Fitzgerald Captures the Roaring Twenties in

In The Great Gatsby, F. Scott Fitzgerald both reflected the glitter of the Roaring Twenties and warned of the potential destructiveness of pursuing the American Dream at any cost.

Summary of Event

By the time The Great Gatsby was published on April 10, 1925, F. Scott Fitzgerald had established himself with a string of impressive moneymaking stories and had gained some attention from critics who pointed to his occasional flashes of literary genius. He had already published the novels This Side of Paradise (1920) This Side of Paradise (Fitzgerald, F. S.) and The Beautiful and Damned (1922), Beautiful and Damned, The (Fitzgerald, F. S.) collections of short stories including Flappers and Philosophers (1920) Flappers and Philosophers (Fitzgerald, F. S.) and Tales of the Jazz Age (1922), Tales of the Jazz Age (Fitzgerald, F. S.) and a play, The Vegetable: Or, From President to Postman (1923). Vegetable, The (Fitzgerald, F. S.)
[kw]Fitzgerald Captures the Roaring Twenties in The Great Gatsby (Apr. 10, 1925)
[kw]Roaring Twenties in The Great Gatsby, Fitzgerald Captures the (Apr. 10, 1925)
[kw]Twenties in The Great Gatsby, Fitzgerald Captures the Roaring (Apr. 10, 1925)
[kw]Great Gatsby, Fitzgerald Captures the Roaring Twenties in The (Apr. 10, 1925)
Great Gatsby, The (Fitzgerald, F. S.)
Roaring Twenties
[g]United States;Apr. 10, 1925: Fitzgerald Captures the Roaring Twenties in The Great Gatsby[06400]
[c]Literature;Apr. 10, 1925: Fitzgerald Captures the Roaring Twenties in The Great Gatsby[06400]
Fitzgerald, F. Scott
Fitzgerald, Zelda
Hemingway, Ernest
Wilson, Edmund (1895-1972)

Fitzgerald was successful because he wrote with great gusto about the young post-World War I generation—its bashing of traditional values, its search for wealth, its rebelliousness, and its unorthodox behavior. His stories embodied a high degree of wish fulfillment for readers, pitching them into living vicariously among the smart set of the 1920’s, with their wild parties, sporty automobiles, and pleasure-seeking adventures.

Fitzgerald—whether in France, New York, or Hollywood—always used his own personal experiences and observations as the basis for his stories. So it was with The Great Gatsby, which presented fictional versions of his painful social rejections, his thwarted loves, his excesses with drink, and his search for success and money. Moreover, his wife, Zelda Fitzgerald, served as the model for the novel’s Daisy Buchanan, a quicksilver beauty representing the unattainable.

For The Great Gatsby, Fitzgerald drew on the lavish Long Island parties he had attended, populating his story with a mix of intellectuals, frauds, bootleggers, gangsters, madcap flappers, and sad, naïve young men such as Nick Carraway, the book’s narrator. Carraway retrospectively narrates the events of the summer of 1922 that led up to the death of Jay Gatsby. Visiting his distant cousin Daisy Buchanan and her husband, Tom, in West Egg, Long Island, New York, Nick learns that the Buchanans are unhappily married and that Tom is unfaithful and having an affair with plump Myrtle Wilson, the wife of a local garage owner.

Through a series of dinner parties, lunches, and drinking sprees, Nick becomes acquainted with the mysterious, wealthy Jay Gatsby, who lives on a nearby estate where he throws fabulous parties for speakeasy society. Nick is alternately repelled and fascinated by Gatsby, a thirty-year-old with adolescent romantic dreams, fictitious upper-class parentage to hide the reality of his impoverished farm background, and bad taste in whatever he buys.

Nick learns that Gatsby is a self-made man. Years before, a poor Gatsby had fallen hard for the dazzling Daisy before he went overseas to fight in World War I. She, however, spurned him for the arrogant Tom Buchanan, a rich and eligible socialite. Four years later, Gatsby, still pursuing his idealistic love for Daisy, has made a fortune partly from bootlegging liquor, has purchased a garish mansion across the harbor from the Buchanans, and yearns to reclaim his lost love.

Because Nick is related to Daisy, Gatsby asks Nick to arrange a tea at Nick’s house for the purpose of staging a reunion between Gatsby and Daisy. The reunion results in the Buchanans’ inviting Gatsby, Nick, and friends to a party at a New York hotel. Events turn ugly when a drunken Tom accuses Gatsby of being a swindler and of trying to steal Daisy. An angry Daisy leaves with Gatsby for the return drive home.

During Tom and Nick’s return car trip to West Egg, they stop to investigate a fatal accident and discover that Myrtle Wilson (Tom’s mistress) has been killed by a hit-and-run driver in a car similar to one owned by Gatsby. Nick learns later that Daisy, not Gatsby, was driving the car. Gatsby, however, gallantly offers to shoulder the blame.

