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Introduction to F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great
Gatsby English III Honors Mr. Higgins
The Life and Times of F. Scott Fitzgerald: Francis Scott Key Fitzgerald, now regarded as the spokesman for the “Jazz Age” of the 1920s, was born in St. Paul, Minnesota, in 1896. Educated at parochial prep schools, receiving strict Roman Catholic training. In the fall of 1909, during his second year at St. Paul Academy, Fitzgerald began publishing in the school magazine. Sent East for a disciplined education, he entered The Newman School, whose student body came from wealthy Catholic families all over the country. Upon his grandmother’s death, Fitzgerald and the family received a rather handsome inheritance, yet Scott seemed always to be cast into a society where others enjoyed more affluence than he. However, like Gatsby, a self-made man, Fitzgerald became the embodiment of the American Dream.
Thanks to another relative’s money, Fitzgerald was able to enroll in Princeton in 1913. He never graduated from the Ivy League school; in fact, he failed several courses during his undergraduate years. However, he wrote revues for the Triangle Club, Princeton’s musical comedy group, and “donned swishy, satiny dresses to romp onstage” alongside attractive chorus girls. Years later, after enjoying some literary fame, he was asked to speak at Princeton, an occasion which endeared the school to him in new ways. Today, Princeton houses his memoirs, including letters from Ernest Hemingway, motion picture scripts, scrapbooks, and other mementos.
He withdrew from Princeton and entered the war in 1917, commissioned a second lieutenant in the army. While in Officers Candidate School in Alabama, he met and fell in love with Zelda Sayre. He never made it to the European front, but he did come to the attention of New York publishers by the end of the war. Despite Zelda’s breaking their engagement, they became re-engaged that fall. Their marriage produced one daughter—Scottie, who died in 1986. In 1919 his earnings totaled $879; the following year, following the publication of This Side of Paradise, an instant success, his earnings increased to $18,000.
As early as 1920, Fitzgerald had in mind a tragic novel. He wrote to the president of Princeton that his novel would “say something fundamental about America, that fairy tale among nations.” He saw America’s history as a great pageant and romance, the history of all aspiration—not just the American dream but the human dream—and, he wrote, “If I am at the end of it that too is a place in the line of the pioneers.” Gatsby’s vision for this book would be realized in 1925 when The Great Gatsby was published.
In the late 1920s, Fitzgerald, Zelda, and Scottie moved to Europe, near the French Riviera, where Francis first met Ernest Hemingway, Gertrude Stein, and Edith Wharton – other American expatriates who comprised the so called “Lost Generation.” In 1930, Zelda was diagnosed with schizophrenia. She would be institutionalized two years later. To help pay for her medical expenses, Fitzgerald wrote some 160 short stories for magazines – works which, by his own admission, lacked luster. Fitzgerald went to Hollywood to write screenplays, and struggled unsuccessfully to complete a final novel, The Last Tycoon. He died in December of 1940 after a lifelong battle with alcohol and a series of heart attacks. Zelda died in 1948 when the Maryland hospital at which she was a patient caught fire.
Historical Context The Jazz Age & The Roaring Twenties: The Jazz Age began soon after World War I (19141918) and ended with the 1929 stock market crash. Victorious, American experienced an economic boom and expansion. Politically, the country made major advances in the area of women’s independence. During the war, women had enjoyed economic independence by taking over jobs for the men who fought overseas. After the war, they pursued financial independence and a freer lifestyle. This was the time of the “flappers,” young women who dressed up in jewelry and feather boas, wore bobbed hairdos, and danced the Charleston.
Historical Context Prohibition: As a reaction against the fads and liberalism that emerged in the big cities after the war, the U.S. government and conservative elements in the country advocated and imposed legislation restricting the manufacture and distribution of liquor. The Women’s Christian Temperance Movement, National Prohibition Party, and others, viewed alcohol as a dangerous drug that disrupted lives and families. They felt it the duty of the government to relieve the temptation of alcohol by banning it altogether. The 18th Amendment, passed in 1919, outlawed the “manufacture, sale, or transportation of intoxicating liquors” on a national level. Nine months later, the Volstead Act provided the enforcement means for such measures. Ultimately, however, Prohibition did little to curb the drinking of the liquor-loving public, and speakeasies, a type of illegal bar, cropped up everywhere.
