Fitzgerald is very much a realist writer in the way he portrays American society of the Twenties. Arthur Mizener wrote that, "[Fitzgerald's] best work in fact grows out of his precise understanding of his time, out of his concentration on the actualities of his world unequalled in the work of any contemporary"1. He illustrates this precision in understanding the life of those belonging to the leisure class. This new hegemonic group was, according to Michael Spindler, a "historic function that was to educate America in the meaning of abundance and make acceptable hedonism, personal consumption and status rivalry"2. The Twenties were a time of new technology and development and so consumerism flourished. The critic George Mowry illustrates that the industrialisation of the workplace significantly reduced the workload giving more leisure hours to society3. The development of the car made goods more accessible to the consumer and the continual trips to New York in The Great Gatsby 4 reflect this accessibility5. Fitzgerald's Gatsby is explicit in showing that wealthy Twenties men and women were free from restraint; they could go anywhere and do whatever they chose, so long as money allowed.
Fitzgerald represents men of each social level in the text and explores their individual relationships with women. This complements Veblen's commentaries on conspicuous consumption6 as women are similarly seen as being the main consumers in Gatsby. They desire to be fashionable and possess items that emphasise their husband's wealth and status. There is also a deep desire to belong to the class of 'it' girls, girls who are manifestations of the 'Modern' era. Daisy acts as a status symbol of the nouveau riche because she is a representative of Tom's money through her fashion and needs. As a member of the nouveau riche, Tom is very much a part of the hedonistic consuming leisure class. Spindler highlights the rejection of a traditional production-orientated society, and a move into the 'consumer hedonism' of this new class as he writes, "the second-generation wealthy had begun to mark themselves off as a distinct social stratum through the exhibition of conspicuously expensive leisure pursuits involving horses and private aircraft"7. Fitzgerald uses these two icons of wealth to illustrate both Tom and Gatsby as being full members of this elite class.
Tom is trapped in a materialistic world. He exhibits his
wealth in the form of a "cheerful red and white Georgian
Colonial mansion overlooking the bay"(12) and by his car and
stables. Yet much of his wealth is inherited and so he adopts a
leisurely life playing Polo. He is accepted within the society of
'known men'8 because of his wealth. He is also aware of the
independence wealth offers him as he continuously cheats on Daisy.
It is money that gives him the opportunity to impress women like
Myrtle. The way in which Tom treats women is explored by Phillip
Sipiora who, in his essay 'Vampires of the Heart'9, believes Tom
to be a "subscriber to Rousseau's misogynistic views,
affirming the belief that women are naturally subordinate to men
and should be treated as such"10. This is how Fitzgerald
portrays Tom. He is openly cheating on Daisy, "You mean to
say you don't know? ...I thought everybody knew"(21), and in
the way he cuffs Myrtle while in the hotel room, "making a
short deft movement, Tom Buchanan broke her nose with his open
hand"(43). Tom is a "brute"(18), and these
incidents illustrate the lack of respect he has for women. Money
has made him feel powerful and his abuse of women emphasises the
role he has adopted, in what he feels is a dominantly patriarchal
society, where he perceives women as mere objects.
In contrast to Tom is Nick, who although a 'player' within the
leisure class, does not have the wealth to support the status he
allows himself. Spindler explores Nick's "vicarious
participation in the lives of the rich"11 and illustrates
how he disengages Gatsby from his social milieu, turning him into
a fairy-tale knight who is on a quest to find his Princess. Nick
does seem to enjoy celebrating with the wealthy although rejects
joining this leisurely class by turning down Gatsby's offer of 'employment'.
According to Spindler, Fitzgerald uses Nick to evoke "both a
sensuous attraction of the life of the rich and bring a moral
consciousness to bear on their waste and corruption"12. Nick
does narrate on Gatsby's "dubious wealth" and reveals
both the glamour and corruption of the leisure class. Money
represents different things for Nick. He doesn't seem interested
in belonging to the leisure class itself. He doesn't marvel over
objects of fine wealth and his relationships are natural, not
money orientated. We learn early on in the text that Nick has
left a girl back in the West. His relationships with women are
very different. They are more genuine than the affairs of Tom and
Gatsby who are reliant on wealth to form romances. Although he
has an affair with Jordan, it soon breaks up, and he moves back
to seeing girls on his own social level. His middle class
girlfriend represents things Jordan cannot, and doesn't rely on
his status or wealth to fuel an interest in him.
