Let's play a game called Free Association. When we say the words "Roaring Twenties," what are the first things that pop into your head? Go for it. We'll wait here for you.
Cool? Let's check out your list. Maybe you came up with something like this:
If you're looking at that list and thinking, Sweet!, you're in luck. Published in 1925, The Great Gatsby is set in New York City and Long Island during the Prohibition era (remember, the Prohibition era was a time in which alcohol was illegal, no matter how old you were – yowsa). Flappers? It's got them. Parties? You bet? Cool cars? Absolutely—but more on that in a minute.
The problem is, author F. Scott Fitzgerald didn't see the Jazz Age as all about hip music and sparkly clothes. He associated the entire period with materialism ("I want things! Lots of things!") and immorality. For many of the post-World War I era's newly wealthy, materialism and immortality were the name of the game. The novel's star is Jay Gatsby, a young, rich man in love with a society girl from his past. A girl who, as it happens, is married to someone else.
Do we smell a Twilight-esque love triangle approaching?
And that's not the only reason why Gatsby still feels fresh today. The novel's very title has become a kind of buzzword for periods of excess and fake luxury. The economic collapse of 2008 brought back distant and unwelcome memories of the stock market crash of 1929, casting the boom times of the 1990s and early 2000s as the modern-day version of the Roaring Twenties.
In both cases, though, unsustainable boom times led to devastating crashes with profound cultural consequences. In the 1920s, it had been a bubble in stocks that brought easy prosperity, while in our own time the bubble had been in the housing market. In both times, easy money meant that many people could begin to dream of living out their days like Jay Gatsby, with life as just one grand party in a seersucker suit. But as that vision of easy luxury crashed and burned (in both 1929 and 2008), newfound hard times required a redefinition of the American Dream.
And while Gatsby is a work of fiction, Fitzgerald's real life contains some suspicious similarities. (Gulp.) Narrator Nick Carraway is both mesmerized and disgusted by Gatsby's extravagant lifestyle, just as Fitzgerald claimed to feel about the "Jazz Age" excesses that he himself adopted. As an Ivy League educated, middle-class Midwesterner, Fitzgerald (like Nick) saw through the shallow materialism of the era. But (like Gatsby) Fitzgerald came back from World War I and fell in love with a wealthy southern socialite – Zelda Sayre.
The Great Gatsby is swaddled in Fitzgerald's simultaneous embrace of and disdain for 1920s luxury. Since Fitzgerald did indeed partake in the Jazz Age's decadent high life, it's not surprising that the details of the setting and characters make The Great Gatsby a sort of time capsule of the 1920s. Gatsby is taught all over the world partly because it's a history lesson and novel all rolled into one delicious wrap of intrigue.
The Great Gatsby is a delightful concoction of Real Housewives, a never-ending Academy Awards after-party, and HBO's Sopranos. Shake over ice, add a twist of jazz, a spritz of adultery, and a little pink umbrella … and you've got yourself a 5 o'clock beverage that, given the 1920s setting, you wouldn't be allowed to drink.
The one thing all these shows and Gatsby have in common is the notion of the American Dream. The Dream has seen its ups and downs. But from immigration (certainly not a modern concern, right?) to the Depression (we wouldn't know anything about that), the American Dream has always meant the same thing: it's all about the Benjamins, baby.
Yet Gatsby reminds us that the dollars aren't always enough. As we learned from Audrey Hepburn in My Fair Lady, you can put on the dress, but you still aren't going to know which fork to use. Especially if you're bootlegging to make the money for the dress. Even when they have the cash, newly made millionaires are still knocking at the door for the accepted elite to let them in. If the concept of the nouveau riche (the newly rich) has gone by the wayside, the barriers to the upper echelon (education, background) certainly haven't.
So there you have it. There's more to the Gatsby cocktail than sex, lies, and organized crime. Although those are there, too, which, as far as reading the book goes, is kind of a motivation in itself.