social status is everything and that status is usually tied to one’s financial worth. But even then, one’s social status-such as the case for Gatsby-is not as held in much high regard if it’s just money and lavish parties you have. Despite his big bucks, Gatsby lives in the less prestigious West Egg, implying he has not fully ascended to the level of his love Daisy, a distance symbolically and geographically represented in the span water between their respective houses. The novel is obsessed with such rigid class distinctions and the inability for most people in the novel to reach a level of equality with the higher class, making 1920s America almost like feudal Europe. No matter how many colored shirts, champagne-fueled parties or fancy-shmancy, people-killing cars he had, he could never be an equal worthy of Daisy in her eyes, even with his excess. His death is also largely symbolic. The wealthy Gatsby ends up murdered by a blue-collar automechanic while kicking back at his personal pool. This event, interpreted post-Depression, suggest an equalization of classes.
In fact, the status quo represented in this novel was effectively up-ended with the onslaught of the Great Depression. Of course, reading The Great Gatsby today with the hindsight and knowledge that four years after its publication, the world’s economies would implode, certainly colors readers’ interpretations. Yet, if Fitzgerald had been an economist, perhaps The Great Depression may have never happened. He seemed to know what kind of ruin that the extravagance typified by Gatsby was heading to. The Great Gatsby, therefore, becomes this ominous book with impeccable foresight that not only criticizes the stratified society pre-Depression, but in its own way, also argues for the type of equality or equal status that the Depression eventually brings, however destructively.