Why Was The Great Gatsby Banned & Considered Controversial?

Last Updated: October 25th, 2023 by Kerry Wisby (Teacher-BA English Literature, 1920s & Great Gatsby Expert)

Standards and rules change over the years and what was once acceptable is suddenly not (think of blackface), or what was once considered scandalous is now the norm.

Why Was The Great Gatsby Banned & Considered Controversial?

These societal rules also apply to the language and subjects in books. While outright book banning (or book burning) should never be condoned or even considered in a free society, books do sometimes get pulled from certain shelves.

Published in 1925, The Great Gatsby should be mild and non-controversial in an age where transsexualism doesn’t really raise much of an eyebrow, but the sexual references and infidelity concern some people.

Today we explore how The Great Gatsby has become controversial in some circles and why.

Is The Great Gatsby Banned in the US?

At this time, no, there does not appear to be any bans or removal of The Great Gatsby from shelves.

a copy of The Great Gatsby by F Scott Fitzgerald

This wasn’t always the case. While The Great Gatsby appears to be safe at this moment, there were times when it was considered to be “vulgar”. It was thought to promote excessive drinking, violence, and infidelity.

While there is no “official” banned books list for the United States, several states and organizations over the years have banned the book or attempted to ban The Great Gatsby.

How Do Book Bans Happen?

Many times, parents complained or someone brought the book to the attention of a school board or library.

Some books are banned only by certain schools (private religious schools, for example), but in some instances, entire counties and states place a ban on books, most often for school children or school libraries.

How Many Schools Have Banned The Great Gatsby?

One of the most well-known bans of this novel occurred in 1987 at the Baptist College in Charleston, South Carolina.

The book was removed because it contained “sexual references” as well as “profane language.”

Other schools that temporarily banned this book include Pensacola (Florida), Coeur d’Alene (Idaho) in 2008, and Matanuska-Susitna Borough School District (Alaska) in 2020.

Nearly every ban has been reversed within 5 years as administrations change.

What Reasons Were Given for Banning The Great Gatsby?

Reasons for Banning The Great Gatsby in some schools

So why was The Great Gatsby banned in these schools? Nearly every objection to this novel stated that the book used profane language or had sexual references found offensive by the person requesting its removal.

(1) Offensive Language

In the most recent case of the Matanuska-Susitna (Mat-Su) Borough school district in Alaska in 2020, the objection stated that the narrator (Nick Carraway) used offensive language on page 11 to describe Jordan Baker.

“I looked at Miss Baker, wondering what it was she ‘got done.’ I enjoyed looking at her. She was a slender, small breasted girl, with an erect carriage, which she accentuated by throwing her body backward at the shoulders like a young cadet. Her gray sun-strained eyes looked back at me with polite reciprocal curiosity out of a wan, charming, discontented face.”

Words from the quote that have indicated they are of a sexual nature to authorities include: “got done”, “slender, small breasted”, and “erect carriage”.

It seems difficult for some people to understand why this language is considered objectionable, but this was one of the passages cited.

(2) Violence

Complaints about violence involve the character Tom Buchanan slapping his mistress Myrtle Wilson and breaking her nose, as well as the vivid description of Myrtle Wilson’s death when she is hit by a car.

Other complaints about violence involve the character George Wilson, who shoots and kills Jay Gatsby and then himself.

(3) Breaking the Law

Still others have objected to Jay Gatsby and others in the novel being “bootleggers” who simply ignored the law (and benefited from doing so). They also found objectionable the insubordination of the general public who regularly got drunk at Gatsby’s parties, flaunting their disrespect of the law.

(4) Profane Language & Sexual References

In the 1987 challenge from Baptist College, the reason for the removal of the book was that it contained profane language and sexual references.

The “profane language” involved the words at the end of the novel, when Nick Carraway goes to Gatsby’s mansion after his death and finds the words “Hell-son-of-a-bitch” scrawled on the walls.

Nick Carraway finds swear words written on the walls in Gatsby's mansion

Some parents also argued that the book had sexual references and explicit material that they believed were inappropriate.

Keep in mind that these objections are aimed at removing the book from college-aged or senior high school students, not grade schoolers.

The Great Gatsby is well-known for giving terrific examples of not only life in 1920s America but also the way different classes of people are treated in the USA.

It’s interesting to note that these same objectors never mention how Jay Gatsby “pulled himself up by the proverbial bootstraps” to go from poor man to wealthy investor. They also fail to mention that this novel is filled with hope for a better future if one is willing to work hard enough.

