In his classic of American literature, F. Scott Fitzgerald conjured images of Northeastern elites that conformed to the classic preconceptions of “old money” affluence that stood distinctly apart from those of who aspired to great wealth but couldn’t ever, no matter how much money they accumulated, pretend to the social status only enjoyed by those whose fathers or grandfathers built this country. In The Great Gatsby, Fitzergald’s fictitious towns, West Egg and East Egg, stand in for the real life communities that populated waterfront properties along Long Island and remain exclusive to this day. If East Egg represents the “old money” elite, West Egg represents the other side of the tracks – not destitute by any means, but certainly not of the same socioeconomic class as its counterpart across the bay. Fitzgerald establishes his setting, and these distinctions, in Chapter One of his novel. Speaking through the voice of his narrator, Nick Carroway, Fitzgerald sets the stage for the introduction of Jay Gatsby, whose veneer of wealth conceals humble origins and a background in lucrative by hardly respectable (unless you’re Joseph Kennedy) activities. As “Nick” describes his new community:
“I lived at West Egg, the — well, the less fashionable of the two, though this is a most superficial tag to express the bizarre and not a little sinister contrast between them. My house was at the very tip of the egg, only fifty yards from the Sound, and squeezed between two huge places that rented for twelve or fifteen thousand a season. The one on my right was a colossal affair by any standard — it was a factual imitation of some Hotel de Ville in Normandy, with a tower on one side, spanking new under a thin beard of raw ivy, and a marble swimming pool, and more than forty acres of lawn and garden. It was Gatsby’s mansion. . .My own house was an eyesore, but it was a small eyesore, and it had been overlooked, so I had a view of the water, a partial view of my neighbor’s lawn, and the consoling proximity of millionaires — all for eighty dollars a month.”
Gatsby’s conspicuous wealth stands out for its artificial setting in the more modest and less affluent West Egg. As Nick contrasts his neighborhood with that of the established wealthy of East Egg (“Across the courtesy bay the white palaces of fashionable East Egg glittered along the water”), he focuses on the estate of Tom and Daisy Buchanan:
“His family were enormously wealthy — even in college his freedom with money was a matter for reproach — but now he’d left Chicago and come East in a fashion that rather took your breath away: for instance, he’d brought down a string of polo ponies from Lake Forest. It was hard to realize that a man in my own generation was wealthy enough to do that. . .
“Their house was even more elaborate than I expected, a cheerful red-and-white Georgian Colonial mansion, overlooking the bay. The lawn started at the beach and ran toward the front door for a quarter of a mile, jumping over sun-dials and brick walks and burning gardens — finally when it reached the house drifting up the side in bright vines as though from the momentum of its run. The front was broken by a line of French windows, glowing now with reflected gold and wide open to the warm windy afternoon, and Tom Buchanan in riding clothes was standing with his legs apart on the front porch.”
Fitzgerald has, in short order, established the setting in which much of his story occurs, and drawn the lines separating his characters. On one side stands Nick and, as it will emerge, Jay Gatsby; on the, the Buchanans and their neighbors and friends. This world Fitzgerald has created, as noted, is modeled on the Long Island that existed during the 1920s, and that still exists in isolated communities. Whether this world resembles the United States of today is entirely a matter of perspective. Certainly, the fictional community of East Egg could be considered a manifestation of the “one-percenters” (in a socioeconomic, ‘anti-Wall Street’ sense, not in the outlaw motorcycle gang use of the term). Obviously, stark class distinctions exist today that can be considered similar to the world depicted in The Great Gatsby. Fitzgerald, after all, modeled his characters and settings on the Northeastern United States with which he was more than a little familiar, and, being born in the Midwest and reared in Buffalo, New York, he can be assumed to have been equally familiar with the clear social, cultural and economic distinctions among regions and communities. Class distinctions continue to exist – many would argue they’re more deeply entrenched now than then – and the snobbishness associated with “old money” society also remains present in some communities. The socioeconomic divisions in America today, however, are more “democratic” in the sense of wealth having been accumulated through innovative business practices that have benefited categories of individuals who most certainly do not come from “old money” families. The information technology industry, for example, has created enormous wealth, with concentrations in noticeable communities, but those concentrations are more diverse than in the world in which Fitzgerald lived.