Fitzgerald explores the major developments of the Roaring Twenties, including the birth of jazz, the women’s suffrage movement, economic prosperity, and the rapid growth of Manhattan as a cosmopolitan city. He mentions the many new technologies beginning to be popularized at the time such as automobiles, radio, movies, as well as the growing influence of the financial markets in New York. Several characters (including Gatsby and Nick) served in the war, an unstable period that established the country as a global economic leader, and the characters’ unstinting embrace of luxury echo the country’s rampant appetite for consumer goods during the period.
But the novel doesn’t merely catalog the times: Fitzgerald’s themes of ambition and inequality reflect the instability of the era, which ended disastrously in the Great Depression. His insight into what is often described as a period of superficial frivolity makes the novel a lasting emblem of the era.
The decade of the 1920s is also often called the Jazz Age, a time when musicians like Jelly Roll Morton, Count Basie, and Louis Armstrong brought jazz music to a mainstream audience. Jazz musicians were almost always black, and their popularity carried complex political ramifications because 1920s America was still highly segregated. Most of the United States lived under Jim Crow, a series of laws and social codes that forced black Americans to live, work, and learn separately from whites.
The 1920s witnessed some positive political changes for women, most significantly in the passage of the 19th Amendment, which gave women the right to vote. Women were also increasingly finding employment—a trend that would increase during World War II, when many men left factories to go to war.
The female characters in
The 1920s are also known as the heyday of Prohibition, a period when the production, transportation, or sale of alcohol was banned following the passage of the 18th amendment. While Prohibition aimed to rid the country of the social ills associated with alcohol consumption, it mostly succeeded in forcing the distribution and sale of liquor underground. Illegal manufacture and sale of alcohol—a crime known as bootlegging – spread across the country, and created lucrative opportunities for organized crime syndicates, such as the mobsters Gatsby associates with in his quest to gain wealth. Al Capone, a crime boss who allegedly made several millions of dollars a year from his involvement in bootlegging, has been considered by some critics as a model for Gatsby for the way he rose from humble beginnings to become extremely wealthy. Prohibition grew increasingly unpopular during the Great Depression, when it was perceived as limiting potential sources of labor and government revenue, and the 18th Amendment was repealed in 1933.
Fitzgerald presents conflicting ideas about the possibility of social change in America along lines of race, gender, and class. Gatsby’s success shows that people in the 1920s could potentially gain greater independence, rights, and self-empowerment, although
For the modern reader, however, the specter of the impending Great Crash on Wall Street hangs over the novel as a potential source of financial reckoning for the wealthy characters. Tom, Daisy, and Jordan don’t know about the cataclysmic economic upheaval awaiting them, just as Fitzgerald, writing the novel in 1925, couldn’t have predicted the Roaring Twenties would come to a grinding halt just four years later, as the intoxicating fizz of the Jazz Age gave way to the bleak economic reality of the Great Depression.