The Great Gatsby

Why is it important to understand the time period in a which a piece of literature was written in?


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Though all of its action takes place over a mere few months during the summer of 1922 and is set in a circumscribed geographical area in the vicinity of Long Island, New York, The Great Gatsby is a highly symbolic meditation on 1920s America as a whole, in particular the disintegration of the American dream in an era of unprecedented prosperity and material excess.

Fitzgerald portrays the 1920s as an era of decayed social and moral values, evidenced in its overarching cynicism, greed, and empty pursuit of pleasure. The reckless jubilance that led to decadent parties and wild jazz music—epitomized in The Great Gatsby by the opulent parties that Gatsby throws every Saturday night—resulted ultimately in the corruption of the American dream, as the unrestrained desire for money and pleasure surpassed more noble goals. When World War I ended in 1918, the generation of young Americans who had fought the war became intensely disillusioned, as the brutal carnage that they had just faced made the Victorian social morality of early-twentieth-century America seem like stuffy, empty hypocrisy. The dizzying rise of the stock market in the aftermath of the war led to a sudden, sustained increase in the national wealth and a newfound materialism, as people began to spend and consume at unprecedented levels. A person from any social background could, potentially, make a fortune, but the American aristocracy—families with old wealth—scorned the newly rich industrialists and speculators. Additionally, the passage of the Eighteenth Amendment in 1919, which banned the sale of alcohol, created a thriving underworld designed to satisfy the massive demand for bootleg liquor among rich and poor alike.


The eminent Victorian Matthew Arnold, in his essay "The Function of Criticism at the Present Time," states that in the creation of a work of literature, "two powers must concur: the power of the man and the power of the moment and the man is not enough without the moment." In other words, the individual creative genius does not create in isolation; he is a product of his culture and the time in which he lived. To know this culture, the values, the traditions and beliefs of the particular age in which the artist lived, is to enhance our knowledge, our enjoyment and appreciation of that work of literature, just as the artist's allusions to other times , other ages and beliefs, deepens and enriches our experience of the work of art.

Fitzgerald lived during the "Roaring Twenties" and the jazz age - in fact, he coined the term "jazz age" - a time of bootlegging, the Charleston, riotous living and moral laxity, that characterized the era that followed what Carraway calls "the great Teutonic migration" - World War I. Amid the lowering of moral standards and the rules for proper conduct and propriety, Carraway stands apart, stating that when he returned from the War, he wanted the world to be dressed in iniform and to stand at moral attention forever, a fact that attests to Carraway's status as a moral narrator and that emphasizes the moral focus of the novel. To read The Great Gatsby without a knowledge of this historic background is to compromise the meaning of the novel and our deeper understanding of it of it.