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Donohue 1

Sean Donohue

Prof Varnon

ENGL 133 - 04

1 April 2019

You’re All Wet Jay!

When people think of alcohol, they picture a cool, glass bottle of beer, or some fermented

grapes. In reality, alcohol has proven be more than the waste product of yeast by allowing soap

makers to create soaps with blended essential oils, and through refining into long chain, tertiary

alcohols, can help produce sodium metal, an incredibly important reagent, for lab use. However

if the selling and production of alcohol became extremely limited, soap would become boring

and virtually scentless, and chemistry labs would lose a variety of important solvents. This

extreme limitation existed in the 1920s in America due to the Volstead Act. The Volstead Act

would restrict the production, and selling, of alcohol to where the common people would not be

able to drink anymore. However those who illegally distribute alcohol, bootleggers, would abuse

the fact that consuming alcohol was still legal, and sell it under the guise of medicine. In The

Great Gatsby, written by Scott Fitzgerald, presents Jay Gatsby as a wealthy, mysterious man in

the midst of prohibition. Gatsby’s newly acquired fortune and unknown past causes people to

speculate how he gained so much wealth. Over the course of the book, Gatsby was revealed to

play a role in the illegal alcohol trade through distributing alcohol through pharmacies, and

collaborating with another person.

Gatsby portrayed himself as a wealthy person with a mysterious origin. He would wear

outfits which screamed wealthy, such as a white suit, silver shirt, and golden tie combination and

host lavish parties at his mansion in West Egg every Saturday. At these parties, Gatsby invited
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people from both East and West Egg, as well as some people from around New York. He always

showed good hospitality through referring to people in a friendly manner and providing a place

for people to have fun, and drink, until sunrise. Even though Gatsby put great care into making

sure everyone he invited had fun at his parties, everyone he invited did not know much about

their host. Naturally some rumors would spread revolving around the mysterious Gatsby during

the parties such as how “he’s a nephew or cousin of Kaiser Wilhelms” (36), the German emperor

of Prussia who reigned up until the 1920s, or how “ he was a German spy” (48) during his time

in World War I. Normally someone would try to disprove some rumors about them, especially

in their home, but Gatsby does not. Instead, if one would look up from their drink, one could see

Gatsby “standing alone on the marble steps [of his home] and looking from one group to another

with approving eyes” (55). Gatsby isolated himself from the rest of the festivities. This action

showed how Gatsby wished to engage as little as possible with the people he invited. With the

frequency of his parties, not engaging with guests was strange. This secrecy would imply that

Gatsby wanted to remain cautious, as if he were hiding something

Although he presented indecorum in a party setting, Gatsby acted this way due to having

an association with the criminal underworld. He wanted to not upset anyone in order to draw as

little attention to himself as possible. An example of Gatsby not wanting to upset someone was

when he bought a new dress for Lucille McKee after she tore it at one of Gatsby’s previous

parties:

“When I was here last I tore my

gown on a chair, and he asked me my name and address—

inside of a week I got a package from Croirier’s with a new evening gown in it.’ …

I was going to wear it tonight, but it was too


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big in the bust … Two hundred and sixty-five dollars …

‘He doesn’t want any trouble with ANYbody.’ (47-48).

Gatsby went out of his way to buy a dress worth around three-thousand three-hundred fifty

dollars in today’s money, and have it delivered to the McKee residence, in order to not get on the

bad side of Lucille or her husband Chester. Although he got Lucille’s measurements wrong,

Gatsby did gift a dress that coincided with one of the more favourable colour palettes of the

1920s, medium blue (gas blue) and lavender. By giving away an expensive dress with a nice

palette for 1920s America, Gatsby had minimized the chance of any complaints from the

McKees since Lucille’s previous dress had became damaged while at Gatsby’s home. Less

would act suspicious of Gatsby. However, a subtle hint about Gatsby’s underworld engagements

would arise after having a lunch with Nick, the narrator of the book, and Wolfshiem, the man

who rigged the 1919 World Series. Gatsby spoke about carrying “a little business on the side”

and further emphasized that this business was “a sort of sideline” (88) while remaining vague on

what the business was. Gatsby’s vagueness and choice of phrasing implied that the business he

ran would sound unsavoury to certain people. This idea is further supported by the fact that

GAtsby and Wolfshiem are associates. The lunch had given some insight into some of

Wolfhiem’s memories, as well as a certain deal between a client, himself, and Gatsby. Before

entering the restaurant made sure to tell Gatsby that “he handed the money to Katspaugh” and

told him to not to pay someone until someone had “shut their mouth” (75). The phrasing and

vague wording showed some similarity to how Gatsby would later propose the side business to

Nick. Some underhanded business was going on which involved Gatsby and Wolfshiem.

