Poverty as a Theme in relation to “The Great Gatsby”


Introduction: 1920’s America 




           In the novel, The Great Gatsby, the most prominent theme beyond love itself, is the idea of Poverty in the work. Poverty in more than just the materialistic and physical aspects of the word, going far beyond conventional ideas and rasping more of a social and emotional context as opposed to simply referring to wealth. For there are different types of wealth, and different types of currency to buy the products in the world; for isn’t anything that can be used to purchase be a currency in extension? If not being a note or a bill, can friendship not hold a similar value? In society today however, and similarly to the decade of the “roaring twenties”, money is the primary currency we care about.  At one point though, when everyone around you is swimming in money, there must be another separation exceeding material possession. Therefore, even when someone is wealthy, they can still be considered poor in other terms. Such as being poor of heart, or deficient in happiness. This is what leads us into a discussion of James Gatz  aka Jay Gatsby, Daisy and Tom Buchanan in the novel. 

Flapper of the 1920’s.

(   http://davies-linguistics.byu.edu/elang495/images/events-flapper-dance.jpg)     


          However, I think it is very important to discuss the setting of The Great Gatsby in order to really understand the theme of Poverty within the text. James Gatz is living in the “roaring twenties”, the decade following the end of World War I and age of the “baby boomers”. It was known as a period of great parties and wild excess, excitement and delight arising from the ashes of what was left of the war. It was a time where rapid materialism and narcissistic ideals grew rampant, and it was the days where Jay Gatsby himself rose to prominence. It is not a coincidence that we have the existence of his character, where he exists as the culmination of all the ideology and past-times of the time period. Therefore you cannot run away from the historical significance James holds as a protagonist, without understanding his attitude towards success and ownership sparked by the era.




          In contrast to the somber mood and events of the Great War, 1920-1929 represented the complete opposite spectrum of mass irresponsibility and partying. There was a cultural revolution of sorts as the most civilized nations of the world manufactured one of the biggest bloodbath seen to man, and they did so collectively. Therefore if the nations themselves were responsible for the tragedy and loss of life, it was most definitely the individual that was affected by the war. Life no longer became about government service and following laws set by war-mongering officials, but about self-fulfillment and the emergence of the “selfish man/woman”. It is in this era that we see great leaps in culture such as flappers, jazz music, and eventually breakthroughs in areas such as technology and woman’s rights. It is this time of change and revision of old-fashioned belief systems that our characters reside in.

 (freitas class citation)




 James Gatz aka Jay Gatsby






               The “Great Gatsby” is the focal point of this novel by Fitzgerald. He is a man coming from humble and simple beginnings, starting out as a small town country boy turned war hero, turned millionaire. It is through this transmutation of events that we see the final outcome of who Gatsby is during the summer inside of the text. It is his history however that bars the existence of his future, meaning that he cannot escape who he once was. James Gatz was never truly erased in the fabrication of Jay Gatsby. It is at that length, that we say Gatsby is devoid of social wealth. Even in his riches, he is still poor because he is devoid of that “old money” history. Therefore, his rampant materialism attempts to disguise his social poverty. In the start though, as almost every poor fellow does, James aspired to become successful. By success, we really imply becoming filthy rich. That is exactly what Gatsby achieves as a goal, such as  living in an overly fancied house that resembles ” ‘…the World’s Fair,’ ” (Fitzgerald 82) according to Nick.  It also has him sporting completely extravagant toys such as a ” ‘… circus wagon.’ ” (Fitzgerald 121) of a car described by Tom and also a ” ‘…hydroplane.’ ” (Fitzgerald 53), the modern-day version of a speed boat. This oblivious spending of money was no doubt borne from Gatz’s poverty (the literal definition) as a child, and also his need to show off his newly acquired wealth. This is very much an example of the classic American Dream of “get rich and live large”. This thirst for greed still exists in our culture today, described very well by Kanye West in his song “All Falls Down”.




