The Great Gatsby
The key to understanding Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby is understanding that the 1920s is a period of confused values and collapsed standards as a result of WWI.
Individuals went into the WWI anticipating fighting in a “romantic ideal”—good versus evil, lines of men facing each other in battle, etc. What they got was the horrors of a technological war. With the advent of mechanized warfare such as the machine gun, mustard gas, bunker bombs, and trench warfare thousands of individuals could be killed without even seeing their faces. Whereas those fighting hoped to find honor and glory on the battlefield, they instead found themselves broken, alienated, isolated, and existing in a world absent of meaning. Traditional institutions like nationalism, religion, family, and the idealisms of the past came up short when faced with indiscriminate destruction and unparalleled carnage. In short, at war’s end those who survived came out feeling “lost.” In fact, so much so that they were/are referred to as the “Lost Generation.”
The United States after the war saw two distinct forces at work. On the one hand, common after any war, was a desire to return to normalcy. Such a return was marked by a conservative backlash that attempted to reassert the values and ideals of the previous period—think ‘Victorian Idealism.’ Propriety and social values rooted in the traditional institutions (nationalism, family, religion, etc.) emerged in the form of a Victorian like assertion of gender roles and the solidification of the temperance movement. Woman as modest, well covered, and subservient to men. Prohibition as the great “noble experiment” sought to rid society of the ills and evils that plagued the social order. The labor unrest resulting from poor working condition and unfair practices put on hold during war emerged in full force during the 20s. African Americans and Blacks who came back from the war expecting to participate in the American Dream they fought for, found the same racism and exclusion from the Dream present prior to the war. In Northern cities there were unparalleled racial riots. The South saw a significant increase of lynching. So it made sense that a large segment of society wanted to return to a time when things seemed simpler and better.
However, for many, the bell couldn’t be un-rung. The reality of warfare, social unrest due to inequality, poor working conditions, and the changing American identity found in the collapse of traditional institution and a perceived economic boom, lead to a general sense of letting go and not caring. Living in the moment and not worrying about yesterday or tomorrow with the emergence of an emphasis on individual perception became the order of the day for many. F. Scott Fitzgerald’s designation of the period as “The Jazz Age” came to embody this reality. As he notes: “It was an age of miracles, it was an age of art, it was an age of excess, and it was an age of satire.” It was also an age of hope and aspiration even in the midst of confused values and collapsed standards. Individuals found a new sense of personal freedom. Like Jazz music itself, the individual’s perception of the world took center stage. Women who bobbed their hair, shortened their dresses, flattened their breasts and adorned the cigarette—called Flappers—paired with musical works and dances like The Charleston came to symbolize this new reality. Fitzgerald captures this at its fullest in The Great Gatsby.
The novel takes ahold of its characters by their dreams and surrounds them with atmosphere. Like the nation, the reader finds them haunted by time and a desire to return to a simpler social order while at the same time letting go to of historical expectations. However, even in the midst of such nostalgia and sentiment pervade.
As you think through the novel, ask yourselves:
who’s story is it;
who is the American Dream hero;
what is Fitzgerald’s main point about the American Dream;
what is the future of the Dream based on the novel?
The Great Gatsby