Jean Toomer’s experimental novel, Cane, and F. Scott Fitzgerald’s classic, The Great Gatsby, may seem, at first glance, to be wildly different novels in terms of their subjects, settings, plots, and narrative structure and organization. While this is true, the two novels are more similar than one might suspect initially, given that their authors’ explorations of the same theme reveal possibilities for intertextual comparison and analysis. Both Toomer and Fitzgerald created a cast of characters who were marked indelibly by their social class, and it is this aspect of identity which serves as the point of departure for both novels to engage “the question of what happens to human closeness when it is punctured by social-class divisions" (McKay 138). In this sense, then, a comparison of Cane and The Great Gatsbyreveals that despite dramatic differences in the life conditions, circumstances, and places of the characters in each novel, the consequences of strict and artificially constructed social class divisions are essentially the same for both the wealthy and the impoverished. The most significant consequence identified and considered by both Toomer and Fitzgerald in “The Great Gatsby” and “Cane” is that of disconnection from a larger community as the result of the rejection of one’s true self, or that which occurs when an individual creates and projects a false self.
In Toomer’s Cane, the author is able to present a wide variety of characters because of his experimental narrative style. The novel is not linear, per se; rather, it incorporates disparate fragments, mostly poems and short stories, and weaves them together so that the reader gets a more global or macro perspective of the social situation which Toomer wishes to convey in the novel Cane. That social situation is the artificial schema of social class, which divides people arbitrarily. Toomer’s choice to present and explore social class and its consequences in this way is important. Rather than focusing on just a small handful of characters, which might suggest that the situation was localized and not widespread, his inclusion of many people, both black and white, provides different voices and perspectives and signals to the reader how pervasive the problem of social class in the South was at the time when the novel was written.
Social class, of course, is inextricably tied to other aspects of identity, including race (Niemonen 52), and race definitely plays a central role in Cane by Jean Toomer. Most of the characters in Cane are black, and Toomer seems to want to explain to the reader, through suggestion, not didactically, that being black in the South and being poor are co-occurring conditions that are difficult to separate. Being black predisposes Toomer’s characters in Cane to being impoverished, and being impoverished is a condition of being black. This poverty is not just monetary, though. While social class is often thought of in terms of economics, it also includes more abstract concepts, such as access to resources and institutions, privilege, and a sense of empowerment, authority, and self-determination. Even on Seventh Street, where black people can be seen with money, driving Cadillacs, there is still a strong sense of abject poverty. The wealth that the Seventh Street blacks enjoy is external and superficial; it does not free them from their conditions in any way and in one of the important quotes from Cane by Jean Toomer, it is said, “Money burns the pockets" (Toomer 39) and the “pocket hurts" (Toomer 39). The narrator refers to Seventh Street as a “bastard of Prohibition and the War," (Toomer 39), so it is clear that the money on Seventh Street does not necessarily elevate the social class of the people who live there in any meaningful way.
Even the poor white characters in Cane are affected by the divisions of social class. In fact, one of the most compelling examples of what happens to people who become victims of the divisions created by social class is Becky, “the white woman who had two Negro sons" (Toomer 5). Both blacks and whites have shunned Becky for committing the ultimate violation of the rigid norms of social class: fornicating with a black man. Everything about the way that Becky is described emphasizes her isolation from others. She is viewed as an outcast, and, in one of the important quotes from Cane by Jean Toomer, “[c]ommon, God-forsaken, insane white shameless wench" (Toomer 5) and a “[p]oor Catholic poor-white crazy woman" (Toomer 5). Even though the narrator explains the surreptitious efforts of both blacks and whites to show Becky occasional charity, the fact that no one was willing to accept Becky or her mixed-race children openly speaks volumes about what happens to a person who is cast into the lowest and most reviled social class. Becky dies in obscurity and her death is merely a curiosity, not a cause for care or concern. This episode underscores “a sense of the tragic separateness, the tragic sterility of people" (Scruggs 77), a separateness and sterility forced—and enforced—by the arbitrary divisions of social class, which pervade Cane.