As a representative of the working class Wilson is an
important contrast to Tom and Gatsby because he is striving to
work for his money. He symbolises the aspiring American, who
wants to become somebody. But his dreams have no hope of becoming
reality as Nick describes his place of work, saying how "the
interior was un-prosperous and bare; the only car visible was the
dust covered wreck of a ford which crouched in a dim corner"(30).
This is a wasteland at the heart of the 'valley of the ashes', a
symbol of "the urban-industrial world of everyday experience"13.
The "spiritless, anaemic"(31) Wilson cannot fulfil the
myth of the American dream. He cannot satisfy his wife's desires
as a consumer and thus cannot sustain a life of leisure. Myrtle
evidently needs more from life and wants to become a member of
the leisure class. It is only her secret affair with Tom that
fulfils these needs. She wants to become an object of desire, not
the lowly wife of a garage repair-man as she remarks, "I
married him because I thought he was a gentleman...I thought he
knew something about breeding, but he wasn't fit to lick my shoe"(41).
This emphasises how she wants to leave the working class and rise
into the leisure class. But it is her husband who is not capable
of making the transition.
Jay Gatsby on the other hand was able to make this transition.
Although cheated out of Cody's legacy, he manages to cross Class
boundaries through his shady dealing and other 'employment'. He
becomes a member of the nouveau riche and takes great delight in
being noticeably extravagant. But although rich, he has failed to
attain his one dream in life: to be with Daisy. In demonstrating
his vast wealth to Daisy he is showing that he could make her
life comfortable. Like Tom, he thinks that women can be consumed.
This is emphasised by Nick who reveals how "[Gatsby]
revalued everything in his house according to the measure of
response it drew from her well-loved eyes"(98). The material
possessions mean nothing to him personally, they act solely to
entice Daisy into this world he has created for her.
The critic Phillip Siapora closely examines the relationships
between men and women in Gatsby. He believes that the gender
relationships and interrelationships of the characters in the
text reveal a world characterised by a cycle of abuse. He focuses
our attention to the abuse between characters noting that: "Tom
abuses Myrtle and Daisy, Myrtle abuses George, Daisy abuses Tom
and Gatsby and Jordan in her own way, abuses Nick"14. This
abuse illustrates the instability of this consumer society and
emphasis the greed and selfishness of each individual. These
roles Fitzgerald attributes to his characters are seemingly
stable and traditional roles. It is only when the characters
interact with each other that the degree of selfishness is shown.
Tom is an example of this because on the one hand he pertains to
be a loving father and gentle husband while on the other, we know
him to be an adulterous wife beater. His role is merely a façade
and his true character isn't revealed until he fails to get his
Fitzgerald gives his male characters dominant roles in society.
The whole business structure is set up for men. Tom and Gatsby
both have people working for them, that signifies success. But it
also signifies their wealth and furthermore their independence to
have affairs and leisurely consume goods. It is this level of
wealth that allows men to treat women as material objects that
can be bought as and when they choose. The commodification of
women in the Twenties reaffirms the thoughts of Veblen and Mowry
discussed in Chapter 115. Furthermore, the critic Andre Le Vot
argues that women needed the security of money to support their
own social status. He goes on to comment that "In
Fitzgeraldian society the women are the great predators,
consumers on a dizzying shopping spree through his stories...they
had to keep buying to demonstrate their husband's social status"16.
This ties in very closely with Veblen's theory of 'conspicuous
consumption' and highlights explicitly Daisy's role in the text.
She symbolises Le Vot's "great predator" which Nick
reaffirms at the end of Gatsby as he says, "They were
careless people Tom and Daisy- they smashed up things and
creatures and then retreated back into their money or their vast
carelessness or whatever it was that kept them together."(186)
There is a sense that money has corrupted their very nature
turning them into these selfish, careless people. They are, as
Spindler comments, the "sordid and inhospitable"17
elements of the American Dream that are corrupting its essence by
their materialistic greed.
