Why Was 'The Great Gatsby' Controversial or Banned?

The Great Gatsby
The Great Gatsby. Scribner

"The Great Gatsby" covers several characters living in the fictional town of West Egg on Long Island during the height of the Jazz Age. It's the work for which F. Scott Fitzgerald is often best remembered, and Perfection Learning named it the top American literature title for the classroom. Yet the novel, published in 1925, has generated controversy over the years. Many groups, particularly religious organizations, have objected to the language, violence and sexual references in the book and have attempted to have the book banned from public schools over the years, though none of those efforts were successful.

Controversial Content

The book was controversial due the sex, violence and language it contains. The extramarital affair between Jay Gatsby, the mysterious millionaire in the novel, and his elusive love interest, Daisy Buchanan, is alluded to but never described in intimate detail. Fitzgerald describes Gatsby as someone who "took what he could get, ravenously and unscrupulously -- eventually he took Daisy one still October night, took her because he had no real right to touch her hand." And later in their relationship, the narrator noted, speaking of Buchanan's visits to Gatsby: "Daisy comes over quite often -- in the afternoons."

Religious groups also objected to the booze and partying that occurred during the Roaring '20s, which Fitzgerald described in detail in the novel. The novel also portrayed the American dream in a negative light in that it showed that even if you attain wealth and fame, it doesn't lead to happiness.

Indeed, it can lead to some of the worst outcomes imaginable. The message is that you shouldn't strive to gain more wealth, which is something a capitalist nation doesn't want to see happen. 

Attempts to Ban the Novel

According to the American Library Association, "The Great Gatsby" tops the list of books that have been challenged or faced potential bans over the years.

According to the ALA, the most serious challenge to the novel came in 1987 from the Baptist College in Charleston, South Carolina, which objected to "language and sexual references in the book."

In that same year, officials from the Bay County School District in Pensacola, Florida, attempted unsuccessfully to ban 64 books, including "The Great Gatsby," because they contain ''a lot of vulgarity'' as well as curse words. "I don't like vulgarity," Leonard Hall, district superintendent, told  NewsChannel 7 in Panama City, Florida. "I don't approve of it in my children. I don't approve of it in any child on a school ground." Only two books were actually banned -- not "The Great Gatsby" -- before the school board overturned the proposed ban in light of pending litigation.

In 2008, the Coeur d'Alene, Idaho, school board developed an approval system to assess and remove books -- including "The Great Gatsby" -- from the school reading lists "after some parents complained that teachers had selected and were discussing books that 'contain vulgar, profane language and dealt with subjects inappropriate for students'," according to "100 Banned Books: Censorship Histories of World Literature." After 100 people protested the decision at a Dec.

15, 2008 meeting, the school board reversed itself and voted to return the books to the approved reading lists.

"The Great Gatsby" Study Guide

Check out these links for more information on this great American novel.