Through the connivance of Tom Buchanan, Myrtle Wilson’s husband becomes convinced that Gatsby is the cause of his wife’s death. A few hours later, an enraged Wilson shoots Gatsby in an act of revenge and then turns the gun on himself. Nick arranges for Gatsby’s funeral, but no one comes except for one former guest and Gatsby’s father, who believes his son to have been a great man. At the end, Nick breaks off his friendship with the corrupt Buchanans and returns to the Midwest.

The novel’s plot outline sounds like material fit for sensational tabloids and pulp magazines. As scholars and critics have observed, plots were never Fitzgerald’s forte. What elevates The Great Gatsby and makes it memorable is Fitzgerald’s handling of these melodramatic events.

At the time the book was published, reactions among critics were generally favorable. Many praised the spare style of the short (fifty-thousand-word) novel. Commentators were especially impressed by Fitzgerald’s compressed details that make scenes blaze with life, his poetic imagery, his framing of complex characters and universal themes in ironic terms, and his use of a sophisticated first-person narrative.

Unhappily, the book’s sales were modest. Only about twenty-four thousand copies were printed, and it was not reprinted by Fitzgerald’s publisher during his lifetime. The reading public seemed put off by the unpleasant characters—each a moral failure—the downbeat ending, and the sophisticated writing techniques so highly praised by critics. Although Fitzgerald made little money from sales of the book, he did earn close to thirty thousand dollars from stage and film rights.

One result of the lukewarm popular reception of The Great Gatsby was that Fitzgerald turned to writing profitable short stories and Hollywood scripts. He faced financial crises caused by his family’s expensive living style. Zelda’s increasing mental problems required her institutionalization, and Fitzgerald’s own increasing alcohol problems, self-doubts, declining health, and inability to write a new novel commensurate with the quality of The Great Gatsby made his life a troubled one.

Even his good friend Ernest Hemingway took Fitzgerald to task for betraying his craft and writing for easy money. The two had been on intimate terms since The Great Gatsby appeared, with Fitzgerald—then at the top of his powers—championing the fledgling Hemingway. Over the next few years, the two authors counseled each other, but as Hemingway’s star rose and Fitzgerald’s declined, they drifted apart by the 1930’s. Hemingway wanted Fitzgerald to discipline his art and to write simply, but Fitzgerald would not.


The Great Gatsby was the watershed of Fitzgerald’s own rise and decline as a writer. Both his career and his life paralleled America’s fortunes, riding the crest of the prosperity wave of the 1920’s and tailing off during the Depression years of the 1930’s. Fitzgerald died in obscurity in 1940 as a Hollywood hack writer.

Fitzgerald’s novels were largely ignored and unread from the 1930’s until the 1950’s. Two factors led to the revival of the novelist’s reputation: renewed interest in the personal and artistic tragedy of Fitzgerald himself and academic interest in the unique way Fitzgerald structured his art.

The interest in Fitzgerald’s life and its excesses began with Edmund Wilson, the author’s longtime confidant. Wilson edited The Crack-Up (1945), Crack-Up, The (Fitzgerald, F. S.)[Crackup] a collection of Fitzgerald’s essays, notebooks, and letters revealing the emotional bankruptcy and disillusionments in Fitzgerald’s life. The essays not only detailed the extravagant lifestyle of the Fitzgeralds but also chronicled the devastating effects of the Great Depression on their lives and on his art.

Interest in Fitzgerald’s life intensified with the popular success of Budd Schulberg’s The Disenchanted (1950), Disenchanted, The (Schulberg) a fictionalized account of Fitzgerald’s drunken sprees, his fistfights with and insults of friends, and his declining ability to write during his Hollywood years. Arthur Mizener fueled further interest with The Far Side of Paradise: A Biography of F. Scott Fitzgerald (1951). Far Side of Paradise, The (Mizener)

The academic community also helped revive interest in Fitzgerald. The New Criticism, New Criticism;The Great Gatsby[Great Gatsby] a method of scrutinizing the form and texture of literary works, was in vogue during the 1950’s, and The Great Gatsby was made for such close textual analysis. A spate of academic commentary poured forth, focusing in particular on Fitzgerald’s brilliant handling of the novel’s first-person retrospective point of view. Nick Carraway does not merely narrate the tale; he observes, participates, and evaluates. The narrative structure thus allows Fitzgerald to work simultaneously within and outside the scenes and to be both immersed immediately in and psychologically distanced from the action. Not since Joseph Conrad had an author been able to pull off such a double-vision feat as Fitzgerald did in The Great Gatsby.

