How is setting used to emphasize differences between social classes?

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MaudlinStreet eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Setting is incredibly important in this novel, & each setting reflects the status & morality of those inhabiting it. for example, the first chapter offers a comparison between West Egg and East Egg, as well as Gatsby's house and Daisy's house. The descriptions of West Egg and Gatsby's house emphasize "new money" ideals- enormous mansions, flashy cars, huge number of servants, while East Egg and Daisy's house reflect "old money"- stylish, sophisticated, classy without being garish. Yet West Egg also comes off as closer to the pioneer idea of the Old West, while East Egg remains smug and superficial.

These two settings, while underscoring the different values of those living within, are more similar when contrasted with the Wilson's garage. The description is heavy with dark, lifeless imagery. The building is behind a “low whitewashed railroad fence,” and is seen as "a small block of yellow brick sitting on the edge of the waste land.” George Wilson, a pale spiritless man veiled with “white ashen dust,” wiping his hands on a “piece of waste,” embodies the struggle of the working class to achieve the American Dream. The garage itself is situated within the Valley of Ashes. After the vibrant colors of Daisy and Gatsby's houses, the valley is almost obscene in its dullness. It is “a fantastic farm where ashes grow like wheat into ridges and hills and grotesque gardens" and “ash-gray men” appear. It is clearly where the debris of the wealthy has accumulated, leaving ordinary Americans literally in their dust.

Another important setting is Myrtle's apartment in New York. Paid for by Tom, it is a step up from the garage, but because Myrtle inhabits it, it reflects her social status. All furniture & art in the apartment are too large, creating a continuing feeling of claustrophobia. She is as unable to move about in her apartment as she is in the social hierarchy. The drunkenness, haze, and heat all combine to generate an overwhelming sense of despair and futility that permeates all attempts to transcend class within the novel.

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The Great Gatsby

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