The materialism that pervades Gatsby infiltrates all levels of
society. The relationship between Tom and Daisy is founded on
materialistic gain. This can be seen when Daisy refuses to marry
Tom. It is only after he has 'bought' her with pearls that she
realises her love for him, "He came down with a hundred
people in four private cars, and hired a whole floor of the
Muhlbach Hotel, and the day before the wedding he gave her a
string of pearls valued at three hundred and fifty thousand
dollars"(82). This shows that money does play a key role in
Daisy's decision to marry Tom. She feels stable with Tom because
she is aware of his vast wealth and can take comfort in the
financial security he can offer her. Her unwillingness to leave
Tom and join Gatsby I believe falls on the question of wealth.
She does not know how wealthy Gatsby is and so would ultimately
feel unstable and insecure with him. The stability of Daisy's
relationship with Tom is not based on love, because Tom has had a
number of 'flurries', and so their being together can only be for
her financial gain and to boost his social status for having an
attractive wife. Furthermore, Tom is able to maintain her 'it'
status which she needs to promote herself within society. Veblen
would see this as conspicuous consumption in a Twenties guise.
Tom is also able to maintain the "dirty woman"18
Myrtle Wilson as his mistress. She is an explicit example of a
"consumer on a dizzying shopping spree". Tom's money
drifts through her fingers as he showers her with gifts: "at
the news-stand she bought a copy of Town Tattler and a moving
picture magazine, and in the station drug-store some cold cream
and a small flask of perfume"(33). This accumulation of
capital demonstrates her commodification by Tom. Myrtle is
redefining herself to follow the standards set by the media. Yet
unlike Daisy, Myrtle is not an 'it' girl because she is
financially unable to move to a higher class. Myrtle sees Tom as
a way out of her ordinary existence. But she also is being bought
in a subtle, sordid way19 that in bigger terms demonstrates a re-emergence
of patriarchy in post-war America. Gender and Class therefore
prove important in defining gender roles and male/female
interactions within a patriarchal capitalist society.
The role of women is subservient to men in this patriarchal
capitalist society according to Spindler20. Their role is merely
symbolic, as objects that men can consume at their own leisure.
Yet at the same time their roles are very stereotypical and also
very real. Fitzgerald has used each role to its full potential,
defining each character through their fashion and style. The
issue of Class plays an important role for the females also.
Myrtle Wilson is subservient to her lover, Tom, but not to her
working class husband George. The mistress role she has adopted
exemplifies her commodification by Tom. He is able to treat her
as he chooses because he has the wealth to keep her satisfied. As
with Daisy, money allows Tom to exert a powerful hold over her.
Daisy's role is stereotypical in that it is representative of
a Twenties girl of the leisure class. Hoffman suggests that she
"expects as her right both affection and luxury"21.
Gatsby also draws these conclusions about her when he responds to
Nick's comment, "She's got an indiscreet voice,' I remarked.
'It's full of...' I hesitated. 'Her voice is full of money,' he
said suddenly. That was it. I'd never understood it before"(126).
What Nick understands is that her life revolves around money and
wealth. She has a status among women to maintain and as I
discussed earlier, money is the key to this. A degree of snobbery
could be seen in her failure and inability to greet Nick.
The other girl Daisy made an attempt to rise- she leaned slightly forward with a conscientious expression- then she laughed, an absurd, charming little laugh, and I laughed too and came forward into the room 'I'm p-paralysed with happiness.' She laughed again too as though she had said something witty (15).
This weak introduction gives a clear depiction of the heroine
of the text. Nick admits he doesn't really know either Daisy or
Tom that well so this first sentence reveals a certain falseness
of her character. The way she "attempt[s] to rise" with
"conscientious expression" leaves us expecting her not
to get up at all, as though it were a chore for her to move. Her
inability to interact with society is expressed again as she
responds to planning an event for the longest day of the year,
saying, "What'll we plan?' She turned to me helplessly: 'what
do people plan?"(18) This emphasises that she is merely
playing a part, wanting to be something that she isn't. She asks
Nick to suggest something because she recognises that he isn't a
part of their 'elite' society and attaches some human qualities
to him that neither she nor Tom possess. Her role as a mistress
is similar to Myrtle. She too is bought over by Gatsby's vast
wealth and gains independence from Tom. But she is still reliant
on Tom's money and cannot sustain this independence.
In Fitzgeraldian society, women are exploited and treated
unfairly. The secretary that Nick becomes involved with is given
a traditional female role. She is a stereotypical representation
as he recalls, "I even had a short affair with a girl who
lived in Jersey City and worked in the accounting department"(62).
