The Great Gatsby by Francis Scott Fitzgerald is considered one of the cult books of the 20th century. The protagonist, Jay Gatsby, was the forerunner of an entire literary dynasty of rich personalities with a mysterious past. The novel, which draws the reader into the atmosphere of a continuous holiday, was written in 1925 in the midst of the era of jazz with its unrestrained fun and moral decay of society. The age of jazz is also a time of terrible poverty and untold wealth, the age of the so-called “nouveau riche,” and the age of Chicago gangsters. The 1920s were a time of the Prohibition, when many entrepreneurs were engaged in the illegal supply of alcohol, sometimes even selling homemade alcohol. The novel goes deep into the American culture of the time, showing various details of life in the 20s.
In order to understand why the situation described in the novel arose, it is necessary to analyze several factors from the history of Prohibition. Alcohol has always held an important place in American society. In many villages, alcohol was used in payments instead of money. However, in the nineteenth century, religious puritans began to unite into sobriety societies, and propagate a ban on alcohol. Alcohol becomes the most terrible vice in the United States, which, in the opinion of many Americans, prevents people from fully living and working well. In October 1919, Congress adopted the 18th Amendment to the Constitution, which proclaimed a ban on the production, sale, export, import, and transportation of alcohol. All these events worried alcohol producers, who did not take the possibility of liquidation of the whole industry seriously before. For the U.S., with their cult of private property and ideology of minimal state interference in business, such action was unprecedented.
It is under the Prohibition that American drug-stores have become a multi-profile shopping mall, which combines a snack bar, shop, filling station. In the novel, the term drug-store is mentioned quite often. For example, naive Daisy tries to explain the source of her admirer’s fortune by saying he has his drug-stores, a network of pharmacies in different cities. Despite the fact that Daisy is trying to justify Gatsby, her remark, on the contrary, further increases Tom’s suspicion that Gatsby is a liquor trader – this was the nature of the drug-store activity. In a scene at a hotel in New York, Tom already claims that Gatsby is a “bootlegger”, and he knows what his drug-stores are (Fitzgerald 107). Undoubtedly, the illegal sale of alcohol would not have been possible without the help of the police. In chapter IV of the novel, Gatsby’s car was stopped by a policeman for speeding. Gatsby waved a white card in the face of a policeman and immediately left.
The heyday of the underground liquor trade was in 1925-1927. Expensive alcohol was illegally imported from England and Canada. Both moonshiners and single bootleggers needed the patronage of the authorities, who very often did not hesitate to take bribes. Bribery and corruption are also a distinctive feature of the 1920s. At the same time, in the 1920s, the first technologies for laundering illegal proceeds emerged and, consequently, the expression “to launder money,” which is still familiar to us, appeared. The term money laundering is related to the activities of Alphonse Capone, who bought up all the laundries in Chicago (Seymour 2). All the money coming from the illicit liquor trade was registered as laundry profits, and the money spent on bribing officials and police officers, according to the documents, was reinvested by the holding company in Canada.
The American government did not suspect that the dry law would never take root in society. It is at this time that many businessmen appear, trying to use the mistake of the government in their favor. During the Prohibition, America entered an unprecedented era of corruption, scandals, and gangsters, an era of frustration, jazz, and tabloids, an era of incredible wealth, violence, and, ultimately, cultural revolution.
The leading theme of the novel The Great Gatsby is the idea of the failure of the American dream – all the characters of the novel, who have money, have acquired it unfairly. The author does not speak directly as Gatsby earned all his money, but it is gradually becoming apparent to the reader that it came to him unjustly. However, as Wang points out, Gatsby develops some of his great qualities in the process of fighting for success (2). The theme of wealth is closely related to Fitzgerald’s theme of immorality: the characters burn their lives at parties, being in constant pursuit of entertainment. Reading about Gatsby, we learn that he has a Rolls-Royce, which at the weekend turns into a shuttle bus and takes many guests from town to town. Gatsby is also the lucky owner of the new yellow Ford with leather seats. Tom, an extremely wealthy man, also has his own Ford, and Daisy even before marriage had her own small two-seater car.
