While it might seem to some that racism is a fairly recent topic, the truth is that racism has been around as long as mankind has walked the earth.
Racism, though not the central focus, lurks beneath the glittering surface of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s literary masterpiece, The Great Gatsby.
This classic novel, which is set in the roaring 20s, paints a vivid portrait of the American Dream’s pursuit amidst opulence and excess. While it is celebrated for its portrayal of social and economic upheaval during the Jazz Age, an often overlooked facet of the narrative is its exploration of racial prejudices simmering beneath the extravagant parties and decadent lifestyles of the characters.
In today’s article, I want to take my readers on a journey into the hidden layers of racism within the novel, peeling back the layers of glamour and superficiality to reveal the undercurrents of discrimination and bias.
When one takes a closer look at the characters, their interactions, and the societal backdrop against which the story unfolds, one unravels the subtle yet profound manifestations of racism in The Great Gatsby.
Through this exploration, we gain a deeper understanding of the complexities of the era and the enduring relevance of Fitzgerald’s work in shedding light on the persistent issue of racism in American society.
Is There Racism in The Great Gatsby?
The short answer here is yes, there is racism in The Great Gatsby.
Set in the 1920s, the story primarily focuses on the pursuit of the American Dream among the affluent and glamorous elite of that era. However, as we dissect the narrative, it becomes apparent that racial biases and prejudices are woven into the societal fabric of the time.
One of the most striking examples of racism is the character of Tom Buchanan, a wealthy and arrogant individual who exhibits overt racist attitudes.
Tom decisively describes a book he is reading, which promotes white supremacy, and he spouts derogatory remarks about people of other races, particularly African Americans.
These comments reflect the racist beliefs held by some individuals in the 1920s and highlight the racial tensions simmering beneath the surface of society. His condescending manner towards George Wilson and elicit relationship with Myrtle Wilson describe the social inequality prevailing at the time.
One can also see racism in the character Meyer Wolfsheim, a shady figure associated with organized crime who is portrayed as Jewish. While Wolfsheim’s character isn’t inherently racist, Fitzgerald’s portrayal of the stereotypical criminal mastermind with connections to bootlegging and illegal activities plays into harmful stereotypes about Jewish people prevalent during that era.
Moreover, the absence of non-white characters in significant roles within the novel also underscores the racial limitations of Fitzgerald’s narrative. The world of The Great Gatsby is largely homogenous while focusing on the lives and affairs of wealthy white characters and sidelining the experiences and perspectives of people of color.
So while racism may not be the central theme of The Great Gatsby, it is undeniably present in the novel through the attitudes and behaviors of certain characters, the stereotypes perpetuated, and the societal backdrop against which the story unfolds.
Great Gatsby Racist Quotes from Tom Buchanan
Tom Buchanan, a central character in The Great Gatsby, is a glaring source of racist quotes and attitudes in the novel.
His blatant and unapologetic expressions of racial prejudice paint a disturbing picture of the era’s entrenched racism, at least among the wealthy.
One of the most chilling quotes is from Chapter 1, when Tom, in a dismissive tone, endorses a book he’s been reading. The book promotes white supremacy, and Tom’s quote below reveals his endorsement of such harmful beliefs.
‘Civilization’s going to pieces,’ broke out Tom violently. ‘I’ve gotten to be a terrible pessimist about things. Have you read The Rise of the Colored Empires by this man Goddard?…
Well, it’s a fine book, and everybody ought to read it. The idea is if we don’t look out, the white race will be – will be utterly submerged. It’s all scientific stuff; it’s been proved…
This fellow has worked out the whole thing. It’s up to us, who are the dominant race, to watch out or those other races will have control of things…
The idea is that we’re Nordics. I am, and you are, and we’ve produced all the things that go to make civilization—oh, science and art, and all that. Do you see?’
He casually uses racial slurs and derogatory language, perpetuating harmful stereotypes and demonstrating his disdain for people of color. Tom’s remarks not only highlight his own bigotry but also serve as a stark reminder of the prevailing racial prejudices of the 1920s.
Daisy seems to find his racist remarks amusing, and while Jordan Baker has some point to make, Tom interrupts her so we never get to find out what she is going to say:
‘We’ve got to beat them down,’ whispered Daisy, winking ferociously toward the fervent sun.
‘You ought to live in California —’ began Miss Baker, but Tom interrupted her by shifting heavily in his chair.
Tom’s racist views are not isolated incidents either but rather a reflection of the broader social context of the time. He furthers this idea with this quote in Chapter 7:
‘Self-control!’ Repeated Tom incredulously.
‘I suppose the latest thing is to sit back and let Mr. Nobody from Nowhere make love to your wife. Well, if that’s the idea you can count me out.
Nowadays people begin by sneering at family life and family institutions, and next they’ll throw everything overboard and have intermarriage between black and white.’
The Great Gatsby is set against the backdrop of a racially segregated society, and Tom’s attitudes align with the prevailing racial hierarchy, where white supremacy was deeply ingrained.
By incorporating such racist quotes and attitudes into Tom’s character, Fitzgerald provides a window into the racial tensions and prejudices that simmered beneath the surface of the glamorous Jazz Age. These quotes underscore the complexity and darkness lurking beneath the facade of wealth and opulence in the novel.
How Do Tom and Daisy Buchanan Feel About Race?
In The Great Gatsby, Tom and Daisy Buchanan represent the privileged elite of the 1920s, exhibiting a certain indifference and apathy towards issues of race.