Kanye West

“All Falls Down”
(feat. Syleena Johnson)

[Chorus – 4x]
Oh when it all, it all falls down
I’m telling you ohh, it all falls down

[Verse – Kanye West]
Man I promise, she’s so self conscious
She has no idea what she’s doing in college
That major that she majored in don’t make no money
But she won’t drop out, her parents will look at her funny
Now, tell me that ain’t insecurrre
The concept of school seems so securrre
Sophmore three yearrrs aint picked a careerrr
She like fuck it, I’ll just stay down herre and do hair
Cause that’s enough money to buy her a few pairs of new Airs
Cause her baby daddy don’t really care
She’s so precious with the peer pressure
Couldn’t afford a car so she named her daughter Alexus (a Lexus)
She had hair so long that it looked like weave
Then she cut it all off now she look like Eve
And she be dealing with some issues that you can’t believe
Single black female addicted to retail and well

[Chorus – repeat 2x (w/ Kanye ad-libs)]

[Verse – Kanye West]
Man I promise, I’m so self conscious
That’s why you always see me with at least one of my watches
Rollies and Pasha’s done drove me crazy
I can’t even pronounce nothing, pass that versace!
Then I spent 400 bucks on this
Just to be like nigga you ain’t up on this!
And I can’t even go to the grocery store
Without some ones thats clean and a shirt with a team
It seems we living the american dream
But the people highest up got the lowest self esteem
The prettiest people do the ugliest things
For the road to riches and diamond rings
We shine because they hate us, floss cause they degrade us
We trying to buy back our 40 acres
And for that paper, look how low we a’stoop
Even if you in a Benz, you still
 a nigga in a coop/coupe

[Chorus – repeat 2x (w/ Kanye ad-libs)]

[Verse – Kanye West]
I say fuck the police, thats how I treat em
We buy our way out of jail, but we can’t buy freedom
We’ll buy a lot of clothes when we don’t really need em
Things we buy to cover up what’s inside
Cause they make us hate ourself and love they wealth
That’s why shortys hollering “where the ballas’ at?”
Drug dealer buy Jordans, crackhead buy crack
And a white man get paid off of all of that
But I ain’t even gon act holier than thou
Cause fuck it, I went to Jacob with 25 thou
Before I had a house and I’d do it again
Cause I wanna be on 106 and Park pushing a Benz
I wanna act ballerific like it’s all terrific
I got a couple past due bills, I won’t get specific
I got a problem with spending before I get it
We all self conscious I’m just the first to admit it

[Chorus – to fade (w/ Kanye ad-libs)]





                The interpretation of Kanye West’s lyrics decipher Gatsby’s behaviour, the purchases of these flamboyant accessories do exactly that, attempt to “cover of what’s inside” of Gatsby; his insecurities and his past. It is truly the reality of who he is, that surpasses all that he has and the values that he holds. It is the cause and instigation of all the quarrels that arise in the novel, from not fitting in with East Eggers, to being rejected by Daisy. Despite his mass of money, he cannot penetrate the border surrounding Daisy living in that East Egg bubble. What Gatsby faces is people who live in a world where they are born into riches, and therefore it becomes natural occurence. It is at that level, that something other than money counts, that something being history and existence of “old money” in a family. It just happens to come about, that this is practically the one thing that Gatsby lacks. Gatz can never be erased from Gatsby.  This is shown in the following quote,”Gatsby looked at me questioningly. He wanted to go and he didn’t see that Mr. Sloane had determined he shouldn’t” (Fitzgerald 104). Mr. Sloane, an obvious East Egger as he is with Tom, simply does not allow Gatsby to join them for dinner. This is not because he is not viable or rich enough to be considered, but because he is a West Egger and “new money”. However Gatz does not comprehend the underlying message and leaves to prepare for the dinner. This naivety is what pushes him into failure, he thinks that his cars and his house will change things. In Kanye’s words, “And for that paper, look how low we a’stoop, Even if you in a Benz, you still in a coupe,” James lowers himself just to be accepted, but even when he drives his extravagant cars, he will never ride horses like the East Eggers do, and to them his golden car is just like everybody else’s.


