The Great Gatsby as a reflection of the "Jazz Age", America and the American Dream

Diploma Thesis, 2016

56 Pages, Grade: 4,5



1.1.The Roaring Twenties.
1.2. Immigration
1.3. A new woman
1.4. The self-made man
1.5. Prohibition
1.6. The Jazz Age
1.7. The Great Depression
1.8. The American Dream

Chapter II
2.1. F. Scott Key Fitzgerald 's Life
2.2. American Dream perceived by the characters of The Great Gatsby


3.1. Money in The Great Gatsby
3.2. Consumerism in The Great Gatsby
3.3. Social Stratification in The Great Gatsby
3.4. Prohibition in the Great Gatsby
3.5. The Flappers in The Great Gatsby
3.6 Jazz in the Great Gatsby


Works cited

The Great Gatsby as a reflection of the “Jazz Age” America and American Dream


The Ethos of “The American Dream” in The Great Gatsby


In the1920s America experienced unprecedented growth of prosperity. Due to the improvements in technology, American productivity increased while overall production costs decreased facilitating economic growth. Economic spurred consumerism and new lifestyles focused on travel, sports and Jazz. Immigrants from all over the World came to America expecting their “American Dream” to fulfil. The concept of “American Dream” became one of the key idea of that era.

One of the most outstanding American novels that explore the ethos of American dream is The Great Gatsby, a symbolic presentation of America of 1920s, the era of unprecedented prosperity as well as corruption. Each of the characters of “The Great Gatsby” has his / her own concept of the “America Dream”and the goals they want to achieve.

The first chapter of the thesis deals with socio-political situation in the U.S. after the WW1. It will analyze the most vital issues for America of that era such as economic prosperity, prohibition, immigration as well as social changes related to the position of women (flappers) and the concept of success (self-made man).

F.Scott Fitzgerald was the most famous chronicler of the 1920s America named by him “the Jazz Age.” The Great Gatsby is one of the most significant literary documents of this period. Prohibition, the ban on the sale and consumption of alcohol , made millionaires out of bootleggers. The World War I left America in a state of shock, and the people of the generation that participated in the war turned to extravagant living to compensate.

Fitzgerald found the new lifestyle very exciting. Now he found himself in an era in which unrestrained materialism set the tone of society, particularly in the large cities of the East. However, Fitzgerald saw the moral emptiness and hypocrisy through the glamour of the Jazz Age. The Great Gatsby is an attempt of confrontation of his conflicting feelings about the Jazz Age.

Chapter Two analyzes the main features of the American “Roaring 20s” such as materialistic attitude towards life, striving to attain high social status, prohibition as well as social phenomena “ flappers” and “ self made man “ in the context of the events and the characters of The Great Gatsby. Its assumption is to reflect the 1920s through the standpoints of its characters as well as economic and social background of the fiction.

T.S. Elliot wrote that The Great Gatsb y seemed to him “the first step the American fiction has taken since Henry James” (Bloom 2006; 122). He discussed the two writers as social novelists in whose works the issues of innocence and experience are revealed. They both rejected artificial limitations as well as those recognized and respected circumstances between the individual aiming at independence and the society ruling him. Fitzgerald understood that the pursuit for independence was doomed from the beginning. Identity is determined by economic, social and cultural influences which include commodities and the clothes one purchases and wears. The characters of Fitzgerald's novel find it impossible to get rid of ”the shell”and find their self again (James in Donaldson 2001: 1).

In order to analyse the concept of the American Dream in literature fiction many factors should be studied, especially those responsible for creating and reinforcing this phenomenon, as well as the ones that led toits failure. Both sets of the factors have been depicted in The Great Gatsby.

Analysing F.Scott Fitzgerald's works one should consider a specific context in which they were created. America in the 1920s experienced rapid changes in economic, social and artistic spheres (Zeitz 2013: online). In the years 1921-1924 the country's national product increased from $ 69 billion to $93 billion. A significant increase of wages was also noted. The United States was perceived as a rich country and demonstrated it as well (Zeitz. 2013: online).