Their attitudes towards race are shaped by their social class and the era in which they live, reflecting a prevailing sense of racial superiority among the white upper class during that time.
Tom Buchanan, in particular, displays a more overt form of racism. He is portrayed as an arrogant and domineering figure who openly expresses racist views.
Fitzgerald’s description of Tom’s physical features leaves no doubt about his arrogance:
Now he was a sturdy straw-haired man of thirty with a rather hard mouth and a supercilious manner. Two shining arrogant eyes had established dominance over his face and gave him the appearance of always leaning aggressively forward.
Tom Buchanan praises a book that promotes white supremacy, and does so with casual acceptance. He also uses racial slurs and derogatory language when discussing people of color, revealing his deep-seated prejudices. Tom’s attitudes exemplify the racially biased views held by some of the wealthy elite in the 1920s.
Daisy Buchanan, on the other hand, is depicted as a more passive character when it comes to matters of race. However, while she doesn’t openly express racist sentiments as her husband does, she does little to challenge or question his views. Her complacency suggests a willingness to accept the prevailing racial norms of her social circle without much critical thought.
Who Is Daisy Buchanan?
Overall, while Daisy may not openly endorse racist views, she tacitly condones them through her inaction and lack of opposition to Tom’s beliefs. A small snide comment said to her cousin Nick Carraway is all the objection she seems to be able to muster.
Racism in The Great Gatsby lurks just below the surface, and you won’t find anyone speaking out against it except perhaps for Jordan Baker. However, she never finishes her sentence in Chapter 1, so we can’t even be certain that she was going to do even that.
Together, Tom and Daisy Buchanan embody the moral decay and superficiality of the upper class in the novel, and their attitudes towards race serve as a reflection of the broader racial tensions and prejudices of the era.
Was Racism Prevalent During the Roaring 20s?
Yes, racism was undeniably prevalent during the Roaring Twenties, a period characterized by social, cultural, and economic dynamism in the United States. While the decade is often romanticized for its jazz music, flapper culture, and economic prosperity, it was also marked by deeply entrenched racial prejudices and discrimination.
The 1920s witnessed a resurgence of the Ku Klux Klan, a white supremacist organization that terrorized African Americans and other minority groups, primarily in the South but also in other parts of the country. This resurgence was fueled by fear of social change and a desire to maintain racial hierarchies.
Jim Crow laws, which enforced racial segregation in public facilities and institutions, were widespread in the South during this period. African Americans faced systemic discrimination and limited access to education and employment opportunities, and they were often subjected to violence and intimidation.
Immigration laws and quotas in the 1920s were also influenced by racial biases, with restrictions aimed at limiting the influx of immigrants from non-European countries, particularly from Asia.
Popular culture, including literature and film, often used racial stereotypes (such as “blackface”) as a means of humor, perpetuating harmful views about non-white communities.
In short, while the Roaring Twenties is remembered for its cultural vibrancy, it was also a time of deep racial inequality and discrimination, with racism permeating various aspects of American society.
The decade’s economic prosperity and cultural innovations did not erase the racial tensions and prejudices that were deeply ingrained in the fabric of American life during that era.
Does Anyone Else Exhibit Racism in The Great Gatsby?
Yes, aside from Tom Buchanan, there are instances of other characters in The Great Gatsby exhibiting racist behavior or using racist language, though they may not be as overt or central to the narrative.
For example, when narrator Nick Carraway attends one of Gatsby’s extravagant parties, he describes the diverse crowd in a somewhat condescending manner. He highlights the presence of “middle Westerners” and “East Egg celebrities” as separate groups, subtly reinforcing class and possibly racial distinctions since people living in these areas tend to be white.
We can also find Great Gatsby racism quotes in the character of Meyer Wolfsheim, who is associated with organized crime. He is portrayed as being a Jewish man, and his characterization draws upon harmful stereotypes about Jewish people that were prevalent during the era.
While Wolfsheim’s behavior is more related to his criminal activities than his ethnicity, his presence in the novel perpetuates stereotypes about Jewish individuals.
These instances may not be as overt as Tom Buchanan’s blatant racist remarks, but they reflect the broader social context of the 1920s, where racial and ethnic biases were often subtly embedded in everyday interactions and perceptions. Racism in The Great Gatsby is never difficult to find.
Fitzgerald’s inclusion of these racial elements in the novel serves to provide a nuanced portrayal of the complex social dynamics of the time, including the presence of racial and ethnic prejudices within the society portrayed in The Great Gatsby.
In closing, The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald, while primarily celebrated for its vivid depiction of the Jazz Age and the American Dream, undeniably contains subtle yet impactful elements of racism.
Through characters like Tom Buchanan and the use of stereotypes, Fitzgerald offers a glimpse into the racial tensions and prejudices simmering beneath the surface of the era’s opulent façade.
These aspects of the novel remind us that the Roaring Twenties, for all its glamour and excess, was a period marked by deep-seated racial discrimination and social inequality.
Racism in The Great Gatsby serves as a reminder that even in the midst of dazzling parties and extravagant lifestyles, the issue of racism was never far from the narrative.
Written by Kerry Wisby – GatsbyFlapperGirl.com
Owner & Founder of GatsbyFlapperGirl.com
Kerry Wisby, a former teacher with a BA in English, is the founder of GatsbyFlapperGirl.com. With a passion for all things 1920s, including The Great Gatsby novel, her website is the ultimate source for Roaring Twenties fashion, history, and party ideas. Read more about Kerry here.