Wolfshiem had then shared the tale of when he and a few people went to eat and drink at around

four in the morning. One of the men at the table, Rosy Rosenthal, tried to leave the table to
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speak to people outside, but Wolfshiem tried to prevent him from doing so since he knew what

would happen: a group of people wish to talk very early in the morning outside, then once the

person is outside they get ambushed. Rosy ended up dying outside after getting shot three times

in the stomach in a drive by shooting incident. Nick shared that he knew of the people who shot

Rosy and what had happened to them; Five of them were executed. This caused Wolfshiem to

show some interest in Nick, and try to offer him work immediately after the tragic tale of a dead

Rosy. This caused Gatsby to tell Wolfshiem that Nick was not the guy, and cause Wolfshiem to

lose interest and dig into some hash when it arrives as if the previous conversation had never

happened (75-77). The common phrasing and vagueness between Gatsby and Wolfshiem, as

well as alluding to a potentially underhanded business, proved that their relationship was more

than just friends; they were partners in crime.

The reader would not know what kind of business Gatsby dealt with until Tom Buchanan

took it upon himself to do some investigating. In Chapter Seven, Tom had discovered that

Gatsby and Wolfshiem had worked together on illegally distributing alcohol during prohibition

through selling it at drugstores:

“I found out what your ‘drug stores’ were.’ …

He and this Wolfshiem bought up a

lot of side-street drug stores here and in Chicago and sold

grain alcohol over the counter” (143).

Tom had confirmed that Gatsby and Wolfshiem worked together in the illegal alcohol trade;

Both men were bootleggers. During prohibition, bootleggers would distribute alcohol through

drugstores as “medicinal alcohol” in order to bypass the Volstead Act. The Volstead Act

prohibited the only sale of alcoholic beverages, not the consumption, but by selling alcohol as
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medicine, Gatsby and other bootleggers could bypass the restriction on selling alcohol.

Bootlegging would become an extremely lucrative business as a result since it provided a dry

community with the alcoholic ambrosia it craved. Bootlegging would provide Gatsby with the

income to fill his fortune with new money. Bootlegging would also explain his mysterious,

secretive mannerisms at his plethora of parties and during the lunch with Nick. Bootlegging

explained Jay Gatsby.

As a bootlegger, Gatsby would have similarities to other people taking part in illegal

actions. Thomas Pauly’s “Gatsby as Gangster” makes these comparisons, as well as portrays

Gatsby as a “dandy” character, one who devotes themself to style and neatness. Pauly makes

sure to talk about Gatsby’s and Wolfshiem’s ties to the underworld, and provides reasoning to

prove Gatsby as a bootlegger by drawing parallels to the famous bootlegger George Remus.

Remus had once been a lawyer, but soon owned a network of pharmacies, and fourteen

distilleries, in order to flood the medical alcohol market. As a result, he would come into a large

fortune, and build a mansion. Remus would throw subtlety to the wind and purchase useless

decorations for his newly built mansion: a gold piano (terrible material to make an instrument

out of), exotic plants, and expensive paintings. His money would soon follow because he bought

$25K worth of jewelry, and new cars, to distribute to party guests. Unsurprisingly the throwing

around of thousands of dollars in 1920s America would prompt law enforcement to investigate

and incarcerate Remus (Pauly, 226). Like Remus, Gatsby had used his fortune to acquire a

mansion, and filled it with decorations such as an unused book case. However, due to Gatsby

distancing himself from his party guests, and only giving away a singular dress, Gatsby would

not be found out until much later.


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The actions of Jay Gatsby had provided insight into what was prohibition. People would

abuse a loophole in a ridiculous law and have the possibility to gain a fortune in the process.

However, should these bootleggers not remain cautious, like George Remus, they would become

incarcerated. But as long as people wanted booze, money would float toward the bootleggers of

1920s America, and everyone would sit back and have a drink.

Works Cited

● Bill, VintageDancer, Patrice Krems, Maria, Don Shull, Debbie Sessions, and Susan.

"Fabrics and Colors of 1920s Fashions." Vintage Dancer. N.p., n.d. Web. 27 Mar. 2019.

● Fitzgerald, F.Scott. The Great Gatsby. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1950. Print.

● Pauly, Thomas H. "Gatsby as Gangster." Studies in American Fiction 21.2 (1993): 225-

36. Print.