Examine The Great Gatsby through a historical lens. How did the economic, cultural, social, political factors present in the 1920s influence Fitzgerald's writing? How do those influences show up in the novel?
After F. Scott Fitzgerald's death, it was written in an editorial for the New York Times that he was
...better than he knew, for in fact and in the literary sense he invented a generation ... He might have interpreted them and even guided them, as in their middle years they saw a different and nobler freedom threatened with destruction.
Interestingly, Fitzgerald, who himself wrote musicals, dubbed the 1920's the Jazz Age. Indeed, it was an age in which he and his wife Zelda could have been written into manuscripts. And, certainly, there is much in The Great Gatsby that is, at least, semi-autobiographical, such as Gatsby's coming from Minnesota, going into the military service, becoming wealthy so that he could marry the rich girl of his youthful dreams, his moving out to the East, his materialism, his moral corruption as he became a Hollywood hack (a writer of second-rate stories).
Since much of the artist is often in his art, The Great Gatsby seems almost a scrapbook of Fitzgerald's age. Here are some of the elements of the Jazz Age that are incorporated into this famous novel:
- Materialism - The Roaring Twenties was an age in which many became wealthy from both legal and illegal activities. Cars were opulent and a sign of wealth and faster-paced lifestyles.
Tom Buchanan comes from Chicago as one of the nouveau riche and buys a mansion in East Egg, bringing his polo ponies with him. When Daisy is reluctant to marry him, he persuades her with a $350,000.00 pearl necklace. Later, when Gatsby has an opulent mansion constructed in West Egg and holds lavish and excessive parties on his "blue lawn," he has enough wealth to impress Daisy--whose "voice is full of money"--and persuade her to see him clandestinely. It matters not from where Gatsby has procured his money, either.
- Amorality and Hedonism - The main characters exhibit no morality; wealth and social position are their only measures of value.
A stereotypical character of the Roaring 20's, Jordan Baker cheats at her golf tournaments, gossips about her friends, values seemingly little, and lies (a "bad driver"). Daisy dabbles with Gatsby, enjoying his adoration, but is superficial and insincere. When she hits Myrtle Wilson with Gatsby's car, she does not even stop. She and Tom conspire at their kitchen table and allow Gatsby to be implicated--"They are careless people," Nick Carraway observes.
- Superficiality and Pretentiousness - The characters are "a rotten bunch," much like many of Zelda's friends when the Fitzgeralds lived in the East, and they lead selfish, superficial lives. As long as Gatsby plays the role of Trimalchio and, like the Roman, holds lavish parties, people frequent his property. But, when he stops his parties, no one visits Gatsby's mansion. In one chapter the Sloanes join Tom Buchanan for a horseback ride; however, when Gatsby inadvertently shows up, Mrs. Sloane invites Gatsby to join them, knowing full well that Gatsby does not own a horse. When Gatsby offers to meet them with his car, they are angered at his effrontery.
- Criminality - In the 1920's Prohibition wrought more criminality as the sale of liquor from Canada profited greatly those such as the Italian and Jewish and Irish mobs. The source of Gatsby's wealth is bootlegging and his associate, Meyer Wolfschiem, is a criminal,but many do not seem to mind that Gatsby's wealth is ill-gotten; in fact, some at his parties find his history exciting as rumors about him abound.
- Reckless, Fast-paced Living - There is a tone of restlessness to the lives of Gatsby and the others that is reflective of the lives of expatriates such as the Fitzgeralds, Hemingways, and others. Daisy asks, "What will be do with the rest of our lives?" one day when they have wearied of their sexual liasons and drinking. In the apartment in New York where they go to continue their debauchery, Nick Carraway suddenly realizes this day is his birthday and he has turned 30. The cars of Gatsby and Tom are symbolic of the restless, driving nature of the characters. The songs from the Jazz Age that play in the narrative also indicate the superficial, restless nature of the lives of Fitzgerald's characters and the sell-out of any ideals.