May Day is one of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s three long stories sometimes called novellas or novelettes. The title has three connotations: the maritime distress call mayday, a spring rite, and the socialist labor holiday. As the mixed connotations suggest, Fitzgerald purposefully mingles satire, Romanticism, Realism, and whimsy to render the post–World War I mood of the country on May 1, 1919, which historians have described as a mixture of exhilaration and moral depletion. On that day in history, servicemen in several American cities organized to attack groups of people who had gathered to observe the socialist holiday.
Fitzgerald’s story takes place in New York City, where one of these violent episodes occurred. His story documents not only a historical occasion but also the fragmentation of the social structure. The characters include a cross section of New Yorkers: wealthy socialites, socialist idealists, military men, waitresses and shop girls, a woman of lower-class origin desperate to improve her circumstances—and Gordon Sterrett, a struggling artist who eventually kills himself.
Events in Fitzgerald’s own life probably became the basis for the character Sterrett, the artist who struggles against poverty. Fitzgerald wrote “May Day” after a one-year writing frenzy in which he produced his first novel while turning out advertising copy to support himself. Zelda Sayre had turned down his marriage proposal because of his limited financial prospects. His determination to change her mind, break into the fiction market, and escape the ad work that cheapened his talent is fictionalized in Sterrett, whose suicide has been described by some readers as the result of his own weakness and by others as the abuse of artists in a philistine society.
The story’s content and structure reflect Fitzgerald’s interests at the time in socialism and in the naturalistic fiction of Frank Norris. His compression of the action into a single day and the cameralike device of zooming in on an individual and then opening out to the larger scene are devices used in Naturalism and Modernism
Martin, Robert K. “Sexual and Group Relationships in ‘May Day.’ ” Studies in Short Fiction 15 (1978).
Mazzella, Anthony J. “The Tension of Opposites in Fitzgerald’s ‘May Day.’ ” Studies in Short Fiction 14 (1977).
Tuttleton, James W. “Seeing Slightly Red: Fitzgerald’s ‘May Day.’ ” In Short Stories of F. Scott Fitzgerald: New Approaches in Criticism, edited by Jackson R. Bryer. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1982.