Although Fitzgerald’s “The Great Gatsby” takes place in another era, in another place, and with a completely different cast of characters, all set before the reader in a linear narrative, this “tragic separateness" and “tragic sterility" described so poignantly by Scruggs (77) is just as characteristic of this novel as it is of Cane, if not more so. Fitzgerald portrays members of high society in Long Island, New York, and from the opening of “The Great Gatsby”, the reader becomes acutely aware of how important social class is to the identity of the characters; it is through social class that individuals define themselves and determine how they will relate with others. Nick, the narrator of “The Great Gatsby”, alludes to some of the social class distinctions that will become so vital to the development of the novel’s plot by describing the setting in one of the important quotes from The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald, “I lived at West Egg, the—well, the less fashionable of the two [eggs]" (Fitzgerald 9). West Egg is contrasted with East Egg, situated “Across the…bay [where] the white palaces of the fashionable… glittered" (Fitzgerald 10). The opposition of the two neighborhoods is important because it foreshadows the events to come; the narrator explains that “the history of the summer really begins on the evening I drove over there [to East Egg]…." (Fitzgerald 10).
Nick orients the reader to the various layers that exist within the upper crust of society where class is so important, for there are the wealthy and then there are the wealthier. As Mizener observes, the divisions among the class elements are as sharp as the divisions between poor and rich, though they may not be so obvious, and they are made possible and sustained by “social inequality and inequity" (44). There is also, most importantly, the figure of Gatsby, who is difficult to situate within this hierarchy of wealth. Gatsby cultivates an air of mystery, but his identity is quite literally bound up in his social class. The lavish parties that Gatsby hosts on Saturday evenings are the see-and- be-seen events of Long Island, and no detail is overlooked if it means ensuring the comfort and pleasure of Gatsby’s specially invited guests. Yet no one knows who Gatsby really is. There are debates about his pedigree and class, and many party-goers are curious as to how he has accumulated his wealth. Gatsby spins a series of tales about his background, including a reference to having been “educated at Oxford" (Fitzgerald 69). While there are some nagging doubts, with Nick becoming increasingly dubious over time, it is not until the end of the novel that Gatsby is revealed as having invented himself. He is actually from a humble, poor and low class family from Minnesota, and he changed everything about his background to reflect the person he wanted to be, rather than the person he really was. Ultimately, this self-invention, because it embraced a false self, really only served to keep Gatsby emotionally and socially isolated, even though he was constantly surrounded by people. While he was admired by the upper class, the attention of which he was so desperate to gain, his failure to admit his true identity prevented him from being authentically connected to others in a meaningful way.
While most of the characters in “The Great Gatsby” are relatively wealthy, with the notable exception of Wilson the mechanic, Fitzgerald uses a series of subtle techniques and literary devices to underscore the tensions and divisions that separate the classes different groups of rich people. One of these techniques, identified by Giltrow and Stouck, is “the high politeness–distancing and ironic—“ (476) of speech, which indicates a great deal about the speaker. Giltrow and Stouck specifically mention the incident in which Nick reports on the drunk driving accident in one of the important quotes from The Great Gatsbyby Fitzgerald “We know that men who were ‘little better off’ than the driver would not say [the] ‘wheel and car [are] no longer joined by any physical bond’" (476). These words are stiff and formal, also evidencing detachment and a lack of emotion for the people involved in the accident. Giltrow and Stouck continue by observing that “This refined gist measures the long social distance that separates Nick from the scene in which he is involved" (476). This is just one of the many devices that Fitzgerald uses to underscore how divisive social class can be, even among the wealthy themselves.
Jean Toomer’s Cane and F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby are interesting studies in the artificially constructed divisions of social class. Although each author tackles a different setting and array of characters and situations, the meaning that they intend to be conveyed to the reader is almost identical. First, social class shapes identity in ways that are not always conscious to people, but which result in rigid divisions. Second, those divisions have negative implications for society, because they pit people against one another and create social disconnection. People cannot be their true selves, either because they are isolated from society and thus are not known, or because they feel compelled to create a false identity in order to be accepted. In either case, the implications of such divisions are serious. In the best-case scenario, the individual is ostracized and cannot contribute meaningfully to society. In the worst-case scenario, which occurs in both Cane and The Great Gatsby, the individual can die as the consequence, either directly or indirectly, of such ostracism. While Toomer and Fitzgerald refrain from overt moralizing, the message of both novels seems to be that the divisions of social class are dangerous and that connection should be sought and forged whenever possible.