Why Was The Great Gatsby Written?

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.

Writer Hunter S. Thompson typed out pages of The Great Gatsby word for word, because he wanted to know what it felt like to write like F. Scott Fitzgerald. The Radcliffe Publishing Course voted it the best novel of the 20th century and it's been adapted to film five times. In this lesson, we'll examine both the historical and biographical context of this novel as we consider why The Great Gatsby is so, well, great.

1920s America and F. Scott Fitzgerald's Youth

Have you ever found yourself in a situation that made you feel inferior? Few of us escape life without feeling inadequate at times, whether it is in an academic setting, at a new job, in gym class, or during a formal outing or dinner. Thankfully, most of us encounter such situations sparingly, and so we can take them in stride. Imagine for a minute that you were forced to spend years in a situation that left you feeling second best... Do you think you would look for ways to make yourself feel that you belonged, to find your niche? F. Scott Fitzgerald, the celebrated author of The Great Gatsby, spent a monumental portion of his youth feeling inadequate to his wealthy classmates. However, it was in reaction to this feeling of inferiority that Fitzgerald developed his unparalleled talent for writing fiction.

1920s Assembly Line
assembly lines

The 1920s were an exciting and significant time in American History; the end of WWI fueled rapid social and financial change. The newly invented automobile provided people with freedom to suddenly come and go as they pleased. It was the era of prohibition, but America partied and celebrated as it embraced social change and the promise of the American Dream--the belief that all people, with enough hard work and determination, could achieve wealth and prosperity. Historically, it became known as the Jazz Age, a term coined by F. Scott Fitzgerald to describe his generation and the excesses and materialism that would precede The Great Depression.

As a child, F. Scott Fitzgerald was sent to the finest prep schools and later attended Princeton, an exclusive Ivy League school even in the early 1900s. He was educated among the rich and elite; he, however, was neither rich nor elite. He came from a modest family in the Midwest, the funding for his education borrowed from a distant relative. Among the wealthy, he was an outsider determined to find social acceptance through the one gift that set him apart--his writing.

Biographical Facts in The Great Gatsby

Portrait of F. Scott Fitzgerald
Fitzgerald photo

The character known as James Gatz (aka the Great Gatsby) is one of modern literature's most famous tragic heroes, namely a character whose lack of judgement leads to his or her own downfall. It is Jay Gatsby's refusal to accept that he will never truly be a part of Daisy Buchanan's world that ultimately leads to his own demise. Like Gatsby, Fitzgerald often felt he was on the outside looking in when it came to the wealthy. Even though Gatsby achieves extreme financial wealth, he remains an outsider to people like Tom and Daisy Buchanan. Similarly, F. Scott Fitzgerald achieved financial success early in his career with the publication of his first novel, Tender is the Night, yet remained haunted by the feelings of inadequacy and isolation that defined his prep and college school years.

The Great Gatsby and the American Dream

The Great Gatsby Original Book Cover
The Great Gtasby Original Cover Art

The Great Gatsby was certainly far more than an outlet for Fitzgerald's self-perceived social inadequacies. He deliberately set out to write his masterpiece when he penned Gatsby, telling his publisher he wanted to write 'something extraordinary and beautiful.' Though there are numerous parallels between the fictional Gatsby and Fitzgerald, the character whose voice most resembles the author's own is that of the novel's narrator, Nick Carraway. F. Scott Fitzgerald may have been very much a part of the Roaring Twenties, but he was also averse to its excesses and materialism. Similarly, Nick stands in judgement of the characters of The Great Gatsby. Nick ultimately judges Tom and Daisy Buchanan as careless people who thrive within a society that not only allows them to remain careless, but also allows the poor, such as Myrtle and Tom Wilson and even Gatsby himself, to be destroyed by that carelessness.

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