How do historical factors shape the narrative and themes of The Great Gatsby?   

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mwestwood eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Without doubt, The Great Gatsby is a tableau of the Jazz Age, so named by F. Scott Fitzgerald. In fact, there is much that is biographical in Fitzgerald's novel: The newly independent woman of the era, given the right to vote in 1920 with the 19th Amendment to the US Constitution gave rise to the flapper, one of whom was Zelda Fitzgerald. Of course, the 18th Amendment, which prohibited the sale of alcoholic products afforded great opportunities to criminal organizations that "bootlegged" liquor from Canada or manufactured their own. With new freedoms and illegal activities prevailing, there was an amorality that prevailed, reflected in new music forms, speakeasies, and promiscuous spending by a nouveau riche generated from the economic boon after World War I.

In his narrative, Fitzgerald characterizes and depicts these various elements of the 1920s that support his themes of Moral Corruption, The Inversion of the American Dream, and The Decadence of the East:

  • Jordan Baker - an amoral flapper, who has cheated in gold tournaments and who is self-serving and a liar, "a bad driver."
  • Meyer Wolfschiem - an underworld criminal who has been part of the 1919 scandal in the baseball world--"America's favorite pastime"--Wolfschiem is involved in bootlegging and works with Gatsby
  • Music - Always reflective of a culture, the new jazz form with its disconsonance, breaking of traditional beat, and the freedom of improvisation is used by Fitzgerald as background music for certain scenes.
  • Gatsby's parties - Attended by the newly wealthy, parties on the "blue lawns" of Jay Gatsby depict the amoral and shallow flappers, Hollywood types, freeloaders, and the dissolute of the era.
  • The Valley of Ashes is symbolic of the urban corruption in which the greedy give no consideration to ethics or pollution. 
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The Great Gatsby

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