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'An unbroken series of successful gestures': Performance of Class in The Great Gatsby

Michael Duffy, Department of English Literature, University of Winchester



This article will discuss performance as a factor of early twentieth-century class identity as a means to show the fragility of the American dream in The Great Gatsby. It will begin by exploring the figure of Jay Gatsby as the performer of an identity, and will discuss his attempt and failure to assimilate with the leisure class, and the way in which this shows a failure of the ideology of the American dream. In showing Gatsby's attempts to assimilate with the leisure class, as defined by Veblen, the article will display the modes of performance with which class identities are played out within the novel, and will draw from the rich vein of criticism surrounding Gatsby and his investment in capitalist ideology.

Keywords: F. Scott Fitzgerald, performativity, class, gender, ideology



This article is the product of research and textual analysis which defends F. Scott Fitzgerald as an author who deserves a place within the Modernist canon of the interwar years due to his treatment of class as a fragile and phantasmagorical identity performed in the vein of gender. The article also develops ideas on the Modernist symbolism of wastelands and gender identity in comparison with the work of T. S. Eliot and James Joyce; it will explore the character of Jay Gatsby as a performer of class identity who was informed almost solely by the ideology of the American dream. This study will begin by defining Judith Butler's notion of performativity before linking her work on gender to class and outing Gatsby as a failed investor in capitalist ideology in his attempt to assimilate with the leisure class. This article is not the first critical work to relate class-based criticism to the works of F. Scott Fitzgerald. Marius Bewley wrote of Gatsby's failure to achieve his American dream in 1954 and this idea was later furthered by Ben Railton in his article on meta-narratives in Jazz Age novels; however a concentration on theories of performance and inculcation of ideology will set this apart as an original piece of Fitzgerald scholarship.

Judith Butler's work on gender is bent towards constructivism. She poses the question 'is there a gender which persons are said to have, or is it an essential attribute that a person is said to be?' (Butler, 2008: 10). The question asked is whether gender is essential or constructed, and she concludes that the distinction between sex and gender is at the heart of the issue. She states that biological sex is a prediscursive narrative, the acceptance of which has profound effects on the formulation of gender that is culturally constructed under the assumption that it is as fixed as biological sex (p. 10). In an article on Queer theory Butler talks of a more universal performance of gender. On the subject of drag she states that it is 'not putting on a gender that belongs properly to another group', and to extend this point she asserts that: 'There is no "proper" gender, a gender proper to one sex rather than the other, which is in some sense that sex's cultural property [....] all gendering is a kind of impersonation and approximation' (Butler, 1998: 722). If there is no "proper" gender biologically assigned to each sex, as Butler argues, then all gender identities are a 'free-floating artifice', consciously or unconsciously performed (Butler, 2008: 9). The unconscious performance is ingrained in the subject and this is exemplified by Butler with the idea that 'a certain gender mime [must] be already underway', meaning that one does not wake up each morning and decide whether to perform the identity of a male or a female (Butler, 1998: 724).

Biological sex appears fixed, and this belief is often wrongly extended to gender identity. Butler believes that the identities that are linked to the sexes are phantasmic and their lack of reality leads them to be 'performed': 'Acts and gestures, articulated and enacted [...] create the illusion of an interior and organising gender core, an illusion discursively maintained for the purposes of the regulation of sexuality' (Butler, 2008: 185). All elements of daily life can be part of culturally constructed behaviour. Butler's acceptance of the lack of a solid, tangible definition of gender could be seen as a way to combat homophobia and heterosexual normativity and therefore strengthen the identity of homosexuals and other subjects who subvert the identity that they feel has been assigned to them by a prediscursive narrative of sex and gender. It is the performance of constructed roles and subversions of them that will be discussed in this article in order to explore Fitzgerald's distaste for available modes of class performance.

