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The 1920s were an era in American history that birthed significant changes in various categories, ranging from the music industry to the political agenda. Perhaps the most notable category of change, however, was that of the lives of women. Having been given the right to vote, women experienced a surge in deviance, separating themselves from their traditional roles. Despite this separation, however, many women were still objectified and powerless to the patriarchy, best portrayed in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby. Fitzgerald portrays the ever-present powerlessness of women through several characters all through the eyes of a closeted, homosexual protagonist.
The Buchanans’ marriage is one of the focal points in the novel, and for good reason – Fitzgerald utilizes their toxicity together to portray perpetual gender roles. Tom is proven to hold immense power and authority in the marriage, while Daisy remains relatively docile and follows traditional gender roles. One way that this is proven is when Tom harms Daisy’s finger in their home; though it is an accidental injury, Daisy grows eccentric about it, exclaiming that the injury is “what [she] get[s] for marrying a brute of a man, a great big, hulking physical specimen of a-…” (Fitzgerald 12). Just because an injury occurs without malice, doesn’t mean it doesn’t warrant an apology – but Daisy doesn’t get one. She never comments on the lack of one, even excusing Tom’s actions by saying “[he] didn’t mean to;” and this is indicative of her own submissiveness to her husband. Even unconsciously, she rarely ever faults him on his actions because, as the woman in the marriage, she is powerless to do anything. Additionally, Daisy seems so used to the lesser role of women compared to men in the world when she speaks about her daughter. She cried when the gender of her child was revealed, and comments that “the best thing a girl can be in this world” is a fool (Fitzgerald 20) – to Daisy, “the best thing a woman can be…is eye-candy for the hulking brutes,” (Samkanashvili 47), which is a parallel to her exact situation. For Daisy, a woman who has experienced a loveless marriage in which she is the lesser being, remaining docile and traditional is the only option a woman has in order to be stable in life.
While Gatsby’s treatment of Daisy is nowhere near as aggressive and dominant as that of Tom, their relationship is still indicative of traditional gender roles, as well as incredibly phony. For one, Daisy and Gatsby clearly want and expect two different outcomes out of their affair. This is first implied when the two finally reunite – Daisy comments that they haven’t seen each other in years, while Gatsby interjects that it is actually “five years next November” (Fitzgerald 87). While Daisy only knows the rough extent of her separation from him, Gatsby remembers the actual five-year anniversary of it. The fact that he is so hung up on not only their reunion, but also their past separation, shows that Gatsby himself has a deep scar from the years they were apart, while Daisy has established a family, a place in society, and a name for herself that she doesn’t want to give up. ¬¬A second time this is expressed is the tension-filled party with the main characters; overwhelmed with their affair being aired out in front of Tom, Daisy grows frustrated with the situation, exclaiming:
“Oh, you want too much!… I love you now – isn’t that enough? I can’t help what’s past…I did love him once – but I loved you too” (Fitzgerald 132).
Daisy’s true motives shine through with this statement – she admits that she does love Gatsby, but really has no intention of leaving Tom for him because she loves him as well. While she wants Gatsby to accept that their affair cannot be anything more, Gatsby wants her to run away with him and leave New York. Gatsby also is seen to view Daisy as an object of value, a treasure to own, albeit in their younger days; after all, it “excited” him that “too many men had already loved Daisy – it increased her value in his eyes” (Fitzgerald 149). When they first begin their tryst as young lovers, Gatsby finds Daisy’s past with men attractive. She is something many want to attain, making her more beautiful and valuable, and this sounds more like Daisy is a famous painting or a piece of expensive jewelry rather than a young girl. This goes to show that, despite his gentleness, Gatsby ultimately ¬¬still objectifies Daisy.