In The Great Gatsby (1925) the author depicts the life in the so-called “Roaring Twenties”.The decade was named so due to the economic growth, technological change, and the loosening of social codes. It encouraged a lively youth culture focused around the automobile, jazz music, and bootleg liquor . Fitzgerald shows social injustices that were related to economic prosperity of that time. This work deals with the American upper classes of the 1920s and presents some internal processes of “high society” (Rosch 2008:3).

1.1.The Roaring Twenties.

America in 1920s was undergoing dynamic changes in economic, social and artistic spheres of life which brought the significant increase of national product. A considerable increase of wages was also noted. When a prominent banking family expressed their amazement due to installing gold gadgets in their bathroom, the ombudsman of the family declared :”you don't have to polish them, you know”. A vast majority of American people in 1920s could not afford luxury. Only a small percentage could enjoy Jay Gatsby's affluence, but ordinary people also experienced the results of good prosperity. In 1912 only 12% of households were electrified. During next eight years this number grew to 60%. An average American family was able to save a lot of time and effort on housekeeping using new devices like hoovers, refrigerators or washing machines. The same concerned radio and telephones (Zeitz 2013: online).

Wealth brought innovations. It took one hundred years for the US Patent Office to issue the first million of patents in 1911. This amount was doubled within the next 15 years. Growing consumer's market was flooded by new brands which are widely known even today such as the Scotch tape, Wheaties cereals, Kleenex tissue paper or the Schick electric razor. Not all the people could travel abroad and look for inspiration in France like Scott Fitzgerald. It was far beyond their possibilities. However, they could enjoy new forms of entertainment such as dance halls, movie palaces like Chicago's Oriental Theatre or New York's Rialto, amusement parks like Luna or Steeplechase richly lit by electric bulbs, or an easy access by public transportation (Zeitz 2013:online).

Americans were also able to buy mass produced glassware, jewellery, clothing and other goods which successfully blurred the distinction between the rich and the poor. It was difficult to distinguish people of low social status from the people from the upper classes. The former ones frequently tried to make their appearance and lifestyle similar to the latter. In Great Gatsby one could remember Myrtle Wilson who dreamt about joining high society. She did her best to collect her ”the cluster of appurtenances” which could hide her low social position.

Apart from economic prosperity, revolutionary changes were perceived in almost all spheres of life in America. The United States of 1920s experienced the phenomenon of celebrities. Famous sportsmen and actors had never been so much celebrated before. In this decade such stars like Babe Ruth, the baseball player, or Jack Dempsey, the heavy weight champion who also appeared in many films, reached the peak of popularity (Zeitz 2013:online). Before 1920 almost 75% of press articles were devoted to politicians or business leaders. In 1920s decade over half concerned key figures of entertainment and sports. Great Gatsby's ability was to create an air of celebrity in order to mask his true origin:

He took out a pile of shirts and began throwing them, one by one, before us, shirts of sheer linen and thick silk and fine flannel, which lost their folds as they fell and covered the table in many-colored disarray. While we admired he brought more and the soft rich heap mounted higher— shirts with stripes and scrolls and plaids in coral and apple-green and lavender and faint orange, and monograms of Indian blue.”(Fitzgerald 1994:99)

Gatsby drove a long, cream-coloured car, a veritable “circus wagen” (Fitzgerald 1994:127). He lived in a huge mansion, where he arranged lavish, drunken parties to get the attention of the West Egg and East Egg society. However, his efforts were not only snobbery. This was his way to achieve his American Dream and win Daisy's love.

“The Roaring Twenties” brought. not only prosperity but also numerous fears. The boom of that era resulted in significant benefits for Americans as wages and living standards significantly improved for many people. According to Kennedy and Cohen. .New technologies, new consumer products and new forms of leisure and entertainment made this period unique. However, widespread fears appeared that America was losing its traditional ways (Kennedy, Cohen 2010: 771).

Fears of the Russian Bolshevik Revolution of 1917 severely affected American thinking. These tensions were increased by numerous strikes. Many of them resulted from high prices and frustrated union drives. As Kennedy and Cohen claim.