In addition, the New Critics wrestled with the ambiguities of Nick Carraway as a reliable narrator and the probability of his moral and ethical development. They disagreed in their interpretations of the shadowy character of Gatsby: Was he a tragic, noble figure in the Shakespearean sense? Was he a Christlike martyr, an Antichrist figure, or perhaps a knight-errant seeking the Grail and idealizing his lady? Or was Gatsby just an unlucky racketeer gunned down in a bizarre twist of fate? In addition, the New Critics charted the complex chronology of the novel, with its sudden shifts of past and present, and traced the imagery clusters found in it, such as the ironic contrasts between the stately mansions of Long Island and the nearby valley of ashes where the poor live.

A number of critics found the scenes of the valley of ashes in The Great Gatsby to be the American counterpart of the British vision in T. S. Eliot’s Eliot, T. S. 1922 poem The Waste Land. Waste Land, The (Eliot) Both authors described intense disillusionments, the results of radical changes in the postwar era. The rich, the middle class, and the lower class were equally portrayed as culturally empty, entrapped in sterile, purposeless lives. Both Fitzgerald and Eliot conceived of the world as coming apart because no moral principle was holding it together.

In addition, the New Critics scrutinized the novel’s use of color images (especially greens), eye and vision cues, careening speedboats and cars, and the changing seasons. They also paid tribute to the animated phrasing and sentence structures Fitzgerald used to achieve the novel’s rhetorical brilliance and lyric energy.

Later literary criticism focused on Fitzgerald as a social commentator, as the issues and values clashes of the 1920’s depicted in the novel were confronted by succeeding generations pursuing the American Dream. Fitzgerald thus was seen as more than a keen-eyed chronicler of the Roaring Twenties; he became a prophet warning oncoming generations of the terrible price to be paid for pursuing illusive dreams.

Aside from being a cultural and historical allegory, the novel presented universal themes of human yearnings. An example is the book’s theme of social class: Fitzgerald shows the careless rich victimizing their lessers because of the empty values of the upper class. The initiation theme shows a naïve Nick Carraway learning that wealth and power do not necessarily beget happiness; the book’s frontier theme implies that the Midwest is morally superior to the corrupt, materialistic East Coast.

In essence, Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby goes beyond capturing the frantic atmosphere of the Roaring Twenties. It is a novel for all ages. Gertrude Stein, writing, ironically, in the early 1930’s, when Fitzgerald’s reputation was fading, prophesied that “Fitzgerald will be read when many of his well-known contemporaries are forgotten.” Time has proven Stein’s judgment correct. Great Gatsby, The (Fitzgerald, F. S.)
Roaring Twenties

Further Reading

  • Bruccoli, Matthew J. Some Sort of Epic Grandeur: The Life of F. Scott Fitzgerald. 2d rev. ed. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 2002. Comprehensive, detailed biography covers all of Fitzgerald’s life and career. Includes illustrations, chronology, and index.
  • _______, ed. F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “The Great Gatsby”: A Literary Reference. New York: Carroll & Graf, 2002. Companion to the novel provides information on Fitzgerald’s writing process as well as on celebrities, events, crazes, and other aspects of the times in which the book is set to aid contemporary readers’ understanding. Includes a brief biography of Fitzgerald, illustrations, chronology, and index.
  • Bruccoli, Matthew J., and Jackson R. Bryer, eds. F. Scott Fitzgerald in His Own Times: A Miscellany. Kent, Ohio: Kent State University Press, 1971. A delightful potpourri, ranging from early writings of Fitzgerald to his obituary notices. Provides glimpses of his acerbic wit and astute perceptions along with original reviews of The Great Gatsby.
  • Eble, Kenneth E., ed. F. Scott Fitzgerald: A Collection of Criticism. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1973. Highly readable commentary by critics who share their insights on the craft and art of Fitzgerald. The essays on The Great Gatsby are a must for potential writers.
  • Lehan, Richard.“The Great Gatsby”: The Limits of Wonder. Boston: Twayne, 1990. Useful historical background about Fitzgerald and the novel, including a chronology of Fitzgerald’s life and works. Also provides a series of critical interpretations of the major characters in the novel.
  • Mellow, James R. Invented Lives: F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1984. Presents fascinating details of the Fitzgeralds’ glamorous lives and their stormy relationships with well-known contemporaries. Basic theme is that the Fitzgeralds actually created their own legend, “acting out their stories in real life.” Somewhat moralistic in tone.
  • Mizener, Arthur. The Far Side of Paradise: A Biography of F. Scott Fitzgerald. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1951. Chronicles the rise and fall of F. Scott Fitzgerald as a person and literary artist in dramatic terms. Includes photos of Fitzgerald at various stages of his career and appendixes on his method of revision.

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