Historical Context

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Last Updated July 18, 2024.

The Jazz Age and the Roaring Twenties

The Jazz Age began shortly after World War I and concluded with the 1929 stock market crash. Following their victory, America experienced a period of economic growth and expansion. Politically, significant strides were made in women's independence. During the war, women gained economic independence by taking over jobs left by men who went to fight overseas. After the war, they sought financial autonomy and a more liberated lifestyle. This era saw the rise of the “flappers,” young women who adorned themselves with jewelry and feather boas, sported bobbed haircuts, and danced the Charleston. Zelda Fitzgerald and her friends, including Sara Murphy, epitomized the quintessential flapper style. In The Great Gatsby, Jordan Baker is portrayed as an athletic, independent woman with a hardened, amoral outlook on life. Her character symbolizes the new breed of empowered women in America during this period.

In response to the trends and liberalism that surfaced in major cities post-war, the U.S. Government, along with conservative factions, pushed for legislation to restrict the production and distribution of alcohol. Organizations like the Women's Christian Temperance Movement and the National Prohibition Party viewed alcohol as a harmful substance that disrupted lives and families. They believed it was the government's duty to eliminate the temptation of alcohol by banning it entirely. In January 1919, the U.S. Congress ratified the 18th Amendment, which prohibited the “manufacture, sale, or transportation of intoxicating liquors” nationwide. Nine months later, the Volstead Act was passed, providing the means to enforce these measures. However, Prohibition had little impact on the hedonistic tendencies of the public, and speakeasies, illegal bars, emerged everywhere. Fitzgerald critic Andre Le Vot noted: “The bootlegger entered American folklore with as much public complicity as the outlaws of the Old West had enjoyed.”

New York City and Urban Corruption

Prohibition gave rise to a significant underworld industry in many major cities, including Chicago and New York. For many years, New York was dominated by the Irish politicians of Tammany Hall, ensuring that corruption remained rampant. Bootlegging, prostitution, and gambling flourished, with police officers accepting bribes from those involved in these illegal activities and turning a blind eye. A prominent figure during the Tammany Hall era was Arnold Rothstein (depicted as Meyer Wolfsheim in the novel). Through his campaign contributions to politicians, he secured a monopoly on prostitution and gambling in New York until his murder in 1928.

Herman “Rosy” Rosenthal, a close associate of Rothstein, is referenced in Fitzgerald's novel when Gatsby and Nick have lunch together. Wolfsheim recalls, “The old Metropole.… I can't forget so long as I live the night they shot Rosy Rosenthal there.” This mobster also made political contributions, or bribes, to his political boss. When Police Chief Charles Becker attempted to extort money from Rosenthal, Rosenthal reported it to a journalist. This revelation unveiled the widespread corruption within Tammany Hall and the New York police force. Just two days later, Becker's men assassinated Rosenthal on the steps of the Metropole. Becker and four of his accomplices were subsequently executed for their involvement in the crime.

The Black Sox Fix of 1919

The 1919 World Series was at the heart of a scandal that rocked the sports world. The Chicago White Sox were the favorites to win against the Cincinnati Reds. Due to low attendance during World War I, players' salaries had been reduced. In protest, the White Sox threatened to strike against their owner, Charles Comiskey, who refused to increase their pay. The team's first baseman, Arnold “Chick” Gandil, approached bookmaker and gambler Joseph Sullivan with a proposal to deliberately lose the series. Eight players, including left fielder Shoeless Joe Jackson, agreed to the scheme. With financial backing from Arnold Rothstein, Sullivan gathered the funds to bribe the players and began betting on the White Sox to lose. The White Sox then suffered one of the biggest upsets in sports history, losing three games to five. When the scandal broke, driven by several civil cases from those who lost money betting on the Sox, the eight players were banned from baseball for life and labeled the “Black Sox.” In the novel, Gatsby tells Nick that Wolfsheim was “the man who fixed the World Series back in 1919.” Stunned, Nick reflects, “It never occurred to me that one man could start to play with the faith of fifty million people—with the single-mindedness of a burglar blowing a safe.” Throughout the book, Gatsby is linked to potentially shady activities. He receives mysterious phone calls and engages in private, undisclosed conversations. It was rumored that “one time he killed a man who found out that he was nephew to von Hindenburg and second cousin to the devil.”

The Cover Artwork

Fitzgerald's editor, Maxwell Perkins, commissioned a full-color, illustrated jacket design from Spanish artist Francis Cugat. Cugat, who had previously worked on movie posters and set designs, was employed as a designer in Hollywood. The Art Deco piece he created for the novel features the outlined eyes of a woman gazing out from a midnight blue sky above the carnival lights of Coney Island in Manhattan. This artwork was completed seven months before the novel, and Fitzgerald may have drawn inspiration from it for his own imagery. He describes Daisy as the “girl whose disembodied face floated along the ark cornices and blinding signs” of New York.

