The Great Gatsby, published in 1925, seems like it would be based on a true story. After all, the lavish lifestyles of West Egg residents, the bootlegging, and the speakeasies all seem like they really existed. However, the F. Scott Fitzgerald novel is actually a hybrid of sorts. It’s a work of fiction, albeit one based on real people and places.
Writers are always told to stick to “writing about what they know.” Even if they create characters and situations out of thin air, there’s always an aura of reality to them. Fitzgerald took this an extreme and based many of the characters in The Great Gatsby on people that he crossed paths with in the past.
It’s easy to see parallels between Nick Carraway and Fitzgerald, leading many to believe that the author based the character on himself. Carraway was the outsider, stopping by the towns of East and West Egg, hobnobbing with wealthy people although he didn’t have any money to speak of. The narrator was the true voice of the book, making Carraway and Fitzgerald one and the same.
The character of Jay Gatsby has two different origins. According to interviews that Fitzgerald gave about the book, he initially based the character on Max Gerlach. An Army officer during World War I, as well as a bootlegger, Gerlach had many things in common with Gatsby. Fitzgerald’s wife, Zelda, even backed up this claim.
With that said, Fitzgerald once told a reporter that although Gatsby started out as Gerlach, the character wound up having a lot in common with the author himself. Gatsby was in love with Daisy Buchanan (Fitzgerald was in love with the woman the character takes after), the two spent time at the same army camp, as well as Trinity College in Oxford, and so on.
There are too many commonalities to believe that Gatsby was based solely on Gerlach, as bits of Fitzgerald’s past are clearly there as well.
Thomas, commonly known as Tom, Buchanan was Daisy’s husband. He showed up on the social circuit and throughout the book as a white supremacist who attended Yale. The character was wealthy and had a very large mansion located close to the water.
Clearly, parts of Tom were based on Ginevra King’s real-life husband, William Mitchell. After all, the wealthy man was seen as a good match for King. However, other parts of Tom, including his college degree from Yale and his white supremacist habits, run parallel with King’s father, Charles Garfield King.
Daisy Buchanan, wife of Tom Buchanan, was a flapper and socialite, as well as the cousin of Nick Carraway. Jay Gatsby was still in love with her, although their relationship had ended quite a few years before the events in the book. According to many experts, Fitzgerald based Daisy on Ginevra King.
When Fitzgerald lived in Chicago, he spent quite a bit of time on the social circuit, where he met up with King and her friend Edith Cummings. Both were socialites and former debutantes. According to the gossip of the period, Fitzgerald wanted to marry King but was dissuaded when her father made an off-hand, derogatory comment about poor men wishing to marry rich women.
Jordan Baker, best friend of Daisy Buchanan, was an amateur golfer and debutante who spent time on the social scene in East Egg. The character cheated at golf and enjoyed dancing up a storm at speakeasies and parties. She was based on the Fairway Flapper, also known as Edith Cummings. The woman was an actual real-life debutant and competitive golfer, although there isn’t any proof that she cheated on the game.
The Great Gatsby is set in the fictional towns of East Egg and West Egg. Carraway describes both as being located on Long Island. It’s clear from the outset that these towns, both full of spectacular mansions and fashionable people, are meant to be the city of Great Neck, New York, where Fitzgerald lived while he wrote the book.
In fact, several years ago a 1920s-era mansion on Long Island’s Gold Coast went up for sale. Among the building’s pedigree is the fact that Fitzgerald spent some time there back in 1923. He was a friend of Mary Harriman Rumsey, a wealthy scion of a railroad magnate.
The house consists of 13 bedrooms, each with a 12-foot ceiling, on over five acres of land. A tennis court, private beach, and a boathouse are just some its amenities. It’s easy to see Gatsby and some of his cohorts hanging out there, drinking bootleg liquor at night or lounging on the beach during the day.
Frequently Asked Questions
1. Is Gatsby a fictional character?
Yes and no. While Jay Gatsby didn’t exist, the character was based on both Max Gerlach and Fitzgerald himself.
2. What influenced F Scott Fitzgerald to write The Great Gatsby?
Fitzgerald based a lot of his works loosely on himself and his friends. It’s believed that he wanted to ascend to the upper classes that he admired, and hoped that this book would be the key to getting there. However, it didn’t work out that way.
3. When did The Great Gatsby become famous?
At first, the book was a commercial failure and less than 20,000 copies were sold. However, a few years after Fitzgerald’s death in 1940, copies began to fly off of the shelves. First, a group of publishing executives sent copies of the book, along with others, to soldiers fighting in World War II. Retrospectives of Fitzgerald’s life and works followed, and by the 1960s, the book was on school reading lists all over the country. It was then that The Great Gatsby became famous.