The girl is middle class and so does not enjoy the financial
independence of Daisy or Jordan. She becomes a fanciful affair
that is controlled by Nick on his terms, "when she went on
vacation in July I let it blow quietly away"(63). This is
not the first time Nick lets something blow quietly away. The
girl he left at home, the one he avoids marriage to, is another
exploited female. He calls it a "vague understanding"
that he had with this girl to whom he writes letters once a week
signing them, "love Nick"(65). She appears to be
reliable and would be a secure loyal wife because she has
supported his move east. But he cheats on her with Jordan. The
similarity between the girl "back west" and Jordan is
interesting. Like Jordan, she plays sport and Nick tells us
"when that certain girl played tennis, a faint moustache of
perspiration appeared on her upper lip"(65). This proves
that Nick has a fetish for sporting women who have masculine
Jordan has the one female role that challenges Fitzgerald's
stereotypes. Initially her name is ambiguous. Jordan is
recognised as being a typically masculine name. She also plays
tennis and golf, activities not normally taken up by women. Most
importantly she has independence through her own financial
stability. Tom, the patriarchal capitalist disagrees with the
level of independence she has, saying of her family, "They
oughtn't to let her run around the country this way"(25).
She is a representative of the flapper culture in Gatsby, the
independent spirit that isn't reliant on men to have a good life.
We are told that she has had numerous affairs in the past and
goes on to have an affair while with Nick. This asserts her
dominance over men. The way Nick describes her is quite masculine
as he talks of her "slender muscles" and remains
fascinated by her chin "raised a little jauntily"(184).
She is in all respects a masculine figure in a female world and
furthermore she prepares us for other conflicts in gender that
are apparent if not explicit in Gatsby.
Edward Wasiolek in his essay 'The Sexual Drama of Nick and
Gatsby', focuses on the issue of gender conflicts. He writes that
although there is a lack of analysis of the sexual motifs in
Gatsby, there are moments in the text when we have to question
the deeper meaning of a phrase or idea. Wasiolek pays specific
attention to Patricia Pacey Thornton's work that examines sexual
hybridity in Gatsby. She notices that Fitzgerald's guest list is
"filled with sexual hybrids", and goes on to say that
the women are made masculine purely by examining their names,
"Mrs. Ulysses Swett, Francis Bull, Faustina O'Brien"(68)
and furthermore, that the male names are made effeminate, "Newton
Orchid, Earnes Lilly and Russell Betty"(68). Their names
have been mixed to form androgynous identities. This forces us to
examine the other characters and see if there is any overt
hybridity in their gender or sexuality.
Thornton suggests that Nick is in some sense an androgynous
character. On the one hand he has "masculine qualities in
his ambition, desire to acquire money and power" while she
contrasts his feminine virtues found "in his ability to
listen to others, his providing food and nourishment for Daisy
and Gatsby, and his human warmth"22. This can also be seen
in his relationship with Jordan. He cannot gain masculine power
over her and so he leaves her. But on the other hand his feminine
qualities come to the surface when he admits he "wasn't in
love, but...felt a sort of tender curiosity"(64) towards her.
This imbalance of feelings redefines gender roles. Jordan in
effect is destabilising the traditional patriarchal society with
her unconventional appearance, name, and in the activities she
pursues. This is heightened by the changes in consumerism that
cause an imbalance to the traditional male/female roles.
The sexual orientation of Nick is questionable at times. There
is one scene within the text that Wasiolek believes evokes Nick's
homosexuality. Nick's involvement with Mr McKee raises questions
about his sexuality. Wasiolek illustrates the attentive attitude
he displays towards the effeminate Mr McKee when he notices the
lather on McKee's cheekbone (43). Furthermore, the lift scene
evokes sexual imagery when the elevator boy instructs McKee to
"keep [his] hands off the lever"(44) and then following
the three dots onwards we are forced to imagine the event that
has just taken place "...I was standing beside his bed and
he was sitting up between the sheets, clad in his underwear, with
a great portfolio in his hands", to which the scene again
shifts to the train station "waiting for the four o'clock
train"(43). The connotations within these passages force us
to question Nick's sexuality. It is not what is said, but what is
hidden within the subtext of the passage. The language Nick uses
to describe other men is quite effeminate as we read how he
"feigns sleep" to avoid the "intimate revelations"
of "wild unknown men"(7). This passage likewise
connotes some revelation into the sexual practices of men, but
Nick has romanticised the language and forces us to question his
role in the college dorm.
