A basis for AQA B Coursework – to be responded to, not necessarily agreed with!
Whilst Gatsby should be read as an attack on the consumer heaven of pre-crash America, it can also be read as a savage attack on American women of the period. Too often we focus our thoughts on Nick and Gatsby as the central points of the novel, but we should not overlook the three women at the centre of the whole book. Daisy, Jordan and Myrtle are present in one way or another in almost every scene depicted – often intruding in the form of a ‘phone call or as a subject of conversation. In this novel gender stereotyping is harsh and it can not be denied that women receive close critical scrutiny for their thoughts and behaviour and a manner that the men do not. It may not be too extreme to see the end of the novel not as Gatsby’s tragedy (we are denied even the view of the corpse), but as a tale of feminine betrayal.
Daisy, from her first appearance, fits a stereotype based on the “poor little rich girl”. She is pampered and lives in thrall of her bullying husband Tom. She seems accepting of this and even her complaints about Tom’s “woman” carry little conviction. By the end of the novel we have seen, in the scene in the kitchen, that her outlook on life requires maintenance of the status quo, rather than an honest recognition of her faults. This apparent “purity” is seen at the first meeting, with the whites of the room and the sense of the association with birds that will colour images throughout this section – “fluttering as if they had just been blown back in after a short flight…” From this point there is a knowingness about Daisy’s behaviour – her every action is consciously designed to produce allure- “That was a way she had” comments Nick. He focuses the narrative on her voice – “breathless, thrilling, glowing, singing”- which seems to take on the elements of the siren or enchantress/lover. It is hard to avoid the notion, however that this is a carefully practised act. The effect is repeated at the tea party when Fitzgerald refers to the “fluctuating, feverish warmth… a deathless song.” Here the voice is Nightingale-like and equally unattainable.
Her own response to her gender is therefore telling: “I hope she’ll be a fool – that’s the best thing a girl can be in this world…” Whilst this comment is spoken in the bitterness that follows Myrtle’s ‘phone call we should not ignore the wider message that it presents, with regards to women in society. Nick recognises the false pretences of the seductive act and the reader sees the split between Gatsby’s dream of Daisy and the rather sordid reality that Fitzgerald presents behind the façade.
In Chapter 4 Daisy is presented at first as a fairy-tale princess locked in her tower and a slave to romantic love. Her response is to swiftly transfer her affections to a more suitable (richer) suitor and any idea of a sort of romantic heroine is undermined again by this action. Her attempted “suicide” before the wedding does not convince and is lessened by her drunken state and the reader notes that Gatsby’s focused pursuit of his love is in contrast to the somewhat feckless response shown by Daisy. We should not be surprised by her final decision. Fitzgerald shows us a woman who cannot remain constant to her true love and who opts instead for wealth, convenience and the boredom highlighted in the opening section.
Whilst it is true to say that Daisy is seen through the eyes of others – Gatsby, Jordan or Nick- the reader has to pass judgement. She is entranced by the “human orchid of a woman” until Nick accuses her of preferring false gestures to the reality of emotion. Gatsby’s emotion is certainly overpowering, but the fixation on the green light seems apt. Daisy will never let Gatsby close to her, she has too much to lose – just as West and East Egg can never meet.
Gatsby’s version of the young lovers is given only after Myrtle’s death, as though providing a bitter sweet reflection on reality. The reality might be a Daisy who avoids the confrontation by “fixing her hair” and who responds to the death of Myrtle by shirking any moral responsibility to hide behind her husband. Appearances are all in her world. At this point she can only “nod(ded) in agreement” and her beautiful voice is silenced by the need to acquiesce to the world that men inhabit. She does have a genuine choice at this point – Gatsby waits like a lover in a French farce, lurking in the hedge, but she opts for luxury and convenience rather than finding a reality for herself.
Jordan Baker is equally cruelly drawn. Named after two sports cars of the era, cars whose phallic masculinity will not just kill Myrtle, but will physically dismember her, she is presented with a curiously androgynous femininity. Her boyishness is coupled with more of the conscious sexuality shown in Daisy – “completely motionless, with her chin raised a little, as if she were balancing something on it which was quite likely to fall”. Her whole life could be said to consist of this balancing act, Nick remembers her background… She is a liar and a cheat who is becoming successful in a man’s world – that of the sporting star. Femininity is not a strong suit of Jordan’s.
She is self-sufficient and intrusive – she longs to eavesdrop on Tom’s ‘phone call – she is “incurably dishonest” in Nick’s phrase, and it may be this that allows her to succeed in a man’s world. Certainly, she is not seen in a positive light by this.