Social Concerns

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Last Updated July 18, 2024.

Driven by his grand ambition to craft a novel that captures the spirit of his nation, The Great Gatsby is Fitzgerald's effort to elucidate and evoke the core myth at the heart of the American experience. Fitzgerald grasped the fleeting objectives of European explorers like Drake, Ralegh, Balboa, and Cartier, who sought a land offering a fresh start for Western Man—an untouched paradise brimming with natural beauty, free from Old World cynicism, devoid of Europe's rigid class structures, and untainted by decaying cities. He referred to this ideal as the American Dream, a concept that had emerged in European consciousness as early as Shakespeare's vision of a "Brave new world." Fitzgerald poignantly describes this in his depiction of the "old island" that "flowered once for Dutch sailor's eyes — a fresh, green breast of the new world." Even amid the exuberance of the Roaring Twenties, Fitzgerald perceptively recognized that the original vigor of the Dream was fading into the Wasteland, and he sought to capture its essence before it dissolved into memory and legend.

To highlight its allure, Fitzgerald centered The Great Gatsby around Nick Carraway, the narrator, and Gatsby himself. Both are young men from the American Midwest, born at the turn of the twentieth century. Similar to Fitzgerald, they arrive in New York with the innocence typical of middle America, drawn to the city's promises of glamour and success, yet susceptible to its dangers and corruptions. They bring with them the classic virtues of the heartland—simplicity, determination, loyalty, and perhaps most importantly, an inherent sense of honesty and decency. For Gatsby, these virtues have been deeply buried, as he is utterly captivated by love, serving it as his master. Nick also faces strong temptations but manages to pull back before being consumed. Both men are driven by their belief in the Dream's possibilities, but Gatsby, the quintessential romantic, fails to realize that the vision they once shared has been fundamentally altered by the realities of modern American life.

One of Fitzgerald's greatest talents lies in his ability to both bring the vision to life and portray the world that has shattered it. This world exemplifies American society at its worst. In the list that Nick compiles of the "guests" at one of Gatsby's parties during the summer of 1922, one can sense all its ugliness. The voracious and predatory nature of these individuals is suggested by names like Leeche, Civet, Ferret, and Blackbuck, as well as Wolfsheim, the gambler who is notably absent. The dubious nature of individuals with "fishy" surnames like Whitebait, Hammerhead, Fishguard, and Beluga is apparent, as is the swamp-like quality of names such as Catlip, Duckweed, and Beaver.

There are social climbers and newly rich individuals with names like Ardita Fitz-Peters and G. Earl Muldoon, and early examples of Euro-trash named De Jong, Albrucksburger, and Haag. Names like Swett, Smirke, and Eckhaust reflect the personalities of their bearers. These people's lives revolve around an extravagant and tasteless display of wealth or status, not earned through merit but often through criminal means, used solely to dominate or intimidate. For them, the American Dream has lost its meaning, or they never understood it to begin with. Their world dazzles with advanced technology but is fundamentally hollow, lacking the substance drawn from nature or a moral sense stemming from genuine personal character.

Most importantly, they have no culture to rejuvenate their souls, leaving them in a constant search for diversion and excitement. The world Fitzgerald criticizes is full of superficial glitz, its true nature revealed not by Gatsby's lavish mansion but by the desolate Valley of Ashes beneath the enigmatic eyes of Dr. Eckleburg, symbolizing the emptiness that follows the depletion of sensation. This is a world where the American Dream has perished.

Additional Commentary

The theme of The Great Gatsby revolves around decadence and societal decline. Although the narrative is delivered with elegance and beauty, its events are meant to be startling. Reflecting the spirit of the era, the story includes elements of marital infidelity, murder, and wealth accumulated through illicit activities. Many characters thrive on emotional dishonesty and prioritize appearances over genuine character. However, the novel also serves as a moral tale where characters receive their "just deserts." Ultimately, Nick grasps the significance of their lives and the sorrow of their worlds.

Compare and Contrast

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Last Updated July 18, 2024.

1920s: The Prohibition Act is enacted, banning the production and sale of alcohol. Al Capone ascends to power as the leader of Chicago's bootlegging operations after Johnny Torrio retires due to gunshot injuries.

Today: Alcohol consumption and abuse continue to rise in the U.S., alongside the growth of support systems like Alcoholics Anonymous, drug rehab centers, and other recovery programs aimed at mitigating the effects of substance abuse. Despite their enduring influence in the drug and prostitution trades, numerous Mafia leaders, including John Gotti, are serving life sentences.

1920s: Political machines such as New York's Tammany Hall openly manipulate election outcomes by bribing lawmakers and police to pass or enforce favorable policies.

Today: Although direct bribery of politicians and police is rare and covert, political scandals related to campaign financing persist. Both Democratic and Republican party members have faced accusations of accepting illegal contributions, making campaign finance reform a prominent political issue.

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