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The Time Period of The Great Gatsby

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  • 0:34 The Roaring Twenties
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Christopher Sailus

Chris has an M.A. in history and taught university and high school history.

In this lesson, we'll explore the time period in which 'The Great Gatsby' is set - specifically, the Roaring Twenties and the prohibition era in the United States. From flappers to speakeasies, it was a unique time in American history.

Background to The Great Gatsby

F. Scott Fitzgerald's masterpiece The Great Gatsby is one of the most recognized books in American literature. It's considered a classic and was even ranked as the top novel of the 20th century by Radcliffe Publishing. Published in 1925, the book is not only an important work of English-language literature, it is an excellent period piece that displays the social, cultural, and political tensions of the 1920s. In this lesson, we will investigate the key themes of 1920s America that impact the characters and story of The Great Gatsby.

The Roaring Twenties

The decade of the 1920s in the United States was nicknamed the Roaring Twenties. It gained this moniker due to the coalescence of trends in early 20th-century economics and culture. Western society, including the United States, experienced a significant economic boom in the years following the end of World War I in 1918.

This era was marked by the arguable beginning of consumer culture in the United States, and a plethora of new inventions became available to families. From toaster ovens and refrigerators to washing machines, families could now afford appliances that made their everyday lives easier. They could spend all of that extra time driving around in cars, which thanks to nearly two decades of production by Henry Ford's assembly line and other automakers, were now affordable. In addition, when the price of appliances and other machines proved too costly for some, in-store credit was widely available to virtually anyone who asked.

This economic boom coincided with a relaxation of American society's moral codes. Women in particular rebelled against the country's social mores in this period. Traditionally expected to get married at a young age and then become largely domestic creatures occupied with keeping house and having children, many young women in the 1920s eschewed that path. Instead, young women, especially in large urban centers, began going to social clubs and engaging in other activities, like drinking alcohol or smoking cigarettes, which traditionally were only done in public by men. They also chose to wear hats, shorter skirts (still far longer than fashionable skirts today), and boots that they often left unbuckled, earning these women the nickname flappers.

Despite this relaxation of social codes, The Great Gatsby portrays just how deeply racist and misogynistic 1920s society still was. Throughout the book, racist views are often espoused by one of the book's main characters, Tom. In the first chapter, for example, Tom relates how much he likes a book he has recently read, which contains deeply racist and eugenicist views. Furthermore, Tom strikes his mistress in the novel - an act which is only tacitly condemned by the other characters.

Twenties Culture in The Great Gatsby

Many of these themes are prevalent in The Great Gatsby. For example, Gatsby's all-night, alcoholic parties were mixed affairs, with a large number of female attendees - a practice which only a few years before would have been unthinkable. The book's narrator even encounters his love interest at one of these parties and thinks no less of her as a result.

In addition, the sheer extravagance of Gatsby's parties and mansion is an excellent display of the new economic wealth of the era. Gatsby's parties are legendary for their opulence, and the narrator eventually learns this first hand. He also perceives Gatsby's wealth through the numerous servants, gardeners, and other people Gatsby can afford to employ. Gatsby is not the only one, of course - the narrator remarks several times about the Rolls-Royce and other automobiles that continuously pull in and out of Gatsby's residence. Indeed, the ubiquity of automobiles in The Great Gatsby displays the era's new wealth.

Moreover, the book's narrative arc portrays more subtle feelings about the period as felt by its commentators. Many worried this era of extreme prosperity could not last forever - a theme represented by Gatsby's torrid but precarious affair with Daisy, which ends abruptly when he is shot by the man whose wife Daisy hit with Gatsby's car.

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