The Great Gatsby | Study Guide

F. Scott Fitzgerald

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Professor Tony Bowers from the College of DuPage explains the historical and cultural context of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s novel The Great Gatsby.

The Great Gatsby | Context


The Great Gatsby is set in 1920s' America, an era marked by tremendous change in the country's culture and lifestyle. Sometimes called the "Roaring Twenties," this period may be depicted best by another of its nicknames, the "Jazz Age," which calls to mind adjectives such as free-spirited and fast-paced that fit both the decade and the music genre that became popular.

With the end of the Great War (what World War I was then called), a sense of liberation took hold of the country. The economy, as if infused with that spirit, began to grow by leaps and bounds. By the latter part of the decade, the United States had become the world's wealthiest country, with mass production spurring a massive consumer economy. Stark changes in America came at multiple levels: women won the right to vote and played a larger role in the workforce; appliances were becoming common in the home; automobile ownership started to become widespread; and people were leaving rural areas for life in cities, resulting in the country's urban population outnumbering its rural population for the first time.

All of these movements combined to create an American society characterized by more freedom, more free time, and more disposable income than in any previous generation. And, while much progress was made, a stark chasm developed between society's haves and its have-nots.

Socially and politically, the rich were regarded with esteem simply because of their wealth. They were awarded tax benefits and were widely admired. Many in society's lower levels had a burning desire to join the ranks of the wealthy. Frivolous spending and recreational leisure were prevalent among the wealthy, while those in the middle and lower classes—with little income or status—suffered greatly. Advances in technology fueled consumption by the elite, as they purchased luxuries such as automobiles, homes, radios, phones, and other items that were outside the reach of most Americans.

The themes in The Great Gatsby echo and scrutinize the societal influences prevalent in the Jazz Age. Its characters embody the various classes, values, behaviors, and customs, as well as the ideals and ethics—or lack thereof—of the time. It is the collision of all these factors—and most especially of two polarized classes both chasing the American dream—that is at the heart of The Great Gatsby.

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