The relationship between Nick and Gatsby is also
interesting in that it too is an unconventional male/male
relationship. There is much to argue that both men, in Sedgwick's
terms, were buddies23. The war connection would support both
Benstock and Sedgwick's claim that their friendship is at the
buddy level because they would have had shared experiences and
furthermore, they were both the product of long periods in single-sex
confinement. They participate in very male activities such as
driving, partying and following leisurely pursuits in the
hydroplane, but at the same time there are homosexual undertones
that go beyond the buddy stage of their friendship. Nick's
comments about Gatsby are at times odd and un-masculine. In the
opening pages of the text Nick comments on the "gorgeousness"(8)
of Gatsby's personality. This heightens Nick's sexual ambiguity.
Gatsby is also represented as being sexually ambivalent. We know
that he idolises Daisy and so appears to be strictly heterosexual.
But his personal fashion of pink suits and home decor illustrate
a typical portrayal of a homosexual rather than a heterosexual
male. Even the way he speaks isn't overtly masculine as he
concludes each sentence with "old sport". Jay Gatsby
represents an unstable male role and so further weakens the
traditional patriarchal roles found elsewhere in Gatsby.
The gender conflicts that appear in Gatsby
illustrate how the emerging consumer class has broken down
traditional boundaries and made women more independent. Both
McAlmon and Veblen emphasised the importance of the consumer
society but didn't perceive that it would subvert patriarchy.
Fitzgerald believes that money plays an important role in
stabilizing patriarchy through the commodification of women. He
represents the position of men through their wealth and status
derived from wealth. But he also acknowledges that women with
money, such as Jordan, subvert the patriarchy. She acts as a
destabilizing character to Fitzgerald's world and marks the
social changes of the Twenties.
1 Arthur Mizener, ed., Scott Fitzgerald and His World, Thames Hudson, 1972,
2 Michael Spindler, American Literature and Social Change, Macmillan Press, 1983, p. 109.
3 George Mowry, ed., The Twenties: Fords, Flappers and Fanatics, Prentice Hall Inc., 1963, p. 43.
4 F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby, 1926, rpt., Penguin Popular Classics, 1994. Subsequent references will appear in brackets after each quotation. Subsequent references to the text will be abbreviated to Gatsby.
5 Mowry emphasises this point in his text Fords, Flappers and Fanatics, saying that, "the automobile gave the population an unaccustomed mobility unknown since the pastoral hordes had wandered across the grasslands of Asia and Europe."
6 Thorstein Veblen, The Theory of the Leisure Class, Macmillan, 1899, rpt., Dover Publications, 1994.
7 Michael Spindler, op. cit., p.111.
8 Money allows status and so these 'known men' are equally wealthy persons.
9 Phillip Sipiora, 'Vampires of the Heart', in The Aching earth: Family Violence in Life and Literature, Plenum 1991, p. 202.
10 Ibid., p.204.
11 Michael Spindler, op. cit., p.155.
12 Ibid., p.154.
13 Ibid., p.161.
14 Phillip Sipiora, op. cit., p. 203.
15 Both Veblen and Mowry comment on the desire of women to belong to the consumer society that swept across America in the early 1920's.
16 André Le Vot, F. Scott Fitzgerald: A Biography, translated from French by William Byron, Allen Lane, 1984, p.17.
17 Michael Spindler, op. cit., p. 155.
18 Edward Wasiolek describes Myrtle as the "dirty woman" in his thesis 'The Sexual Drama of Nick and Gatsby', International Fiction Review 1992, Vol. 19. He places Myrtle in comparison with Daisy who represents the "pure and innocent". He believes that Myrtle is an image of "dirty sex" and furthermore embodies what Gatsby has repressed in his conscious.
19 The fact that they have an apartment in New York emphasises that this is a purely sexual relationship. It is an acceptable form of prostitution in some sense. This reaffirms the patriarchal dominance in society.
20Michael Spindler, op. cit., p.202.
21 Frederick Hoffman, The 20's: American Writing in the Post-War Decade, Macmillan Publishing Co. Inc., 1965, p. 141.
22 Edward Wasiolek, 'The Sexual Drama of Nick and Gatsby', International Fiction Review, 1992, Vol. 19, p. 16.
23 Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, Between Men: English Literature and Male Homosocial Desire, Columbia University Press, 1985.