Cars in The Great Gatsby

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  • 0:00 Cars in the 1920s
  • 1:36 Cars in 'The Great Gatsby'
  • 3:02 Tom Buchanana and Jay…
  • 5:17 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Becky Dotzel

Becky has taught high school and college level courses; she has a bachelor's degree in English and a master's in secondary education.

'The Great Gatsby' by F. Scott Fitzgerald is known for its rich symbolism. One of the symbols he used to represent the characters and 1920s America is the automobile. This lesson explores the importance of the cars Fitzgerald included in his novel.

Cars in the 1920s

Think about the last time you experienced stress. Maybe it was a job interview, a particularly difficult exam, or perhaps a move. How did you feel when you completed the challenge? Did you think it was time to dive immediately into another daunting task, or did you feel that you earned a break and that it was time to take a breath and unwind?

When the stress of World War I finally ended, many people in the United States felt it was time to let loose. In the wake of the devastation, extreme loss of life, and deprivation of this war, the Jazz Age was born. The Roaring Twenties and the Age of Wonderful Nonsense became synonymous with 1920s America. For many people, this was a time to party. Women were gaining personal freedoms and expressing themselves, the stock market was booming, jazz music was born, and, thanks to the automobile, people suddenly experienced freedoms they had never known before.

What images come to your mind when you picture someone driving a Bentley? How about a Lexus, a pickup truck, Cadillac, or Ferrari? Or what do you think when you see a Ford, Kia, or Smart Car? Even though cars were new to 1920s America, they quickly became a status symbol for a person's wealth and success.

F. Scott Fitzgerald was keenly aware of the relationship between the automobile a person drove and his or her social status. The cars in The Great Gatsby are an example of literary symbolism, a device authors use to add meaning and significance to people, objects, animals, or places. Fitzgerald's intentional choice of specific 1920s automobiles adds meaning to each layer of the novel. Understanding these cars helps us to understand the characters, setting, and main themes within The Great Gatsby.

Cars in The Great Gatsby

In the novel, Jordan Baker is a character who in many ways represents the freedom and carelessness of the 1920s. Her name is actually a play on two major American automobile manufacturers of the time: the Jordan Motor Car Company and Baker Motor Vehicle. The Jordan Motor Car Company was one of the first to market specifically to women, with names like The Tomboy or The Playboy. The Jordan Motor Car Company was a true representation of 1920s America. It focused on appearance and proudly advertised its philosophy that because people dressed so smartly, they would want to drive smart-looking cars as well.

F. Scott Fitzgerald, however, was critical of the focus his generation placed on money and appearances. In the story, Nick, often viewed as a character whose voice is synonymous with the voice of F. Scott Fitzgerald, describes Jordan Baker as a careless and rotten driver, and criticizes not only her poor driving skills, but her selfish and reckless behavior overall.

The carelessness Fitzgerald perceived in the privileged and wealthy is further demonstrated in Chapter 3, when Nick departs from Gatsby's extravagant party and runs into a 'bizarre and tumultuous scene' outside the mansion. Here, Gatsby's guest Owl Eyes, who told Nick just moments before that he had been drunk for a week, exits a car that has just crashed outside Gatsby's home. The driver doesn't even realize he wrecked his car and thinks he ran out of gas. This scene and the description of Jordan as a bad driver are literary symbols of the carelessness Fitzgerald observed in many of the rich and privileged members of 1920s society.

Tom Buchanan and Jay Gatsby's Cars

F. Scott Fitzgerald was especially critical of the wealthy, those who saw themselves as superior to others. Throughout the novel, there is an underlying theme of new versus old money. Tom and Daisy Buchanan represent old money, while Jay Gatsby represents new money. Fitzgerald uses the cars these characters drive to emphasize the difference between the two. Tom Buchanan's car is a blue coupe. A coupe in the 1920s was a luxury vehicle, similar to a Cadillac. Many scholars speculate that Fitzgerald's choice of blue here is representative of Tom's belief in his own superiority as a blue blood, or member of the aristocracy.

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