A strike in Seattle in 1919 although quite moderate in its demands caused the mayor to involve federal troops in order to prevent “the anarchy of Russia”. The anti-Russian period of 1919-1920 resulted in a movement against the representatives of the left wings whose American identity was doubtful (Kennedy, Cohen 2010: 772). Criminal syndicalism was a doctrine which advocated crime, sabotage, violence or other unlawful methods of terrorism as a means of accomplishing industrial or political reform. The advocates of this doctrine believed that unions should run the nation’s economy. In 1919-1920 numerous laws, reflecting anxiety of solid citizens, passed criminal syndicalism laws (Kennedy, Cohen 2010: 772).

Kennedy and Cohen argue that (Kennedy, Cohen 2010: 772) reinstated Ku-Klux-Klan increased its significance in the early 1920. It resembled the anti-black night riders of the 1860s. They were against foreigners, catholic, black people and Jews. KKK was anti-pacifist, anti-communist, anti–internationalist, anti- revolutionist, anti-bottlegger, anti-gambling, anti-adultery and anti-birth control. It was pro-Anglo- Saxon, pro-“native” American and pro-Protestant. The KKK indicated the necessity of fighting against the forces that were transforming American culture. The KKK spread rapidly especially in the Midwest and the South where Protestant Fundamentalism blossomed. In 1920s, it numbered about 5 million members and created potent political force (Kennedy, Cohen 2010: 771).

1.2. Immigration

In the nineteenth century, immigrants to the United States came from the northern European countries. These countries included England, Ireland, Germany and Scandinavian countries, although many immigrants on the West Coast came from China. In 1890s the ethnic composition of immigrants began to change. Slavs, Hungarians, Southern Italians, Greeks, Romanians and eastern European Jews came to the United States in growing numbers. By 1910 the immigrants, including their children born in America made up 40 to 50 per cent of the US population (O'Neal 2006:71). Old Immigrants groups–northern Europeans began to argue that the immigrants from less desirable countries were bringing dirt, disease and crime. Moreover, they were strange and exotic looking and it was believed they could not become part of American society. Defenders of the immigrants pointed out that they had provided much of the labour that turned the United States into industrial power. After WW1 these defenders faced numerous issues. Americans were scared of the large number of immigrants who had left their countries due to the poverty of post-war Europe. Organisation such as KKK increased these fears (O'Neal 2006:71).

Anti-communism and anti-foreignism could be perceived in a case of Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti.(O'Neal 2006:74). In 1921 they were convicted of the murder of a paymaster and his guard in Massachussetts. The jury were prejudiced against them because they were Italian immigrants, draft dodgers, atheists and anarchists. Liberal people all over the world protested against the verdict. The case lasted until 1927 when they were executed (O'Neal 2006:74).

In this atmosphere the National Origin Act was passed in 1924. This law was one of many laws passed to restrict immigration. In 1920 California passed a law banning new Japanese immigrants to hold land. In 1921 the Emergency Act (O'Neal 2006:74). established the number of immigrants on 3% of the foreign born of each nationality already living in the US. This limitation ensured that immigrants from countries that had been long sending people to the United States, primarily northern European countries, would be favoured. In 1924, the Emergency Immigration Act was due to expire. A new law was needed. The new law was worked out by Republican Albert Johnson and Senator David Reed (O'Neal 2006:74).

Johnson advised a formula that would decrease the total number of immigrants to 161.000 though that number was later lowered to 150.000. Each nation was assigned a quota 2 per cent of its number already in the United States according to 1890 status which favoured old immigrant countries (Eastern and Southern European arrived in large number only after 1890). However, Reed considered the 1890 status too discriminatory toward new immigrant countries. He proposed using the 1920 census to establish the quotas. His version won, and President Coolidge eventually signed the law (O'Neal 2006:76).

1.3. A new woman

“The Roaring Twenties” are known as the period of considerable changes in traditional American morality. As a scholar of the period claims.Young women imitated the young men in order to win moral freedom (Rosenberg:online). The particular attention was drawn to fashion. In 1920, it was reported that American women had made their skirts shorter far beyond any decent limitation. They smoked, drank, danced, and voted. A new woman cut her hair and wore make-up. She was called a flapper (Rosenberg:online).

According to Boyer Sagert no one knows precisely how the term ”flapper” began to represent the modern and bold young woman. It was believed in 1920s that this name evolved from the “flapper dresses” that young women considered fashionable. They rejected corsets and long dresses worn by their mothers’ generation (Boyer Sagert 2010:11).

