The Great Gatsby is set against the backdrop of 1920s New York City, a period known as the “Roaring Twenties” for the exhilarating pace set by the rapidly evolving culture and technology. It was a decade of tremendous wealth in the United States following the deprivations of the First World War, and the upper-class characters of Gatsby exemplify the hedonism of the era. 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 catalogue 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 make 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 Great Gatsby reflects the racist attitudes and anxieties of the times. The white, wealthy main characters listen to jazz music but do not socialize with black New Yorkers, and, in a particularly troubling passage, Nick expresses derisive amazement to see a fancy car with black passengers driven by a white chauffeur. Tom speaks admiringly of a book called “The Rise of the Colored Empires,” a fictionalized version of a white supremacy tract published in 1920. Jim Crow is not explicitly discussed in the novel, as for many white Americans, it was an accepted state of affairs.
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 Gatsby interact differently with their period’s gender norms. Daisy expresses disappointment that her child is a girl, saying her highest hopes for her are that she’s a “beautiful little fool,” conveying how limited she thinks women’s options are in the world. Jordan represents a more modern woman, an unmarried and childless professional golf player, but she is criticized by the male characters for her independence, as when Tom says, “they oughtn’t to let her run around the country this way.”. Both these women are extremely privileged, and the power they do have comes at least partly from their upper-class status. Myrtle, Tom’s mistress, is the only working-class woman discussed at length, and she is portrayed as dependent on her husband and her lover. Fitzgerald represents all three women as ambitious but spoiled and foolish in different ways, and he does not show them engaging actively with the political climate of suffrage.
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 The Great Gatsby offers no legal models for class mobility, and Gatsby’s own ascension is a matter mostly of coincidence and luck. Similarly, the upper classes appear insulated from downward mobility. Daisy and Tom, born into the wealthy elite, suffer no losses at the end of the novel despite their criminal or morally ambiguous actions. Only Gatsby, Myrtle, and George Wilson—the characters born into poverty—who suffer. But for the modern reader, 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 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.