Nick is certainly attracted to Jordan, but he is equally put off by her moral uncertainty. That she desires Nick is less obvious – she sees Nick as a “safe driver” and seems to want both the role of protected, weak female as well as that of emancipated and free thinking female. Ultimately it is the lack of moral centre that repels Nick and the reader, since our only view of Jordan is that which he presents. She never tells her own story, despite being very willing to tell Daisy’s. Art the point in the novel where she is required to make a choice based on the moral imperative against the option of luxury, she chooses the latter and leaves Nick in the drive of Tom and Daisy’s house. The need to continue her life unimpeded by what is “right” seems to drive her all the way through the narrative.
In Jordan, Fitzgerald is creating one of a new type of woman, fit for the 1920s. The opportunity to find positives in the emancipated outlook of that time has been replaced by a harsh, unfeminine construct that prefers to protect her way of life rather than to abide by the “rules” of an ethical society. Even in this, she might have been seen as a positive role modal, standing against the over-masculine world she inhabits. Fitzgerald ensures that she is not seen in this way and creates with great clarity, a deeply unpleasant figure.
Myrtle does not inhabit the same world as these two, living in the Valley of the Ashes, yet her depiction is again utterly unsympathetic. Unloved and poor, she craves something else. Unfortunately her snobbishness and tawdry behaviour do not allow her to receive sympathy from the reader. True, she is trapped in a loveless marriage, but we feel little pity for this figure. When she dies, she is ripped apart, a breast left “flapping” in a curiously sadistic depiction of male brutality, but still we feel little real sympathy. At the first meeting she is outspoken and brash, we remember that the telephone had a “shrill metallic urgency” and this is what we see in Myrtle’s behaviour. She is spoiled and ignorant, she furnishes the apartment in staggeringly poor taste (the contrast with Daisy is stark here) and she lacks social graces enough to become drunk and to so antagonise Tom that he breaks her nose. Like Daisy, she wears her sexuality openly – “her wet lips”- and we perceive the woman as seductress in a different form. Where Gatsby dreams of an unattainable Daisy, she has the man of her dreams in the shape of the jock/bigot Tom and her position in society is dictated by this. Nick is seeing her from his elevated social position, and her fantasy, as portrayed by Catherine, that Tom and she are trapped in loveless marriages could be sad – due to her brashness and her sensuality, we join Mick in pitying her inability to se the truth in front of her. When her nose is broken, Tom leaves the narrative and Fitzgerald focuses on Myrtle trying to protect her mini-Versailles form the drops of blood.
Her death is a tragedy – not for her but for the reader who learns from the death. She is killed by a fellow woman, masquerading as a man and unable to give her the respect of acknowledging the act. The whole event is a mistake on Myrtle’s part and watched over by Dr Eckleburg’s all-seeing eyes. Even after her death, she is given little dignity since Michaelis recalls her last words: “Throw me down and beat me, you dirty little coward”. She seems torn between making a martyr of herself and taunting her husband for his perceived lack of masculinity. Her pose at the moment of death recalls humility. It seems ironic that the coarse adulterous should end up like this, her body is torn and her mouth “ ripped a little at the corners” which recalls Nick’s comments about the sexuality of her wet lips from the first meeting. She is, to all intents and purposes, raped by the car that hits her. The car piloted by her competitor for the love of a man.
Our pity for her is reduced further when we see how irrelevant she is to the story. Tom feels nothing for her – he hurries off to buy jewellery rather than face her death. He is quick to use her death to implicate Gatsby and to ensure his death. Once again a female character has been denied sympathy and portrayed in a negative light.
Names continue this theme – Jordan has been discussed, but both Daisy and Myrtle are plants. Daisy is a superficially pretty semi-weed, loved and hated in equal measure, whose beauty is only temporary. A Myrtle is a fleshy plant and a climber. The analogy is obvious here. In the narrative Myrtle’s climb is cut off early.
The novel is a man’s world. Nick despises Tom’s boorish athleticism, nevertheless the world he inhabits is defined by his friendship with Gatsby. He enjoys Jordan’s company and finds her sexually attractive. However he tires of her and can not accept her lack of a firm moral core. At the end of the novel it is Gatsby who we pity and it is with Gatsby’s dream that we sympathise, viewing the women as part of the “rubbish” which floats in his wake. Sadly, the feeling that the women are, indeed, rubbish, is hard to ignore.
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