Published in 1925, The Great Gatsby is known as the Great American Novel and is considered the defining work of the 1920's, the decade often referred to as the Jazz Age. America had just come out of World War I, one of the bloodiest and most violent episodes in this nation's history. Young people had sacrificed their lives for a war that had taken place on an entirely separate continent, and with many families losing fathers, sons, and husbands in the war, the entire society was submerged in disillusionment, skepticism, cultural experimentation, and hedonism.
After suffering through this tragic war, Americans felt entitled to having a little fun and concentrating their energies on finding pleasure and comfort for themselves in order to forget about the war and the deep emotional and social scars that they had suffered. Let me rephrase that - they didn't want to have "a little fun" - they wanted to have a lot of fun. Conservatism and moderation were thrown out of the national window - instead, pleasure-seeking and fast times became the national values.
The 1920's were an era of optimism and aspiration - a time when individuals felt that they could leave behind their pasts completely and could become anyone they wanted to be. It seemed as if any person could rise to become a member of the social or economic elite. It was a decade obsessed with superlatives - with being the most beautiful, the most powerful, the most wealthy.
One of the most important themes in The Great Gatsby is its focus on money as the foundation of American society. Keep in mind that at the turn of the twentieth century, immigrants were coming to the United States by the millions because they believed in the American Dream of abandoning a past of poverty and embracing the possibility of rolling in money in the land of freedom and liberty. They fled the economic and political oppression of their own countries because they believed that in the United States, they could do anything that they put their minds to. Gatsby/James Gatz had believed in that same dream and believed that he could win anything, even love, with money.
During the 1920's, the country also experienced an unprecedented economic boom that allowed the values of materialism and ambition to take over the American mindset. With social mobility apparently possible for everyone during the 1920's, many Americans did try to involve themselves in "get-rich-quick" schemes that sometimes included illegal activities such as gambling and bootlegging. The color green, the color of money, plays an especially important role in this book - the light at the end of Daisy's deck, the same light that Gatsby watches every night, is green, and at the end of the novel, Nick describes North America as the large, undeveloped piece of green land had filled that the original Dutch explorers with hope and ambition. In this work, the color green symbolizes the quest for the American Dream and the belief of many Americans that money could solve any problems.
The novel is set in the era when organized crime became a means of rebelling against Prohibition, and Gatsby has made an obscene amount of money as a bootlegger. At his lavish parties, he entertains movie stars and singers, celebrities who gained great acclaim and social position during a decade that was obsessed with beauty, entertainment, and pleasure. The 1920's was known as the Jazz Age for a reason - the country fell in love with music and flapper girls, both of which became intimately associated with hedonistic good times and illegal activities. Gatsby introduces the narrator, Nick Carraway, to a gambler named Meyer Wolfshiem, who apparently had been the man responsible for fixing the 1919 World Series (seven Chicago White Sox players were accused of fixing the series for gamblers who had made bets on the games' outcomes). It is appropriate that Fitzgerald included a Wolfshiem character in his book, for the fixing of the World Series reflected the idea that money could buy any American absolutely anything, even love and happiness.
And of course, everything good must come to an end. The Roaring Twenties exited to make way for a decade of tragedy and unfulfilled want. After the nation spent an entire decade celebrating the great economic boom that it had enjoyed in the 1920's, the stock market crash in 1929 sent the economy into a tragic tailspin that began the terrible Great Depression of the 1930's, when poverty and hunger afflicted millions of Americans who had lost their jobs and their homes. Instead of valuing hedonism and materialism, Americans struggled to survive and learned to cherish the values of frugality and self-discipline. The party was over, and the American Dream seemed to be nothing but a myth.
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