10 Books of Summer: The Great Gatsby- The Roaring Twenties

Hi everyone! welcome to our First Book of Summer, The Great Gatsby by F Scott Fitzgerald. I am incredibly excited to be running discussions on this book, and today’s topic I especially enjoy: the 1920s.

Don’t worry if you haven’t finished the book just yet, you can comment on all the posts all week. It’s an open forum for discussion and analysis. I’m dying to hear your thoughts.

Today’s key moments, if you want to reread them, are Gatsby and Nick driving over the bridge (on the PDF it’s pg 74), Nick and Daisy talking in the garden (pg 20 in the PDF).

And here are some questions to get you started:
-Did you enjoy the setting of the novel? How do you think it adds to the novel? Is it just atmosphere or does it affect the plot and characters?
-Do you think the times he was writing in affected Fitzgerald’s writing? Do you think it was conscious?
-How well do the characters represent their individual sectors of society?

Below is a few things to get you started that I cooked up. Usually I won’t be talking for so long but the history was seductive.

New York, New York

“The city seen from the Queensboro Bridge is always the city seen for the first time, in its first wild promise of all the mystery and the beauty in the world.”

New York, the summer of 1922. Nick Carraway has just moved to the city from his happy mid-Western home to seek his fortune and escape a problematic romantic entanglement. He is one of thousands flocking to the city, not just from all over America but from all over the world. Wall Street promises riches beyond imagining for the likes of Nick, conscientious, old-fashioned and not yet savvy to the delights of New York’s darker side, to the blatant disregard of established values and of course, the prohibition of alcohol.

New York is central to, I think, the entire story. Even today it is a city of promise, where just about anything could happen. New York is very different to what Nick is used to, between the wild parties, the celebrity names floating around, the alcohol flowing free. Nick has only been drunk once before, but here everybody drinks, all the time, in speakeasys and, of course, at Gatsby’s.

One of my favourite things was the temperature rising with the tension. The characters left behind in the stifling city in the summer, the sticky, exhausting heat so perfectly described.

The time and place of the story are, I think, important to the themes. The loosened morals allow the dishonesty to rise without so much as a second thought. Image is becoming more important- just look at Gatsby’s parties, the aura he and nearly all the others exude. They all want to be seen as something specific, something they might not necessarily be. The world is changing, and the divide between the old money and the noveau riche is colossal, and maybe Gatsby never could have fitted into Daisy’s world. He was something altogether different, no matter how much money he had.


A Changing Society

In that crucial passage where Nick and Gatsby are crossing the bridge into the city, a liminal location as the world balances on the precipice of change, we see black people being driven by a white chauffeur, something incredible at the time. Nick begins to think that maybe even Gatsby’s blatant lies about his background could be true. After the war that shook the world and spat out this new, forward-thinking, rebellious generation, maybe such people exist. Or maybe Gatsby- the real Gatsby, the bootlegger who does everything he does for the sake of one girl- is himself, possible. The Twenties are a land of possibility, young men are making their fortunes everywhere-including Nick himself.

On the other side of the coin, on the other side of the bay, we have the Buchanans. Old money, odiously rich, snobbish for all their other qualities. Their aversion to change is seen in the fact that Tom converted a garage to stables. Tom is a clear and obvious symbol of all that is brutish and cruel about the Old World. But what interests me most about them is Daisy.

Daisy is living it the world of female emancipation, the beginning of women’s rights. And yet Daisy hopes her daughter will be a “beautiful little fool”. A girl who will grow up during the Great Depression, see the Second World War, the Cold War. Beautiful little fools aren’t made for such times. Daisy doesn’t feel the need that suddenly grasped everyone in America at the time to take her life into her own hands. Instead she drifts along, going to parties, flirting, making people love her, and never really does anything definitive.


Scott and Zelda

Fitzgerald’s main influence was his own life, and it’s important to remember that when first published, The Great Gatsby was read in a wider cultural context. That context included America’s sweethearts, the Fitzgeralds. Scott was widely celebrated and popular, writing stories for Hollywood producers to make ends meet between novels. Zelda, his wife, is often called “the First Flapper”. Talented in her own right, apart from looking the part by Scott’s side in scandalous dresses and flesh-coloured bathing suits, her blonde hair bobbed and expensive gifts from her husband showing on her person, she wrote reviews of his books and had short stories of her own published, albeit under Scott’s name. They were very like modern day celebrities, jetsetting and rubbing shoulders with the other famous of their day- during their time in France they attended parties with Picasso and Ernest Hemingway reputedly tried to seduce Zelda.

