Could you please tell me what is a "rough-neck" in this excerpt from The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald, chapter 3?He smiled understandingly—much more than understandingly. It was one of...

Could you please tell me what is a "rough-neck" in this excerpt from The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald, chapter 3?

He smiled understandingly—much more than understandingly. It was one of those rare smiles with a quality of eternal reassurance in it, that you may come across four or five times in life. It faced—or seemed to face—the whole external world for an instant, and then concentrated on you with an irresistible prejudice in your favor. It understood you just so far as you wanted to be understood, believed in you as you would like to believe in yourself and assured you that it had precisely the impression of you that, at your best, you hoped to convey. Precisely at that point it vanished—and I was looking at an elegant young rough-neck, a year or two over thirty, whose elaborate formality of speech just missed being absurd. 

Is-this a "thug", a "lout"?

Expert Answers
William Delaney eNotes educator| Certified Educator

"Roughneck" used to be a very common term in the American vernacular, but it seems to have faded out of common usage. The word "thug" could be a synonym, but not "lout." A roughneck would have to be a male who was tough and aggressive, a street-fighter if necessary. Maybe the best contemporary synonym would be "hood" or "hoodlum." A roughneck would have probably been involved in various sorts of crimes, and in the Prohibition era the most common crimes would have been those associated with selling bootleg liquor. A roughneck would not be expected to earn his living by any legitimate means, and a roughneck would be illiterate and uneducated; he would speak ungrammatically. In Paris the common term for roughnecks used to be apaches. A roughneck would be identified by his muscularity and his informal attire, consisting of a slacks and a sweater or leather jacket. He would be a fairly heavy drinker and would only shave when he felt like shaving. A roughneck would never be a boss; he would always be a "muscle-man" who took orders. But Gatsby had graduated from being a roughneck to being a man who employed roughnecks and kept them at arm's length.

It is most enlightening to the reader to see Gatsby described as "an elegant young rough-neck," because he made his fortune in a tough racket in which criminals were fighting over control of territories. Gatsby could never have prospered without being tough, but it was common in the Prohibition era for gangsters to be pleasant, likeable, and generous with ordinary citizens. Once they made a lot of money, they were not too different from other middle-class people in wanting to wear elegant clothes and move up the social ladder. Gatsby is just an extreme example of the successful mobster trying to crash society.

Al Capone, the most famous and one of the most successful Prohibition racketeers, was very popular in Chicago because he was generous with his money and seemed friendly, funny, and harmless. When the American people started violating the Prohibition laws, they became petty criminals themselves. This created a certain amount of sympathy for bootleggers, and the public was not too dismayed by their murders and bombings because "they only killed each other."

Fitzgerald had to give some indication that Gatsby was tough, because otherwise he could easily be taken for a wealthy playboy, like some of the characters Fitzgerald depicted in his novels, such as Anthony Comstock Patch in The Beautiful and Damned, or like so many of the English characters of P. G. Wodehouse including Bertie Wooster of the "Jeeves" stories. What makes Gatsby interesting is his combination of toughness and gentility. He is a gangster's gangster, an idealized model for all successful bootleggers to emulate.

Fitzgerald had only recently graduated from an Ivy League college. He didn't know enough about rackets and racketeers, and he had a hard time explaining exactly how Gatsby was making all that money because he didn't know. His editors complained about this, and Fitzgerald had to invent a few words of exposition or dialogue here and there to suggest that Gatsby was still heavily involved in criminal activities, mostly by receiving information and giving orders over the telephone.


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The Great Gatsby

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