          Gatsby’s infamous Rolls Royce



           Therefore it can be interpreted that Gatsby is living in socialized poverty, being part of a lower tier caste system. Social poverty then becomes the centralized and most significant theme because it leads James to his ultimate end. It is the deciding factor in Daisy’s choice to either run away with Gatbsy or stay with Tom, resulting in George Wilson murdering Jay in his own pool. During the climactic scene in the hotel, Daisy is convinced that she is leaving Tom but reconsiders after Tom reveals that Gatsby is not an Oxford man but a criminal, ” ‘He and this Wolfshiem bought up a lot of side-street drugstores here and in Chicago and sold grain alcohol over the counter’ ” (Fitzgerald 134). At that moment, the power of James’ material wealth evaporates along with Daisy’s love for him, as she ends up with Tom on vacation. The reality that Gatz is not “old money” is worsened when it comes out that the wealth he has acquired, is illegitimate and part of a criminal’s salary. His social standing as a thief ensures his rejection by Daisy, and in extension delivers the bullet to Jay’s heart as his quest for Daisy’s love dies along with him. The attempts become so feeble, that his trademarked ‘old sport’ novelty is a dire try at sounding rich and gaudy like an Englishman, reinforcing his falsified ‘Oxford-man’ image. This point is driven home as the owl-eyed man states, ” ‘ The poor son-of-a-bitch ‘ ” (Fitzgerald 177). He says this at Gatz’s funeral, where the only people who showed up were himself, Nick, and James’ father. Gatsby is so socially poor, that no one even bothers to attend his funeral.



Daisy and Tom Buchanan




            In contrast to the theme of Social poverty in the novel, there also exists the concept of Emotional poverty. What this entails is the idea of someone suffering a lack of personal happiness and well-being. We can discuss two different situations of emotional poverty by analyzing the individual characters of the Buchanans. Compared to Gatsby however, Daisy and Tom are almost on the opposite spectrum. They both sit on “old money” and live in East Egg, unlike Gatsby in West Egg. However, they suffer from being deficient people, Tom being a generally aggressive man cheating on Daisy who is unhappy in her marriage. Each of the characters in the work are all “poor” in their own unique way. For Daisy, materialism is the primary weapon of which is used to combat her sadness. It enables her to escape certain situations, for example when Tom’s concubine calls him at dinner, she tries to change the subject by being fake and drawing attention to their magnificent lawn, ” ‘I looked outdoors. There’s a bird on the lawn that I think must be a nightingale… He’s singing away-‘ Her voice sang… ” (Fitzgerald 16). Her turmoil is so noticeable that Nick tries to help her forget about it, ” I saw that her turbulent emotions possessed her, so I asked what I thought would be some sedative questions about her little girl. ” (Fitzgerald 17). Daisy even admits her cynical view of herself when she speaks about the birth of her daughter, reflecting on the role of women and what they amount to in society, ” ‘ I’m glad it’s a girl. And I hope she’ll be a fool- that’s the best thing a girl can be in this world, a beautiful little fool’ ” (Fitzgerald 18). So quite early on in the novel, it is evident that there are many reasons why Daisy is so upset, one being Tom’s alleged affair. She just has to deal with a few issues, but in the end she lives in luxury for the most part. Material goods become a way of escaping the complications and hardships in her life.





Led Zeppelin

“Stairway To Heaven”

There’s a lady who’s sure all that glitters is gold
And she’s buying the stairway to heaven.
When she gets there she knows, if the stores are all closed
With a word she can get what she came for.
Ooh, ooh, and she’s buying the stairway to heaven.

There’s a sign on the wall but she wants to be sure
‘Cause you know sometimes words have two meanings.
In a tree by the brook, there’s a songbird who sings,
Sometimes all of our thoughts are misgiven.
Ooh, it makes me wonder,
Ooh, it makes me wonder.

There’s a feeling I get when I look to the west,
And my spirit is crying for leaving.
In my thoughts I have seen rings of smoke through the trees,
And the voices of those who stand looking.
Ooh, it makes me wonder,
Ooh, it really makes me wonder.

And it’s whispered that soon if we all call the tune
Then the piper will lead us to reason.
And a new day will dawn for those who stand long
And the forests will echo with laughter.

If there’s a bustle in your hedgerow, don’t be alarmed now,
It’s just a spring clean for the May queen.
Yes, there are two paths you can go by, but in the long run
There’s still time to change the road you’re on.
And it makes me wonder.

Your head is humming and it won’t go, in case you don’t know,
The piper’s calling you to join him,
Dear lady, can you hear the wind blow, and did you know
Your stairway lies on the whispering wind.

And as we wind on down the road
Our shadows taller than our soul.
There walks a lady we all know
Who shines white light and wants to show
How everything still turns to gold.

