The Great Gatsby uses anti-feminist themes to promote ideas that are pro-feminist.
Scott Fitzgerald’s American classic ‘The Great Gatsby’ is a novel that has received copious amounts of both praise and criticism, particularly in regards to feminism. Fitzgerald has managed to polarise opinions, leading readers to alternate and debatable conclusions. It is argued that ‘The Great Gatsby’ is an anti-feminist novel and that Fitzgerald’s portrayal of women is seemingly misogynistic. That being said, it would be perfectly reasonable to suggest that he uses anti-feminist themes in order to make a pro-feminist statement by drawing attention to such societal misconducts. His portrayal of women could be split into three main power categories: the power men have over women; the power of women over men; and women’s power within society.
Throughout the novel, Fitzgerald appears to present women as being objects for men to posses and repress as they please – though, in doing so, he highlights it as being an issue which needs to be resolved.
At the very beginning of the novel during the opening chapter, Nick Carraway explains that he “drove over there to have dinner with the Tom Buchanans.” Here, the man seems to personify the entire family. The pluralisation of ‘Tom Buchanans’ gives the impression that Tom has monopolised his family and they are subsequently regarded as if they were part of his franchise. It also reflects the ignorant assumption on society’s part that worth can only be found in names and titles and could alternatively lead people to believe that it suggests shallowness on the woman’s part for marrying for prestige; however, it more so directs attention to the pressure inflicted upon women by their families and by society to marry well.
Again in Chapter One, upon Carraway’s arrival, we witness a scene which showcases the physical repression of women. Daisy Buchanan and Jordan Baker are shown to be enjoying themselves when there came “a boom as Tom Buchanan shut the rear windows and the caught wind died about the room…” the onomatopoeic noun ‘boom’ feels very masculine, as it has connotations of violence and force. The verb ‘died’ too is quite dramatic, and could have been used to hint that there was a sort of subtle war occurring within the room. Following this, “the two young women ballooned slowly to the floor.” This highlights the impact of men on the women’s state of mind; the simile ‘ballooned slowly to the floor’ especially so, with the noun ‘balloon’ having connotations of celebration, parties and fun – the kinds of things that Gatsby later comes to offer. It seems to imply that women are liberal beings who become repressed in marriage.
The fact that Tom Buchanan has ‘a woman in the city’ again objectifies women by presenting them as if they were items to be collected. When he first suggests that Carraway should meet Myrtle, Buchanan says “I want you to meet my girl”. The use of the possessive pronoun ‘my’ gives the impression that he owns her. The noun ‘girl’ suggests immaturity, as if she has a lower social footing and is lesser developed than himself. Carraway then reveals that “though I was curious to see her, I had no desire to meet her.” This implies that women should be observed but not interacted with, as if they are specimens. This ‘seen but not heard’ view again links to the idea of women having a lower social footing, as if they were children.
It is revealed that, on the day before their wedding, Tom Buchanan gifted Daisy with “a string of pearls at three hundred and fifty dollars”. Some may regard the act as romantic, or as a means of satisfying Daisy’s apparent materialistic appetite. However, it could be suggested that, by offering the pearls the day before the wedding, it is as if Tom is putting down a deposit on her life, using it as insurance in case she was to change her mind at the last minute. Using the noun ‘string’ as opposed to ‘necklace’ is interesting, as the former holds business-like connotations, again linking to this idea of franchising. It is as if by marrying her, he is making an investment and is treating her as some kind of business deal.
This objectification of women is an ongoing theme throughout the novel, and so it draws a lot of attention to itself. By doing so, Fitzgerald is – whether intentionally or not – highlighting the societal misdemeanours of his time and is therefore covertly calling for change.
Although seemingly oppressed, Fitzgerald’s female characters are not without their strengths, which are incorporated in order to highlight the certain powers that women have over men.
Chapter Two introduces us to Myrtle Wilson, whom is treated barbarically by Tom Buchanan. During an argument, he is described as having “broke her nose with his open hand”. The act is ironic, since it is his immorality and unfaithfulness which is being addressed, yet he responds aggressively at the mention of it. The fact that Myrtle provokes him and is able to conjure such a reaction despite her own adulterous behaviour shows that she holds some power over him in this situation. Due to class divisions, she is in some ways freer than Daisy, who cannot speak so liberally within her marriage, so perhaps Tom was not used to such brash behaviour.
