The Great Gatsby

Historical and biographical context

Set on the prosperous Long Island of 1922, The Great Gatsby provides a critical social history of Prohibition-era America during the Jazz Age.[a] F. Scott Fitzgerald's fictional narrative fully renders that period—known for its jazz music,[2] economic prosperity,[3] flapper culture,[4] libertine mores,[5] rebellious youth,[6] and ubiquitous speakeasies. Fitzgerald uses many of these 1920s societal developments to tell his story, from simple details like petting in automobiles to broader themes such as bootlegging as the illicit source of Gatsby's fortune.[7][8]

Fitzgerald conveys the hedonism of Jazz Age society by placing a relatable plotline within the historical context of the most raucous and flashiest era in American history.[3][9] In Fitzgerald's eyes, the era represented a morally permissive time when Americans of all ages became disillusioned with prevailing social norms and obsessed with pleasure-seeking.[10] Fitzgerald himself had a certain ambivalence towards the Jazz Age, an era whose themes he would later regard as reflective of events in his own life.[11]

The Great Gatsby reflects various events in Fitzgerald's youth.[12] He was a young Midwesterner from Minnesota. Like the novel's narrator who went to Yale, he was educated at an Ivy League school, Princeton.[13] There the 19-year-old Fitzgerald met Ginevra King, a 16-year-old socialite with whom he fell deeply in love.[14][15] Although Ginevra was madly in love with him,[16] her upper-class family openly discouraged his courtship of their daughter because of his lower-class status, and her father purportedly told him that "poor boys shouldn't think of marrying rich girls".[17]

Rejected by Ginevra's family as a suitor because of his lack of financial prospects, a suicidal Fitzgerald enlisted in the United States Army amid World War I and was commissioned as a second lieutenant.[18][19] While awaiting deployment to the Western front where he hoped to die in combat,[19] he was stationed at Camp Sheridan in Montgomery, Alabama, where he met Zelda Sayre, a vivacious 17-year-old Southern belle.[20] After learning that Ginevra had married wealthy Chicago businessman William "Bill" Mitchell, Fitzgerald asked Zelda to marry him.[21] Zelda agreed but postponed their marriage until he became financially successful.[22][23] Fitzgerald is thus similar to Jay Gatsby in that he became engaged while a military officer stationed far from home and then sought immense wealth in order to provide for the lifestyle to which his fiancée had become accustomed.[b][27][28]

After his success as a short-story writer and as a novelist, Fitzgerald married Zelda in New York City, and the newly-wed couple soon relocated to Long Island.[29] Despite enjoying the exclusive Long Island milieu, Fitzgerald quietly disapproved of the extravagant parties,[30] and the wealthy persons he encountered often disappointed him.[31] While striving to emulate the rich, he found their privileged lifestyle to be morally disquieting.[32][33] Although Fitzgerald—like Gatsby—had always admired the rich, he nonetheless possessed a smoldering resentment towards them.[33]


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