The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald Essay: Feminism and the American Dream in the Jazz Age
Gender Roles in The Great Gatsby
The Great Gatsby takes place during an extremely new, exciting, but volatile time in American history. Women just received the right to vote, were beginning to not only work, but work in jobs that men had previously been the only source for, and gained new freedoms never felt before in our country. These changes are nowhere more apparent than within the depiction of gender roles and how the characters interact within this novel. Men are constantly depicted as powerful, physical, and dishonest. Women are shown in a terrible light that casts the majority of them as tempting, submissive, passive, and petty. However, both sexes do share some good and new qualities that came about from the Jazz age. However, with these new freedoms comes much more room to be a good person or to be completely debauched.
Women share much of the focus that the men do in this book; however, they are not always shown in a positive light. In fact, they are often seen as negative things that only hold the men back. As we begin the book, Daisy is seen as a sort of pessimist when mentioning her newly born female baby. When she first offhandedly mentions her daughter, she doesn’t even specify the gender. This could be taken several ways. One way is that Daisy doesn’t care much about her daughter at all. This idea is supported later when Daisy says after Nick has asked about her daughter, “I suppose she talks, and–eats, and everything” (Fitzgerald 16). Another way to look at it, which seems to be more plausible given the context of the book, is that she is disappointed in having a female, rather than a male, child. When Daisy is explaining to Nick her daughter’s birth, she explains how she wept and said of her daughter, “…I hope she’ll be a fool – that’s the best thing a girl can be in this world, a beautiful little fool” (17). This not only shows Daisy’s cynicism for the world they live in, but also her idea of women in the world. In her eyes, women have no place in this world to be intelligent, only beautiful and stupid. The best thing a woman could be in the world is eye-candy for the hulking brutes. To her, that is the best way for a woman to get ahead in life. While this may seem as recognition of the plight of women in the world from Daisy, her actions later in the book imply that she wants to do nothing to change it. Gatsby describes her as having a “voice full of money” (120). The ideal woman Gatsby once loved has been corrupted with money and the lifestyle that Tom has provided for her. She has allowed herself to become a snooty, rich American. When Daisy is finally confronted with whom she should choose, Tom or Gatsby, she ends up staying with her cheating, hulking, brute of a husband. While this may seem the fault of the husband, and cheating most certainly is his fault, going back to him even though she knows he is a cheater makes her look nearly as bad because she is comfortable with her wealthy lifestyle that Tom provides for her.
Daisy & Gatsby
But, why doesn’t Daisy stay with Gatsby? Part of it could be that both have created idealized versions of the other. For Gatsby, Daisy is still the woman he courted in Louisville before the war. To Daisy, he is some puzzlingly rich man who has somehow managed to make his way back into her life. They both want to recreate the past, and neither of them recognizes that you can’t repeat the past. Neither of them understands that you can only live life as it is until the very end. Daisy is an addict to the decadent lifestyle that Tom provides her. While Gatsby could provide the same physical things to Daisy, given his fortune, he can’t create Tom’s well-bred and well-connected life. While Gatsby may be just as wealthy as Tom, he will always have a shady past connected to himself. Daisy is looking for the posh lifestyle where everyone knows your name and knows where you came from and who you are. Gatsby is too mysterious. There is too much room for the unknown. With Tom, for her, there is certainty and stability. This certainty is the reason she doesn’t choose Gatsby. She is comfortable with the life Tom provides her and doesn’t need unnecessary change, even if it means giving up her past love who would, more than likely, treat her better than Tom does.
While Jordan isn’t the dependent and domestic woman that Daisy is, she has several flaws that reflect poorly on the women of this book and of the entire age from which it comes. To start, Daisy has a tendency to appear as if she is balancing something on her chin. Sticking one’s nose in the air is a sign of aristocratic pompousness that Jordan has about her which, while not limited to only women in this book, makes her extremely hypocritical. She is also, as Nick described her, “incurably dishonest” (58). She not only cheated at golf, her profession, to win her first tournament, but she also avoids clever men to always appear superior. Jordan appears incredibly dishonest and fake as well as often appearing to be lazy. It seems to be a laziness brought on by her class, wealth, the age they live in, or a combination of these. She is perpetually seen as lounging on couches or sleeping. Nick, her love interest, even ponders how she gets anything done (11). Jordan is also extremely reckless. She will cheat to win, but she also doesn’t care much for safety of anybody. After Nick tells her she is a rotten driver and asked what will happen if she meets someone as careless as her on the road, she replies that she hopes she never does (58). This is not only a sign of her recklessness, but also of her hypocrisy. She admits to being reckless and then goes on to say she hates reckless people. While Jordan could be seen as the independent and “new” woman of the Jazz age, she has many negative traits that reflect poorly for her and for the women of her age.
