The Great Gatsby is a 1925 novel written by American author F. Scott Fitzgerald that follows a cast of characters living in the fictional town of West and East Egg on prosperous Long Island in the summer of 1922. The story primarily concerns the young and mysterious millionaire Jay Gatsby and his quixotic passion and obsession for the beautiful former debutante Daisy Buchanan. Considered to be Fitzgerald's magnum opus, The Great Gatsby explores themes of decadence, idealism, resistance to change, social upheaval, and excess, creating a portrait of the Jazz Age or the Roaring Twenties that has been described as a cautionary tale regarding the American Dream.
Fitzgerald—inspired by the parties he had attended while visiting Long Island's north shore—began planning the novel in 1923, desiring to produce, in his words, "something new—something extraordinary and beautiful and simple and intricately patterned." Progress was slow, with Fitzgerald completing his first draft following a move to the French Riviera in 1924. His editor, Maxwell Perkins, felt the book was vague and persuaded the author to revise over the following winter. Fitzgerald was repeatedly ambivalent about the book's title and he considered a variety of alternatives, including titles that referenced the Roman character Trimalchio; the title he was last documented to have desired was Under the Red, White, and Blue.
First published by Scribner's in April 1925, The Great Gatsby received mixed reviews and sold poorly; in its first year, the book sold only 20,000 copies. Fitzgerald died in 1940, believing himself to be a failure and his work forgotten. However, the novel experienced a revival during World War II, and became a part of American high school curricula and numerous stage and film adaptations in the following decades. Today, The Great Gatsby is widely considered to be a literary classic and a contender for the title "Great American Novel." In 1998, the Modern Library editorial board voted it the 20th century's best American novel and second best English-language novel of the same time period
Set on the prosperous Long Island of 1922, The Great Gatsby provides a critical social history of America during the Roaring Twenties within its fictional narrative. That era, known for profound economic prosperity, the development of jazz music flapper culture, new technologies in communication (motion pictures, broadcast radio, recorded music) forging a genuine mass culture; and bootlegging, along with other criminal activity, is plausibly depicted in Fitzgerald's novel. Fitzgerald uses many of these societal developments of the 1920s that were to build Gatsby's stories from many of the simple details like automobiles to broader themes like Fitzgerald's discreet allusions to the organized crime culture which was the source of Gatsby's fortune. Fitzgerald depicts the garish society of the Roaring Twenties by placing the book's plotline within the historical context of the era.
Fitzgerald's visits to Long Island's north shore and his experience attending parties at mansions inspired The Great Gatsby's setting. Today, there are a number of theories as to which mansion was the inspiration for the book. One possibility is Land's End, a notable Gold Coast Mansion where Fitzgerald may have attended a party. Many of the events in Fitzgerald's early life are reflected throughout The Great Gatsby. Fitzgerald was a young man from Minnesota, and like Nick, he was educated at an Ivy League school, Princeton (in Nick's case, Yale). Fitzgerald is also similar to Jay Gatsby, in that he fell in love while stationed far from home in the military and fell into a life of decadence trying to prove himself to the girl he loved. Fitzgerald became a second lieutenant and was stationed at Camp Sheridan, in Montgomery, Alabama. There he met and fell in love with a wild seventeen-year-old beauty named Zelda Sayre. Zelda finally agreed to marry him, but her preference for wealth, fun, and leisure led her to delay their wedding until he could prove a success. Like Nick in The Great Gatsby, Fitzgerald found this new lifestyle seductive and exciting, and, like Gatsby, he had always idolized the very rich. In many ways, The Great Gatsbyrepresents Fitzgerald's attempt to confront his conflicting feelings about the Jazz Age. Like Gatsby, Fitzgerald was driven by his love for a woman who symbolized everything he wanted, even as she led him toward everything he despised.
In her book Careless People: Murder, Mayhem and the Invention of 'The Great Gatsby (2013), Sarah Churchwell speculates that parts of the ending of The Great Gatsby were based on the Hall-Mills Case. Based on her forensic search for clues, she asserts that the two victims in the Hall-Mills murder case inspired the characters who were murdered in The Great Gatsby.
WRITING & PRODUCTION
Fitzgerald began planning his third novel in June 1922, but it was interrupted by production of his play, The Vegetable, in the summer and fall. The play failed miserably, and Fitzgerald worked that winter on magazine stories struggling to pay his debt caused by the production. The stories were, in his words, "all trash and it nearly broke my heart," although included among those stories was "Winter Dreams", which Fitzgerald later described as "a sort of first draft of the Gatsby idea".
After the birth of their child, the Fitzgeralds moved to Great Neck, New York, on Long Island, in October 1922. The town was used as the scene of The Great Gatsby. Fitzgerald's neighbors in Great Neck included such prominent and newly wealthy New Yorkers as writer Ring Lardner, actor Lew Fields, and comedian Ed Wynn. These figures were all considered to be "new money", unlike those who came from Manhasset Neck or Cow Neck Peninsula, places which were home to many of New York's wealthiest established families, and which sat across the bay from Great Neck. This real-life juxtaposition gave Fitzgerald his idea for "West Egg" and "East Egg". In this novel, Great Neck (King's Point) became the "new money" peninsula of West Egg and Port Washington (Sands Point) the old-money East Egg. Several mansions in the area served as inspiration for Gatsby's home, such as Oheka Castle and Beacon Towers, since demolished.
