The Great Gatsby is a work of realism, meaning that it tries to depict the world as it actually is rather than incorporating speculative or fantastical elements. Realist literature tends to elevate the mundane aspects of daily life and doesn’t shy away from depicting grotesque or disturbing aspects of the human experience. The novel is set in real places (primarily Long Island and New York City) and features real-life landmarks, like the Plaza Hotel. And while the events of Gatsby are fast-paced and not especially mundane, given Jay Gatsby’s uproarious parties, the novel is realist in that it offers a candid portrayal of the Jazz Age, for better or worse. It doesn’t shy away from the dramatic wealth gap that existed in the United States at this time or the culture of excess that the upper classes enjoyed, and it starkly portrays humanity’s potential for obsession, betrayal, greed, and cruelty.
Gatsby also falls under the modernist genre. Modernism was a post-WWI artistic and literary movement that used experimental forms and styles to reflect the cultural and societal shifts (industrialization, urbanization, global-scale war, and so on) happening in the early 20th century. While Gatsby’s narrative structure is fairly traditional, the book is modernist in the sense that it depicts the trappings of the modern world—like industry, new innovations, and changing social norms—as exciting but also alienating, absurd, and destructive.
The novel is also a tragedy, in that it portrays human suffering and the tragic fall of its main character, Jay Gatsby. Gatsby is an archetypal tragic hero figure: Nick (and the reader) sympathize with him and recognize his virtuous traits, but he also has a tragic flaw: his single-minded fixation on Daisy Buchanan. His obsession with living in the past and trying to recreate his youthful romance with Daisy proves to be his downfall: it leads him to take the blame for Daisy’s crime (killing Myrtle Wilson in a hit-and-run car accident), which results in George (Myrtle’s husband) killing Gatsby for revenge. The very qualities that Nick admires in Gatsby—his optimism, passion, and hopeless romanticism—spell his downfall in the end. His tragic flaw also causes other characters to suffer, as his involvement with Daisy inadvertently leads to Myrtle and George’s deaths as well.
Finally, The Great Gatsby is a social satire—it uses mockery, sarcasm, and irony to critique the culture of the Roaring Twenties. Characters like the Buchanans (whom Nick describes as being notable for their “vast carelessness”), the drunken guests at Gatsby’s parties, and the women who share shallow gossip on Gatsby’s front lawn are all darkly humorous. They’re meant to satirize the upper classes as uncaring, reckless, and superficial. The novel also uses details like the Valley of Ashes to satirize capitalism and industry, showing the negative personal and environmental impacts of the rapid economic expansion that was happening in the United States at this time. Gatsby’s ironic and tragic ending (in which Myrtle, Gatsby, and George all die senselessly) is a particularly dark and poignant critique of the destructive—even fatal—consequences that author F. Scott Fitzgerald believed the 1920s’ hedonistic culture could lead to.