The Great Gatsby, along with Ernest Hemingway's The Sun Also Rises, is considered to be a novel that is not only definitive of Modernism but also quintessential of a unique decade. Whereas Hemingway's novel is more typically identified with the concept of The Lost Generation, Fitzgerald's is more often identified with The Jazz Age. However, the spiritual anomie and loneliness that hover over Hemingway's novel are no less palpable in Fitzgerald's.
Before the stock market crash of 1929, the United States was flush with money. For the first time, women were active participants in this new economy as both workers and consumers. Aspects of the legitimate economy (e.g., manufacturing, advertising) expanded as greatly as those of the illegitimate economy (e.g., bootlegging). Everyone who had previously been excluded from prosperity now had some opportunity, not only to earn a living, but to become wealthy. This is perfectly illustrated in a scene in the novel in which the narrator, Nick Carraway, sees a limousine full of well-dressed black people being driven by a white chauffeur. He concludes from this sight that New York City is a place where anything is possible. In other words, in a cosmopolitan city that is flush with cash, even the presumed underclass (i.e., black people) can reap economic opportunities.
This brief scene reminds one of the flourishing community that black people had formed uptown in Harlem. While Jay Gatsby throws lavish parties on East Egg, Long Island, and Nick Carraway and Tom Buchanan venture into downtown Manhattan for fun, black people had their own businesses and social circles uptown.
Despite the excitement and wealth which characterized the era, the novel reflects on the ways in which the decade remained non-progressive. We know that the Buchanans refuse to accept Gatsby as an equal, despite his immense wealth, because he grew up poor and rural. There remains, then, this dichotomy between old money vs. new money. Gatsby, as a nouveau riche upstart, remains excluded from the upper class he is desperate to enter.
Moreover, Tom Buchanan, Daisy's husband, is a racist. He tells Nick that he is reading a book called The Rise of the Colored Empires. He argues for the validity of the book's main point, which is that, one day, the white race will be eliminated by people of African and Asian descent. The fact that no one else in the novel speaks to concur with this isolates Tom in his views and also suggests the possibility that Fitzgerald, in making everyone ignore this and change the subject, is exercising his own dismissal of people like Tom.