Historical Context

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Last Updated on April 27, 2020, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 934

The Jazz Age and the Roaring Twenties

The Jazz Age began soon after World War I and ended with the 1929 stock market crash. Victorious, America experienced an economic boom and expansion. Politically, the country made major advances in the area of women's independence. During the war, women had enjoyed economic independence by taking over jobs for the men who fought overseas. After the war, they pursued financial independence and a freer lifestyle. This was the time of the “flappers,” young women who dressed up in jewelry and feather boas, wore bobbed hairdos, and danced the Charleston. Zelda Fitzgerald and her cronies, including Sara Murphy, exemplified the ultimate flapper look. In The Great Gatsby, Jordan Baker is an athletic, independent woman, who maintains a hardened, amoral view of life. Her character represents the new breed of woman in America with a sense of power during this time.

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As a reaction against the fads and liberalism that emerged in the big cities after the war, the U.S. Government and conservative elements in the country advocated and imposed legislation restricting the manufacture and distribution of liquor. Its organizers, the Women's Christian Temperance Movement, National Prohibition Party, and others, viewed alcohol as a dangerous drug that disrupted lives and families. They felt it the duty of the government to relieve the temptation of alcohol by banning it altogether. In January, 1919, the U.S. Congress ratified the 18th Amendment to the Constitution that outlawed the “manufacture, sale, or transportation of intoxicating liquors” on a national level. Nine months later, the Volstead Act passed, proving the enforcement means for such measures. Prohibition, however, had little effect on the hedonism of the liquor-loving public, and speakeasies, a type of illegal bar, cropped up everywhere. One Fitzgerald critic, Andre Le Vot, wrote: “The bootlegger entered American folklore with as much public complicity as the outlaws of the Old West had enjoyed.”

New York City and the Urban Corruption

Prohibition fostered a large underworld industry in many big cities, including Chicago and New York. For years, New York was under the control of the Irish politicians of Tammany Hall, which assured that corruption persisted. Bootlegging, prostitution, and gambling thrived, while police took money from shady operators engaged in these activities and overlooked the illegalities. A key player in the era of Tammany Hall was Arnold Rothstein (Meyer Wolfsheim in the novel). Through his campaign contributions to the politicians, he was entitled to a monopoly of prostitution and gambling in New York until he was murdered in 1928.

A close friend of Rothstein, Herman “Rosy” Rosenthal, is alluded to in Fitzgerald's book when Gatsby and Nick meet for lunch. Wolfsheim says that “The old Metropole.… I can't forget so long as I live the night they shot Rosy Rosenthal there.” This mobster also made campaign contributions, or paid off, his political boss. When the head of police, Charles Becker, tried to receive some of Rosenthal's payouts, Rosenthal complained to a reporter. This act exposed the entire corruption of Tammany Hall and the New York police force. Two days later, Becker's men murdered Rosenthal on the steps of the Metropole. Becker and four of his men went to the electric chair for their part in the crime.

The Black Sox Fix of 1919

The 1919 World Series was the focus of a scandal that sent shock waves around the sports world. The Chicago White Sox were heavily favored to win the World Series against the Cincinnati Reds. Due to low game attendance during World War I, players' salaries were cut back In defiance, the White Sox threatened to strike against their owner, Charles Comiskey, who had refused to pay them a higher salary. The team's first baseman, Arnold “Chick” Gandil, approached a bookmaker and gambler, Joseph Sullivan, with an offer to intentionally lose the series. Eight players, including left fielder Shoeless Joe Jackson, participated in the scam. With the help of Arnold Rothstein, Sullivan raised the money to pay the players, and began placing bets that the White Sox would lose. The Sox proceeded to suffer one of the greatest sports upsets in history, and lost three games to five. When the scandal was exposed, due to a number of civil cases involving financial losses on the part of those who betted for the Sox, the eight players were banned from baseball for life and branded the “Black Sox.” In the novel, Gatsby tells Nick that Wolfsheim was “the man who fixed the World Series back in 1919.” Shocked, Nick thinks to himself, “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.” Gatsby himself is tied to possibly shady dealings throughout the course of the book. He takes mysterious phone calls and steps aside for private, undisclosed conversations. It was said 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 the Spanish artist Francis Cugat. Cugat had worked previously on movie poster and sets and was employed as a designer in Hollywood. The Art Deco piece that he produced for the novel shows the outlined eyes of a woman looking out of a midnight blue sky above the carnival lights of Coney Island in Manhattan. The piece was completed seven months before the novel, and Fitzgerald may have used it to inspire his own imagery. He calls Daisy the “girl whose disembodied face floated along the ark cornices and blinding signs” of New York.

