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Discuss the way in which the female characters are presented in the Great Gatsby

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Discuss the way in which the female characters are presented in this novel.

Often, the perception is that Fitzgerald has certain hostility towards the ‘New’ post-war women of the 1920s. To some extent this is reflected within his novel, where he focuses on the symbolic significance of the young, American woman who represents a new philosophy of romantic individualism, rebellion, and liberation. The common misconception though is that Fitzgerald is being hostile towards this ‘New’ woman, when in actual fact (to a certain degree) he is only exploring how the Jazz Age society may react to this virtual emblem of American modernity.

Fitzgerald formulated female characters that all bore significant moral flaws. Aalthough he did not create the flapper, he did, with assistance from his wife Zelda, offer a modern young American woman who was sexually liberated, spoiled and more independent. Usually the flappers in his novel are the spoiled daughters from wealthy families, expecting material comforts and yet are economically dependent on male providers. However, this is one type (Daisy), whereas Jordan is another type who is financially independent and can choose to have sexual liaisons with any man. This generation of woman had relevance to Fitzgerald too, as his wife ‘Zelda’ epitomised this modern and enthusiastic kind of ‘golden girl’. Following the Victorian era and the ‘Great war’, society began to move away from the traditional values that consisted of two spheres; one was the economic sphere run by the man of the household and the second was the private and domestic sphere run by the woman (which usually included maternal duties like cleaning, looking after the children and generally maintaining the household for the family). Women were expected to embody the aspects of purity and loyalty to their family. However, these ‘angels of the house’ became more involved in the cultural and political sides of society and eventually began to promote ‘domestic’ values in a variety of new reformation movements. From 1890-1920, the feminisation of American culture took place, which moved away from the restrictive view of the Victorian era. Fitzgerald for the majority of the novel looks into the variety of male reactions when women entered the public sphere in the 19th Century, as American culture became feminised. As a consequence, Fitzgerald presents these ‘Flappers’ as being ethically immoral, with one-track minds set on material wealth and achieving higher social status. They do not have idealistic, intellectual or artistic dreams. The feminist Kathleen Parkinson wrote:

“Another American ‘love story’ centred on hostility to women and the comitant strategy of the scapegoat…No dead Gatsby but surviving Daisy is the object of the novel’s hostility and its scapegoat.”

Considering this interpretation of Fitzgerald’s writing style, it is recognised that he does condemn women for their outright failure to live up to the male hero’s romantic dreams. An example is the relationship between Gatsby and Daisy. Nick reveals how Gatsby had eventually realised ‘what a grotesque thing a rose is’, suggesting Gatsby’s realisation that Daisy is nothing in reality compared with what she was in his dreams.

Fitzgerald develops various different examples of this ‘new woman’ or ‘flapper’. Jordan Baker is a prime example of a ‘flapper’, as Fitzgerald provides the reader with outspoken descriptions. She is a champion golfer with a ‘slim, boyish body’ and an ‘erect carriage’ which she shows off ‘like a young cadet’. Fitzgerald is making references to her having rather ‘androgynous’ tendencies. Her appearance is directly paralleled with her outgoing personality which is similar to a man’s. During the 1920s, women were taking on male personas as part of their liberation. They began to get jobs and take part in what was once considered the male area of society. Fitzgerald’s reference to Jordan being like a boy supports this proposition. Nick suspects that she (and also Daisy) is hiding her true identity or personality behind a cultivated public front. This suggests that for these women to get anywhere in this new age, they have to put on false appearances which fit in better with the society around them. The theatrical tendency Fitzgerald commonly questions may mirror the formative influence of popular culture (particularly in Hollywood) on women’s roles. Jordan purposefully adopts a method of detachment that allows her to intimidate and possibly dominate her men in order to come out on top. It is evident in the phrase, ‘Almost any exhibition of complete self-sufficiency draws a stunned tribute from me,’ that Nick feels slightly threatened by her strategy of detachment which she employs very effectively to put others at a disadvantage. In a sense she has the sexual power to create a type of role reversal which would have been frowned upon in the Victorian era. Nick decided that the ‘bored haughty face that she turned to the world’ conceals an incurable dishonesty born of her unwillingness to be at a disadvantage (47-8). Fitzgerald consistently makes the reference to Jordan having lost her femininity and this may be a result of the freedom she embodies. Her composure and independent nature express her determined ‘absence of all desire’. For Nick, she epitomises the sophistication of the East, but also the immorality that accompanies this location. Taking into account the relationship between Nick and Jordan, it is obvious that there is tension of some sort between them. Nick sees Jordan as treating love as a sexual battle for advantage and superiority, which sums up the desires and objectives of these ‘New’ women.  She tries to exploit their relationship to force Nick closer to her. She asserts her advantage when she exclaims to Nick: ‘That’s why I like you’. Not only does Nick have a ‘safe’ character about him, but he also exemplifies traditional principles. The implication that the reader gets from this, is that Jordan wants the better of two worlds: the protection of traditional ethics offered to a lady, and the emancipation of a modern woman.  At each point in the narrative Nick’s response to Jordan’s sexually alluring temperament is countered by his critical awareness of her ethical limitations.