Class in The Great Gatsby appears to be an almost binary affair; much like gender there is a sense that the status conferred upon individuals in the novel is prediscursive. This binary is nowhere as obvious as in the comparison between Gatsby and Tom Buchanan: Gatsby spends the duration of the novel attempting to gain access to Daisy, a symbol of the American aristocratic woman, and this process appears to be an exercise in assimilation, for to gain Daisy's hand is the equivalent of gaining the class status that Tom Buchanan holds without effort or challenge. The difference between Gatsby's class and Tom Buchanan's is the chasm between the American leisure class and the rising bourgeoisie of the early twentieth century, and the defining features of this are displayed in the work of Thorstein Veblen. The leisure class, in Veblen's work, is illustrated in its conspicuous leisure and consumption. In the case of conspicuous leisure his definition fits with Fitzgerald's portrayal of Tom Buchanan's class identity:

This pervading sense of the indignity of the slightest manual labour is familiar to all civilised peoples, as well as to peoples of a less advanced pecuniary culture. In persons of delicate sensibility, who have long been habituated to gentle manners, the sense of the shamefulness of manual labour may become so strong that, at a critical juncture, it will even set aside the instinct of self-preservation (Veblen, 1918: 25).

Labour becomes the separating factor between Tom Buchanan and the other male characters in the novel. Gatsby's history is filled with references to military service, self-improvement and manual labour; George Wilson's garage factors in Buchanan's trips into the city, but is the site of his failing business and manual labour. Buchanan displays conspicuous labour in a typical way for Fitzgerald's established rich classes, falling into a lack of productivity, bigotry and extra-marital affairs as a way to display perform his leisure-class identity. It is conspicuous consumption by which Gatsby sees the leisure class identity as defined, however, and this is the way in which he asserts his own investment in the American dream. This article will discuss the ways in which Gatsby consumes and gestures as a mode of performance, and the way in which his performance of the identity of the leisure class shows the failure of the American dream ideology in the ways in which it does not allow him access to the upper echelons of American society.


The American Dream

The American dream, as an ideology, could be described as a belief in unrestricted social mobility based on hard work that provides its subjects the view that all subjects deserve their fortunes as they have the ability to better their lot. With regard to the exploration of the American dream that The Great Gatsby offers, though, Marius Bewley states that it 'is anti-Calvinistic, and believes in the goodness of nature and man. It is [...] a product of the frontier and the West' (Bewley, 1954: 223). In other words, it is a belief in the possibility of social mobility that ignores ideas of a predetermined class position and is born out of the frontier's need to purvey a secular false consciousness that could urge subjects, by equating transmitted and accumulated wealth, to work at building their fortunes, and by extension their country. The relationship between subjects and their false consciousnesses in The Great Gatsby relates to Althusser's views on interpellation: this article will discuss the idea that Gatsby 'behaves in such and such a way, adopts such and such a practical attitude, and [...] participates in certain regular practices which are those of [his] ideological apparatus[es]' (Althusser, 1998: 297).

The American dream was in the popular consciousness during the 1920s under the guise of rugged individualism, a term that was used in a speech by Herbert Hoover in which he stated that the future of America should be built on 'the American system of rugged individualism' rather than the 'European system of diametrically opposed doctrines – doctrines of paternalism and state socialism' (Hoover, 1928: para. 17). Hoover was stating that America was at a crossroads and there was a choice between a nanny state that interfered with Americans' lives and the economy, or a state that allowed the nation to carry on being built upon a foundation of hardworking individuals and capitalist endeavour. Jay Gatsby, in his meteoric rise from lower-class roots to an opulent West Egg mansion, by hard work and intuition, is often seen as a display of a successful investor in the American dream.

The figure of Jay Gatsby has become synonymous with the American dream in popular culture; for example, David Hare in The Guardian commented on hit American show Mad Men that 'the Gatsby [figure] has provided a framework which has held the series steady from beginning to end'. This shows that the 21st Century appeal of the successful disciple of the ideology of the American dream (Hare, 2010: 6). The American dream narrative is glorified in Mad Men, propagating an ideology that takes an American GI from Vietnam to a glamorous Manhattan high rise office complex and shows a character successfully advancing his station in the world. The Great Gatsby, much like post-Second World War literature, such as that of Arthur Miller in All My Sons, has filled the representation of these characters with negative connotations. Fitzgerald, in The Great Gatsby, is showing the American dream's investors in a similar way to the female sex in Butler's relation of Irigaray's idea that it is 'the sex which is not one' (Butler, 2008: 13). The Gatsby figure, in his attempt at assimilation, shows a void of identity that is caused by a belief in a naturalised leisure class and is compounded by his need to perform the manners, acts and acquisitions of said class.

