Miss O’ Connell Cultural Context of "The Great Gatsby"

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Miss O’ Connell

Cultural Context of “The Great Gatsby”

“The Great Gatsby” is regarded as a brilliant piece of social commentary, offering a peak into American life in the 1920s. We get an insight into the behaviour, values and attitudes of the various characters that separate into distinct groups. The Roaring Twenties was an era of growing wealth, prosperity, decadence and elitism. People were footloose and fancy free and didn’t think of the consequences.


There are four locations of action in this text: West Egg, East Egg, The Valley of Ashes and New York.

West Egg: represents vulgarity and “new money” where people have recently entered the Upper Class echelon (level) through determination, ambition and hard work. Their wealth is not inherited or generational. West Egg is dominated in the novel by Gatsby’s “colossal” yet somewhat excessive mansion. It is filled with celebrities, “theatrical people” and, as Daisy notes, captures the vulgar materialism of the era.

East Egg: represents pomp and ceremony – “old money”. People from East Egg were born, raised and continued to live with silver spoons in their mouths. It represents the status of inherited wealth and power to which the inhabitants of West Egg are denied access. The Buchanan’s world is exclusive, opulent and steeped in tradition.

New York: lures all the characters, just as it initially drew Nick from the Midwest. It appeals to Nick in all its social variety and vitality. He enjoys the “racy, adventurous feel of it at night…” It is a city filled with light, colour and life and allows the wealthy to flaunt their wealth and the adulterers to flaunt their affairs.

The Valley of Ashes: serves as a grotesque symbol, representing the grim underside of the three other locations. The name given to it by Nick creates the image of a death and decay. Wilson’s garage stands on the edge of this wasteland beside “absolutely nothing”. It stands for Lower Class who are denied access to money or success.


Generally the one thing that is valued above all is money. In the 1920s the standard of living increased for most and Americans abandoned small towns in exchange for urban living. Economy prospered as Americans tried to forget troubles of war which lead to frivolous spending, illegal liquor, and an imbalance of morals.

The world of GG is one of excess, folly and pleasure, a world where people are p busy living for the moment that they have lost touch with any sort of morality, They end up breaking the laws (Gatsby), cheating (Tom and Daisy) and even killing (George).

They have abandoned spirituality altogether in favour of post-war parties, materialism and lack of order.

Class Systems:

There are three distinct class systems:

Old money, new money and the poor.

Daisy and Tom are part of the elite “new money” who see themselves as “above” in their generational make-up. They are part of the wealthy tradition and because of their feelings of elitism they disregard all else and only think of themselves.

Daisy although now part of the “new money” he began his life as a lower class janitor. In Chpt 8 we are told that “he let her [Daisy] believe that he was a person from much the same strata as herself”. Daisy was obviously ashamed of his lower class and new change was needed.

Nick: the “inbetweener” who straddles the classes. From a middle class family, he moves East to New York to try and make a life for himself. Tom, Daisy, Jordan and Gatsby, who have all preceded him to the East, enjoy already the type of wealth to which Nick is aspiring. However Nick does not deny his own roots and is also very much aware of the presence of the Valley of Ashes. He has, after all, “the consoling proximity of millionaires” from his shabby bungalow at west Egg. He is both “within and without” the class system.

The Wilsons: Poverty stricken in a desolate part of town.


Tom and Gatsby are key figures of wealth. They are both wealthy due to different circumstances (inheritance versus hard work).

Tom disapproves of Gatsby – his pink suit and his new money. He is suspicious of Gatsby and gets spies to find about his unusual dealings in pharmacies.

Gatsby’s wealth is linked firmly to his sense of hope. He sees wealth as his only hope to claim Daisy’s heart. He needs to be wealthy to enter her social group and to be accepted. His old army uniform would not be enough.

Wealth gives these men a sense of power and fame in the societies in which they live. This is a stark contrast to the downbeat, “green” coloured George Wilson who begs Tom to all him his car in an attempt to earn some money.

Tom’s disregard for Wilson highlights Wilson’s powerlessness due to his poverty.