In fact, much of Gatsby and Daisy’s story resembles the early beginnings of Scott and Zelda. Scott was an officer stationed at an army camp outside Montgomery, Alabama when he met the beautiful, popular Zelda Sayre, a judge’s daughter. In almost identical circumstances does Gatsby meet Daisy Fay of Louisville. Zelda’s family disapproved of Scott, his Irish name, Catholicism (lapsed) and aspirations to become a famous author all played against him and they married without her father’s blessing. Similar obstacles stood in the way of young Daisy and Gatsby, but this time, they proved to be too much.

It’s almost as if Scott wrote an unhappy alternate ending to their courtship, and the similarities are no coincidence. Their life was mirrored throughout Fitzgerald’s work, Rosalind of This Side of Paradise was rewritten to resemble Zelda, The Beautiful and Damned maps their inability to live within their (not insubstantial) means. Scott was only 27 when he wrote GG, he believed it to be his masterpiece, the book that would secure him his place among the stars. He also believed such a book had to be written before he was thirty.

When reading about their life together in conjunction with TGG, a lot struck me as very similar and there were a few obvious differences. For one, Daisy didn’t wait, she married Tom and, she assures us, fell in love with him. Both Daisy and Zelda had young daughters, and perhaps Daisy’s detached, almost neglectful treatment of Pammy is in contrast to Zelda’s treatment of their own daughter, Scottie. What struck me as interesting though, was Gatsby’s ideas of making a life for Daisy. That big house, the extravagance, the carefully laid plans, they all went in to proving that he could offer her a sense of luxury but more importantly stability which, in his penniless state was not plausible. In our universe, the Fitzgeralds moved from city to city, struggled with money, never put down any roots.

Maybe, even had TGG ended differently, we can reverse the comparison and use reality as the mirror instead. There was little question that Scott and Zelda were madly in love for the majority of their time together, but neither was ever exactly happy. Their love was incredibly passionate and horribly destructive. Scott died in 1940 due to heart issues associated with his chronic alcoholism. Maybe this helped to destroy Zelda’s spirit but she had been institutionalised long before that. She died a few years later in an asylum fire.

So sound off below about what you think of the setting, the cultural context and its influence on the story as a whole, and what part does it play in making the book as famous as it is.

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6 Responses

  1. Black. says:

    Okay, so just dropping by to give you a quick comment Stella.

    A: Your grammar/ style/ structure for this here is really really really nice, but I think you’d do well not to compare real life and story life (that’s confusing). Also, seeing as I have not read this book (though I’ve heard of it – of course), I can’t answer your questions.

    Not sure if that’s supposed to be or not . . .

    • Hannah says:

      Do we avoid absolutely everything in life that is confusing? It’s confusing, and we can easily make mistakes, but it’s not a harmful mental exercise and can lead us to new ideas.

  2. Lauren says:

    I loooove Gatsby, ever since reading it in high school. Fitzgerald, like his contemporaries, with absolute certainty was a product of his time. This novel takes such a deep look at new money vs old money (West Egg vs East Egg) and is a definite cautionary tale against the American Dream. New York in the Jazz Age exemplified those ideals, and Gatsby’s life and fate follow this faulty dream through to its inevitable end.

    Also, it’s always been my philosophy not to draw too grand a connection between an author’s life and their work. 😉 While we are all influenced by our experiences, we don’t necessarily experience the things we write about. (The Lit major in me coming through, sorry! :P)

    • Hannah says:

      Of course we can’t assume that everything about the book reflected Fitzgerald’s life as a biography, but you might be a little bit in denial if you think you can write anything that is completely separate from your experiences. Obviously, science fiction writers haven’t really lived in their worlds, but the things we choose to write about — the things that are important to us, the characters we build — all reflect us in some way.

  3. Hannah says:

    Also, I think this is a case of the setting happening to fit perfectly with the theme. I don’t know if it’s because the issue is extremely timely or because Fitzgerald made efforts to make it match so perfectly. For example, writing a story in the middle east about the arab spring would fit perfectly with a theme of rebellion, but is that because it’s about a current event that can’t be separated from the theme (as the stock market, boot legging saga can’t be separated from the theme underneath GG), or because the author worked hard to match them up.

    I’m sure in the end it’s a bit of both, but I think for students looking back now, it seems all set up so perfectly since most of us haven’t really researched the history. It seems more crafted than grafted from real life.

  4. FlowerPower says:

    I though The Great Gatsby was actually written about Fitzgerald’s relationship with a girl he was dating before he met Zelda. I don’t remember her name but her father wouldn’t allow them to marry because he was poor, like the story says “rich girls don’t marry poor boys”.

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