Corruption in The Great Gatsby

Instructor: Terri Beth Miller

Terri Beth has taught college writing and literature courses since 2005 and has a PhD in literature.

This lesson explores the theme of corruption in F. Scott Fitzgerald's 1925 masterpiece, The Great Gatsby. It argues that corruption in the novel reflects Fitzgerald's examination of a world undergoing rapid, disorienting change.

F. Scott Fitzgerald

Power, Wealth, and Immorality in The Great Gatsby

F. Scott Fitzgerald's 1925 novel, The Great Gatsby, is an iconic snapshot of America during The Roaring Twenties, also known as The Jazz Age. The tale of the small-town-boy-makes good, Jay Gatsby, encapsulates all the breathtaking possibilities of The American Dream. This idea holds that if you have the wit, guts, and determination, anything is possible.

Despite Gatsby's Cinderella-like ascendence into wealth, a dark undercurrent runs beneath Fitzgerald's novel. Gatsby is not the unblemished icon of success he makes himself out to be. The people he surrounds himself with are not unpolluted exemplars of all that hard work and clean living can accomplish.

The novel's major characters are driven by greed, vanity, and selfishness. Almost without exception, they are willing to lie, cheat, steal, and, yes, sometimes even to kill to get what they want. Perhaps the biggest question underlying this Great American Novel is not whether the American Dream is real, but rather, what is its cost?

First Edition Book Jacket

Heirs, Tycoons, and Criminals

Virtually all of the novel's characters, from its titular hero to more secondary figures like Jordan Baker, are infected in some way by the taint of corruption. Before we can look more closely at how this manifests in the novel, we have to think: What was happening in the world to give rise to such seeming immorality?

American troops in World War I

World War I

The most important answer to this question is World War I (1914-1918). The psychological impact of World War I and its effect on the social, and moral, landscape of modern life can't be overestimated.

The bloodiest war to that time (still second only to World War II), it took the lives of nearly 20 million military and civilians, while wounding more than 20 million more.

Aerial warfare and chemical warfare (mustard gas), were used for the first time in WWI. Brutal bombing campaigns, known as carpet bombing, were aimed at civilian and military targets alike. Likewise, exposure to mustard gas led to an excruciating death, as the lungs liquefied and victims slowly drowned in their own blood.

Troops wearing gas masks in WWI
Gas Masks

By the time the war was over, people had seen terrible things, leading the American poet Gertrude Stein to name the group of American expatriate writers who served in World War I and subsequently found themselves restlessly traveling the world (mostly Europe) The Lost Generation.

Live Fast, Die Young

The Roaring Twenties are a direct response to the horrors of this newly-ended war. The Jazz Age was a young people's movement, led by those who had either served in the war or been directly impacted by it. These kids knew what death meant. Now that the war was over, it was a live fast, seize the moment kind of world--because you never know how long you've got.

This lifestyle doesn't exactly lend itself to moral constraint, which is precisely where themes of corruption in Gatsby figure most prominently. This world was all about drinking, getting ahead, having fun, making love and making money. For most people, no rules of society, family, religion, or law were going to get in the way.

Belgian military hospital in WWI
WWI Hospital

War Hero Turned Bootlegger

Rumors abound as to how Gatsby, after a storied career in World War I, made his fortune. The truth is that, in Prohibition-era America, Gatsby rises from poverty to make a mint as a bootlegger, one who illegally imports and sells alcohol. The novel hints at even greater crimes, and the guests at his many parties speculate with a twinkle in their eyes that murder is among them. In the hedonistic Jazz Age, such heedless disregard for the rules of ethics and law only adds to Gatsby's allure.

The Amoral Tom and Daisy

If Gatsby's corruption is of the criminal type, then the corruption of Tom and Daisy Buchanan is more the corrosion of any sense of right and wrong. Daisy is the love of Gatsby's life, an heiress from an old Southern family who rejected Gatsby five years prior because she could not live with his poverty.

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