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The Gatsby Gap

May 17, 2013
Photo of an old car from 1929 [image from Bonhams auction of car used in 1970s Gatsby film]

Director Baz Luhrmann’s film adaptation of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s 1925 novel The Great Gatsby was released in theaters on May 10 and has since grossed more than $60 million. But another interesting Gatsby-related work you may not have heard about was released a little over a year ago: The Great Gatsby Curve.

Introduced in a speech by former Obama economic adviser Alan Krueger (and past colleague of Berkeley economics professor David Card, who will be featured in the Summer issue) it’s from a study by economist Miles Corak that looked at inequality in several countries and the likelihood that children will inherit their parents’ income level. The results showed that income inequality has a negative effect on upward mobility—especially in the U.S., as compared with other nations.

What does economic inequality have to do with The Great Gatsby? A refresher for those of us who aren’t literary scholars: a recurring theme in Fitzgerald’s American classic is the myth of the American Dream and upward mobility. Jay Gatsby, try as he might to rise to the extravagant social class of his beloved Daisy, was tragically unsuccessful—and maybe doomed from the get-go.

Berkeley English professor Mitchell Breitwieser, interviewed via email, believes Fitzgerald was especially concerned with portraying the differences between old money and new money in 1920s society: “No matter how much money he made, Gatsby could never acquire the easy and tasteful manners he would need to move gracefully in Daisy’s world.”

A specific example is when Gatsby referred to other characters as “old Sport,” a colloquialism that seemed mechanical and affected, said Breitwieser. “A more natural demeanor requires breeding…. For Fitzgerald, the notion of accomplishing the American Dream in one lifetime is probably a myth.”

The level of inequality of the “roaring ’20s” has been similarly compared to today’s. So, if we believe Krueger, you can expect to stay on whichever step of the economic ladder your parents ended their climb. And if, like Gatsby, you began from the bottom, you may even expect to die there. But if you’re like Daisy’s old-moneyed husband, Tom, things are looking pretty good for you, especially in today’s economy.

“In Fitzgerald’s time, the typical American may have been more likely than we are today to believe that patrician figures such as Tom Buchanan were brought up to embody decency and social responsibility,” Breitwieser added, “and therefore, readers [back then] might be more shocked by Tom’s feeling of being entitled to do whatever he pleases.” So keep it up, Toms of the world. We may be on to you, but we’re not coming for you. Yet.

—Justin Seiter

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