Author F. Scott Fitzgerald most likely never imagined that his book would be controversial, let alone be listed as a banned book.

Is The Great Gatsby Appropriate for Schools?

The Great Gatsby book is deemed inappropriate for children under 13 years old

For children under 13 years of age, no, the novel would be difficult for their reading level. For a high school student, the book is certainly age-appropriate.

Most children in today’s society have heard far worse language and sexual references in popular songs. They would not be shocked by the language and would most likely think of it as mild or what is known as “vanilla”.

This is especially true of senior high school and college students. Movies and music are much more sexually suggestive and contain far worse language than anything Scott Fitzgerald probably ever imagined.

While religious groups may object to the heavy drinking and infidelity, the truth remains that infidelity has been around since time began. Even the bible contains quite a bit of violence, heavy drinking, and not only infidelity but incest as well.

Perhaps the true reason behind the objections isn’t the language, infidelity, or even drinking but the fact that Gatsby isn’t happy despite having everything he could want in life. This book is what Fitzgerald sees as the failure of the American Dream and the pitfalls of capitalism, something most people, especially Americans, don’t want to discuss but should.

What Is the Number One Most Banned Book in America?

It’s certainly not Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby. This book does appear on the top list of banned books in the past 8 years, but believe it or not, the winner here is George Orwell’s 1984.

list of the Top 10 Banned Books in America

In the past 8 years, 1984 has become the #1 most censored book in the USA.

The Top 10 List Of Books That Have Been Banned

The top 10 list of books that have been banned or at least pulled from high school libraries include:

1. 1984 by George Orwell

2. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain

3. The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger

4. The Color Purple by Alice Walker

5. The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald

6. I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou

7. Lord of the Flies by William Golding

8. Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck

9. One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest by Ken Kesey

10. To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee

While The Great Gatsby may not be at the top of the list, it is regularly questioned or considered for removal from many school libraries.

Has The Great Gatsby Been Banned Outright in Some Areas or Schools?

Yes, in some places, school boards banned outright The Great Gatsby book from their libraries but not for very long.

The most serious attempt to ban The Great Gatsby occurred in 1987 when the Baptist College in South Carolina and the Bay County School District of Pensacola, Florida, decided that the book was too controversial to remain in school libraries.

When the Baptist College school was sued for considering the removal of the book, the school board dropped The Great Gatsby from its list and instead banned two other books.

The school board in Florida also ended up not banning the book.

The school board in Alaska in the Mat-Su district did ban the book for a few years, but it appears to be back on library shelves.

It’s interesting to note that a school board member said that the book would be “damaging “to young students and that the context of where the book could be read makes the difference. This school board member stated that if he were caught reading the book in a corporate office lunch room, he would be hauled into HR.

That sounds preposterous! The only reason to imagine that someone would be hauled into HR for reading ANY book in this day and age would be to check on their mental health since reading seems to have gone out of style.

Is There Really a Banned Book Week?

a hard-cover book laying open and showing page one

Yes! The American Library Association has named the last full week in September “Banned Books Week”. The ALA encourages people to check out books that have been banned or are considering being banned as a means of encouraging intellectual freedom and discussion.

Many public libraries are also offering banned books online at no charge so anyone with an internet connection can find and read these books.

Famed writer Stephen King said it best-

“… if they ban a book in your school, haul your a** to the nearest bookstore or library ASAP, and find out what they don’t want you to read!”

Final Summary

Let’s be clear that anytime a group of people, a state, or even a country decides that some books are too controversial or too dangerous, these same people never end up on the winning end of the stick, so to speak.

We aren’t talking about whether or not certain books are appropriate for a certain school age.

Even stories from Shakespeare shouldn’t be read by those in grade school due to their difficulty and the adult storylines (think of Julius Caesar being stabbed to death by friends or Romeo and Juliet committing suicide), but no one seems to be interested in talking about these books.

Banning books entirely has nothing to do with protecting children and everything to do with controlling the narrative that certain groups wish to push.

To be perfectly honest, we’ve never known any high school students to be “damaged” in any way from reading The Great Gatsby, old sport.

Why Was The Great Gatsby Banned & Considered Controversial?
Why Was The Great Gatsby Banned & Considered Controversial?
The Great Gatsby is required reading for many college or high school students, but did you know that it was banned more than once? Find out the details here.
Gatsby Flapper Girl