Jordan Barker is arguably the strongest female character in the novel. Her success is self-made and without male influence; even within her relationship with Nick Carraway, she is presented as his superior in certain aspects (E.g. the way she holds herself when they first meet). The fact that she became famous playing golf – a game stereotypically regarded as being a man’s sport – and that the name ‘Jordan’ itself is very masculine could be interpreted as meaning that she only achieved such success by possessing male attributes and that her femininity had nothing to do with it. In Chapter Three it is implied that Jordan did not obtain her fame fairly. Carroway states that “dishonesty in a woman is a thing you never blame deeply.” This seemingly patronising statement suggests that women can only achieve the same level of success as men by lying/cheating to get there. It seems incredibly belittling to suggest that the strongest female character is only such because she cheated. However, parallels can be drawn between Baker and the novel’s dominant character Gatsby, who ‘cheated’ his way to being rich by bootlegging alcohol. This symmetry puts man and woman back on equal footing within the novel.
The fact that the novel’s central plot is focused around two powerful men fighting over a woman is itself an example of the power of feminine influence. Daisy is portrayed as being attracted to wealth and materialistic things, leading the men to go to great lengths in order to make her happy; Gatsby with his extravagant parties and Buchanan with his expensive gifts. In the end she chooses to return to her life with Buchanan and is described as having “vanished into house, her rich, full life, leaving Gatsby – nothing”. The verb ‘vanished’ has fairy-tale connotations, presenting Daisy as if she were something just out of reach – a mystical creature that could not be possessed. The hyphenated ‘– nothing’ is added on as if it was an afterthought. It seems a hyperbolic choice of noun considering Gatsby’s wealth of material possessions, yet they were only ever present as a means of pleasing Daisy. She physically left Gatsby and by doing so stripped everything he owned of its worth.
Even the ‘strengths’ that the female characters possess can be considered as highly sexist, since, on the large part, they are to do with sex and physical attraction or are attributed to male characteristics. It is ironic that this should be where women found their ‘power’ given that the novel was produced at a time where women faced sexual repression. In limiting the span of feminine power over men, Fitzgerald shines a light on the drastic imbalance within heterosexual relationships.
Perhaps most importantly, Fitzgerald confronts the expectations of women and their role within society, particularly in regards to the upper classes.
In some instances, he does so by drawing on his own life, such as in Chapter One when Daisy talks about the birth 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.” These words were in fact spoken by Zelda Fitzgerald upon the birth of their own daughter. The adjective ‘beautiful’ suggests that without a strong physical appearance, women would struggle to do well within the world, as if they were incapable of making their own accomplishments outside of marriage. The use and repetition of the noun ‘fool’ seems to emphasise the fact that blissful ignorance is the key to happiness, perhaps implying that it is better to be unaware of any wasted potential. Arguably, the entire novel was centred on the Fitzgeralds’ relationship and its ultimate demise. If Fitzgerald’s aim was to win back his wife, then surely he would not attempt to do so using blatant misogyny.
Daisy is often presented as being disagreeable, yet her conservative, materialistic nature can easily be put down to the societal conducts imposed on women of her class. In Chapter Eight, she is said to have “wanted her life shaped now, immediately – and the decision must be made by some force – of love, of money, of unquestionable practicality – that was close at hand.” The triadic list ‘love’, ‘money’ and ‘unquestionable practicality’ gets further away from what a modern audience would consider a suitable force with each entrant, but it also reflects the hierarchical pyramid of what was expected at that time. Marriage was mostly arranged on a purely practical basis, so Daisy’s decision may have been self-sacrificial rather than self-indulgent.
Similarly, in the same chapter, Gatsby explodes at Buchanan, stating that Daisy “only married you because I was poor and she was tired of waiting for me”. Again, this seems to portray Daisy in a negative light, even though it is supposed to be an attack on Buchanan. The verb ‘tired’ clearly implies impatience, as if Daisy could have sat around waiting for as long as she desired. However, considering the societal pressures imposed on women like Daisy during Fitzgerald’s time, it would have been highly impractical since they rarely worked and would have depended on there being a breadwinner present – not to mention how they would have been judged/perceived by their families and peers.
Due to Fitzgerald’s questionable portrayal of Daisy Buchanan, it can be difficult for the reader to see past her seemingly materialistic, self-sufficient persona and read the undertones of repression, but they are definitely present. Through this portrayal, Fitzgerald subtly draws attention to the expectations and pressures of women within society.
As is the case with any piece of literature, the author’s true intent can never wholly be known, but that is beside the point. By incorporating clear anti-feminist themes into his novel, Fitzgerald draws his audience’s attention to the oppressive nature of his world, therefore conjuring a strong pro-feminist response. Perhaps ‘The Great Gatsby’ is an example of a novel where the reader’s reaction defines the meaning rather than the writer’s intent. Or perhaps Fitzgerald knew exactly what he was doing all along.
Personally, I really enjoyed The Great Gatsby so naturally I feel pretty defensive of it. Do you think I have been blinded by adoration, or do you agree with my thesis? Please let me know!