As Boyer Sagert concludes although the United States participated in the war from April 6th 1917 till its end in November 1918, American culture changed significantly during that period of time. Due to more than four million American men mobilized for the war, women entered the workforce in significant numbers. They worked in offices and factories, in stores and governmental agencies. They also served in the Red Cross and participated in other humanitarian efforts. They were earning higher wages than ever in the past. Some of these women found themselves in previously male-dominated fields. These changes gave women an increased sense of confidence and independence and they did not want the previous structure to return (Boyer Sagert 2010:13).

While the war gave the women new opportunities and raised both their economic status and sense of independence, an additional opportunity of huge significance was legislated. In August 1920 women finally won the right to vote in the United States (Boyer Sagert 2010: 13)

The night club and the cocktail party gained a special position in American society. These forms of entertainment changed the type of American femininity. The traditional ideas of love and marriage were rejected. Divorce rate was growing due to the independence of women employed in offices and industry. Women could “live their own lives” (Boyer Sagert 2010: 15).

1.4. The self-made man

The concept of the self-made man is strictly connected with the American dream. His image brought thousands of immigrants to America who hoped to win a fortune and happiness. The self-made man is an individual who is not born into privilege and wealth, and due to his own efforts manages to be successful in life. A self-made man, as Frederick Douglass has put it, was the issue of “manhood itself, and this in its broadest and most comprehensive sense” (McKay: online). According to Douglas t he self-made man focuses the most significant masculine qualities: hard work, persistence, and responsibility. The story of the self-made man depicts the goal of every man: to handle his own destiny. A self-made man attains greater success than his original circumstances would have indicated. It is not external help or special connections that contributes to the self-made man’s rise. Luck is not the most important factor. However, society loved the story of a man whose success came from an opportunity dropped from the sky. It allowed unsuccessful men to excuse their failure and to reduce the success of others by combining their achievements with good luck. While there are usually many elements of success, all are subject to work, which is the key to success (McKay: online).

Benjamin Franklin became America’s self-made man from being the son of a candle maker to a legend among men. Abraham Lincoln captured the public attention when he started from log-cabin and finished in the White House. The concept spread in American culture after the Civil-War, while the so-called Second Industrial Revolution developed, and new inventions quickly brought wealth and prosperity. A young man’s destiny had formerly been established for him practically at birth (he usually followed his father in the family business) now he could leave home and aim at his individual success. For the young man who was willing to work hard and get ahead, the country offered innumerable opportunities (McKay: online).

The concept of the self-made man was considerably weakened during the Great Depression years, when men who seemed to do all the proper things - worked hard, saved, and invested - saw their fortunes ruined and all they had worked for wiped out. Buffeted by external forces, it was hard to believe that one’s life remained in one’s control (McKay: online).

1.5. Prohibition

The period of prohibition of alcohol in 1920s and 1930s is often called the most famous and infamous times in history of the United States. Its intention was to reduce alcohol consumption by elimination of its manufacturers, distributors and sellers. According to Graham abstinence movements had a long tradition in America. Its organized form occurred began in the years 1840s – 1850s under the religious guidance, primarily by Methodists. The World War I made these movements more fierce. It was believed that the brewing and distilling industries were harmful for wartime production. They were considered to consume precious grains and workforce which should have been reserved for food production. Anti-German trends worked in favour of extending prohibition in wartime because German immigrants to the US had founded most of the breweries in the 19th, and retained German names such as “Pabst” , “Schlitz” and “Blatz“ (Graham 2013: online)

National Prohibition in America banned the sale of alcohol due to the 18th amendment to the Constitution of 1919. The Volstead Act, which came into operation in January, 1920 constituted the Congressional law to implement the prohibition acceptable within the 18th amendment.

From 1919 till 1922 (Tyrrel: online), alcohol consumption was decreased. The unavailability of legally supplied alcohol affected social classes unevenly. The poor found alcohol more expensive and therefore their consumption declined. The saloons were closed. This appealed to the prohibitionists as evidence of the progressive and beneficial effects of the Prohibition. However middle class people, known previously as teetotallers or light drinkers, could afford more expensive illegal alcohol, and it was fashionable to drink cocktails in one’s own home or at parties. Young women also began to drink more, due to the image of the “flapper” and as part of the rise of a mass consumption society in the 1920s. The law entered the changes the pattern of consumption. Beer consumption (the working-class drink) dropped and spirits increased their popularity. The law was widely ignored by the mid- to late 1920s as well as crime based on the profits of illegal deliveries of alcohol was incredibly growing (Tyrrel:online).

