Prohibition & The Great Gatsby

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 18th Amendment to the Constitution outlawed the production, sale, and distribution of alcoholic beverages in the United States. In this lesson, you will learn about the impact of this law during the 1920s as it relates to F. Scott Fitzgerald's novel, The Great Gatsby.

Cocktail, Anyone?

Much like the debate over the legalization of marijuana today, the legal status of alcoholic beverages was the source of fierce debate during the early 1900s. Those involved in the temperance movement rallied for the reduction or complete elimination of alcoholic beverages in the United States; they were convinced that this would reduce crime, promote better health, and strengthen families. Alcohol was implicated as a cause of crime, disease, and family discord.

In 1920, the 18th Amendment to the Constitution went into effect, making the sale, production, and transportation of 'intoxicating liquors' illegal. The requirements of this law are known as prohibition.

The Story Setting

The Great Gatsby, by F. Scott Fitzgerald, was published in 1925, at the height of the prohibition era. This was also the time period during which the story is set. Despite its illegal status at the time, alcohol was an integral part of the social lives of the characters in The Great Gatsby. Wealth, status, fine clothing, expensive cars, mansions with maids and butlers - and alcohol: these things seemed to go hand-in-hand.

Although it is a work of fiction, F. Scott Fitzgerald's real life and the life of the character who narrates the story have some basic things in common: Both Fitzgerald and Nick Carraway were born in Minnesota, lived privileged lives, served in the army during World War I, attended prestigious colleges, and moved to New York after the war. The story takes place in Long Island, New York, after the war, in a variety of opulent surroundings, mirroring Fitzgerald's own adult life.

Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous

Most of the main characters in The Great Gatsby were born into wealthy families and never had to worry about finances. Their leisurely gatherings almost always included alcohol: cocktails before dinner, wine with dinner, stashes of whisky opened for guests. The narrator never mentions the source of these libations, but it could not have been legal. Social drinking was just a regular part of life.

Others in the story, despite more modest incomes, enjoyed associating with the wealthiest social class, and consuming alcohol made it easier for some to play the role. Jay Gatsby, the story's namesake, made this kind of socializing easy. He threw regular parties for no particular occasion, complete with music, fancy food, and a full bar 'stocked with gins and liquors and with cordials so long forgotten that most of his female guests were too young to know one from another' (p. 40). No invitation was required, and the parties drew large crowds of people who indulged quite heavily in the free drinks.

Alcohol brought all kinds of people together: cheating couples, newfound 'friends,' and people who might otherwise have absolutely nothing in common. Nobody appeared to hide their alcohol consumption. After all, the law said nothing about the consumption of alcohol, only its sale, production, and distribution.

18th Amendment

The Dark Side

Jay Gatsby is a mysterious character in this book. His enormous house, extravagant parties, and apparently unending bank account leaves people wondering about the source of his wealth. Unlike the other main characters, his wealth is not directly linked to a family inheritance or successful career.

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