The Great Gatsby Historical Context

‘The Great Gatsby’ is F. Scott Fitzgerald’s best-known novel. It encapsulates the Jazz Age of the United States in the 1920s.

The Great Gatsby was published in 1925 and it was this third novel. He began writing it in June of 1922 and submitted the revised proofs in February 1925. F. Scott Fitzgerald declined an offer of $10,000 for serial rights to the novel in order to publish it as a whole sooner. He eventually made very little from the book. It was not nearly as successful as his first two novels. 

The Great Gatsby Historical Context


Historical Context 

Fitzgerald popularized the term “Jazz Age.” It’s used today to define the period during which Fitzgerald lived and wrote about it. It is also sometimes referred to as the “roaring twenties.” This was a period of shifting morals post-WWI, flappers, prohibition, and wild parties. There were new freedoms for women, and they demonstrated their freedom by cutting their hair short and changing what they wore. The novel, which is set four years after WWI, is considered to be a portrait of this period with characters like Daisy Buchanan representing, to a degree, the flappers of the day and Gatsby’s parties reflecting the celebrations seen regularly throughout the city. 

World War I features in other ways in the novel as well. Nick and Gatsby are veterans of the war although the latter’s history is less clear. The Jazz Age ended in 1929 when the stock market crashed and the Great Depression began. 

The American Dream and the Valley of Ashes

Of course, it’s important to note, this novel focuses primarily on the upper classes. This means that while the book might depict this group in a historically important way, there is a great deal of society that doesn’t feature prominently in the novel. The 20s were not “roaring” for everyone, despite the economic boom from 1920 to 1929. Income levels were, generally, on the rise, businesses were growing, and trading on the stock market was profitable. (The latter connects to Nick Carraway’s new business prospects.) 

Fitzgerald alludes to the stark class differences in his novel through the depiction of the Valley of Ashes and his contrasting portrayal of the American dream for someone like Gatsby and for someone like George Wilson. The latter lives in the “ashes,” or what the wealthy leave behind as they pursue wealth single-mindedly. George works an honest job in a run-down auto repair shop, doing his best to support his wife. However, he’s naive when it comes to what his wife, Myrtle, has been up to his Daisy’s husband, Tom, and when he finds out, he’s furious. 

Interestingly, despite how hard George and Gatsby both worked and the different lives they ended up with, they both lose the thing they love the most. George’s wife, Myrtle, dies in an accident, and Gatsby’s love, Daisy, abandons him. Neither achieved what the American dream promised. 

Fitzgerald spends the bulk of the novel focusing on the lives of the rich and famous. People like Jordan, the Buchanans, and Jay Gatsby himself. Fitzgerald’s narrator, as mostly an outsider to this world, provides readers with interesting insights into the true nature of their lives. At the heart of their wealth is a lack of empathy, charity, or general kindness or one another or anyone else. In this way, Fitzgerald explores the loss of America’s moral compass as men and women sought to embrace the new post-WWI wealth. While on the surface, it seemed fantastical and amazing, beneath there is corruption and cruelty. 

Prohibition

Prohibition is another important feature in the novel, one that some scholars put at its heart. During this period, which lasted from 1920 to 1933, alcohol sales were made illegal in the United States. Those who supported the ban cited a decline in morals, religion, and family values as a result of drinking alcohol. Prohibition allowed Jay Gatsby to accumulate his wealth. He and his partners bootlegged alcohol on the black market, selling it illegally and making a great deal of money. Gatsby was able to rise into the ranks of the uber-wealthy in a way that did not sit well with the “old money” families like the Buchanans. It is this difference that puts West and East Egg slightly at odds. The “old money” side is seen as more sophisticated and desirable than the “new money” side. 

While it’s never clearly stated exactly what Gatsby is up to, there are allusions that bootlegging is not the only business he’s in. For example, he’s close with an underworld boss, Meyer Wolfsheim who he introduces Nick. He describes him as “the man who fixed the World Series back in 1919.” Nick is shocked by this piece of information, and it changes his entire perceptive. There is more darkness to Gatsby’s life than even Nick finds out. This is all alluded to with rumors like he “was nephew to von Hindenburg and second cousin to the devil.”

Flappers 

Also seen throughout The Great Gatsby is the flapper culture. This period of women’s liberation saw young women with short hair and increased freedoms. Jordan Baker is the best example of this kind of woman. Despite society’s changing nature, the world still hasn’t accepted Jordan as an independent person. She dates multiple men, says and does what she wants, and is well-known as an athlete. These features set her at a stark distance from women in previous generations. For many during this period, she represented what was going wrong with the United States. Fitzgerald’s central characters in The Great Gatsby are never this direct in their judgments of her, but Nick and others do make passing comments about her character. 

Personal Context 

Often, readers try to draw comparisons between Fitzgerald’s life and the lives of the characters in The Great Gatsby. Fitzgerald’s wife, Zelda, is sometimes compared to Daisy Buchanan. This comparison is strengthened by the fact that the two didn’t marry until Fitzgerald had published his first book, and it proved to be a financial success. This is similar to how Daisy and Gatsby didn’t marry because the latter lacked the means to give Daisy the life she wanted. This is why she married Tom Buchanan and the loss that inspired Gatsby to strive for the life he achieved. It also led to his downfall and death. 

FAQs

What was the message of The Great Gatsby?

The message is that the American Dream is a myth and that wealth corrupts. 

What influenced The Great Gatsby?

The Great Gatsby was influenced by Fitzgerald’s contemporary life and the culture of the 1920s. 

Why was The Great Gatsby written?

Fitzgerald wrote The Great Gatsby with the intention of penning his masterpiece. Its also been suggested that he wanted to share something about his person life. He said that he wanted to “write something extraordinary and beautiful.” 

How does The Great Gatsby represent the 1920s?

It represents the shift in morals, economic boom, increased freedoms for women, and even the automobile boom. 

How did Jay Gatsby get rich?

Gatsby gained his wealth through illegal means like bootlegging. He has ties to the underworld, suggesting that he might also be involved in other illegal pursuits. 

About Emma Baldwin
Emma graduated from East Carolina University with a BA in English, minor in Creative Writing, BFA in Fine Art, and BA in Art Histories. Literature is one of her greatest passions which she pursues on Book Analysis.

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