Scott Fitzgerald can be said to have captured the rollicking, tumultuous decade known as the Roaring Twenties , from its wild parties, dancing and illegal drinking to its post-war prosperity and its new freedoms for women. The war left Europe devastated, and marked the emergence of the United States as the preeminent power in the world.
From to , America enjoyed an economic boom , with a steady rise in income levels, business growth, construction and trading on the stock market. The Marlborough House, a speakeasy haven for drinking socialites during prohibition. Beginning in early , the U.
As their wealth grew, many Americans of the s broke down the traditional barriers of society. This, in turn, provoked anxiety among upper-class plutocrats represented in the novel by Tom Buchanan. By , when Fitzgerald published The Great Gatsby , flappers were out in full force, complete with bobbed hair, shorter skirts and cigarettes dangling from their mouths as they danced the Charleston.
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But while later Hollywood versions of Gatsby channeled flapper style, the novel itself actually captures a comparatively conservative moment, as could be considered closer to than to the heyday of the Roaring Twenties later in the decade. We all picture them in knee-length dresses.
But dresses in were ankle-length. Though not all Americans were rich, many more people than before had money to spend. Nick is an outside observer who becomes emotionally involved in the story he is telling.
Schulz: Why I Despise The Great Gatsby
Drunkenly taking in the proceedings at a party in a New York City apartment, Nick observes: "Yet high over the city our line of yellow windows must have contributed their share of human secrecy to the casual watcher in the darkening streets, and I was with him, too, looking up and wondering. I was within and without, simultaneously enchanted and repelled by the inexhaustible variety of life.
Gatsby without Nick's voice, without his presiding consciousness, is like Bob Dylan's lyrics without music. Interesting, yes, but poetry? I don't think so. Fitzgerald's Gatsby is a very fragile creation, made of words and dreams. Fitzgerald tells us almost nothing of his appearance, and while this may seem like a fault in the book — one of which the author himself was aware — the actor who chooses to embody this famous cipher takes on a daunting task, further complicated by the fact that Gatsby's dialogue is the most wooden and formulaic language in the book, presenting a striking contrast to the rich, aphoristic style of Nick Carraway's narration.
The prose surrounding Jay Gatsby is so good it allows us to share Nick's vision of his largeness of soul and the heroism of his quest, to celebrate "the colossal vitality of his illusion". The enduring appeal of Fitzgerald's third novel, as with many great novels, is partly dependent on a benign misinterpretation on the part of readers, a surrender to fascination with wealth and glamour, and the riotous frivolity of the jazz age.
Fitzgerald was by no means an uncritical observer, as some have suggested; the most villainous of these characters are the wealthiest, and Nick Carraway is something of a middle-class prig, who, much as he tries to reserve judgment, is ultimately sickened by all the profligacy and the empty social rituals of his summer among the wealthy of Long Island. And yet Fitzgerald had a kind of double agent's consciousness about the tinsel of the jazz age, and about the privileged world of inherited wealth; he couldn't help stopping to admire and glamorise the glittering interiors of which his midwestern heart ultimately disapproved.
Gatsby's lavish weekly summer parties are over the top, ridiculous, peopled with drunks and poseurs, and yet we can't help feeling a sense of loss when he suddenly shuts them down after it's clear that Daisy — for whom the whole show was arranged in the first place — doesn't quite approve.
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We shouldn't approve either, and yet in memory they seem like parties to which we wish we'd been invited. In Gatsby and his best fiction, Fitzgerald manages to strike a balance between his attraction and repulsion, between his sympathy and his judgment.
The Road to West Egg
As a middle-class, midwestern Irish Catholic from what Edmund Wilson called "a semi-excluded background" vis-a-vis the Ivy League and the world of eastern privilege, he seems capable of double vision, the appearance of viewing character, from inside and outside. Fitzgerald's best narrators always seem to be partaking of the festivities even as they shiver outside with their noses pressed up against the glass.
In this manner, Nick Carraway doesn't entirely approve of Jay Gatsby, the party-giving parvenu with his pink suits and his giant yellow circus wagon of a car. But he deeply admires Jay Gatsby the lover and the dreamer, the man for whom the mansion and the bespoke clothes were only the means to reclaim his first love. Nick admires his fidelity to that first love and his ability to keep it pure and undefiled, even as he wades through the muck to pursue it, even if the object of that love isn't, in the flesh, worthy of such devotion.
Ultimately, Jay Gatsby's story mirrors Fitzgerald's, a poor boy who falls in love with the golden girl and performs heroic feats in order to win the hand of the princess. In Fitzgerald's case, the princess was Zelda Sayre of Montgomery, Alabama, whom he meets when he is stationed as an officer there. He is engaged to Zelda but eventually rejected when it seems clear that the aspiring writer can't support her; crawls home to St Paul, Minnesota, where he writes a novel which makes him rich and famous virtually overnight.
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In this story the hero gets the girl. Gatsby's love story seems almost plausible in light of Fitzgerald's. Although the vagueness of the source of his wealth is almost glaring, the Horatio Alger story, in which poor boys work their way up to wealth and power, was ingrained in the American psyche. Fitzgerald conflates Jay Gatsby's act of self-invention with the promise of the new world, with the dream of a fresh start upon which the nation was founded: "And as the moon rose higher the inessential houses began to melt away until gradually I became aware of the old island here that flowered once for Dutch sailors' eyes — a fresh, green breast of the new world.
Its vanished trees, the trees that had made way for Gatsby's house, had once pandered in whispers to the last and greatest of all human dreams; for a transitory enchanted moment man must have held his breath in the presence of this continent, compelled into an aesthetic contemplation he neither understood nor desired, face to face for the last time in history with something commensurate with his capacity for wonder.
And as I sat there brooding on the old, unknown world, I thought of Gatsby's wonder when he first picked out the green light at the end of the dock.
The Great Gatsby
He had come a long way to this blue lawn and his dream must have seemed so close that he could hardly fail to grasp it. To some, including many British readers over the years, this may seem like a lot of weight for the love story of a bootlegger and a southern belle to bear. But it seems to speak to a collective self-image dear to many American hearts — in spite of its unhappy ending. It's possible we Americans are not entirely rational about The Great Gatsby.