Social Concerns

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Last Updated on April 27, 2020, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 814

In accordance with his epic ambitions to write a novel that took the measure of and expressed the vital spirit of his country, The Great Gatsby is an attempt to explain and evoke the essence of the fundamental myth at the heart of American experience. Fitzgerald understood the evanescent goal of the European explorers, men like Drake, Ralegh, Balboa, and Cartier, who searched for a land that would offer a new beginning for Western Man, an unspoiled paradise, rich in natural beauty, uncorrupted by Old World cynicism, free from the rigid class system of European monarchy, and unblemished by decaying cities. Fitzgerald thought of it as the American Dream; but it emerged in Old World consciousness as far back as Shakespeare's vision of a "Brave new world," and it is described in Fitzgerald's poignant evocation of the "old island" that "flowered once for Dutch sailor's eyes — a fresh, green breast of the new world." Even in the high times of the wild 1920s, Fitzgerald perceptively sensed that the original energy of the Dream was irrevocably vanishing into the Wasteland, and he wanted to record its power before it faded into memory and fable.

To emphasize its magic, Fitzgerald used as his twin foci of The Great Gatsby Nick Carraway, the narrator, and Gatsby himself, both young men born in the American heartland of the Midwest at the dawn of the twentieth century. Like Fitzgerald, they arrive in New York with some of the innocence characteristic of middle America, lured to the great wicked city by its promise of glamour and success, vulnerable to its dangers and its corruptions. They bring some of the classic virtues of the heartland with them — simplicity, determination, loyalty, perhaps most of all an innate sense of honesty and decency. For Gatsby, these virtues have been driven into the deeper recesses of his character because he is so beguiled by love that he serves it as his master. For Nick, the temptations are also quite strong, but he is able to turn back before he is consumed. Both men are animated by their sense of the Dream's possibilities, but Gatsby, the total romantic, is unable to realize that the vision they shared in their youth has been severely altered by the realities of contemporary American life.

One of Fitzgerald's greatest strengths is his ability both to animate the vision and to show the world that has destroyed it. This world is an example of American society at its worst; and, in the list which Nick draws up of the names of the "guests" at one of Gatsby's parties in mid-summer, 1922, one can feel it in all its ugliness. The voracious, bestial habits of these people are evoked by predatory names like Leeche, Civet, Ferret, and Blackbuck (and by Wolfsheim, the gambler who is absent on this occasion); the suspect quality of "fishy" people like Whitebait, Hammerhead, Fishguard, and Beluga is suggested by their surnames, as is the murky, swamplike aspect of Catlip, Duckweed, and Beaver. There are arrivistes and parvenus with names like Ardita Fitz-Peters and G. Earl Muldoon; early specimens of Euro-trash called De Jong, Albrucksburger, and Haag: people whose names project their personality like Swett, Smirke, and Eckhaust. These people's lives are based on an extravagant, totally tasteless display of cash or some other form of status not based on merit of any kind, or on power gained through criminal activity and used solely to subjugate or terrorize. They are people for whom the American Dream has lost its meaning, or who had no sense of it in the first place. The world they are living in has the surface dazzle of advanced technology, but it is fundamentally hollow because it lacks the substance one can only draw from the natural world or from a sense of morality that grows from a genuine quality of personal character. Perhaps most significantly, they have no culture, nothing to revive their souls and nothing to replace their desperate groping for diversion and stimulation. The world which Fitzgerald decries is full of shallow flash, and its true appearance is not Gatsby's opulent house but the Valley of Ashes spread below the cryptic eyes of the mysterious Dr. Eckleburg, the oblivion of emptiness that follows the exhaustion of sensation. This is the world where the Dream has died.

Additional Commentary

The theme of The Great Gatsby is decadence and the decline of society. Although the story is told with grace and beauty, its events are intended to be shocking. True to the spirit of the times, the story involves marital infidelity, murder, and wealth earned through racketeering. Many of the characters thrive on emotional dishonesty, and live for appearance rather than substance of character. But the novel is also a moral tale in which the characters get their "just deserts." Ultimately Nick understands the meaning of their lives and the sadness of their worlds.

Compare and Contrast

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Last Updated on April 27, 2020, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 161

1920s: Prohibition is passed, prohibiting the manufacture and sale of liquor. Al Capone takes over as boss of Chicago bootlegging from racketeer Johnny Torrio, who retires after sustaining gunshot wounds.

Today: The use and abuse of alcohol grows in the U.S., as does participation in the twelve-step program called Alcoholics Anonymous, drug rehabilitation centers, and other support mechanisms designed to stem the fallout from drug abuse. Though still powerful in the drug and prostitution business, several Mafia dons, including John Gotti, are imprisoned for life.

1920s: Political machines like New York's Tammany Hall openly and directly influence the outcome of elections by paying lawmakers and police to make or enforce policies in their favor.

Today: While direct bribery of politicians and police is neither open nor widespread, there are still political scandals regarding funding of political campaigns. Members of both Democratic and Republican parties have been accused of taking illegal contributions, and campaign finance reform is a hot political issue.

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