The concept of “new” and “old” money is hard for the average modern reader to understand. In most parts of the country, the term “nouveau riche” isn’t often used, and with the onslaught of new Internet millionaires and billionaires in the last decade, the judgment is certainly no longer there. Today’s America values the self-made man or woman, the “rags to riches” story. A person who makes her own fortune is smart and innovative, an entrepreneur. She’s someone to be admired.
However, this wasn’t always the case. There was a time when building one’s own fortune was considered crude, and only the kind of wealth that came to this country on the Mayflower was valued. In the 1920’s, the East Coast, particularly New England and New York, was a land of haves, have-nots, and have-had-since-long-before-the-haves. This is the setting for F. Scott Fitzgerald’s classic novel, The Great Gatsby.
In Gatsby’s world, the difference between old and new money is not just a theoretical divide, it’s a physical one. The “old money” elite (including Daisy Buchanan, the object of Jay Gatsby’s affection) live in the East Egg neighborhood, while the riff-raff nouveau riche, including Gatsby himself, are relegated to West Egg. To the uninformed observer, the two Eggs are virtually identical, but to the Eggs’ respective inhabitants, differences are apparent everywhere. Whenever Gatsby visits the Buchanans in East Egg, he may as well be wearing a big red “EE” (a new kind of Scarlet Letter) on his lapel.
The social divide between Gatsby and Daisy has been the impediment to their relationship since the beginning, and when Gatsby went out to make his fortune as a young man, he did it with the dream of winning Daisy as his motivation. He does end up becoming incredibly wealthy and has the house, clothes and parties to show it. The only problem? The love of his life, Daisy, has married Tom Buchanan in the interim, and it seems that all of his work has been for naught.
Those who believe that Fitzgerald wrote The Great Gatsby as a social and economic commentary, see the novel as an allegory, a cautionary tale about the dangers of the pursuit of wealth. Their interpretation of one of the most famous Great Gatsby quotes, “Gatsby believed in the green light, the orgastic future that year by year recedes before us. It eluded us then, but that’s no matter – to-morrow we will run faster, stretch out our arms farther… And one fine morning –” is guided by this notion. The green light, they say, represents money, and the quote demonstrates the futility of pursuing it. There will always be someone richer; the race has no finish line.
But if that were the case; it Gatsby were just a mercenary, and Daisy a symbol of what he could achieve with his wealth, it’s unlikely that Nick would like him so much. “You’re worth the whole damn bunch of them put together,” he tells Gatsby, despite the fact that he “thoroughly disapproved” of Gatsby’s way of life. If the reader trusts Nick’s judgment and believes that he really is as honest as he claims to be, his loyalty to Gatsby (loyalty to the end – Nick ends up being one of the only people to attend Gatsby’s funeral) must be worth something.