And if you listen very hard
The tune will come to you at last.
When all are one and one is all
To be a rock and not to roll.

And she’s buying the stairway to heaven.






           Led Zeppelin’s “Stairway to Heaven” speaks of a lady who believes she can buy her way into heaven, relating to Daisy’s beliefs. She thinks that salvation and peace of mind can be gained by simply “buying a stairway to heaven“. However, this is obviously a juvenile dream to hold close to your heart especially when wealth is thought to be able to mask all complications of life. She then becomes this “lady who’s sure all that glitters is gold“, one who does not recognize the value and worth of things other than riches, such as love. Daisy’s obsession of wealth is shown the most in her reaction to the Gatsby’s intricate shirts, ” ‘ They’re such beautiful shirts,’ she sobbed, her voice muffled in the thick folds. ‘ It makes me sad because I’ve never seen such beautiful shirts before’ ” (Fitzgerald 93-94). She has an emotional reaction to the extravagance of a couple of shirts, not even Gatsby’s house or his cars, but his shirts. The reading of those lines comes off as quite unusual and confusing, because it is a sad reality to see how much Daisy is engulfed by this need for greed. She adopts this behaviour to compensate for the depression set on by her feelings. The other side of her poorness of emotion is highlighted by the harbouring of her ancient love for Gatsby. The situation is made worse by Tom’s affairs and was terrible in the beginning when they got married, ” ‘ Take ’em downstairs and give ’em back to whoever they belong to. Tell ’em all Daisy’s change’ her mine’ ” (Fitzgerald 77). In that scene of the novel, Daisy is drunk and broken as she has a letter from Gatsby in her hand. It is implied that the letter is depicting his safe return, which tears her apart as she is wearing her wedding dress before being united with Tom. She decides to call off the wedding but is convinced otherwise, however there seems to still be some form of regret as Jordan suggests, ” ‘Perhaps Daisy never went in for amour at all- and yet there’s something in that voice of hers… ‘ ” (Fitzgerald 78). This something in her voice is then perfectly captured by Gatsby himself, almost depicting that he sees right through her manufactured visage, ” ‘Her voice is full of money’ ” (Fitzgerald 120). It is suggested that wealth is almost embedded into her speech, that her impressions and words, extensions of her own self, emit the existence of richness. This is a fabricated disposition however, where her deficiency of emotional capital is replaced by money. This is then the exact reason why she does not fall for Gatsby, and the exact cause of his untimely death.





          Tom’s version of emotional shortage does not deal with love, but with a battle for self-fulfilment. Even on the first few pages, Nick’s description nearly encompasses the essence of Tom’s character, ” … a national figure in a way, one of those men who reach such an acute limited excellence at twenty-one that everything afterward savours of anti-climax” (Fitzgerald 6). This is most definitely a reality that Tom must wake up to every morning. In his case however, he compensates for this emotional meagerness by asserting his overly masculine image. The first method by which he does so is by maintaining affairs with other woman and by cheating on Daisy, ” ‘ Tom’s got some woman in New York ‘ ” (Fitzgerald 16). This plays on the concept of a real man being enough for not one, but two women. He doesn’t really care about the consequences of his actions, and generally acts in a very arrogant and nonchalant way. It comes to a point where he is very stuck up and actively maintains an aggressive and physical demeanor, lashing out at random people in order to assert his dominance, ” ‘ It’s a bitch,’ said Tom decisively. ‘ Here’s your money. Go and buy ten more dogs with it’ ” (Fitzgerald 28). He gives attitude to a man simply trying to sell puppies, and it is not like he was being rude or insulting to Tom or anyone else. Tom can be seen as the bully in an elementary school, constantly instilling fear and keeping the general population in check with a fiery glance or swift remark. This portrayal of masculinity though, is just an extraverted way of releasing the anxiety created by his inner insufficiency.





“I’m Glad I’m a Man” Lyrics


I’m glad I’m a man, you better believe.
I don’t live off yogurt, diet coke or cottage cheese.
I don’t bitch to my girlfriends about the size of my breasts.
I can get where I want to – North, South, East or West.
I don’t get wasted after only two beers,
and when I do drink, I don’t end up in tears.

