In 1925, F. Scott Fitzgerald released The Great Gatsby to instant and permeating acclaim. The novel, often cited as being among the greatest American novels, is credited as such for capturing with startling emotion the sociocultural vagaries of high society in the early 20th century. The Great Gatsby is particularly compelling for the mystery which unfolds around its title character. Inexplicably wealthy, seemingly detached from the affairs of his neighbors and yet obsessed with feeding their impressions of him, Jay Gatsby is symbolic of the contradiction of American social mobility. Even as he becomes wealthy beyond the fantasies of most men, his low birth relegates him as an outsider. The mystery that pervades his story is powered by his own need to sublimate this low birth under displays of mirthless party-throwing and material excess.
Perhaps more than any other concept couched in Fitzgerald's novel, that which implies the relative impossibility of social mobility in the United States emerges as most essential. If Jay Gatsby is a reflection of the United States in the early 20th century -- adorned with gaudy excess but still perceived as an upstart younger sibling by many of its global contemporaries -- what is perhaps most critical about the character is the limitation in his ability to achieve cultural acceptance. For all of his wealth, pageantry and material possession, Gatsby remains an outsider, troubled with the kind of knowledge, experience and personal elevation that characters such as Tom and Daisy Buchanan couldn't begin to understand.
Indeed, we perceive that these characters should have no desire to understand or relate to these experiences. As Gatsby's path to his lavish wealth becomes more apparent, so too does his isolation in this world. In many ways, in spite of his love for Daisy, Gatsby must endure this isolation if he is to remain a party to the debutante events and sacrosanct culture into which he has sought entry. It is for this reason that Gatsby remains at a distance, seemingly aloof even as he remains intimately engaged. As Fitzgerald notes, Gatsby would come to reflect the monetary equivalent of immaculate conception; a man suddenly appearing with a vast amount of wealth historically only gained through inheritance, But, Fitzgerald notes, "the truth was that Jay Gatsby, of West Egg, Long Island, sprang from his own Platonic conception of himself. He was a son of God -- a phrase which, if it means anything, means just that -- and he must be about his Father's Business, the service of a vast, vulgar, and meretricious beauty" (p. 98)
That the acquisition of wealth -- as opposed to the experience of having been born into it -- is seen as vulgar and akin to prostitution states more about the society of East and West Egg than it does about Gatsby himself. Indeed, this is the perception that forces his personal narrative into hiding. To this end, a counterpoint between Gatsby and Nick, whom we may suggest is Gatsby's only truly genuine friend, underscores the relative mystery of Gatsby's history. Indeed, the lineage of Nick, of the Carraways and of such prominent bloodlines in general stands in direct contrast to the seemingly rootless Gatsby. In spite of their comparable affluence, we find that Nick can draw a clear and precise line through the various strands of heredity that have assured his attendance at Yale, his association with the Buchanans and his considerable financial comfort. According to Fitzgerald's narrator, "my family have been prominent, well-to-do people in this Middle Western city for three generations. The Carraways are something of a clan, and we have a tradition that we're descended from the Dukes of Buccleuh, but the actual founder of my line was my grandfather's brother, who came here in fifty-one, sent a substitute to the Civil War, and started the wholesale hardware business that my father carries on to-day." (Fitzgerald, p. 3)
This will prove an extremely important point of distinction for several reasons that help to underscore the mystery surrounding Gatsby. For those such as Carraway and the Buchanans, who reflect the cultural condition of being "old money,' there is an inextricable link between past and present, between heritage and wealth, between ancestry and identity. Gatsby, as a reflection of the emergent notion of 'new money,' is a man without any such linkage. Though he claims to be the product of a supremely wealthy but deceased San Francisco family, we are inclined toward skepticism. Indeed, the author suggests instead a man whose present appearance in West Egg appears to have occurred almost spontaneously and without any apparent connection to the wealthy families and socialites who extended backwards for so many generations. He also appeared to possess a wealth without any sense of heritage, to claim ownership to an incredible array of the newest finery but to demonstrate very little in the way of inherited treasures. Moreover, in the absence of any apparent ancestry, Gatsby's identity remained hidden away. That we find out in the resolution, upon meeting his father, that Gatsby was born Gatz, underscores his mysterious appearance. Indeed, much in the way that the socialites of East Egg's old money culture might perceive new money as having created rather than inherited its status, so too might we say that Gatz invented Jay Gatsby through his various underground endeavors and his subsequent subterfuge.
Another point worth considering here is Nick's passing reference to a great uncle who 'sent a substitute to the Civil War.' This practice, common among the wealthy, serves in stark contrast to the military service that is hidden in Gatsby's background. It is ironic, at the resolution of the story, that Gatsby's father speaks with such pride of his late son's rise from poverty and army service to great wealth and influence. However, the fact that so few attended the man's funeral contrasts this sense of pride with high society's almost total dismissal. To the point, the kind of toil of which Gatsby would be guilty in earning his fortune is the very same that would earn him harsh judgment and disavowal from all but Nick at the story's denouement.
This notion of earning one's fortunes -- a crime to the perspective of those never forced to lower themselves to such ambition -- is the experience which Gatsby must work so tirelessly to conceal. But we find that his ambition would be a defining trait for a man who appears to have no defining traits before his wealth beholders. As a pauper, Fitzgerald tells, "his heart was in a constant, turbulent riot. The most groteseque and fantastic conceits haunted him in his bed at night. A universe of ineffable gaudiness spun itself out in his brain while the clock ticked on the washstand and the moon soaked with wet light his tangled clothes upon the floor. Each night he added to the pattern of his fancies until drowsiness closed down upon some vivid scene with an oblivious embrace. For a while these reveries provide an outlet for his imagination; they were a satisfactory hint of the unreality of reality." (p. 99)
Even when these vivid scenes would become a reality for him though, they remained steeped in the unreality of his affluent posture and his obscured back story. Here, we are given the full scope of Fitzgerald's perspective. That is, there is a sense that mere wealth alone does not qualify a man for the existence of a wealthy socialite. Even as Gatsby sought to buy his way into high society, he did so with a sense of isolation and distance that becomes increasingly more understandable as we come to understand his path to success. One might suggest that in the era of prohibition, the man tied to bootlegging, bookmaking and other organized…