The Great Gatsby is a novel by the American author F. Scott Fitzgerald set in the roaring twenties. During that turbulent period the U.S. economy was thriving, Wall Street was booming and there was great social upheaval. For instance, the nineteenth amendment had just granted women the right to vote and Men were only now beginning to suffer under the rigors of prohibition. Fitzgerald considered this era the “Jazz Age” because Jazz was the rising star of music in those days. It was a time of great change and turbulence, the winds of change were gusting hard on the American psyche. The old ways were being swept aside by the new and America as we know it today was slowly taking shape. This paper will discuss the geographic symbolism of the East and West in the Great Gatsby.
The East / West division referred to in the Great Gatsby does not refer to the East vs West division of Socialism vs. Capitalism. The cold war had not yet started and the two forces were not yet at odds with one another. Instead, the “West Egg” was the haven of the new-money people and the “East Egg” was the home of the old-money. It is the conflict and variance between these two that is the subject of the book.
The East Egg is a community of mansions of the old rich. These are the people who are the descendants of the robber-barons, and pioneers of the previous century. They would be the Rockefellers and Astors, people who could lives of utter luxury for the rest of their lives thanks to the efforts of their forefathers. They are phenomenally wealthy but their days are behind them. The East Egg did not create their wealth. They are snobs who inherited their wealth from their parents or grandparents. Yet the people who inhabit the East Egg live with a sense of entitlement and privilege and see others as inferior creatures which they can use and abuse freely. An example of this is snooty Tom’s practice of keeping a mistress named Myrtle from the poorer section of town. Any normal person would look down upon or at least disapprove of the practice of keeping a mistress. Yet because of the over The East egg people are also hypocritical. Tom’s sister is aware of his dalliances but tacitly agrees to it because she claims that both married people whom they can not stand and can only find happiness with this arraignment. She further claims that the reason Tom can not divorce his listless wife is that he is a Catholic and does not believe in divorce, a fact which is untrue. In summary, the Old rich of the East Egg are characterized as heartless, inconsiderate, and careless people who use their inherited fortunes to ease their minds about hurting others.
On the other hand, the West Egg people are not of the Old rich. They are pioneers in their own right. They are wealthy in their own right because they obtained it via various means taking risks in the rising tide of the economy. In other words, they are made men. They did not inherit their wealth hence they did not have the same polish and privileged upbringing that the East Egg people had. In fact, in most cases, they were poor in their youth. As a result of their newfound means and their deprived earlier lives the West Egg people, as exemplified by Gatsby, feel the need to flaunt their wealth with obvious displays of money and prosperity such as frequent parties where even the uninvited can become guests and expensive latest model roadsters.
Another way of looking at the East-West divide is as follows; the East Egg is the old aristocracy and eager to defend its privileges and its ideals of how the aristocracy should behave. Their treatment of the common non-aristocratic people is not unlike the treatment of the European nobility of serfs and peasants. They feel the need to assert their superiority and this often means putting down the lesser commoners. They feel that they can flout social norms due to their high status. Perhaps most important of all, they jealously guard their privileged status and are threatened by the ascendancy of the West egg. For them the idea of the boorish new rich joining their elite ranks is unthinkable. The idea that they are no longer the only elites of society troubles them greatly.
The West Egg does not have the pretensions of the old rich. As new rich, they better understand the tumults and troubles of the commoners. Especially since most of them came from the commoner ranks themselves. That being said they are not without their flaws. Most of them became rich by taking advantage of the economic boom of the Roaring twenties. Some achieved their success by criminal means such as joining the mob in profiting from the Prohibition era. In other words, they have obtained their wealth from means that would have been unthinkable to the Old rich. They became rich by employing methods no Old rich family would soil itself with. If the Old rich are flagrant in their efforts to put down those who do not share their elite status, the New rich are flagrant in their efforts to declare their new wealth. They are building handsome new mansions and spending great sums to flaunt the fact that they are now rich. However, unlike the Old rich they are not hypocrites claiming to be ascendant yet soiling their character with immodest things having extramarital affairs.
Given the natural polemic opposition to their points of view, it is no wonder that the two groups can not stand each other. Hence they chose to like in separate halves of the city. One can imagine that the first West Eggers decided to build in the East Egg only to be denied the same by the East Egg’s snooty original occupants. Without recourse to living where he wanted to, he would be forced to just build his home on the other side. After a few years of such refusals to be tainted by the new rich doubtless the New rich community would sprout.
The natural opposition these two groups have for each other is the result of the turbulent times that the country was in during the time of the novel. In the end, the old aristocracy will have to concede that the new rich are here to stay, and instead of impoverishing the elite aristocracy the entrance of the new rich will enrich it and give the wealthy of society a new unique perspective from which it can profit. Eventually, the two extremes will learn to work together for the betterment of society
In conclusion, the Great Gatsby divides the Old rich and the New rich into East Egg and West egg sections to further emphasize the distinction between them. The two halves are essentially a clash of two worlds. An old world that is struggling to retain its old status and defend it from the interlopers and a new world that is struggling hard to gain acceptance into the elite. The clash is especially strong in the story of the Great Gatsby because it’s only starting now. The new rich are largely rags to riches stories they are new to wealth. While the old rich inherited their wealth and believe that to be elite is their unique privilege.