Daisy Buchanan is another noticeable woman in the novel. Daisy identifies a woman’s ideal identity as that of a ‘beautiful little fool’ (17) and consequently she seems to adopt the disguise of ‘agreeable female stupidity’. Fitzgerald blackens the image of Daisy progressively throughout the novel. Initially he starts off with innocent descriptions of her as though she is ‘flower-like’ and is of ‘fragile beauty’. In contrast though, towards the end of the novel, he shows the corrupt nature of Daisy by the way in which she betrays Gatsby and makes him take the blame for the death of Myrtle. Nick’s judgement of her changes too, showing how he bears the opinion of Fitzgerald. His judgement of her corruption only proves the superiority of Gatsby and his dream. In a deceptive, fraudulent world, Daisy still retains her value as a symbol. She boldly represents illusion itself, the illusion of everything admirable, authentic, desirable and unattainable which is epitomised by this modern woman. The Great Gatsby, thus, defends the importance of inspirational symbols and the male tendency to see women as such symbols, perhaps specifically during a time of personal, sexual, familial, and national disintegration. On page 114, Daisy comments, ‘Oh let’s have fun’ just before they set off to New York. This is very suggestive of what all these young women wanted during this age and the rich society woman (Daisy) is no different from the rest. Fitzgerald is implying the shallowness of their desires and dreams, as they only live for the moment. She originates from a wealthy family who had migrated to the Midwest generations before (following the ‘Go West young man’ and ‘American Dream’ ideas), and built up their fortunes there. With this contextual knowledge in mind, it is understandable that she is presented as having no dreams because she has never had to work and therefore does have the hunger for a dream that people like Myrtle or Gatsby have. Due to her inherited wealth (which her ancestors built up, as they wanted their children to have better lives than them), she moved to the East in the 1920s to get involved more with the social world. Nick reports on Tom and Daisy that they ‘weren’t happy and yet weren’t unhappy either.’ This is a peculiar analysis of the couple considering the recent events which include the vehicular manslaughter of Myrtle Wilson. Daisy appears to detach herself from the situation following Tom’s cover-up to conceal her involvement: ‘once in a while…she looks up at him and nods in agreement.’ Her blank expression reveals her lack of togetherness. The way in which Daisy detaches herself from the situation though, is not an escape from responsibility, but instead it is her natural reaction. She has never been held accountable for anything (mainly because Tom Buchanan controls her life) because nothing of consequence has ever been expected of her. Tom usually sorts out her problems for her (as the man of the house), meaning that she has no experience of solving her own mess. Daisy, although a ‘modern girl’ is restricted in her marriage by Tom’s bullying nature. She is clearly an object of Tom’s desires, which he can intimidate and on which enforce his domineering ways. This dilemma of Daisy’s, like the earlier flappers of ‘The Camel’s Back’ and ‘The Jelly-Bean’, tells of Fitzgerald’s beliefs that the emancipation that these modern women were claiming, was to some extent, illusive. For all their attempts at reform and rebellion, they still were the victims of social conceptions of femininity. Daisy acknowledges this early on when she says this about her daughter’s future: ‘I hope she’ll be a fool – that’s the best thing a girl can be in this world, a beautiful little fool (17).’

Although Ella Kaye is mentioned only briefly, she has certain significance. She embodies the concept or metaphor that is a ‘Gold digger’. It was an old metaphor used to describe a woman who exploited her own sexuality to get money out of men. In this circumstance, Dan Cody was the man, who had followed the concept, ‘Go West young man’. He migrated and along with many other families set up a base to achieve wealth. He had once dug for gold and so it makes the whole metaphor far more literal. On page 97, it appears that ‘it was from Cody that he inherited money – a legacy…He didn’t get it. He never understood the legal device that was used against him, but what remained of the millions went intact to Ella Kaye.’ The suggestion here is of the greed of Ella Kaye and it visibly reveals her manipulative abilities as she makes sure Gatsby is left empty-handed. Likewise, various girls who attend Gatsby’s parties appear like this too. When dancing begins, there are ‘old men pushing young girls backward in eternal graceless circles’. They are an important feature of the ‘swirling’ hedonistic crowds who attend Gatsby’s parties and effectively swim with the ‘social tide’. Although these women are emancipated, they still greatly rely upon the men. On page 62, the way in which ‘Benny McClenahan’ always turned up with four girls who were ‘never quite the same ones in physical person, but they were so identical one with another’, suggests how they are related ‘to the great American capitalists’. They clearly are making the most of their new obtained freedom, which can break down class barriers on such occasions as they choose, yet they still require men as contacts for furthering their lives in society. Knowing this it is more apparent that the male characters constitute ‘the world’ within the novel; the women are merely ‘its mistress’. Fitzgerald characterises these ‘New’ women like the example on page 32, where he refers to Catherine as ‘a slender worldly girl of about thirty’ with ‘pencilled eyebrows’ and ‘heavy make-up’. This is his interpretation of the modern woman and it, in effect, depicts them as prostitutes. In a pre-war society make-up and general sexuality from women, would have been immensely frowned upon. However, in this post-war modernism (especially in New York), anything went.

The third leading female character in this novel is Myrtle Wilson. In some way, she is the epitome of the word materialist, suggesting that she is driven by physical possessions and wealth. Although she is of lower class herself, she refuses to show respect to anybody other than those of higher standing (as shown by her relationship with her husband). Fitzgerald demonises her character by commenting that George Wilson ‘was his wife’s man and not his own’ and ‘generally he was one of these worn-out men’. This implies that she has effectively devoured his spirit and male pride, so drained him sexually that he is almost ‘ghost-like’ in his presence. She clearly dominates him and once again there is a type of role reversal that contrasts greatly with the Victorian era’s view – that man controls woman and that a woman is effectively the object of a man’s desire.

The women characters in this novel are clearly subordinate, and as Fitzgerald commented himself, ‘the book contains no important woman character.’ Fitzgerald evidently discusses through the use of this novel the theory that these post-war women have newly acquired economic power. He unconditionally links this to their changing social status. A key method that Fitzgerald uses in this novel is to convey his opinions of these women through the perspectives of the male characters.

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