Marius Bewley was the first critic to argue against what he considered a common misconception regarding The Great Gatsby stating that the novel 'offers some of the severest and closest criticism of the American dream that our literature affords' (Bewley, 1954: 223). Under the weight of Fitzgerald scholarship at the time of writing Bewley sets himself the task of condemning Gatsby's behaviour with regard to what he understands as the American dream. Mary Burton later developed the idea that The Great Gatsby was an informed critique of American capitalist ideology:

Fitzgerald was reading Marx and Spengler, and his absorption of their theories [...] resulted in the critique of the American bourgeois capitalistic system [....] Fitzgerald is no economist or sociologist; his critique is not directed specifically or scientifically on the economy but on what the economy produced – T he Great American dream (Burton, 1971: 459).

Burton here states that the society we see in the novel is a critique of the results of the American dream ideology, created with a Marxist understanding of the economic system in which it was created. The interpellation of Gatsby as a subject of the American dream is therefore concerned not with positive connotations of the successful investor, but with the difficulties that it creates. Ben Railton comments on The Great Gatsby that it displays 'the complexity of seminal national narratives like the American dream' (Railton, 2011: 151), and this fragile narrative will be exemplified by an exploration of Gatsby's methods of assimilation, by which he performs a class identity that has been constructed for him by ideology.


Assimilation by Gesture

Gatsby can be seen as a character concerned with performing to feign a naturalised upper-class identity. Due to this fact Gatsby's life appears to be an unceasing act, and this is highlighted many times throughout the novel by Nick Carraway, most notably at one of Gatsby's parties at which Nick is given 'one of those rare smiles with a quality of reassurance in it, that you may come across four or five times in life [...] assured you that it had precisely the impression of you that, at your best, you hoped to convey' (Fitzgerald, 2010: 51). This gesture, which Meredith Goldsmith refers to as a 'reproducible commodity' (Goldsmith, 2003: 449), is an object of Gatsby's personality that Butler would describe as an attempt to 'create the illusion of an interior and organising [...] core' (Butler, 2008: 185). In other words Gatsby's performance is an act intended to show his place in the naturally superior leisure class. This is a conscious performance of class that shows the failure of the American dream narrative to allow its subject to assimilate with the leisure class.

If Gatsby's personality is an 'unbroken series of successful gestures' (Fitzgerald, 2010: 2) as Nick is led to believe, then the performance of these gestures is the way by which he intends to display his desired class identity to the inhabitants of East and West Egg. Despite the fact that Gatsby has the financial acumen to place himself within the leisure class, he never appears to be within that social group. With regard to drag Butler states that:

All gendering is a kind of impersonation and approximation [and] the naturalistic effects of heterosexualized genders are produced through imitative strategies; what they imitate is the phantasmic ideal of heterosexual identity (Butler, 1998: 722).

To relate this to class would be to state that the identity which the novel implies that Tom and Daisy Buchanan lay claim to is phantasmagorical, an identity that, while displayed as a concrete and possessed normative, has no physical presence. If performance of identity is universal, and based on nothing but cultural acceptance of fixed roles, then it is possible to see Tom as holding the apparition of leisure class identity and Gatsby as a drag artist, using gestures and dress to attempt to appear to hold a desired naturalised identity. Fitzgerald, in showing the failure of Gatsby to assimilate with the leisure class by performing its identity is displaying the fact that the unrestricted mobility of the American dream is a false consciousness that creates in him a productive, if morally ambiguous, 'choice' to gain economic wealth.


Assimilation by Acquisition

Bewley lists the commodities on display at Gatsby's parties: 'motor-boats, aquaplanes, private beaches, Rolls-Royces, diving towers', stating that the mastery of his acquisition of valuable objects has given him a 'gigantic, unreal stature' (Bewley, 1954: 229). Gatsby's parties are the bait by which he intends to lure Daisy and could be seen, simultaneously, as an attempt to assimilate himself with the American leisure class by, as Veblen would say, 'putting his wealth in evidence' (Veblen, 1918: 22). The performance of Gatsby's identity is as much created by his displays of opulence as his physical gestures and this shows the effect of consumer culture upon him. In an address to the American Association of Advertising Agencies, in 1926, Calvin Coolidge stated:

It makes new thoughts, new desires, and new actions. By changing the attitude of mind it changes the material condition of the people. [...] It is the most potent influence in adopting and changing the habits and modes of life, affecting what we eat, what we wear, and the work and play of the whole Nation (Coolidge, 1926: para. 4).

