The setting of The Great Gatsby, Roaring 20s, or the Jazz Age, as Fitzgerald so aptly named it, was a period in which Victorian values of the Gilded Age were challenged. With the passage of the Eighteenth Amendment, the prohibition of the manufacture, sale, and distribution of alcoholic beverages, the puritanical drive to rid the country of "American's Curse" resulted in devastating losses of revenue for local and state governments and the growth of organized crime. As a consequence of the laws of Prohibition, the distribution and sale of alcohol was a great money-maker for the underworld. (Al Capone himself made 60 million dollars a year.) Consequently, some men of questionable reputations and lower social class were able to move up economically. And, in an increasingly materialistic society, there were opportunities for people from more humble beginnings to rise to wealth. Not so much in the more traditional East, but in the West, the nouveau riche who lived on Nob Hill did begin to become more socially accepted.
To this day, although not so much as years ago, social status is yet somewhat dependent upon one's family history as well as income. In The Great Gatsby this is exemplified with the character of Jay Gatsby, who attempts to transform himself socially in order to win back the love of Daisy. For, although he owns a mansion that resembles a French hôtel de ville and he hosts lavish parties, the guests who attend are never those of any of the prestigious families or friends of the Buchanans. In Chapter Six, for instance, Gatsby assumes that socialite Mr. Sloane is sincere when he says, "We'll all come over to your next party, Mr. Gatsby"; however, when Gatsby wishes to join Tom and the Sloanes who are on horseback, he suggests that he follow in his car. "Sloane and the lady began an impassioned conversation aside," and Tom remarks, "My God, I believe the man's coming,...Doesn't he know she doesn't want him?" Thus, Gatsby has slid from the neighbor in West Egg, who is a new sensation, to a social pariah.
Much like Gatsby, Myrtle Wilson assumes the role of one in another social position while she is in the New York apartment with Tom. Her sister Catherine, too, plays this role, acting as though she is privy to the lives of Tom and Daisy, saying that Daisy will not grant Tom a divorce because "She's a Catholic and they don't believe in divorce." Nick, as narrator, adds that Daisy is not a Catholic. Much like Catherine, other guests at the New York apartment, Mr. and Mrs. McKee, a photographer and his wife, also try to exploit their association with Tom Buchanan in order to elevate themselves socially.
Those characters who have profited from gambling and the illegal distribution of alcoholic beverages such as Meyer Wolfschiem and Dan Cody have attained wealth, but certainly not social standing even though Cody owns a yacht and probably associates with some people of the upper class. Nick Carraway moves socially with the likes of the Buchanans and Jordan Baker, but he is not wealthy and returns to his life in the middle class in the Midwest.
In F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby, Jay Gatsby is one character who achieved the most obvious shift in socioeconomic and social status. As we learn in Chapter 6 from Nick's narration, Gatsby, christened with the name James Gatz, was born in North Dakota to parents who were "shiftless and unsuccessful farm people," which means he was born into the working class. However, James Gatz had always imagined himself to be someone other than who his working-class parents knew how to raise him to be, and his imaginings began to develop into reality the moment he met his mentor Dan Cody.
While working as clam-digger and salmon-fisher at the age of 17 on the shores of Lake Superior, James Gatz spotted Dan Cody's yacht anchored in the lake. Cody had grown rich first mining silver in the state of Nevada and Canada's Yukon, copper in Montana, and various other metals in other locations. When James Gatz spied Cody's yacht, he felt inspired to borrow a boat, row out to the yacht, and inform Cody of a destructive wind brewing. Cody was very impressed with Gatz and instantly made him his "steward, mate, skipper, secretary, and even jailor," inspired him to change his name to Jay Gatsby, and soon left him an inheritance of $25,000. Hence, though Gatsby started life in the working class, through connections and a winning personality, he soon climbed the social ladder to the class of the elite wealthy.
Myrtle Wilson is also an example of a character who transitions from one class to another. She too is a member of the working class since her husband, George Wilson, owns a garage. However, as Tom Buchanan's mistress, she is able to rise above her situation into the elite wealthy class.
Fluidity in socioeconomic status is a key feature of The Great Gatsby - particularly when we focus on the character of Gatsby himself. James Gatz comes from a working class background and befriends Dan Cody, becoming his shipmate and confidante. Upon Cody's Death James Gatz inherits a huge amount of wealth and changes his name to Jay Gatsby - this demonstrates the fact that a shift in economic fortunes can result in a whole change in persona, and allows one to almost by their way into a new character and thus, a new class. Gatsby parties, aswell as a way for him to eventually come into contact with Daisy, serve as way for him to solidify his wealthy status - if you look at the rich vivid descriptions in the party scenes many of the objects described become visual representations of his economic status.
Interestingly, when we look in Gatsby's library we see that many of the books are fake - this highlights the idea that he is buying into the notion of appearing cultured but is not interested in the culture itself - his library, like his persona is almost a facade. This makes Gatsby and the circumstances of his wealth fall into this idea that new money individuals are part of a socio economic status but sometimes lack the cultural capital of old money individuals.
Tom and Daisy's wealth is constant and thus this is perhaps why their attitude towards money and other people is so flippant - Tom and Daisy Buchanan are portrayed as almost indifferent to other people. After Myrtle’s and Gatsby’s deaths Nick meets Tom and his conclusion after the meeting is: “They were careless people, Tom and Daisy – they smashed up things and creatures and then retreated back into their money or their vast carelessness or whatever it was that kept them together, and let other people clean up their mess” (Fitzgerald 167). In portraying Tom and Daisy as careless toward other people Fitzgerald shows a mentality amongst the upper class as if the same rules do not apply to everyone. Tom and Daisy’s mutual arrogance regarding the situation shows how little they value other people’s lives – even lives of people they supposedly cared about.
Wolshiem is another person who has aquired wealth, his through what are implied to be illegal means. Mr. Wolfsheim, on the other hand, has the opposite problem: his language indicates his lack of education, lack of class, and general lack of what wealthy, snobby people in the 1920s might have called "good breeding." Oxford becomes "Oggsford;" "Connection" becomes "gonnection." By contrasting Wolfsheim's and Gatsby's diction with that of people like Nick Carraway, Fitzgerald suggests that those involved in organized crime are necessarily working class – no matter how wealthy and powerful they appear to be. This shows that even though wealth can be attained, social status and respect does not necessarily come with it and thus wealth is not always indicative of class.
Tamara is exactly right, Jay Gatsby's obvious shift in the socioeconomic and social status shows that he is a character of gentlemen like behaviour and awesomeness.