Slater, Peter. “Ethnicity in The Great Gatsby.” Twentieth Century Literature, vol. 19, no. 1, 1973, pp. 53–62. JSTOR. https://www.jstor.org/stable/440797
The 1920’s was a time when an obsessive concern about ethnicity was a part of American culture. The reborn Ku Klux Klan, immigration restriction legislation, and pseudo-scientific racism, among other important historical events set the tone of the decade, allowing national life to become an arena for this concern about ethnicity. The Great Gatsby, a novel of its time, clearly manifests some concern about ethnic distinctions through its characters. This essay written by Peter Gregg Slater published in Twentieth Century Literature in 1973 examines the function of consciousness of ethnicity in the novel and proposes that a heightened awareness of ethnic difference does constitute a significant element of the book.
The essay draws particular attention to the way that Nick as narrator, while distancing himself from Tom’s blatant racism, tends to point out the ethnic affiliation of the individuals with whom he comes into contact whenever their ethnicity is not of an “Old American type as his own.” For example, Nick’s persistent consciousness of ethnic identity functions adjunct to his sense of socioeconomic status. Nick is aware of what separates him from lower classes and is doubly aware of them because members of these classes are often of a different ethnicity. Additionally, Nick applies common anatomical and mannerism stereotypes, painting certain slightly ethnic characters like the Jewish Meyer Wolfsheim, in an “exotic,” yet “sinister” aura.
Additionally, a loss of identity is addressed as a result of the obscuring of ethnicity. Gatsby hides behind his displays of wealth and fabricated allusions to a grand family background and an Oxford education, showing an attitude of excessive deference toward the elite establishments of England. Gradually, it is learned that Gatsby actually hails from the unfashionable Midwest and is the son of a poor German immigrant farmer. His real name, James Gatz, even hints at potential, though unstated, Jewish ancestry. As a result, Gatsby is a character who possesses no ethnicity of any sort, being a product of his own dreams and conceits.
The essay produces a productive dialogue of the various instances in the novel where issues of ethnicity arise. In addition, however, there seems to be a distinct relationship between socioeconomic class and ethnicity in the novel that is not addressed in this particular essay. Gatsby clearly saw a socioeconomic barrier between him and Daisy, which is why he accumulated so much wealth. But Gatsby’s real problem, however, was that he was without a past – he did not have an acceptable pedigree, and winning Daisy, in the mind of the native white American, requires that he have one. Tom attempts to expose Gatsby as a fraud by referring to him as “Mr. Nobody from Nowhere” (123), implying that Gatsby is just a bootlegger who does not hail from a wealth family and is simply a successful criminal. Even though Gatsby is very wealthy, he falls short in the eyes of Daisy, Tom, and the old upper class society because he is a “nobody from nowhere.”
Gatsby’s incredulous response to Nick’s suggestion that one “can’t repeat the past” is “Why of course you can!” (116), demonstrating denial about his situation and impending fate. In this quote and throughout the entire novel, Gatsby attempts to relive his affair with Daisy as a present experience instead of remembering it as something of the past. Daisy is only an object-manifestation of Gatsby’s deeper desire – to create a reconstituted version of himself – which ultimately fails. Gatsby wishes he could start over, recreating himself to something of Daisy’s satisfaction, but he simply cannot. Gatsby’s romantic view of wealth, love, and happiness is oblivious to the realities of American society where socioeconomic class and ethnicity are inevitably linked together. The past cannot be changed, and since the meaning of an “American past” has been racialized, no degree of socioeconomic class mobility can make Gatsby into something he is not. Only rewriting the racialized past, precisely what Gatsby cannot do through economically transformative agency, could make him someone qualified to marry Daisy. Clearly, socioeconomic class and ethnicity are connected, and Gatsby is a character through whom this is revealed.
Overall, this essay is successful in demonstrating how ethnicity is embedded in the
context of the novel, as the 1920’s was a time when ethnicity was of great concern. I believe, however, that speaking about ethnicity particularly in a novel such as the Great Gatsby also requires a perspective on socioeconomic class, as the two are undeniably intertwined and collectively produce the attitudes held by people in the 1920’s, which are manifested through the characters in the novel.