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What does the title "May Day" mean in F. Scott Fitzgerald's story?

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May Day, or May 1, is celebrated worldwide as International Workers Day. It is in remembrance of the Haymarket bombing in Chicago in 1886. The bombing killed eleven people, including seven police, at a peaceful demonstration for workers rights and the official eight-hour work day.

Though no one proved who carried out the bombing, eight anarchists were falsely accused. Four of them were hanged and one committed suicide before the rest had their sentences commuted by Illinois Governor Richard Ogleby after public protests. Six years later, the next governor pardoned them all. The Haymarket bombing played a central role in the struggle for an eight-hour work day.

In nearly all nations worldwide, May 1 is an officially recognized national holiday. In the US, it is not. In fact, in 1947, the Veterans of Foreign Wars declared May 1 to be Loyalty Day, with demands for loyalty oaths. The American Bar Association later declared May 1 to be Law Day, with mock trials presented to the public. The holiday in the US continues to be marked by unofficial demonstrations by unions, socialists, occasionally anarchists or communists, immigrants rights groups, and the Occupy movement.

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In this long short story, part of Fitzgerald's 1922 anthology Tales of the Jazz Age, May Day refers both to a private dance held by privileged people on May 1, 1919 and the protests held by socialists and those who came back from World War I to face poverty. It spills over into May 2 and focuses on the aftermath of the May Day activities at both ends of the economic spectrum.

The wealthy revelers are celebrating May Day at Delmonico’s, an expensive restaurant in New York City, where the alcohol flows freely despite Prohibition at the Gamma Psi dance. These people of privilege enjoy a May Day far different and more decadent (if angst ridden) than that of the earnest street protesters hoping to initiate social change.

One socialite, Edith, leaves to find her socialist brother Henry. He says to her:

There’ve been riots all over the city to-night. It’s May Day, you see.

Fitzgerald, always sensitive to class difference in America, shows the contrast between May Day as a careless party time for the rich and a day of political struggle to the poor. May Day, historically, has been both a time of pagan fertility rites and celebrations and a time when international communist and socialist groups marched for change.

It's tempting to think that May Day also means a cry of distress, for Gordon Sterrett kills himself at the end of the story, but "May Day" as a distress signal was not coined until 1923, after the book came out.

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In many countries, May Day is a traditional public holiday, one commemorated since the 19th century by different political groups. It's also celebrated in many cultures as an ancient fertility rite involving dancing round the maypole. F. Scott Fitzgerald's "May Day" manages to combine both of these cultural elements. The story revolves around a dance attended by privileged members of the upper-classes, well-heeled graduates from Yale, and takes place against the backdrop of the May Day riots of 1919. These disturbances broke out in a number of cities across the United States after a parade held by socialists and other relatively radical groups in support of Eugene V. Debs, the imprisoned leader of the Socialist Party of America, degenerated into violence amongst widespread political disagreement.

The charmed life of the fashionable crowd depicted by Fitzgerald stands as a stark contrast to the desperate plight of the workers protesting outside. Those attending the dance might as well live on a different planet to the massed ranks marching through the streets. To the Yalies, the noise outside has nothing to do with them, and certainly isn't about to spoil their fun. The drunken carousing of this well-heeled crowd is paralleled by the chaos and disorder in the streets outside. But the riotous partying of the over-privileged is of a completely different order to the desperate political struggles being fought out on the blood-soaked streets of New York, Cleveland and elsewhere.

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