By mid-1923, Fitzgerald had written 18,000 words for his novel but discarded most of his new story as a false start, some of which resurfaced in the 1924 short story "Absolution".
Work on The Great Gatsby began in earnest in April 1924. Fitzgerald wrote in his ledger, "Out of woods at last and starting novel." He decided to make a departure from the writing process of his previous novels and told Perkins that the novel was to be a "consciously artistic achievement" and a "purely creative work—not trashy imaginings as in my stories but the sustained imagination of a sincere and yet radiant world." He added later, during editing, that he felt "an enormous power in me now, more than I've ever had." Soon after this burst of inspiration, work slowed while the Fitzgeralds made a move to the French Riviera, where a serious crisis in their relationship soon developed. By August, however, Fitzgerald was hard at work and completed what he believed to be his final manuscript in October, sending the book to his editor, Maxwell Perkins, and agent, Harold Ober, on October 30. The Fitzgeralds then moved to Rome for the winter. Fitzgerald made revisions through the winter after Perkins informed him in a November letter that the character of Gatsby was "somewhat vague" and Gatsby's wealth and business, respectively, needed "the suggestion of an explanation" and should be "adumbrated".
Content after a few rounds of revision, Fitzgerald returned the final batch of revised galleys in the middle of February 1925. Fitzgerald's revisions included an extensive rewriting of Chapter VI and VIII. Despite this, he refused an offer of $10,000 for the serial rights in order not to delay the book's publication. He had received a $3,939 advance in 1923 and $1,981.25 upon publication.
The Great Gatsby was published by Charles Scribner's Sons on April 10, 1925. Fitzgerald called Perkins on the day of publication to monitor reviews: "Any news?" "Sales situation doubtful," read a wire from Perkins on April 20, "[but] excellent reviews." Fitzgerald responded on April 24, saying the cable "depressed" him, closing the letter with "Yours in great depression." Fitzgerald had hoped the novel would be a great commercial success, perhaps selling as many as 75,000 copies. By October, when the original sale had run its course, the book had sold fewer than 20,000 copies. Despite this, Scribner's continually kept the book in print; they carried the original edition on their trade list until 1946, by which time Gatsby was in print in three other forms and the original edition was no longer needed. Fitzgerald received letters of praise from contemporaries T. S. Eliot, Edith Wharton, and Willa Cather regarding the novel; however, this was private opinion, and Fitzgerald feverishly demanded the public recognition of reviewers and readers.
The Great Gatsby received mixed reviews from literary critics of the day. Generally the most effusive of the positive reviews was Edwin Clark of The New York Times, who felt the novel was "A curious book, a mystical, glamourous [sic] story of today." Similarly, Lillian C. Ford of the Los Angeles Times wrote, "[the novel] leaves the reader in a mood of chastened wonder," calling the book "a revelation of life" and "a work of art." The New York Post called the book "fascinating ... His style fairly scintillates, and with a genuine brilliance; he writes surely and soundly." The New York Herald Tribune was unimpressed, but referred to The Great Gatsby as "purely ephemeral phenomenon, but it contains some of the nicest little touches of contemporary observation you could imagine-so light, so delicate, so sharp .... a literary lemon meringue." In The Chicago Daily Tribune, H.L. Mencken called the book "in form no more than a glorified anecdote, and not too probable at that," while praising the book's "careful and brilliant finish."
Several writers felt that the novel left much to be desired following Fitzgerald's previous works and promptly criticized him. Harvey Eagleton of The Dallas Morning News believed the novel signaled the end of Fitzgerald's success: "One finishes Great Gatsby with a feeling of regret, not for the fate of the people in the book, but for Mr. Fitzgerald." John McClure of The Times-Picayune said that the book was unconvincing, writing, "Even in conception and construction, The Great Gatsby seems a little raw." Ralph Coghlan of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch felt the book lacked what made Fitzgerald's earlier novels endearing and called the book "a minor performance ... At the moment, its author seems a bit bored and tired and cynical." Ruth Snyder of New York Evening World called the book's style "painfully forced", noting that the editors of the paper were "quite convinced after reading The Great Gatsby that Mr. Fitzgerald is not one of the great American writers of to-day." The reviews struck Fitzgerald as completely missing the point: "All the reviews, even the most enthusiastic, not one had the slightest idea what the book was about."
Fitzgerald's goal was to produce a literary work which would truly prove himself as a writer and Gatsby did not have the commercial success of his two previous novels, This Side of Paradise and The Beautiful and Damned. Although the novel went through two initial printings, some of these copies remained unsold years later. Fitzgerald himself blamed poor sales on the fact that women tended to be the main audience for novels during this time, and Gatsby did not contain an admirable female character. According to his own ledger, now made available online by University of South Carolina's Thomas Cooper library, he earned only $2,000 from the book. Although 1926 brought Owen Davis's stage adaption and the Paramount-issued silent film version, both of which brought in money for the author, Fitzgerald still felt the novel fell short of the recognition he hoped for and, most importantly, would not propel him to becoming a serious novelist in the public eye. For several years afterward, the general public believed The Great Gatsby to be nothing more than a nostalgic period piece.