World War I provided a reason for the excesses of the Jazz Age and a context to The Great Gatsby. The USA found itself wealthy, validating the idea of the American Dream and an ‘anything goes’ attitude. And, for those who had experienced battle, what better way was there to forget? In the story, two of the main characters were personally involved in the conflict; Nick Carraway and Jay Gatsby himself. It is the subject of their first conversation, although they treat their experiences in very different ways.
Nick refers to the war, in a famous understatement, as a ‘delayed Teutonic migration’, although it does have an effect on him, making him restless and precipitating his move to the ‘progressive’ East. Gatsby, however, is enabled by the war. Even before his deployment overseas, his officer status earns him entry to Daisy’s society – and her heart. “Rich girls don’t marry poor boys,” she says later, underlining the fact that, without the key his uniform provided, he would never have been received by her.
After 1918, Gatsby continues to use this enablement to his advantage, attempting to impress with tales of heroics. He shows a medal to Nick when he wants a favour, pointing out the inscription: ‘Major Jay Gatsby. For Valour Extraordinary’. It also permits him entrance to Oxford University, providing another ‘string to his bow’ and letting people believe that his place was awarded for academic achievement; a lie which his nemesis Tom Buchanon neutralises early on: “Oxford, New Mexico,” he scoffs.
Others use the perceived guilt of Germany to convey their suspicions of Gatsby’s origins (“a nephew or cousin of Kaiser Wilhelm’s”) but this only adds to his mystique.
Because of the war, Gatsby has seen the world and profited from the extravagance it facilitated. But the life he constructs – and the dream upon which it is based – disintegrates just as the stockmarket crash killed the decadence of the 1920s. We, as readers, need to be aware of the fact that our narrator and our title character have experienced horrors which no one would forget. Perhaps that is why they are so willing to stay up all night.