Introduction to F. Scott
Fitzgerald’s The Great
English III
Mr. Higgins
The Life and Times of F. Scott
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
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
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
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
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.
Literary Terms
Narrative Structure/Point of view
Setting / Mood
The term modernism refers to the radical
shift in artistic sensibilities that took place
in the post-World War One (1914-1918)
Modernists presented a profoundly
pessimistic picture of a culture in disarray.
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: (Thanks, Platt!)
Lathbury, Roger. American Modernism
(1910-1945). New York: Facts on File,
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