The resourcefulness of the American people to get what they wanted during the Prohibition is evident. This era brought such concepts like “speakeasy”, “bottlegger”, and many gangster myths. The rural people began to produce their “hooch”. Stills were spread all over the country. Many of them made their living during a depression supplying their neighbours with moonshine (Graham: online).

Rum-running was also showing its development. Along with stills that produced bootleg whiskey, an illegal industry called “ rum running” evolved. Rum running involved the use of large sailing schooners to bring liquor legally ring the alcoholic goods to just outside of the US territorial waters. From there they were loaded on smaller boats and illegally brought into US territorial waters (Giadirosh 2009: 860).

Now liquor was smuggled from Mexico, Europe, Canada and Carribeans. “Speakeasies”- the underground bars served alcohol often including food services, live bands and shows. “Speakeasies” were frequently unmarked enterprises. They operated behind legal businesses. Corruption was omnipresent. The owners used to bribe police to ignore their business or inform them when a raid was planned (Graham 2013: online).

Mafia was one of the most popular organizations of that time and controlled the most significant volume of the liquor trafficking. Chicago was one of the main cities where they controlled distribution at the beginning of the prohibition. Local Chicago gangs divided the city and the suburbs into areas and each of them was controlled by a different gang which handled the liquor sales (Graham 2013: online) .

Daniel Florien (2009:online) specifies the most harmful effects of Prohibition. One of them was d isrespect for the law. Prohibition encouraged people to perceive the law as unimportant, instead of something good and protecting. It was a source of organized crime and massive political corruption. Police officers and politicians were the bribed and blackmailed (Florien 2009:online)

Prohibition harmed people financially, emotionally, and morally. Hundreds of thousands of people lost their jobs because of Prohibition. People in the alcohol business had two options: to find lower-paying work or become criminals. Due to the evangelical rhetoric, it was also hard to find a proper job coming from the “devil’s work.” This encouraged people to break the law just to support their families (Florien 2009: online) .

Prohibition caused physical harm. Alcohol was illegal so its purity was not controlled. Over 10,000 people passed away during Prohibition due to wood alcohol consumption and many went blind or had severe organ damages. The drinking habits were changed for the worse. Instead of going out to drink, people started drinking at home. Hard liquor became popular because it was more concentrated and cheaper to smuggle. Drinking has never again reached pre-Prohibition levels (Florien 2009:online).

1.6. The Jazz Age

“The Roaring Twenties” was also known as the Jazz Age. The Jazz Age was the term coined by F.Scott Fitzgerald in his collection of short stories Tales of the Jazz Age (1922), and was a characteristics feature of the 1920s when jazz music and dancing achieved immense popularity in the US and also influenced other parts of the world. After World War I about half a million of African Americans moved to the north of the US in order to find an employment. They brought their cultures and styles of music to New York. Dixieland and blues gained popularity as well. Charleston, a fashionable dance with its origin in South Carolina and African American styles such as cakewalk and many others reached the top of popularity. Louis Armstrong “Satchmo” presented amazing talent as a trumpet and cornet player. He used to be a singer as well. The other great artists of that time included Duke Ellington, George Gershwin or Benny Goodman (Hardig: online).

The first film featuring spoken words was The Jazz Singer produced by Warner Brothers in 1927. Al Jolson spoke the first words. In the previous year, the company had presented a music film. In 1928, Warner Brothers made a step forward. The Lights of New York was the first film to feature speech in the whole of the movie. The appearance of “talkies” hurt many silent film stars, but others like Charlie Chaplin continued their career. (Hardig: online).

