The Great Gatsby, published in 1925, is hailed as one of the foremost pieces of American fiction of its time. It is a novel of triumph and tragedy, noted for the remarkable way its author captures a cross-section of American society. In The Great Gatsby Fitzgerald, known for his imagistic and poetic prose, holds a mirror up to the society of which he was a part. The initial success of the book was limited, although in the more than 75 years since it has come to be regarded as a classic piece of American short fiction. In 1925, however, the novel served as a snapshot of the frenzied post-war society known as the Jazz Age, while today it provides readers with, among other things, a portal through which to observe life in the 1920s. Part of Fitzgerald's charm in The Great Gatsby, in fact, is his ability to encapsulate the mood of a generation during a politically and socially crucial and chaotic period of American history.
To understand Fitzgerald's genius more fully, one must be aware of the politics that underlie the story. To remove the story from its full historical context is to do it a grave injustice. The novel, published in 1925, explores life in the early- to mid-1920s. Politically speaking, this was a time of growth and prosperity, as well as a time of corruption. World War I, the first war of its kind anyone had ever known, had ended in 1919. When Warren G. Harding assumed the presidency in 1920, one of his goals was to bring the country back to business as usual. However, this proved to be a difficult task because Harding's administration was plagued by scandal and corruption, as well as opposition mounted by both unions and organized crime.
After WWI ended, Harding's administration targeted business as a means of rebuilding the country. What this entailed, however, included undermining striking laborers and largely siding with management in labor dispute issues over such things as minimum wage, unions, child labor, and so on. In addition to favoring management in labor disputes, Harding and his successor, Calvin Coolidge, enacted tax legislation that benefited the wealthy more so than any other group. In addition, because of administrative policy decisions, industries such as agriculture, textiles, and certain types of mining suffered greatly, and as a result, cities grew as people moved to urban areas to make a living. Many of them, however, remained trapped in a purgatory of sorts, looking for a better life but unable to get it, not unlike the people in The Great Gatsby's valley of ashes.
Economically, the 1920s boasted great financial gain, at least for those of the upper class. Between 1922 and 1929, dividends from stock rose by 108 percent, corporate profits increased by 76 percent, and personal wages grew by 33 percent. Nick Carraway's journey to the East to make his fortune in the bond business is not entirely unfounded. Largely because of improvements in technology, productivity increased while overall production costs decreased, and the economy grew. All this would come to a grinding halt, however, with the stock market crash of 1929, sending the U.S. into the greatest depression it has ever known. Fitzgerald, of course, couldn't have forecasted the crash, but in The Great Gatsby, he does suggest, on one level, that society was living in excess and without curbing its appetite somewhat, ruin was just around the corner.
The commercial growth of the 1920s resulted in rampant materialism, such as that chronicled in The Great Gatsby. As people began to have more money, they began to buy more. In turn, as people began to buy more, profits grew, more goods were manufactured, and people earned more money, thereby enabling the economic growth cycle. People began to spend their money on consumer goods — cars, radios, telephones, and refrigerators — at a rate never before seen. People also began to spend time and money on recreation and leisure. Professional sports began to grow in popularity, and movies and tabloid newspapers gained a foothold on America, helping everyone to share, in one way or another, in the growing materialism that categorized the Jazz Age.
In addition to economics, Fitzgerald takes other national issues into consideration in The Great Gatsby. For example, in Chapter 1, Tom has an intense dislike for outsiders. Later, other characters, including Nick, refer negatively to immigrants who live in the community of West Egg. Although to modern readers the comments and allusions may seem to lack motivation, such is not the case. Immigration to America was at its peak in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Although immigration waned during the war years, by June of 1921, immigration had returned again to pre-war levels (800,000 people between June of 1920 and June of 1921) and organized labor began lobbying against immigrants, whom they believed were taking away jobs from American citizens. Business leaders and various special interest groups also began to worry about the influx of immigrants, citing anti-American political fanaticism as a likely problem. In response, Congress passed a series of restriction bills and laws, setting quotas that limited the number of immigrants allowed in a particular year (164,000 in 1924 and 1925; 150,000 after July 1, 1927). The quota was entirely discriminatory, particularly to people from southern and eastern Europe and from Asia. Although readers may not like what Fitzgerald's characters imply, there is certainly a historical basis behind it.
Another aspect of The Great Gatsby that has historical roots centers on the Eighteenth Amendment to the Constitution: prohibition. Enacted in 1919 (and ultimately repealed in 1933), this amendment made it illegal for anyone to manufacture, sell, or transport liquor of any sort. Millions of Americans hailed this amendment as a moral advance, curbing America's growing penchant for immorality and all the vices that went (in their eyes) hand in hand with drunkenness. Despite the millions who supported prohibition, millions also broke the law and drank the outlawed liquor. Not surprisingly, when the illegal liquor business became lucrative, organized crime stepped in to meet the demand. Manufacturing and distributing alcohol were big businesses during the years of prohibition and helped make the fortunes of the nouveaux riches (newly rich) found within Fitzgerald's novel, including Meyer Wolfshiem and Gatsby himself. An understanding of prohibition also helps explain why Fitzgerald puts such an emphasis on drinking within the novel.
Although political issues underlie The Great Gatsby, so, too, do social issues. In many ways, Fitzgerald's Jazz Age characters are a fairly honest representation of what could be found in the social circles of the country's younger generation. Many of the men in The Great Gatsby had served in WWI, and like their real-life counterparts, they returned from the war changed. They found the ideas and attitudes waiting for them at home to be representative of an outmoded way of thinking, and so they rebelled. The women at home, too, found post-war America to be too constrictive for their tastes. Many women had entered the workforce when the men went to war and were unwilling to give up the by-products of their employment — social and economic freedom — when the men returned from the war. In addition, the Nineteenth Amendment, enacted in 1920, gave women the right to vote, making their independence even more necessary. In the 1920s, young men and women (including Fitzgerald himself) refused to be content maintaining the status quo, and so they openly and wholeheartedly rebelled.
Socially, the 1920s marked an era of great change, particularly for women. In a symbolic show of emancipation, women bobbed their hair, that one great indicator of traditional femininity. To complement their more masculine look, women also began to give up wearing corsets, the restrictive undergarment intended to accentuate a woman's hips, waist, and breasts, as if to reinvent themselves, according to their own rules. Other things women did that were previously unheard of included smoking and drinking openly, as well as relaxing formerly rigid attitudes toward sex. Fitzgerald picks up on the social rebellion of his peers particularly well in The Great Gatsby. He shows women of all classes who are breaking out of the molds that society had placed them into. Myrtle, for instance, wishes to climb the social ladder, and so she is determined to do so at all costs. Daisy attempts to break away from the restrictive society in which she was raised, yet she cannot make the break entirely and so she falls back into the only thing she knows: money. Jordan Baker, too, is an emancipated woman. She passes time as a professional golfer, a profession made possible largely because of the social and economic progress of the 1920s.
Part of what makes Fitzgerald's novel such a favorite piece is the way he is able to analyze the society of which he was also a part. Through his characters, he not only captures a snapshot of middle- and upper-class American life in the 1920s, but also conveys a series of criticisms as well. Through the characterization in The Great Gatsby, Fitzgerald explores the human condition as it is reflected in a world characterized by social upheaval and uncertainty, a world with a direct underlying historical basis. By emphasizing social groupings and how they do or do not interact with each other (see the Critical Essays section in this Note for further explorations), Fitzgerald establishes a sense the urgency. The Jazz Age society so clearly shown in The Great Gatsby is, in effect, on a very dangerous course when people like Tom, Daisy, and Jordan are at the top of the ladder, working hard to ensure no one else climbs as highly as they. Through Gatsby, Fitzgerald demonstrates the enterprising Jazz Ager, someone who has worked hard and profited from listening and responding to the demands of the society. Unfortunately, despite his success, Gatsby (and all of the people he represents) is never able to capture his elusive dreams. Fitzgerald's story, although a fiction, is informed by reality, helping to make it one of the most treasured pieces of early twentieth century American fiction.