The Great Gatsby is set during the Jazz Age, a time period spanning the 1920s and 30s when jazz music and dance became popular in the U.S. and, in turn, influenced American culture. The novel takes place toward the beginning of the period, in 1922. Gatsby’s author, F. Scott Fitzgerald, was the first to popularize the term “Jazz Age” with his short story collection Tales of the Jazz Age. This era was characterized by a general rebelliousness among young people, many of whom had more carefree attitudes about social etiquette, substance use, modesty, and sex than past generations. Women during this time began to play a more active role in society and culture—working outside the home in increasing numbers, socializing more freely, demanding the same legal rights as men, and even becoming famous entertainers. Additionally, white Americans began to be influenced by Black American culture (as jazz was a Black American artistic movement).
The Jazz Age overlapped with the Roaring Twenties, which more broadly refers to the post-World War I decade of the 1920s and its associated cultural shifts in the West. These changes include the post-WWI economic boom and subsequent surge in consumerism; the proliferation of new technologies like automobiles and radios; and the rising popularity of mass media such as film and radio. This period also overlapped with Prohibition (the U.S.’s ban on the alcohol trade that lasted from 1920–1933). All of these intersecting cultural contexts are evident in the novel: many of its characters lead decadent lifestyles, behave recklessly and immodestly, indulge in luxurious cars and lavish parties, drink (or make a fortune selling) bootleg alcohol, and are interested in jazz music and Hollywood celebrities. The book is largely critical of the Roaring Twenties, portraying it as a decade that morally corrupted Western society and made Americans shallow, self-absorbed, and hedonistic.
Geographically, most of The Great Gatsby takes place on the North Shore of Long Island, New York. This area, famous for its affluent residents and opulent coastal mansions, is also known as the Gold Coast. Though the two main regions in the book, East Egg and West Egg, are fictional, they’re based on the real-life Port Washington and Great Neck peninsulas, respectively. Fitzgerald and his wife, Zelda, lived on Great Neck while Fitzgerald was writing The Great Gatsby, and he based much of the book on observations of his “new rich” neighbors (who, like Nick Carraway in the novel, he both detested and wanted to fit in with). In fact, Jay Gatsby’s mansion is based on famous Gold Coast mansions like Land’s End, Oheka Castle, and Beacon Towers.
East Egg (where the Buchanans live) and West Egg (where Gatsby and Nick live) are divided by Manhasset Bay, an embayment of the Long Island Sound. This physical divide represents the class divide that exists even between the wealthy characters who live in these two different areas. East Egg residents are “old money” (meaning they have generational wealth), and they look down on the “new money” class in West Egg that only recently made its money.
Parts of the novel also take place in Manhattan and the fictional “valley of ashes,” an industrial area between Manhattan and Long Island. The latter is said to be based on the auto repair shops and scrap yards in Willets Point, a neighborhood in Queens, New York. The awful state of the valley of ashes serves to make clear the way that the rich—both new money and old money—overlook, dismiss, and exploit the working-class people who live there.