Alcohol in The Great Gatsby

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  • 0:02 A Time to Drink
  • 0:52 Alcohol Was Illegal
  • 1:41 Alcohol Was Common
  • 3:08 Alcohol Was Profitable
  • 4:13 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Kelly Beaty

Kelly has taught fifth grade language arts and adult ESL. She has a master's degree in education and a graduate certificate in TESOL.

''The Great Gatsby'' by F. Scott Fitzgerald is set in the 1920s, a time of increasing prosperity, partying, and alcohol consumption in the United States. This lesson focuses specifically on the role of alcohol in the story.

A Time to Drink

With the end of WWI in 1918, Americans entered the next decade with more time and money to have a good time. Images of the 1920s reflect this lifestyle change: jazz musicians, dancing couples, flappers with bobbed hair wearing stylish dresses, and all kinds of cocktails.

At this point in history, the merit of drinking alcoholic beverages was up for debate in America. In fact, alcohol was not legally available for purchase. Nevertheless, alcohol consumption was a regular part of life. Reflecting this time period, characters in The Great Gatsby enjoy whiskey, wine, and cocktails.

In order to understand the role of alcohol in The Great Gatsby, it helps to know three things about alcohol in the 1920s:

  1. It was illegal.
  2. It was common.
  3. It was profitable (for some).

Alcohol Was Illegal

During the 1920s, the 18th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution established prohibition as law, meaning the production, distribution, and sale of alcohol in the United States was not allowed. The law said nothing about the consumption of alcohol, and people found many ways, both legal and illegal, to obtain the substance.

Those who produced, distributed, or sold alcohol illegally were known as bootleggers, and organized crime was associated with this practice. Getting alcohol into the hands of paying customers was big business during the 1920s.

While it is possible that those in The Great Gatsby have a bottomless stash of alcohol, reserved prior to Prohibition, it is also possible that the source is bootlegged alcohol. Money is certainly not a barrier for Jay Gatsby and Tom Buchanan.

Alcohol Was Common

In The Great Gatsby, drinking alcohol, often to excess, is a part of everyday life.

Tom and Daisy Buchanan's privileged lifestyle includes plenty of alcohol, something to which Tom has apparently grown accustomed. When the Buchanans serve cocktails to dinner guests, Tom drinks his down quickly, 'as if it were a drop in the bottom of a glass.' His drinking is not limited to pre-dinner cocktails. While eating lunch in town with his friend Nick, Tom gets 'tanked up a good deal'.

Tom and Myrtle's impromptu gathering at their apartment sheds some light on social drinking in The Great Gatsby. People talk, often loudly, but there is little meaningful conversation going on.

Perhaps most obnoxious is Myrtle, a wealthy, high society woman who criticizes her husband as someone beneath her to anyone within earshot. Her affected laughter and chatter get louder as the alcohol flows. She even complains about servants in the apartment who don't exist!

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