The Great Gatsby and contemporary politics

By Dr Deborah Madden



The Great Gatsby exposes the illusory nature of what later came to be coined the ‘American Dream’. There’s a rich seam of critical literature that has engaged in different perspectives on this topic, with the productive connections between the novel’s contemporary cultural politics continuing to be explored, as seen recently in The Great Gatsby’s Tom Buchanan and Donald Trump being compared. Reading the novel for its contemporary resonances can help in the skills of characterisation; not only in terms of how to analyse a character within the novel’s own context, but also the ways in which this can be done through the lens of wider ‘intertextual’ cultural productions and different political or historical contexts. However, in order to avoid an analysis that is predetermined by a reader’s own context, it’s important to get a balance between the more formal analytical elements of literary criticism and the novel's broader contextualist framings, which can include rich re-readings of history and politics today.


Contextual readings: What exactly does it mean to look at a novel’s context?

Although the writing and publication of novels are located within a specific moment in history, readers can glean many different interpretations, depending on their purpose for analysing a text. This might take the political or social factors when an author was writing into account. Some of these factors will be apparent in the novel itself. A contextualist reading of The Great Gatsby would note, for example, that it is set during the ‘jazz age’ in the aftermath of World War I, when changing attitudes to class and gender were underway in Europe and in the USA.

Much of this context will have been consciously included by the author, along with other choices made in terms of the novel’s literary style, narrative form and genre. For example; F. Scott Fitzgerald drew on the influence of modernist writers like Joseph Conrad and T.S. Eliot, among others, when writing The Great Gatsby. However, other influences will have been less consciously intended by the author or not intended at all. This is where the reader can draw out a rich variety of ‘contextualist’ interpretations of the novel, which also includes the context in which the reader is situated. In the case of The Great Gatsby, particularly, modern political re-readings of the novel can change so dramatically that Jay Gatsby has been regarded as both a republican and a democrat; Donald Trump and Barack Obama respectively.



Another way of thinking about this in relation to literature and its broader productions is by using the concept of intertextuality. There are different types of intertextuality. For example, the author can use this as a means to allude to other novels and texts. There are many instances of this in The Great Gatsby, though critics have often suggested that The Valley of Ashes occupies the same metaphorical landscape as T.S. Eliot’s poem ‘The Waste Land’ (1922). ‘Accidental’ intertextuality is when literary or textual influences are interpreted by the reader and do not rely on those alluded to in the novel: readers make their own interpretations and connections, drawing on other texts and cultural productions. These might include adaptations for film, TV and theatre. Intertextuality in this sense points to a much wider set of different relationships between a novel and other texts, which form part of a complex matrix of intellectual and cultural productions that have taken place since the novel’s original publication.


The Great Gatsby and contemporary politics

A contextualist approach also explains why The Great Gatsby has been used many times to draw analogies with contemporary politics, especially in the United States. Drawing an analogy involves making direct comparisons. Several key analogies have been made between the world Fitzgerald described in his novel and American politics, such as the Watergate scandal of 1972, the 9/11 attacks on the Twin Towers and the financial crash of 2008. The novel has harvested numerous themes and motifs for political commentators. Most notably, critics have repeatedly picked up on the novel’s critiquing of the American Dream, though this term was coined later and retrospectively applied. Certainly, what we come to understand by the end of the novel is that the associated motifs of wealth and consumerism, which are displayed so visibly through the main character of Jay Gatsby, do not lead to personal happiness and success.


Characterisation and political metaphor 

Many public figures, including politicians and celebrities, have been likened to the character of Jay Gatsby. Gatsby’s character has served as a metaphor, sometimes by way of gaining political capital. This could be seen in 2013 when shortly after Baz Luhrmann’s film adaptation of The Great Gatsby had been released, Barack Obama was unflatteringly compared to Gatsby by The Washington Times. By contrast, ahead of the presidential election in 2016, positive comparisons were made between Donald Trump and Gatsby by Trump’s supporters. Here, Gatsby’s character became a political metaphor to endorse entrepreneurial self-made men (McClellan and Gruber, 2021) [1].

Commentators have taken very different perspectives on comparisons between Gatsby and Trump: some have noted similarities while others have rejected the comparison altogether. This indicates the novel’s depth of characterisation, as well as some of the limitations involved when making such comparisons. A further way in which characterisation has served as a metaphor can be seen in Rosa Inocencio Smith’s article in The Atlantic, following Trump’s plan to build a border wall to deter immigration from Mexico. Smith highlighted similarities between Trump and the character of Tom Buchanan, pointing to their assumption of male power and white privilege with racism that was directed towards people of colour. Smith says, ‘there’s an eerie symmetry between Donald Trump and The Great Gatsby’s Tom Buchanan as if the villain of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s 1925 novel had been brought to life in a louder, gaudier guise for the 21st century’ (Smith, 2018) [2]. These different interpretations tell us just how malleable the novel is to political, cultural and social re-readings.        


Reader’s context: analysing character and avoiding overinterpretation

Fitzgerald’s novel exposes the illusory nature of wealth and conspicuous consumption through its characterisation of Gatsby. Political commentators continue to use Gatsby’s character as a metaphor, either in the deadly pursuit of a dream that’s ultimately fictional or as an upholder of its very legitimacy. Misinterpretation of the novel’s themes was something that Fitzgerald himself commented on after it was published. The contrasting analogies and metaphors this novel elicits highlight the rhetorical power that contextualist readings, re-readings and even misreadings continue to have over contemporary political discourse. Yet a distinction does need to be made between the political use of a novel’s themes, motifs, metaphors and characters, and the literary analysis of these things within a broader contextualist reading. The characters of Gatsby and Tom Buchanan are imaginary, constructed by Fitzgerald as an author. Contextualist readings of literary texts like The Great Gatsby rely on readers applying the skills of literary analysis in order to distinguish between fiction and real life. This can avoid an overinterpretation that makes use of characters in novels in ways that defy credibility. Avoiding this pitfall means getting a balance between the formal analytical elements of literary criticism and the novel's broader contextualist framings, which can include history and contemporary politics.



  1. Fletcher, E. McClellan and Gruber, K. (2021), Popular Culture Studies Journal, 9:2, 200-223.
  2. Smith, Inocencio, Rosa, ‘How The Great Gatsby Explains Trump’, September 24, 2018, The Atlantic, available at: https://www.theatlantic.com/entertainment/archive/2018/09/how-the-great-gatsby-explains-trump/562673/ [last accessed 3 February 2023].





Dr Deborah Madden is principal lecturer at the University of Brighton, where she is also Director of the Centre for Memory, Narrative and Histories.