Set in the so-called Roaring Twenties in New York City, “The Great Gatsby” vividly captures the historical spirit of economic boom in postwar America. Funky jazz tunes, bootleg liquor trade, and wild hedonistic parties define the fabulous lives of the “new rich” such as Gatsby himself. The glamorous lifestyle and lavish culture of West Egg is portrayed with much realism, drawn from Fitzgerald’s personal experience living on Long Island in the early ’20s. This authenticity tremendously adds to the historical significance of the novel and earns it the well-deserved title of “The Great American Novel”.
It was only after Fitzgerald’s death, however, when the book became critically acclaimed. In fact, it was so indifferently received that in 1940 there were still leftover copies from its second edition. It took less than a decade until it earned the recognition of readers and critics from around the world, setting it on the way to becoming a standard text in American high schools.
The book is narrated by the young Yale University graduate Nick Carraway who recently moved to the West Egg district of Long Island, New York, seeking a career in finance.
West Egg is the birth place of many New Yorker rags-to-riches legends and is located on the exact opposite end of the fashionable East Egg, famous for its traditionally wealthy residents. The only thing that relates Nick to the elite in East Egg is his cousin Daisy who lives there with her absurdly rich husband Tom Buchanan.
One evening they invite him over for dinner and introduce him to Jordan Baker, a highly successful golf player and a close friend of Tom. Over the course of the evening and after many glasses of whine, Baker’s lips get loose and he tells Nick that Tom is having an affair with a woman from downtown New York. This is not the only confession of the evening. Daisy, who apparently is also dissatisfied with her marriage, seizes an opportunity and tells Nick all about how depressed she is because of her unfulfilling relationship.
After getting caught up in the middle of his cousin’s unhappy marriage, Nick heads back home and catches a glimpse of his neighbor – Jay Gatsby. He lives on the opposite end of Daisy and Tom’s mansion and is soon to make their love troubles even more complicated.
As the summer progresses, Nick becomes increasingly accustomed to the glamorous parties held at Gatsby’s colossal mansion but never gets the opportunity to meet him in person. Such an opportunity is finally presented after he meets Jordan at one Saturday evening at his place. It is only a brief encounter though, as Gatsby asks for a private conversation with Jordan and then mysteriously disappears.
A cautious but well-planed move by Gatsby who needs Nick for a very particular reason. As it turns out, Gatsby has been deeply in love with Daisy a couple of years ago and now he wants her back. The more time Nick spends with Gatsby and Jordan, the more he finds out about his true story. He is not the heir of a family wealth he claims to be but a highly successful bootlegger who made his fortune after returning from the front. Moreover, the location of his beautiful mansion is by far not a coincidence. Gatsby wanted to make sure Daisy can hear his parties, hoping that one day she would show up at his doorstep.
After putting the cards cards on the table, Gatsby openly asks Nick to meet him with Daisy, making it hard for him to refuse. A tear-bringing reunion soon follows at Nick’s place, which marks the beginning of a number of visits. But gossips spread fast and it doesn’t take long until Tom becomes suspicious.
To see for himself what is going on, he takes Daisy to one of Gatsby’s parties. He starts asking around about Gatsby and manages to collect fractions of his part, but Tom is only about to find out about how serious his intentions about Daisy are.
1. Fitzgerald considered a number of titles for the novel, incl. “On the Road to West Egg”, “Gold-Hatted Gatsby”, and “Trimalchio”, with the last one being his favorite, but he dropped it for being too obscure.
2. The book was inspired by the 1913 French novel “The Lost Estate”.
3. The epigraph in the beginning of the novel was written by a fictional poet whose name used Fitzgerald occasionally used as a pseudonym.
4. Whereas Fitzgerald’s previous two novels yield a great financial success, “The Great Gatsby” sold only 20,000 copies at a price of $2 in its first year of publication.
5. He believed the novel won’t rise to success because there was not a single admirable female character with the majority of novel readers at the time being women.
6. Fitzgerald himself witnessed the collision between old and new rich after moving with his wife to Long Island in 1922.
7. Gatsby’s colossal mansion was inspired by the architecture of Oheka Castle which remains the second-largest private real estate in the United States to this day.
8. Jordan Baker’s name was based on two popular car makers from the ‘20s – the Jordan Motor Car Company and the Baker Motor Vehicle, seeking to introduce a sense of dynamic and personal freedom to the character.
9. There are rumors that Gatsby’s character was based on a WWI veteran under the name of Max Gerlach, who was known as a “gentleman bootlegger”.
10. Fitzgerald received $5974 from the publication of the novel, amounting to about $72,900 in today’s money.