1.7. The Great Depression

The world described by Scott Fitzgerald collapsed in 1929. There was a price to be paid for the concentration of the riches. As Kelly stated in his study many believed erroneously that the stock market crash that occurred on Black Tuesday, October 29, 1929 was one and the same with the Great Depression. In fact, it was one of the major causes that led to this phenomenon. Two months after the original crash in October, stockholders had lost more than $40 billion dollars. Even though the stock market began to regain some of its losses, by the end of 1930, it was not enough and America entered the Great Depression. Throughout the 1930s over 9,000 banks pronounced bankruptcy. Bank deposits were uninsured and as banks failed people lost their savings. Surviving banks, unsure of the economic situation and concerned for their own survival, were not willing to create new loans. This deteriorated the situation leading to less and less expenditures (Kelly 2014:online).

With the stock market crash and the fears of further economic issues, people from all classes stopped purchasing goods. Not purchased consumer goods created enormous stocks. Factories reduced their production. Workers were dismissed by the millions. The Great Depression in 1929 brought the Roaring Times to an end (Zeitz 2013: online).

1.8. The American Dream

The term American Dream was originally applied by the historian James Truslow Adams in 1931. In his book titled The Epic of America (and whose working title was The American Dream), Adams described the American Dream: “that dream of a land in which life should be better and richer and fuller for every man, with opportunity for each according to ability or achievement” (Adams 1941:404). However, for Adams, the American Dream involved something more than acquisition of wealth and fame:

It is not a dream of motor cars and high wages merely, but a dream of social order in which each man and each woman shall be able to attain to the stature of which they are innately capable, and be recognized by others for what they are, regardless of the fortuitous circumstances of their birth” (Ibid.,404–405).

However the concept is much older. Everyone coming to America had his own dreams and aims. In the 17th century the early settlers expected to have a better life than the one they used to have in Europe before. They left their countries due to religious persecution, political oppression and poverty. They desired to achieve the personal freedom, self-fulfilment and happiness (Pidgeon 2007: 178).

Americans have always regarded themselves as a nation with a mission. According to Pidgeon the country was settled by people who brought with them the doctrines of John Calvin. The Calvinist believed in the “Doctrine of the Elect” (Pidgeon 2007: 177). It claims that people are doomed to eternal damnation as they are burdened with original sin. According to Calvin people could not be saved apart from a few whom God decided to spare. This group was known only to God. It was called “The Elect”. A member of The Elect could be “dropped” by God if his/ her life was improper and deprived of hard work and expiation. If one were the Elect, he would not lose this position (Pidgeon 2007: 178).

When the Puritans came to America they brought with them their religion. They also attempted to learn more and more who the Elect were. They believed that the possession of material things might be an indication. They thought that one who had such items must have had a special God's blessing due to hard work and praying h. Affluence became a sign of goodness and proved membership in the Elect. From this standpoint, it is easy to understand the snobbery in American life. Someone who was not well off and who did not belong to the right club or attend the right school was considered not only poor, but sinful. Wealth did not serve the desire of comfortable life but to erase original sin and earn eternal salvation (Pidgeon 2007: 179). The Puritan ethic created what we could call a part of “The American Dream.” However several other factors have been considered. This dream has been founded on the philosophical foundations on which America was built, expressed in Thomas Jefferson’s statement in The Declaration of Independence that all men are created equal and are endowed by God with rights to liberty, life and the pursuit of happiness. America was to be a place where men were politically free to aim at the goal they wished (Pidgeon 2007: 180).

Many people especially in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries left their homeland to have their dream of prosperity and success fulfilled, the dream of rising from poverty to fame and fortune. A lot of examples can be quoted. Many of those poor immigrants became wealthy and famous. Everyone heard about John Jacob Astor. A poor boy from Waldorff in Germany left his alcoholic father and joined his two brothers in London in order to help them in their music shop. Soon he immigrated to America and settled in New York. His marriage to a daughter of a wealthy and prominent family allowed him to open a shop with music instruments and furs. He extended his interest by to real estates market in New York, and was the first one started to trade with China. He died as one of the richest men in the world. Till today people can see the remains of his activity such as the famous Waldorff Astoria which commemorates his native town in Germany. The other people who should be specified as those for whom the American Dream came true were William Boeing, Henry Steinway or Levi Strauss (Pioneeers turned millionaires: online).


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The Great Gatsby as a reflection of the "Jazz Age", America and the American Dream
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