Historical Context Urban Corruption: Prohibition precipitated the growth of a large underworld in many big cites, including Chicago and New York. For years, New York was under the control of the Irish politicians of Tammany Hall, which assured that corruption persisted. Bootlegging, prostitution, and gambling thrived, while police took money from shady operators engaged in these activities and overlooked the illegalities. A key player in the era of Tammany Hall was Arnold Rothstein (Mayor Wolfsheim in the novel). Through his campaign contributions to the politicians, he was entitled to a monopoly of prostitution and gambling in New York until he was murdered in 1928.
Historical Context The Black Sox Fix of 1919: The 1919 World Series was the focus of a scandal that rocked the sports world. The Chicago White Sox were heavily favored to win the World Series against the Cincinatti Reds. Due to low game attendance during World War I, players’ salaries were cut back. In defiance, the White Sox threatened to strike against their owner, Charles Comiskey, who had refused to pay them a higher salary.
Historical Context Frustrated by the White Sox management, firstbaseman Arnold Gandil, approached a bookmaker and gambler, Joseph Sullivan, with an offer to intentionally lose the series. Eight players, including Shoeless Joe Jackson (of “Field of Dreams”) participated in the scam. Arnold Rothstein helped raise money to pay the players and began placing bets that the Sox would lose. The Sox went one to lose one of the greatest upsets in history. When the scandal was exposed, due to a number of civil cases involving those who lost money on the game, the eight players were banned from baseball for life and forever dubbed the “Black Sox.”
The Great Gatsby: A Response to the 1920s The Great Gatsby was published in 1925 Set on Long Island, New York, during Prohibition, in nine chapters, the novel presents the rise and fall of Jay Gatsby, as related in a first-person narrative by Nick Carraway. Gatsby’s ill-gotten wealth is acquired solely to gain acceptance into the sophisticated, moneyed world of the woman he loves, Daisy Fay Buchanan. His romantic illusions about the power of money to buy respectability and the love of Daisy—the "golden girl" of his dreams— are enmeshed with episodes that depict what Fitzgerald viewed as the callousness and moral irresponsibility of the affluent American society of the 1920s.
Key Concepts Appearance vs. Reality Clash between East and West Class conflict Corruption of the American Dream Moral bankruptcy
The American Dream and The Great Gatsby: The American Dream – with hard work, courage, and determination one can achieve financial and personal success.
What the American dream has become is a question under constant discussion, and some believe that it has led to an emphasis on material wealth as a measure of success and/or happiness.
Origins of the American Dream: European explorers and the Puritans— Doctrine of Election and Predestination The Declaration of Independence—life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness American Revolutionary War—promise of land ownership and investment Industrial Revolution—possibility of anyone achieving wealth & the nouveau riche Westward expansion and the Gold Rush
Near the 20th century, major industrialist personalities became the new model of the American Dream, many beginning life in the humblest of conditions, but later controlling enormous corporations and fortunes. Perhaps the most notable were the great American capitalists Andrew Carnegie and John D. Rockefeller. This acquisition of wealth demonstrated to many that if you had talent, intelligence, and a willingness to work hard, you were likely to be a success as a result.
Characterization Narrative Structure/Point of view Setting / Mood Symbolism Theme
Modernism The term modernism refers to the radical shift in artistic sensibilities that took place in the post-World War One (1914-1918) period.
Modernists presented a profoundly pessimistic picture of a culture in disarray.
Modernism In addition to emphasizing modern themes, Fitzgerald employs some techniques of modernist writing: Unreliable Narrator: Narrator as “filter” One Narrator, Multiple Narratives: Story within the story Fitzgerald’s technique reflects the modernists’ concern with “with the way the mind processes or projects a reality which surrounds the individual but which is often alienating and oppressing.”
Sources: www.bookteacher.org (Thanks, Platt!) Lathbury, Roger. American Modernism (1910-1945). New York: Facts on File, 2006. Gay, Peter. Modernism: The Lure of Heresy: From Baudelaire to Beckett and Beyond. New York: W.W. Norton & Co., Inc., 2008. Novels for Students – The Great Gatsby