Role of men/women:

The three main men in The Great Gatsby each represents a different kind of masculinity.

Gatsby is romantic and poetic, with a whimsical and idealistic view on the world. Although he is his filled with sorrow, this only further enhances his dreamy nature. He is living life as a dream, and he is completely unable AND unwilling to wake from it. He is a romantic idealist.

Tom is an archetypal male although none of the men in Gatsby care much for him. He is also dangerously aggressive. His life is based around money, luxury, and an apathetic outlook on the souls of others. He sees woman as inferior (as well as other races) as they “get notions” in their heads.

Nick is quiet and reserved, and quite inexperienced in the darker areas of life. He treasures his friendship with Gatsby, is resentful of Tom's treatment of Daisy, and tries his best to watch over his frail and spoiled cousin. It is through his eyes that we watch the novel unfold. He is perhaps as sensitive as Gatsby, but far more sensible. An interesting factor about Gatsby and Nick is that they both (at different life stages) fall for frivolous women (Gatsby for Daisy and Nick for Jordan), but Nick has the good sense to walk away; however, Gatsby dies for his love.

In the 1800’s, all women were expected have four important virtues: piety, purity, submission and domesticity. They had no voices in government. They were considered “weaker vessels” and needed protection from evil. The husband/father had total control over his wife and family. Women had no power over anything, including themselves. Then in 1920 the 19th amendment was granted giving women the right to vote and they had some power over what was happening around them. They were also becoming educated and getting jobs outside the home. Even with these new freedoms, women were not thought of as equal to men. They were not paid as much and were still supposed to be dependent on their father or husband.

Young women were still pressured to behave in the Victorian ways by their parents. They rebelled against this strict rule of their lives and the flappers were created. Flappers were women who rejected all old codes of conduct. They cut their hair short and shortened their dresses as a form of rebellion as present at Gatsby’s parties. At parties they drank illegal alcohol, their morals went from one extreme to another. In a few years the culture went from rigid Victorian to the “Roaring Twenties”. Morals became very loose. Affairs were not looked down upon and were, sometimes, perfectly natural. Although not all women were flappers, women felt freer to explore their freedoms next to the extreme flappers.

In The Great Gatsby, Women play a significant role in the development of the story. Through various characters, Fitzgerald conveys specific attributes of women in various levels of society. While Daisy shows a woman’s insincerity and obsession with wealth (her voice is “full of money”, Myrtle reflects the shallow qualities of women by throwing herself at upper class men and whining for materialistic goods. Jordan shows a woman’s accepted dishonesty (“Incurably dishonest”) in the 1920’s. Through these women, we are able to stereotype and generalize the primary traits of women in the time period.

However, women play a paradoxical role – even though she enjoys the 1920s freedom and affairs Daisy is still conscious of the fact that girls and women can only succeed in life if they are “beautiful little fools”.


“The Great Gatsby” questions marriage as representative of love and loyalty. The two marriages we do see here are marked by adultery on the part of one or both spouses. One begins to wonder if marriage is more a matter of convenience than it is of love.

The issue is frequently raised of marrying below one’s caste; Myrtle fears that she has done so and Daisy may have not married Gatsby because of it – at least in part.


The fact that religion is absent among the upper echelons of society suggests that a moral standard might also be absent – as much is borne out by characters’ actions. When God does appear, it is only in George Wilson’s dialogue, when he lets his wife know that she can’t fool God, that he sees and judges all. Instead of being guided by the moral precepts of religion or of God, other characters find other codes to determine their behaviors: a father’s advice, or a self-serving mantra, a jaded viewpoint, or an undying love. In Fitzgerald’s jaded America, the only God that can exist takes the form of a billboard (the eyes of T.J. Eckleburg), perhaps suggesting that capitalism rules where religion once did.

Class Work: Due next Monday!!! 14th May (late submission will not be accepted)

Fitzgerald gives us a vivid insight into the Cultural Context of 1920s America. Discuss with reference to key moments and quotes from your text.

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