Nick & Jordan
Nick and Jordan seem ephemeral partners in this book, never getting too close and ending their relationship before it got serious. Nick is attracted to Jordan’s physical charms. However, he never really seems to trust her after he finds out about her dishonest side. Nick is portrayed as one of the only honest people in the book, and he openly states he is one of the few honest people he has ever known (59). The most honest person in the novel is paired with one of the more dishonest people. This contrast shows the difference between the new, “Jazz”, east coast, liberal age of Jordan paired with the old, Midwest, conservative age of Nick. In the end, Jordan ends up dating another man and Nick ends up leaving her, somewhat miffed. The independence of women of this age was extremely important for their advancement as people – rather than domestic servants to men, as they used to be. Nobody in this book seems to be more independent than Jordan. However, she exudes so much independence that she relies on dishonesty and pretention to get what she needs and wants, primarily attention. Jordan and Nick’s relationship is both a good example of the independence and of the actions of the new independent woman of the Jazz age.
The final woman in the book is Myrtle. While Myrtle is a fairly minor character within the novel, she plays a pivotal role in the story and in the examination of women. She is Wilson’s wife and Tom’s mistress. When Myrtle tells her story, it appears that she has been held captive, by her husband, in a lifestyle that doesn’t suit her. She explains herself as the victim and Tom as her savior. This seems a little backwards when you consider both of them have a husband or wife and Tom has a child. Myrtle is a woman who would give anything to have the American life that Tom gives Daisy. The life that Daisy is so comfortable in is the one Myrtle desires, and she is willing to get treated like trash to have it. None of the women in this book have it as bad as Myrtle. She gets punched in the nose, run over, and killed. She is also the one who, arguably, acts the worst out of the three women. While Daisy and Jordan may lie or be addicted to money, Myrtle cheats, lies, and acts terribly childish. None of the women in this book are very good role models, nor are they the pioneers for women of their age. They are liars, cheaters, temptresses, and mistresses. Their addiction to a decadent lifestyle leads them all to be awful people who are easily corrupted and who easily corrupt.
Myrtle, Wilson, & Tom
Myrtle is in a relationship with both Wilson and Tom. Wilson has always been a good man to her, but she claims to never have been crazy about him. Myrtle is a woman who seeks comfort. She sought comfort by marrying Wilson just as she sought comfort by having a relationship with Tom. She was willing to give up dignity and honesty to have a comfortable relationship with Tom just as she was willing to give up independence and freedom to be with Wilson. Wilson was, however, a good faithful husband. While that may not seem like much, in this novel, it is one of the few good traits that one of the characters have. He dashes anything positive from this good trait, however, by being murderous after his wife is killed. Myrtle seems to be the opposite side of Jordan. Jordan is free and independent and doesn’t need to be tied to a man to be comfortable. Myrtle always needs a man and always needs the possessions, money, and a better lifestyle to be comfortable. Just like the idea of dependent women in the Jazz age Myrtle is killed, run over by a car.
Every couple in this book is tragic. Whether it is Daisy and Tom’s adulterous marriage, Gatsby and Daisy’s coming to understand their idealized others are false, Nick and Jordan’s short lived romp, or Myrtle and Wilson’s separation from life, they all end tragically for the reader. The women are a conglomeration of old and new. The old ideas of the subservient and oppressed are present in Myrtle and Daisy while the new ideas of independence and equality were present in Jordan. This novel shows the freedoms that the Jazz age brought for the women in American and exactly what those freedoms can do to them as well as their partners. This novel was a warning call. While the freedoms and privileges allowed to women are a fantastic reward for years of suffering, the debauchery and the recklessness of the Jazz age is a far cry from the good, morally just, and conservative values of the past.