Sehar Ayyub

‘One critic has commented that the Great Gatsby is a ‘love’ story centred on hostility towards women.’  Explore Fitzgerald’s presentation of women in the light of this statement’

Due to Nick’s ambivalences towards women, and because the novel moves towards Myrtle’s death, and the emptying of Daisy of any romantic belief, some readers have concluded a hidden hostility to women. Fitzgerald’s presentation of women in “The Great Gatsby” is complex and ambivalent despite his own claim that the novel ‘contains no important woman characters and is of purely masculine interest’. The complexities of the novel’s attitudes to women are reflected in the irony of the critic quoted implied by her use of inverted commas:  there can hardly be a “love” story centred on “hostility” since love and hostility would seem mutually exclusive. Does this quote include the mutually exclusive bit? Nevertheless, the observation that Fitzgerald was able to hold two opposing views in his mind famous critical QUOTE  in footnoteMalcolm Cowley 1945 observed that the “distinguishing mark” of F’s writing was his ability to sustain “opposing viewpoints”] I would argue is at work in his presentation of women, and becomes part of the troubling oxymoronic tension of the novel. On the one hand, women in the novel are romanticised, whilst on the other they are abused both physically and mentally. Daisy is continuously idealised throughout the novel. Ethereal, her femininity and sexuality are emphasised through her compelling, ‘thrilling’ voice which is described as the kind of voice ‘the ear follows up and down’. On the other hand, Daisy is emptied systematically of any romantic admiration. Furthermore, what makes the assessment of “hostility” more complex is that Fitzgerald’s attitudes are hidden since he uses a first person narrator.  The presentation of women oscillates between romantic idealisation and a disappointed, unsympathetic attitude towards women. At times, this amounts to a kind of hostility.

The ambiguity in the novel in its treatment of women can be understood partly a reflection of America, and Fitzgerald, perplexed by the post war “new woman”. These emancipated ‘new women’, the ‘flappers’, who drank, smoked, danced and voted, (footnote..say when in  america women given vote 1920?) wore short hair cuts and lots of makeup are reflected in Fitzgerald’s depiction of women in the novel. Myrtle’s sister, Catherine, is an example of a flapper, described as:

        ‘a slender, worldly girl...with a solid, sticky bob of red hair, and a complexion of powdered milky white’

This sort of appearance was typical of the ‘flapper women’, with unconventional short hair cuts and lots of make-up. However, the near-oxymoronic tension here (a pair of adjectives set in parallel -“slender” and “solid”) hints at Nick’s response, both fascinated and repelled; the sibilance also suggests, perhaps, a sticky fixedness in Nick’s startled gaze at her appearance. The women at Gatsby’s parties are also described in a similarly conflicted, near oxymoronic manner by Nick. For example, he observes ‘a gorgeous, scarcely human orchid of a woman’. Nick describes her as if she is inhuman, although he recognises that she is ‘gorgeous’.  Psychologically, this has interesting implications. The whole scene suggests Hollywood silent cinema, and Nick is interested in the image which is ‘gorgeous’ – which is the word he uses of Gatsby’s gestures. However, the kiss is mechanistic and the woman is emptied of her humanity as she is maintaining an artificial pose and being likened to a house plant which links to Fitzgerald’s choice of name for two important female characters in the novel. Daisy and Myrtle are both linked through their ‘plant’ names which is similarly objectifying.

This ambivalence of response is also detectable at the parties where Nick sees ‘a number of girls dancing individualistically’, an outrageous spectacle a few years earlier. These single women who may be dancing individually in fact ‘were swooning backward playfully into men’s arms’. Despite the independence these women  possess, ultimately they still depend on men. Furthermore, later we are offered an image hinting at a kind of implicit violence to women when we see ‘old men pushing young girls backwards in eternal graceless circles’. The use of the word ‘eternal’ conveys a disturbing image of everlasting dominance over women, and the unexpectedness of the near oxymoronic ‘graceless circles’ suggests the fact that male dominance cannot be challenged. Another image of violence from the parties which Nick observes with apparent detachment or even amusement is that some men physically quite roughly remove their wives from the party:

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 “In spite of the wives’ agreement that such malevolence was beyond credibility, the dispute ended in a short struggle, and both wives were lifted, kicking, into the night”.  

The tone of voice here suggests a sort of detached amusement on Nick’s part shown in the ironic word, ‘malevolence’.

The hostile attitude to the ‘new woman’ is not only seen in Nick’s ambivalences of tone and observation but also in Tom Buchanan’s much clearer disapproval. 

He shows the old paternalism which condemns women to being objects of male desire and possession and therefore speaks disapprovingly of the ‘new ...

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