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Why was The Great Gatsby Banned? Understanding the Controversy

August 2023 | Steve Travels

Why was The Great Gatsby Banned? Understanding the Controversy


In the annals of American literature, F. Scott Fitzgerald's "The Great Gatsby" stands as a shining testament to the Jazz Age, a window into the opulence, aspirations, and tragedies of the Roaring Twenties. And yet, while many view it as an invaluable piece of literary history, others have sought to shield young readers from its content. Today, we delve into the history and reasons behind the efforts to ban this iconic novel.

Historical Context: Banning Books in America

Books are periodically challenged or banned due to content some deem inappropriate, especially for younger readers. The act of banning usually comes from a place of protection but often brushes up against the freedom of speech and thought. While there is no "official" banned books list in the United States, several states and organizations have sought to ban or have banned "The Great Gatsby" over the years. These decisions often arise when parents, school boards, or religious institutions find content objectionable.

The Charges Against Gatsby

The novel, set against the backdrop of 1920s America, has been criticized for several reasons:

  1. Sexual References: The Matanuska-Susitna (Mat-Su) Borough school district in Alaska cited the book for "sexual references and explicit language", especially in its description of Miss Baker: “I looked at Miss Baker, wondering what it was she ‘got done.’...” The words "got done", "slender, small breasted", and "erect carriage" were particularly pointed out.

  2. Violence: Scenes such as Tom Buchanan hitting Myrtle Wilson, the portrayal of Myrtle's gruesome death, and George Wilson's ultimate act of revenge against Jay Gatsby were sources of contention.

  3. Illicit Activities: The era's prohibition laws make the rampant bootlegging and alcohol consumption in Gatsby's parties particularly rebellious. Jay Gatsby's role as a bootlegger and the casual nature of excessive drinking were cause for alarm for some.

  4. Profanity: In a 1987 challenge from Baptist College, the "profane language" found at the end of the novel, including words like “Hell-son-of-a-bitch”, led to the book's removal.

Who's Banning and Why?

Over the years, various institutions have taken issue with the book. The 1987 ban at the Baptist College in Charleston, South Carolina, was due to the novel's "sexual references" and "profane language". Schools in places like Pensacola, Florida, and Coeur d’Alene, Idaho, also temporarily banned the book. However, most bans were reversed within five years, highlighting the ebb and flow of societal perceptions.

The Modern Perspective

The Great Gatsby, Mrs Dalloway and Duke Ellington works hit public domain  in 2021 | The Independent

In an age of increasing acceptance and changing societal norms, one might wonder why a book written in 1925 can still raise eyebrows. The themes of infidelity, opulence, and rebellion against societal norms in "The Great Gatsby" might seem mild today, but they are still points of contention for some.

The novel offers a vibrant portrayal of 1920s America, from its class struggles to the undying American dream of success through perseverance. It's ironic that the same novel which showcases Gatsby's rise from rags to riches, a testament to the American Dream, would face such backlash.


While F. Scott Fitzgerald likely never envisioned his work as a subject of controversy, "The Great Gatsby" remains a testament to the power of literature to evoke strong reactions. It serves as a reminder that art, in all its forms, holds a mirror to society, sometimes reflecting images that not everyone wishes to see. And yet, it's these very reflections that fuel discussions, challenge norms, and ultimately drive societies forward.