Advertising was an industry that was thriving in the 1920's and Coolidge's idea that the instilling of an attitude bent towards consumption could create a better America shows the relevance of consumerism to Gatsby's performance of class. Gatsby is a consumer, and his consumption of luxury goods is one of the most potent displays of his attempt to complete the assimilation that is integral to his American dream.

In approaching The Great Gatsby, Goldsmith is entirely original in that she attempts to place the Gatsby character within a context of 'passing and Americanization' (Goldsmith, 2003: 444) literature of the early twentieth century, and this gives her the opportunity to talk about the performative qualities of Gatsby's character; her reading hints at Gatsby's commodification of Daisy as a part of his class assimilation. The argument that the article sets out is one that racialises Gatsby, casting him as a black character in white society and bringing attention to his descriptions of Daisy's whiteness (p. 447). This is not wholly convincing; however, placing Gatsby as subversive within an internalised identity binary is fruitful in unmasking his performance. The effect of Goldsmith's argument is that Gatsby is cast as a character primarily concerned with assimilation and the prized nature of Daisy's whiteness is read as a commodity; a traditional, unspoiled American object that could help him fit into society. Daisy is the owner and the signifier of a 'beautiful white girlhood' (Fitzgerald, 2010: 21), an innocent whiteness that attracted Gatsby, and no doubt Tom, to fantasise about loving and marrying her. The idea that Daisy is seen as a commodity by Gatsby is reinforced by her relation to financial prosperity, even Nick can tell that 'her voice is full of money' (p. 127), and her belief that the best thing a woman can be is a beautiful fool (p. 18), leads the reader to assume that she is a character that has been created to display sign-exchange value rather than intellect or substance. Daisy has become for Gatsby an identity affirming commodity, an 'image of might to mask the deficiencies of his origins' (Goldsmith, 2003: 447), by which Goldsmith means a desirable material signifier, much like his house, car, and his extravagant parties.

The leisure class in The Great Gatsby is performing an identity that, as with that of gender, is not tangible, but is popularly considered to be owned by those whose performances of it are accepted as natural. Fitzgerald places Gatsby as a character concerned with performing the identity of the leisure class, but despite his seemingly successful performance using both gestures and commodities it is apparent that he is unable to claim ownership of the identity, leaving him in an unceasing conscious performance that culminates with the tragic climax to his narrative. In comparing Gatsby's performance of class to Butler's theory on drag it is apparent that his own consciousness of class performance reifies a binary between his own working-class origins and the aristocratic standing of Tom and Daisy Buchanan, a binary that is cemented throughout the novel and displays the failure of Gatsby, despite his hard work and initiative, to become the finished product of the American dream. The false consciousness that is created by the capitalist ideology of the American dream is exposed by Fitzgerald, through an investment in the idea that it necessitates performance, showing that they fail to nullify contemporary notions of naturalised class and therefore reify a type of class-normativity.

The established leisure class in The Great Gatsby is incredibly exclusive and this is displayed in the failure of the American dream narrative. The fact that it is impossible for Gatsby to assimilate himself with the leisure class shows that unrestricted social mobility is a false consciousness that represses the working and middle classes, giving them a belief in a future that will not be provided for them. Gatsby uses both gestures and buying power to prove himself as a member of the leisure class, but fails and eventually dies in his attempt to perform the acquisition of the ultimate commodity, Daisy.




I would like to thank all at the BCUR for orchestrating a fantastic event to take part in, especially Stuart Hampton-Reeves who appeared to be making it all possible; Alex Freer for making me aware of Reinvention; Phil, Charlie and Henry for providing great company over the weekend.

Huge thanks go to Grace Johnson for her continued support and to the lecturers at the University of Winchester who shaped the critical voice within this study, particularly Nick Rowe, Liam Connell and Carole Smith over this crucial final semester.


Primary sources

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To cite this paper please use the following details: Duffy, M. (2011), ''An unbroken series of successful gestures': Performance of Class in The Great Gatsby', Reinvention: a Journal of Undergraduate Research, British Conference of Undergraduate Research 2011 Special Issue, Date accessed [insert date]. If you cite this article or use it in any teaching or other related activities please let us know by e-mailing us at Reinventionjournal at warwick dot ac dot uk.