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Teaching the American Twenties: Exploring the Decade through Literature and Art


Who Were the Babbitts and Bohemians?

Big City Bohemian

The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald

Although from a lower middle class family, F. Scott Fitzgerald gained entry into the privileged world of the wealthy thanks to his compelling personality, his gifts as a writer, and his military service. His introduction to his future wife, Zelda Sayre — a southern socialite whom he met while stationed in Alabama — was the result of the breakdown of rigid social rules during the war.

Before meeting Zelda, Fitzgerald was rejected by the daughter of a wealthy Midwestern family, and was only able to convince Zelda and her family of his worthiness as a husband once he had published his first novel. Such obstacles struck Fitzgerald as great injustices.

Throughout his largely autobiographical fiction, Fitzgerald presented characters that, like himself, swam against the currents of social convention and class structure. In The Great Gatsby, Jay Gatsby is a self-made gangster millionaire who has obscured his humble origins by anglicizing his original German-immigrant name, James Gatz, and has dedicated his life to persuading his former sweetheart Daisy Buchanan to leave her husband, Tom. To win her over, Gatsby makes an ostentatious show of his wealth, throwing lavish parties for crowds of outrageous strangers, dressing in expensive, garish clothes, and driving a flashy car. Temporarily wooed by Gatsby, Daisy loses her nerve to leave her marriage as she sees telltale signs of Gatsby's lower class origins.

At the heart of Fitzgerald's social critique is Gatsby's inability to understand that all of his efforts to gain entry into the upper class actually distinguish his newly-made money from the established wealth of Tom Buchanan. While Fitzgerald is critical of the modern tendency toward Gatsby's kind of conspicuous consumption, he is indignant at the perversion of Gatsby's pure-hearted desire for love; in the face of entrenched but invisible social barriers, Gatsby is unfairly driven to extremes of pointless waste and futile chivalry.

After writing The Great Gatsby, Fitzgerald became increasingly critical of social inequality, even as his life of material excess and social tolerance was made possible by his newly-made wealth.

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Title page from <em>The Great Gatsby</em>
Title page from The Great Gatsby
F. Scott Fitzgerald

Fitzgerald's epigraph to The Great Gatsby is from a poem by a fictional character in his first novel, This Side of Paradise.

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