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Long Island and New York City in the early 1920s
The story is set in New York City and on Long Island, in two areas known as "West Egg" and "East Egg." The story is set in the early 1920s, just after World War I, during Prohibition, a time period that outlawed the manufacture, sale, or consumption of alcoholic beverages. This is significant not only because Gatsby’s ill-gotten wealth is apparently due to bootlegging, but also because alcohol is conspicuously available, despite being illegal, throughout the book. Indeed, the characters are seen drinking expensive champagne – suggesting that the wealthy are not at all affected by these laws.
The social setting is among wealthy, educated people, those with a good deal of leisure time and little concern about people who are not in their social milieu. Nobody’s concerned about politics or spiritual matters – but everybody cares about how they are perceived socially. The social climate demands respectability; it asks people to conform to certain standards. This is one reason why Tom’s flaunting of his mistress is an issue. Organized crime enters the picture through the backdoor with Jay Gatsby. Everybody suspects him, but everybody is willing to partake in his lavish parties anyway.
The life of ease and luxury is contrasted sharply with the stranglehold of poverty containing Myrtle and George Wilson or the life from which Jay Gatsby emerged. It is also interesting to note that George Wilson is the only one who mentions God in the text: religion is notoriously absent from the upper crust’s sensibilities.
There are two more important contrasts to keep in mind if you want to talk about the geographical setting in Great Gatsby. The first is the whole East Egg/West Egg thing. Nick tells us right off the bat that East Egg is the wealthier, more elite of the two. Despite all his money, Gatsby lives in West Egg, suggesting that he has not been able to complete his transformation into a member of the social elite. The distance that separates him from Daisy lies across the span of water between their houses – the very distance between West Egg and East Egg. The barrier between them, then, is one of class distinctions.
The second contrast is between the city scenes and the suburban ones. Like Nick Carraway, Tom Buchanan and Jay Gatsby commute into the city for their respective lines of work. The women are left behind. This geographical divide is also a gender borderline. But the city is important in other ways, too; Tom only interacts with his mistress in the city, and Gatsby only sees Meyer Wolfsheim there. They both use the city to hide their goings-on from the people they value on Long Island.
Carraway has just arrived in New York and is living in a part of Long Island known as West Egg. West Egg is home to the nouveau riche (those who have recently made money and lack an established social position), while neighboring East Egg is home to the insular, narrow-minded denizens of the old aristocracy. Nick's house is next door to Gatsby's enormous, vulgar Gothic mansion.