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.[b] That period—known for its jazz music,[19] economic prosperity,[20] flapper culture,[21] libertine mores,[22] rebellious youth,[23] and ubiquitous speakeasies—is fully rendered in Fitzgerald's fictional narrative. Fitzgerald uses many of these 1920s societal developments to tell his story, from simple details such as petting in automobiles[24] to broader themes such as Fitzgerald's discreet allusions to bootlegging as the source of Gatsby's fortune.[25]

Fitzgerald educates his readers about the hedonistic[26] society of the Jazz Age by placing a relatable plotline within the historical context of "the most raucous, gaudy era in U.S. history,"[18] which "raced along under its own power, served by great filling stations full of money."[20][27] In Fitzgerald's eyes, the 1920s era represented a morally permissive time when Americans of all ages became disillusioned with prevailing social norms and were monomaniacally obsessed with self-gratification: "[The Jazz Age represented] a whole race going hedonistic, deciding on pleasure."[26] Hence, The Great Gatsby represents Fitzgerald's attempt to communicate his ambivalent feelings regarding the Jazz Age, an era whose themes he would later regard as reflective of events in his own life.[28]

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Various events in Fitzgerald's youth are reflected throughout The Great Gatsby.[29] Fitzgerald was a young Midwesterner from Minnesota, and, like the novel's narrator who went to Yale, he was educated at an Ivy League school, Princeton.[29] While at Princeton, the 19-year-old Fitzgerald met Ginevra King, a 16-year-old socialite with whom he fell in love.[30] However, Ginevra's family discouraged Fitzgerald's pursuit of their daughter due to his lower-class status, and her father purportedly told the young Fitzgerald that "poor boys shouldn't think of marrying rich girls."[31]

Rejected as a suitor due to his lack of financial prospects, Fitzgerald joined the United States Army and was commissioned as a second lieutenant.[29] He was stationed at Camp Sheridan in Montgomery, Alabama where he met Zelda Sayre, a vivacious 17-year-old Southern belle. Zelda agreed to marry him but her parents ended their engagement until he could prove a financial success.[29] Thus Fitzgerald is similar to Jay Gatsby in that he fell in love while a military officer stationed far from home and then sought success to prove himself to the woman he loved.[29]

After his success as a novelist and as a short story writer, Fitzgerald married Zelda and moved to New York. He found his new affluent lifestyle in the exclusive Long Island social milieu to be simultaneously both seductive and repulsive.[29] Fitzgerald—like Gatsby—had always exalted the rich[29] and was driven by his love for a woman who symbolized everything he desired, even as he was led towards a lifestyle which he loathed.[29]

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