In the mirror that The Great Gatsby holds up to 1920s America, we can see a reflection of our own illusions. We need to acknowledge them before we can deal with some of our most deep-rooted social problems.
Toby Hill is a London-based journalist and writer
“Is Gatsby great? Outline arguments on both sides of the debate.”
Over the last couple of months, I’ve travelled around London’s richest boroughs posing this question. Like innumerable other semi-employed graduates, I work part-time as a private tutor. Private tuition is one of the country’s few booming industries, which says a lot about both graduate job prospects and the inequity of opportunity in contemporary Britain.
As an English tutor, a pleasing irony hangs over the whole enterprise. The authors I discuss, from Miller to Steinbeck to Fitzgerald to Priestley, invariably explore the damaging consequences of inequality in the societies of their time.
Take the question above. Is Gatsby – the charming crook in Fitzgerald’s novel and Luhrmann’s roundly-panned new film – great? Of course, as any of my pupils will tell you, he is wonderful: a romantic adventurer with “a heightened sensitivity to the promises of life”. But what really sets Gatsby apart is the fact that he, alone among the novel’s characters, escapes the class he was born into.
That he does so through the criminal economy is less an indictment of his ethics than of the social structures of his time, which divide the classes with ‘indiscernible barbed wire’. The novel’s more conventional working-class characters, George and Myrtle, are corralled into a lifetime of spirit-sapping poverty. The sudden, violent denouement which brings them all together is one of the most succinct expressions of the relationship between the classes in modern literature.
And so The Great Gatsby punctures an old ideal of American society: the American Dream. In British terms, this is a kind of Thatcherite faith in the efficacy of the entrepreneurial spirit. It asserts that anyone, regardless of their background, is able to achieve their aspirations. Exposing this as a myth is one of the most vivid threads in Fitzgerald’s fabulous tapestry of jazz age America.
In the process of teaching Gatsby, it’s struck me how relevant this critique remains today. Many of the teenagers I work with will end up in our society’s most influential roles. Just like the aristocratic bully Tom Buchanan, their privileged childhoods are likely to evolve into powerful adulthoods. To rehash well-known statistics: only 7 per cent of the UK population go to private schools. But 32 per cent of MPs, 54 per cent of FTSE-100 CEOs, 54 per cent of top journalists, and 70 per cent of High Court judges did so.
Plenty of other statistics prove that it is background rather than merit that determines people’s role in modern Britain. One in 5 children in the UK are on free school meals, but only one in 100 Oxbridge entrants. At the age of 4-5, children from the poorest fifth of homes are already 19 months behind children from the richest homes. OECD figures show that earnings in the UK are more likely to reflect those of our fathers than in any other developed country. The stats go on and on.
This isn’t news, you might say. Everybody knows the game is fixed, the poor stay poor, the rich get rich, as Leonard Cohen sang in 1988. Perhaps so; but there is an obvious element of doublethink in our conviction here.
Most of us believe that we live in a free society. We believe that people in liberal democracies such as the UK are free to shape their own lives. If we didn’t, how could the field of British politics have narrowed to a technocrat-tinkering tussle for the centre ground? How could much of the media acquiesce with the kind of cuts imposed by the coalition? The deficit is undoubtedly a problem, but having your life opportunities corroded from birth surely qualifies as a significant problem too. Exacerbating this injustice is one of the consequences of a cuts-led deficit reduction programme.
Austerity has already scythed down many of the programmes intended to reduce this gulf in opportunity. In 2011, EMA was replaced by a programme with 60 per cent less funding. AimHigher, an initiative providing poorer students with guidance on entering university, was axed in the same year. This just as the cost of higher education tripled, and so these pupils were in more acute need of advice than ever before.
Between 2010 and 2012, cuts to youth services averaged 27 per cent, as local authority Early Intervention Grants were slashed. Over 400 SureStart centres have closed as a result. In the same period, 347 library services shut down. Child benefit has been frozen since 2012. These cuts can only amplify the effect of background on a young person’s development. It is no wonder that private tuition is booming.
In the mirror that The Great Gatsby holds up to 1920s America, we can see a reflection of our own illusions. We need to acknowledge them before we can deal with some of our most deep-rooted social problems.Like this article? Sign up to Left Foot Forward's weekday email for the latest progressive news and comment - and support campaigning journalism by making a donation today.