The extravagance of Gatsby’s parties, the emotional devastation of his guests, the thoughtless waste of dirty money – all of this perfectly characterizes the period described in the novel. The image of money and, consequently, wealth occupies a central place in the narrative. Gatsby’s entire life has been devoted to becoming rich and achieving the love of Daisy (Bunce 5). Her voice, as Gatsby notes, “is full of money,” with which Nick agrees (Fitzgerald 120). As Jiang stated, “Daisy’s life was filled with desire for money” (Jiang 3).
The technological progress that has brought such innovations as an iron, a washing machine, and a vacuum cleaner to American homes is another essential feature of the ’20s. For example, Gatsby’s kitchen has “a machine that squeezed out the juice from two hundred oranges in half an hour – it just had to press the button two hundred times” (Fitzgerald 39). The phone is becoming more common and makes communication quality better, faster, and more reliable. Both Gatsby’s and Buchanan’s phones are constantly ringing at home, and one of Gatsby’s guests, giving in to the influence of fashion on expensive “devices,” even bought a hydroplane (Fitzgerald 47). Comfortable devices that appeared in the 1920s could not help but change the everyday life of Americans.
In the novel, we see that women in affluent families, such as Daisy and her friend Jordan Baker, do not work. They live in their own pleasure, relying on their husbands’ income and the care of their servants. However, Miss Baker’s short haircut and extravagant behavior are different from those of her friend. Unlike Daisy, Jordan Baker has an occupation to which she gives her time, and in her evening dress, she moves as if she was wearing sports clothes (Fitzgerald 50). Jordan, independent and emancipated, is the embodiment of the American woman of the 1920s.
The development of the film and entertainment industry has had an impact on the lifestyle of people who have increasingly begun to throw parties where everyone drank alcoholic beverages prohibited by the government. In the novel, the author describes how familiar stars from the screen appear at parties at Gatsby’s, causing it to delight his guests, in particular, his beloved Daisy Buchanan. All these numerous events of the 20s Fitzgerald was able to reflect in nine chapters of the novel The Great Gatsby.
Throughout the novel, the image of Gatsby manages to maintain some mystery, probably because Fitzgerald does not directly address where Gatsby acquired his wealth. As the plot develops, the reader eventually suspects that Gatsby was engaged in the illegal sale of alcohol. Whether it was constant calls from Chicago, Philadelphia, or Detroit, or hints of Tom’s illegal dealings with Gatsby and the mention that Gatsby owns a massive network of drug-stores. However, neither the author nor the reader condemns Gatsby for illegal activity and thoughtless extravagance – that was the spirit of the time, and Gatsby just fell under the influence.
In general, in the novel Fitzgerald describes the life of society in the 1920s. He knew more than anyone else how hard it was for people in the lower classes and what a bustling life the rich lead. That is, the very environment in which the author places his characters, to some extent can be considered an autobiographical motive. Thus, with its various aspects, the novel is a reflection of American culture of the 20s of the 20th century.
Bunce, Selvi. “Love and Money: An Analysis of The Great Gatsby.” Language in India, vol.15, n. 6, 2015, pp. 164-168, Web.
Fitzgerald, F. Scott. The Great Gatsby. Simon and Schuster, 2003.
Jiang, Jinxuan. “The Analysis of the Tragic Reality of The Great Gatsby.” Advances in Social Science, Education and Humanities Research, vol. 328, 2019, pp. 471-475.
Seymour, Brian. “Global Money Laundering.” Journal of Applied Security Research, vol. 3, n. 3-4, 2018, pp. 373–387.
Wang, Chenye. “Similarities and Differences between Tom and Gatsby in The Great Gatsby.” 4th International Conference on Literature, Linguistics and Arts, Francis Academic Press, 2017, pp. 234-237, Web.