The Paradoxical Role of Women by pengxuebo


									The Paradoxical Role of Women
Women play a paradoxical role in Fitzgerald‟s The Great Gatsby, a novel dominated by the
eponymous hero and the enigmatic narrator, Nick Carraway. With the background of Gatsby‟s
continual and lavish parties, women seem to have been transformed into “flappers,” supposedly
the incarnation of independence following World War I.

After all, Daisy Fay, obviously modeled on Fitzgerald‟s free-spirited wife, Zelda Sayre, is hardly
portrayed as the proper southern belle. Her friend, Jordan Baker, seems openly sarcastic when
speaking of their “white girlhood”—referring to their youth spent in Louisville, Kentucky. As
Fitzgerald conveys through a series of flashbacks, Daisy has been flirtatious, even at one point
discovered packing her bag to travel alone to New York City in order to say good bye to a sailor.
But her rather scandalous behavior does not sully her at all in the eyes of the smitten Gatsby.
Indeed, as Nick comments , “It excited him … that many men had already loved Daisy—it
increased her value in his eyes.” (149; ch. 8)

Jordan Baker, whom some critics regard as little more than a device to bring Nick Carraway into
the plot, is neither married nor engaged and apparently lives largely on her own except for a
shadowy aunt who serves as a titular chaperone. Tom Buchanan, Daisy‟s husband, might
pontificate that their house guest should have more supervision, but Daisy ridicules her husband‟s

So on one level, these characters appear to be free-spirited, scorning norms of what the nineteenth
century would have considered proper female behavior. It‟s worth investigating, however, just
how independent they really are. Ultimately, their “place” may be indicated most exactly by using
the title from a pioneering book of feminist criticism by Francoise Basch: Relative Creatures.
Daisy, Jordan, and Myrtle exist in relationship to their husbands, lovers, or boyfriends, and none
undergoes a significant change during the course of the narrative. Thus, according to the most
common definitions of flat versus round characters in literature, none of the women can be
considered “round” or multidimensional characters. Each functions—at least for a time—as
the cynosure of Gatsby, Nick and Tom Buchanan. Perhaps the ultimately pathetic condition of
women is most accurately conveyed in a conversation between Nick and Daisy in which Daisy
discusses the birth of her daughter:

        “Well, she was less than an hour old and Tom was God knows where. I woke up out of
        the ether with an utterly abandoned feeling, and asked the nurse right away if it was a boy
        or a girl. She told me it was a girl, and so I turned my head away and wept. „All right,‟ I
        said, „I‟m glad it‟s a girl. And I hope she‟ll be a fool—that‟s the best thing a girl can be in
        this world, a beautiful little fool.‟” (16-17; ch. 1)

Beyond the glittering, upper class world of East Egg, inhabited by Daisy and Tom Buchanan and
Jordan Baker, is the squalid area Fitzgerald refers to as the “Valley of Ashes,” where George and
Myrtle Wilson live. Myrtle, obviously bent on escaping this Waste Land where George ekes out a
living as a mechanic, has become Tom‟s mistress. Fitzgerald portrays her unflatteringly as crass,
tasteless, overweight, and ostentatious.

At a drunken party in New York City when Myrtle oversteps one of Tom‟s dubious moral lines
by mentioning Daisy, he hits his mistress, breaking her nose. Later in the novel, she is imprisoned
in the garage when her pathetic and obtuse husband finally realizes that she has been having an
affair with someone. Significantly, however, Tom Buchanan walks away unscathed from this
affair, while Myrtle dies in the Waste Land, mingling “her thick dark blood with the dust” (137;
ch. 7). Myrtle‟s executioner is the “careless” Daisy who has been driving Gatsby‟s expensive
gold car.

With Myrtle‟s death her “tremendous vitality” is extinguished. While she differs from both
Jordan and Daisy because of her socioeconomic class, this vitality is also a crucial point of
difference, for Fitzgerald has pointedly characterized both young women by their profound ennui,
their vacillation, and their carelessness. The discussions between Daisy and Jordan parallel
passages from T. S. Eliot‟s The Waste Land where the spiritually bankrupt representatives of all
social classes wonder forlornly: “„What shall we do … / What shall we ever do?‟” (133-134);
Jordan and Daisy, spiritually and physically enervated, differ drastically from Myrtle “straining at
the garage pump with panting vitality.” (68; ch. 4)

In their own ways, each woman functions as “proof” of her husband‟s or lover‟s success. At
several points in the novel, Gatsby is described by Nick as a knight. Traditionally, knights go off
on a quest; often their “price is the hand of a king‟s daughter in marriage. Gatsby‟s quest during
his life has been to recapture the past, those moments in World War I when it seemed to him that
Daisy, the wealthy, sought-after belle of Louisville, would agree to be his wife. Daisy, however,
hardly constant, is swept off her feet by another suitor, Tom Buchanan. But Gatsby clings to his
peculiar notion of the American Dream: if he achieves monetary success, he will regain Daisy.
Thus, Gatsby constructs his ostentatious house in West Egg, directly across the Bay from Tom
and Daisy‟s more sedate mansion. Nick warns him, “„You can‟t repeat the past,‟” but Gatsby,
incredulous, states “„Why of course you can!‟” (110; ch. 6)

It would be ingenuous to ignore the parallels between the F. Scott Fitsgerald/Zelda Sayre
marriage and the relationship of Daisy and Gatsby. Both Daisy and Zelda were considered
“belles” of southern cities; Zelda was the youngest daughter of a judge in Montgomery, Alabama.
Fitzgerald courted Zelda, but she broke her engagement because of Fitzgerald‟s lack of funds. As
Matthew J. Bruccoli points out in A Brief Life of Fitzgerald, writing his first successful novel,
This Side of Paradise (originally called the Romantic Egoist), was part of Fitzgerald‟s own quest
to obtain Zelda‟s hand in marriage. The fictional Gatsby was less successful with Daisy, though it
is difficult to conclude that the real life union was much of an improvement with Fitzgerald
practically drinking himself to death and Zelda languishing in a variety of mental hospitals.

In assessing Fitzgerald‟s three principal female characters, the reader must keep in mind that all
appraisals are filtered through the eyes of Nick Carraway. Thus, the question of whether he is a
reliable narrator assumes paramount importance. Nick of course, boldly asserts, “I am one of the
few honest people that I have ever known.” (59; ch.3)

But Nick seems to embody a double standard in his judgments of the behavior of men and women
as feminist critic, Judith Fetterley, demonstrates in The Resisting Reader: A Feminist Approach to
American Fiction. Nick castigates Jordan for relatively minor dishonesties but accepts with
equanimity the massive dishonesty that has characterized Gatsby‟s entire life. Fetterly concludes
that the female characters in The Great Gatsby function as symbols—not persons.

If Gatsby is a love story, it is one centered in hostility toward women. Gatsby thinks of Daisy in
relation to the objects with which she is surrounded. Her value for him is increased by the fact
that she has been desired by so many men. Indeed, Tom‟s gift of a string of pearls valued at $350,
000 the night before the two are to be wed only increases his estimation of her worth. One might
ask if indeed there is an actual emotional relation between Gatsby and Daisy, or if Daisy has
become for Gatsby simply an “unutterable vision.”

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