I won’t spend hours deciding what to wear.
I spend five minutes max fixing my hair,
and I don’t go around checking my reflection
in everything shiny from every direction.
I don’t whine in public and make us leave early,
and when you ask why get all bitter and surly.

I’m glad I’m a man. I’m so glad I could sing.
I don’t have to sit around waiting for that ring.
I don’t gossip about friends or stab them in the back.
I don’t carry differences into the sack.
I’ll never go psycho and threaten to kill you
or think every guy out there’s trying to steal you.
I’m rational, reasonable, and logical too.
I know what the time is and I know what to do.

And I honestly think it’s a privilege for me
to have these two balls and stand when I pee.
I love to watch sports and play all sorts of ball,
It’s more fun than dealing with women after all.
I won’t cry if you figure out it’s not going to work.
I won’t remain bitter and call you a jerk.
Feel free to use me for immediate pleasure.
I won’t assume it’s permanent by any measure.

Yes, I’m glad I’m a man, a man you see.
I’m glad I’m not capable of child delivery.
I don’t get all bitchy every 28 days.
I’m glad that my gender gets me a much bigger raise.
I’m a man by chance and I’m thankful it’s true.
I’m so glad I’m a man and not a woman like you!






          Just like in the song ” I’m Glad I’m a Man”, there exists many stereotypical male beliefs that are rooted in Tom’s personality. The physical capabilities of men being highly emphasized to the contrast of women being weak and frail. Nick’s first encounter with Tom personifies this skewed view of gender equality, ” -he seemed to fill those glistening boots until he strained the top lacing, and you could see a great pack of muscle shifting… It was a body capable of enormous leverage a cruel body. ” (Fitzgerald 7). Tom Buchanan definitely has the look of a cruel man and therefore he becomes a cruel man because of it. The truth of the matter is, that he himself knows that this is the reality he lives in, ” ‘ Now don’t think my opinion on these matters is final,’ he seemed to say, ‘ just because I’m stronger and more of a man than you are ‘ ” (Fitzgerald 7). What better way to confirm this image of himself than to promote his muscular abilities, especially to those around him. The most evident victims however are the women in Tom’s life, first Daisy with her “accidentally” injured finger, ” -the knuckle was black and blue. ‘ You did it Tom,’ she said accusingly. ‘ I know you didn’t mean to but you did do it. That’s what I get for marrying a brute of a man, a great, big, hulking physical specimen…’ ” (Fitzgerald 12). It is highly doubted that this injury was caused by accident, it most likely occurred during a disagreement where Tom probably got violent. It is not quite unlikely that he hurts or hits Daisy, as his reaction to confrontation is usually with his hands rather than his words, ” Making a short deft movement, Tom Buchanan broke her nose with his open hand.” (Fitzgerald 37). He even goes so far as breaking Myrtle’s nose in front of a crowd of people. He has no respect or boundaries when it comes to securing his authority over others, especially the females surrounding him. It is therefore concluded that his over-masculinization of himself is simply a segway to divert attention from his impoverish self.




          Poverty in The Great Gatsby becomes a very critical and largely observed theme. The traditional definition of the word though becomes more developed, expanding to include multiple dimensions of poorness. More specifically, characters in the novel are examples of the impoverished conditions involved with the absence of sufficient emotional and social wealth. This in turn, equalizes the importance of material goods with those of social and sentimental values, creating a plateau of comparison. In the cases displayed by the book however, all the characters do not suffer from the lack of funds in life, but of certain key dimensions within themselves. Gatsby is devoid of the prominence of social standing while Daisy and Tom Buchanan suffer unfulfillment. They are all equally in debt however, and each attempt to make up for their own weaknesses. Gatsby resorts to over-the-top spectacles of his money to hide his faults, Daisy indulges herself in her own riches to hide away from how she really feels, and Tom relays his physical dominance over everyone because he is afflicted with the loss of his greatness. In their own niche, all three characterize the idea of poverty within their own lives. The novel then is the story of the segregated existence of Gatsby, Daisy, and Tom until Nick arrives in New York and they are all flung together. Even though love is a considerable concept within the work, the theme of social & emotional poverty in the novel over-exceeds it’s importance and guides us through a different perspective of The Great Gatsby.




  1. No comments yet.
  1. June 14, 2010 at 12:15 am

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: