The Great Gatsby takes place during a time that's now known as the Jazz Age or the Roaring 20s. Wondering what the world was like when Jay Gatsby struck it rich in bootlegging? Curious to see how much Daisy and Myrtle's struggle for more echoes the lives of real women? Interested in the other ways that The Great Gatsby era matters to the plot of the novel?
This article will guide you through the historical, economic, and social movements of the 1920's as they relate to events, themes, and characters in The Great Gatsby.
Why Does The Great Gatsby Era Matter?
Understanding what the world was like during the time the novel is set helps you in all sorts of ways:
Figuring out an author's assumptions. Writers are products of their time, so knowing what they would have assumed to be true makes reading their work richer. For instance, in The Great Gatsby, it's taken for granted that the Jewish gangster Meyer Wolfshiem would need the WASP-y face of Jay Gatsby to make some of his deals, since Wolfshiem wouldn't have been allowed to join or participate important political and business networks.
Getting a deeper grasp of character. To get a really good sense of why characters in the novel do what they do, it's useful to know the specific historical circumstances they are dealing with. For example, it's all well and good to assume that Daisy should leave the boorish Tom, but divorce would have been way more complicated for a woman in the 1920s than it is today.
Developing a richer interpretation of symbols, motifs, and themes. Knowing the hot-button issues of the novel's day gives you a good second way to support arguments about the importance of a particular theme, or your reading of the meaning of a symbol. (Of course, the primary support for these arguments should come from the text itself!) Suppose you wanted to analyze the importance of cars in The Great Gatsby. It would help your argument to talk about the sudden skyrocketing prevalence of cars on the road in the 1920s, connecting them to increased danger, status symbol consumerism, and modern life.
Historical context: the giant arm propping up the baby that is your argument.
When Does The Great Gatsby Take Place?
The Great Gatsby was published in 1925 and is set in 1922, near the beginning of the decade. (See our article on this novel's publication and reception history for more.)
As such, the Great Gatsby era is the period in 20th century U.S. history nicknamed both the “Roaring 20s” and the "Jazz Age." The first nickname points to America's post-WWI economic prosperity and the country's greater influence abroad. The second nickname refers to this period's changing social norms and daring artistic movements.
Gatsby is now seen as both a product of and a record of the 1920s. What does this mean? Let's explore.
Before The Great Gatsby: WWI and Modernism
Although many previous events eventually influenced the 1920s, there are two crucial pieces of background history that you have to know.
World War I
World War I dramatically affected the United States in the 1920s (and, of course, shaped much of the 20th century all over the world as well). On the one hand, it elevated the U.S. into a world super power and ushered in a decade-long economic boom. On the other hand, its horrific death toll and seeming meaninglessness forever dispelled the idea of war as noble and glorious.
A brief recap of what happened. After the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, the heir of Austro-Hungarian Empire in 1914, Austro-Hungary and its ally Germany declared war against Russia. Russian allies France and England were pulled in to defend Russia. The smaller European powers were forced into the war as well, based on whatever alliances they had made in the past. For the first three years, the U.S. remained neutral, instead profiteering from the war by selling supplies to both sides of the conflict. But, in 1917, the U.S. was pulled into the fighting, fearing an alliance between Germany and Mexico.
WWI was a war of trench warfare, chemical weapons, shrapnel artillery, and other gruesome technologies that had never been seen before. When you combine this level of mass destruction with the fact that most of the war was a territorial stalemate (no army advanced, no army withdrew - they were just locked in a horrible tie), it's easy to see how unaccountable the 40 million deaths the war caused were.
The survivors of the war - both the veterans and those who came of age during the fighting - were called the Lost Generation. F. Scott Fitzgerald, though he didn't actually see any fighting during his time in the army, was a member of this generation. (See our brief biography of Fitzgerald to learn more.)
You should know about WWI (and its aftermath) because:
- Both Nick Carraway and Jay Gatsby have military backgrounds.
- Gatsby's early romance with Daisy is heightened by the initial idealism that he was about to go fight in a noble and glorious endeavor.
- Some of the rumors swirling around Gatsby point to how fresh the war was in everyone's mind (that he was a German spy during the war, or that he is related to Kaiser Wilhelm, who ruled Germany during the war).
Modernism and the Lost Generation
The war and its devastating after-effects, particularly in Europe, fed into the creation of a new artistic movement: modernism.
Modernism was all about breaking with the past. In contrast to 19th century writing that tended to reinforce the status quo, modernism rejected old-fashioned ideas like heroism and moral certitude. Similarly, modernism writers experimented with form and style rather than sticking with traditional forms of prose and poetry.
Inspired by the devastation of WWI, writers in The Lost Generation embraced a cynical view of human nature. Fitzgerald himself was part of a circle of modernists who regularly met in Paris (others included Hemingway, Ezra Pound, Sinclair Lewis, and the painters Picasso and Matisse). Fitzgerald wrote The Great Gatsby while in Paris, surrounded by this group.
You can connect modernism with the novel's descriptions of East Egg and West Egg extravagance. Like his fellow modernists, Fitzgerald was deeply critical of the wealth and capitalist success ushered in by the post-war boom, considering the new obsession with money and status shallow.
What trench warfare looked like. Imagine spending weeks in this hole in the ground.
The Great Gatsby Era: The Roaring 20s
At the time when the novel takes place, the U.S. was in the middle of a tremendous economic boom and a soaring stock market that seemed to be on a permanent upward swing. At the same time, many of the social restrictions of the early 20th century were being rejected, and progressive movements of all kinds were flourishing.
Prohibition, Bootlegging, and the Speakeasy
Socially progressive activists in both the Democratic and Republican parties united to pressure the government to ban alcohol, which was blamed for all kinds of other social ills like gambling and drug abuse.
In 1920, the U.S. passed the 18th Amendment, outlawing the production and sale of alcohol. Of course, this did little to actually stem the desire for alcoholic beverages, so a vast underground criminal empire was born to supply this demand.
The production and distribution of alcohol became the province of bootleggers - the original organized crime syndicates. Selling alcohol was accomplished in many ways, including through “speakeasies” - basically, underground social clubs.
Since speakeasies were already side-stepping the law, they also became places where people of different races and genders could mix and mingle in a way they hadn’t previously while enjoying new music like jazz. This marked a shift both in how black culture was understood and appreciated by the rest of the country and in how women’s rights were progressing, as we’ll discuss in the next sections.
If you understand the history of Prohibition, you'll make better sense of some plot and character details in The Great Gatsby:
- Gatsby makes his fortune through bootlegging and other criminal activities.
- Gatsby's business partner Meyer Wolfshiem is a gangster who is affiliated with organized crime and is based on the real-life crime boss Arnold Rothstein, who was indeed responsible for fixing the World Series in 1919.
- Any time someone is drinking alcohol in the novel, they are doing something illegal, and are clearly in the know about how to get this banned substance.
- Gatsby’s parties have a speakeasy feel in that people from different backgrounds and genders freely mix and mingle.
- One of the rumors about Gatsby is that he is involved in a bootlegging pipeline of alcohol from Canada - this is a reference to a real-life scandal about one of the places where illegal alcohol was coming from!
Police emptying out confiscated barrels of beer into the sewer.
The 19th Amendment, passed in 1919, officially gave women the right to vote in the United States. Suffrage had been a huge goal of the women’s movement in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, so this victory caused women to continue to push boundaries and fight for more rights during the 1920s.
The ramifications of this were political, economic, and social. Politically, the women's rights movement next took up the cause of the Equal Rights Amendment, which would guarantee equal legal rights for women. The amendment came close to eventually being ratified in the 1970s, but was defeated by conservatives.
Economically, there was an increase in working women. This began during WWI as more women began to work to make up for the men fighting abroad, and as more professions opened up to them in the men's absence.
Societally, divorce became more common. Nevertheless, it was still very much frowned on, and being a housewife and having fewer rights than man was still the norm in the 1920s. Another social development was the new “flapper” style. This term described women who would wear much less restricting clothing and go out drinking and dancing, which at the time was a huge violation of typical social norms.
If you understand this combination of progress and traditionalism for women's roles, you'll find it on display in The Great Gatsby:
- Daisy contemplates leaving Tom but ultimately decides to stay.
- Jordan parties and doesn’t seem to be in a hurry to settle down.
- Myrtle flouts traditional rules by cheating on her husband but is killed by the end of the book, suggesting women are safest when they toe the line.
Women's suffrage parade in New York City.
Racial and Religious Minority History
The post-war boom also had a positive effect on minorities in the U.S.
One of the effects was that Jewish Americans were at the forefront of promoting such issues as workers rights, civil rights, woman's rights, and other progressive causes. Jews also served in the American military during World War I in very high numbers. At the same time, their prominence gave rise to an anti-Semitic backlash, and the revival of the KKK began with the lynching of a Jewish man in 1915.
Another post-WWI development was the Harlem Renaissance, a cultural, social, and artistic flowering among African Americans that took place in Harlem, NY, during the 1920s. Artists from that time include W.E.B. DuBois, Langston Hughes, Zora Neale Hurston, Countee Cullen, Louis Armstrong, and Billie Holiday.
You can see the effects of these historical development several places in the novel:
- jazz music is a fixture of Gatsby’s parties, and almost every song that Fitzgerald describes is a real life piece of music.
- Nick's love of Manhattan as a diverse melting pot is illustrated by the appearance in Chapter 4 of a car with wealthy black passengers and a white driver.
- Tom Buchanan's racist rant in Chapter 1 and his fears that the white race will be "overrun" by minorities is based on the backlash that African American advancement occasioned.
- The novel includes Nick's anti-Semitic description of a Jewish character - Meyer Wolfshiem.
- There are modern theories that Jay Gatsby is may be half black and that Daisy may actually be Jewish.
Zora Neale Hurston and Langston Hughes
The 1920s saw huge increases in the production and use of automobiles. Almost 1 in 4 people now had a car! This happened because of advances in mass production due to the assembly line, and because of rising incomes due to the economic boom.
Car ownership increased mobility between cities and outer suburban areas, which enabled the wealthy to work in one place but live in another. Cars also now created a totally new danger, particularly in combination with alcohol consumption.
If you're aware of the newness and attraction of cars, you'll notice that in The Great Gatsby:
- The wealthiest characters own cars and use them to commute between Manhattan and Long Island.
- Cars are clearly used to display wealth and status - even Tom, normally secure in his superiority, wants to brag to George Wilson about the super-fancy Rolls Royce he borrows from Gatsby.
- Cars are tools of recklessness, danger, and violence - there are several car accidents in the novel, the most notable of which is when Daisy runs Myrtle over and kills her in Chapter 7.
Death machine, or no, you have to admit that's a pretty cool-looking car.
The Bottom Line
- Understanding historical context helps you in all sorts of ways:
- Figuring out an author's assumptions.
- Getting a deeper grasp of character.
- Having a richer interpretation of symbols, motifs, and themes.
- The Great Gatsby was published in 1925 and is set in 1922, a time nicknamed both the “Roaring 20s” and the "Jazz Age."
- There are two crucial pieces of background history that you have to know to understand the novel:
- World War I. Its horrific death toll and seeming meaninglessness forever dispelled the idea of war as noble and glorious. The survivors of the war - both the veterans and those who came of age during the fighting - were called the Lost Generation.
- Modernism and the Lost Generation. Modernism was all about breaking with the past, experimenting with form and style, and embracing a cynical view of human nature.
- The Great Gatsby era was distinguised by an economic boom, the rejection of old social restrictions, and progressive movements of all kinds:
- Prohibition, Bootlegging, and the Speakeasy. The U.S. banned alcohol, ushering in a vast underground criminal empire, including speakeasies - underground social clubs.
- Women’s Rights. The 19th Amendment gave women the right to vote. Politically, the women's rights movement next took up the cause of the Equal Rights Amendment. Economically, there was an increase in working women. Societally, divorce became more common, and the "flapper" style was born.
- Racial and Religious Minority History. Jewish Americans were at the forefront of promoting progressive causes. Another post-WWI development was the Harlem Renaissance, a cultural, social, and artistic flowering among African Americans.
- Automobiles. Car ownership increased mobility between cities and outer suburban areas, and created a totally new danger, particularly in combination with alcohol consumption.
Learn more about how The Great Gatsby was received when it first came out, and also read about the life of its author, F. Scott Fitzgerald.
Or, zoom out to a summary of The Great Gatsby, along with links to all our great articles analyzing this novel!
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Anna scored in the 99th percentile on her SATs in high school, and went on to major in English at Princeton and to get her doctorate in English Literature at Columbia. She is passionate about improving student access to higher education.