Historical perspective

The Great Gatsby is set in the early years of the 1920s. Since Fitzgerald wrote the book just a couple of years after the book’s time setting, the book is closely inspired by Fitzgerald's own time and experiences and so has a particular historical context.


To better understand the novel’s historical context, it is useful to know that the US experienced significant economic growth after the First World War had ended in 1918, with industry and trade doing well. This gave rise to an era of prosperity known as “The Jazz Age” (a term coined by Fitzgerald) or “The Roaring Twenties”, and many people became very wealthy. This included many former members of the lower and middle classes, and society was quickly changed by this shift in money. Many of the aristocratic families maintained their wealth, but increasingly people from non-traditional backgrounds (like Gatsby) were building large houses and changing the way society was structured.

Politically, there was also a large change in the position of women, who were granted the right to vote across the country in 1920. During the First World War, many women had enjoyed greater freedom and taken up many jobs traditionally done by men. Many continued to pursue this freedom in the 1920s, often seeking financial independence or employment. Notably, in The Great Gatsby, Jordan Baker makes her living as a professional golfer.

In 1929, the Wall Street crash marked an abrupt end to the Jazz Age, plunging the US into economic depression within a short span of time. In a way, The Great Gatsby is almost prophetic with regards to this event, with the novel’s focus on the fragile nature of dreams and the contrast between illusion and reality. In many ways, The Wall Street crash happened precisely because investors were increasingly out of touch with reality - caught up in the optimistic spirit of the times, they eagerly bought stocks and countless companies were eventually valued far beyond their actual value and the actual goods they produced.


During the 1920s, clothing, architecture and design became more daring. Women's dresses became much shorter than they had previously been, and waistlines were dropped to create a more boyish figure. This was a symbol of the sexual freedom aimed for by many people at this time. Similarly, cars had be...

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