The Great Gatsby Study Guide

The Great Gatsby

The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald

The Great Gatsby is F. Scott Fitzgerald's classic novel of the roaring 20's, told from the perspective of Nick Carraway, who moves in next door to the eccentric millionaire Jay Gatsby. Over the course of the summer of 1922, Nick becomes drawn into Gatsby's world of excess, a world that also includes Nick's married cousin Daisy Buchanan, the object of Gatsby's obsession. Portraying a world of decayed social and moral values, The Great Gatsby serves as a critique of the Upper class and an exploration of the decline of the American dream.

Biography

The author of The Great Gatsby , Francis Scott Key Fitzgerald, was named after his ancestor Francis Scott Key, the famed author of The Star-Spangled Banner . Fitzgerald was born on September 24, 1896, and, like Nick Carraway, the narrator of The Great Gatsby , was originally from Minnesota. Despite his literary genius, Fitzgerald was a poor student. He struggled throughout secondary school and college. He enrolled at Princeton in 1913, but, like his title character Gatsby, never graduated.

In 1917, near the close of World War I, Fitzgerald enlisted in the army and became a second lieutenant. He was stationed in Montgomery, Alabama, where he met his greatest love, Zelda Sayre. Fitzgerald begged Zelda to marry him, but she refused, demanding that he first prove himself a financial success. The couple finally married shortly after the publication of This Side of Paradise in 1920, Fitzgerald's wildly popular first novel.

With the success of his first and subsequent novels, including The Great Gatsby, published in 1925, Fitzgerald enjoyed the indulgent lifestyle of drinking and parties so often characterized by the Roaring Twenties. Throughout his marriage to Zelda, he worked earnestly to earn money to support her desire for fortune.

Fitzgerald suffers the most devastating challenges of his career as the Great Depression begins. His indulgence in spirits turns to alcoholism, which undermines his talent for writing. Simultaneously, Zelda experiences lasting mental health problems, triggered by a severe nervous breakdown. Fitzgerald continued to write and publish until his death at the age of forty-four, by heart attack, though he never again enjoyed the glory and praise of his early successes.

Historical Context

The Great Gatsby , written by Fitzgerald in 1925, is well known as the definitive novel of "the Jazz Age." Fitzgerald, himself, coined the term "the Jazz Age" to describe the 1920's, a decade that characterized prosperity, excess, and a separation from traditional morality. The 1920's, also commonly referred to as "The Roaring Twenties" for their indulgence and momentum, instigated a divergence from traditional, "apple pie" American values, and embraced a new, celebratory hedonism, so aptly portrayed in The Great Gatsby by the wild scenes at Gatsby's weekend soirees. This change in values coincides with a seriously transitional time for America; World War I, also known as The Great War, ends just as the 1920's begin, and with the end of the war comes great economic prosperity. The hedonism of the 1920's was a reaction to the deprivation suffered by most Americans during the war. Pride in material wealth, opulence, power, and success overtook the modest, conservative principles of war time.

Despite the widespread indulgence in alcohol during the Jazz Age, the consumption and sale of alcohol was outlawed by the federal government. The ban, called Prohibition, was instituted in 1919 and lasted until December of 1933, much to the delight of bootleggers, who made millions of dollars selling alcohol illegally to covert buyers. During Prohibition, alcohol was consumed at parties like Gatsby's, or at speakeasies, secret clubs, often disguised as restaurants, that sold liquor.

In The Great Gatsby, Fitzgerald disparages the Jazz Age for its moral depravity, though he, himself, participated in some of the activities he condemns. Fitzgerald was a common presence at the parties of New York's elite, and indulged in in acohol, a habit which eventually led to his untimely demise.

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