The Wilsons are evidently a role reversal of traditional gender roles, but still remain indicative of the overwhelmingly patriarchal society of the 1920s. Myrtle, though she is the woman in the relationship, is aggressive towards her husband and overpowers his mere presence with her own. This is shown when George attempts to lock her inside their home when he finds out about her affair with Tom; they get into a fight, and Myrtle demands he hurt her:
“’Beat me!’ He heard her cry. ‘Throw me down and beat me, you dirty little coward!’” (Fitzgerald 137)
Here, Myrtle calls attention to her affair with Tom; she knows George isn’t capable of doing her harm, like hitting her, and this seems to be her way of telling him, “you won’t do it, because you aren’t man enough like Tom is.” Despite this provocation, however, George does still hold a physical authority over her, as expected as he is the man in the relationship. When Myrtle points out her affair with Tom, George reacts immediately, telling Michaelis when he locks her in her room that, “she’s going to stay there will the day after to-morrow, and then we’re going to move away” (Fitzgerald 136). George has always been shown as the submissive party in his marriage, something Michaelis even mentions repeatedly, often allowing Myrtle to do as she pleases without speaking up against her. However, he suddenly shows that he is capable of overpowering her if he really needs to, illustrating the authority and power men have over women under any circumstances.
On the other hand, Tom’s power and control over Myrtle is much more severe than that of his marriage with Daisy, and their affair is where much of the physical dominance comes into play within the novel. The most prominent occurrence of this is during their heated argument in their flat:
“I’ll say it whenever I want to! Daisy! Dai- ‘
Making a short deft movement, Tom Buchanan broke her nose with his open hand” (Fitzgerald 37).
Whereas the most physical harm he brought upon Daisy was hurting her little finger on accident, with Myrtle, Tom easily breaks her nose when she speaks out of line. As his mistress, he strongly believes she was not allowed to speak on his wife’s name, and her nose being broken so abruptly is a much harsher punishment than needed. This shows that, unlike with Daisy, Tom has no remorse about openly harming Myrtle, as she is his girl, and needs to follow his rules. Their expectations of their affair were also very different, paralleling the situation of that of Gatsby and Daisy:
“Myrtle saw [the affair] as a way…out of poverty. Tom thought of it as a game where Myrtle was just a sex object…” (Samkanashvili 48).
Just like his wife, Tom leads a lover on into believing their tryst will be something more, when in reality, both affairs are being used for ulterior motives, and to satisfy their own personal desires.
As a breath of fresh air from the wave of dominance, and objectification, Nick’s relationship with Jordan portrays him as a completely different man from Gatsby and Tom, but for good reason – his attraction to her is clearly a show of his closeted homosexuality. When he meets her, his attraction is noted, but he describes her in an interesting way – in his eyes, Jordan looked “like a young cadet…” (Fitzgerald 11). He expresses attraction and interest towards her, yes, but also akins her appearance to that of a young boy in military school. Odd that, were he heterosexual, he would be so attracted to a woman that had resemblance to a young man. In this, Nick’s deep attraction to her from the moment they met has a “homoerotic dimension” (Tyson 334). His description of her is also interesting from the standpoint that, out of context, it seems rather ambiguous – he calls her “small-breasted,” which “de-emphasizes the golfer’s feminine attributes” (Olear), and can make her seem like a young boy to uninformed readers. Ultimately, Nick’s relationship with Jordan fails due to several forces; he grows to be annoyed with her disregard everyone other than herself, her lousy attitude, her terrible driving – but nothing is as underlying and forceful as his struggle with his own homosexuality.
Nick’s failure to find love and happiness with Jordan is undoubtedly caused by his underlying attraction to Gatsby, and their bond throughout the novel is what showcases his closeted homosexuality. For one, Nick’s descriptions of Gatsby throughout the novel are a stark contrast to that of his descriptions of Jordan, showing his attraction to him. He comments that Gatsby’s smile “understood you just as far as you wanted to be understood, believed in you as you would like to believe in yourself…” (Fitzgerald 48), and this occurs during his first sight of Gatsby. Nick speaks of him with intense admiration, seeing him as a sort of light in the shadows of the upper-class society. From the first impression he conjures up, Gatsby is someone Nick intensely admires and, eventually, is attracted to. Throughout the novel, our closeted protagonist gushes about Gatsby while still insisting they are merely friends with a “deep bond” – and yet, his words are clearly indicative of a romantic attraction:
“…There was something gorgeous about him…an extraordinary gift for hope, a romantic readiness…I have never found in another person and…is not likely I shall ever find again” (Fitzgerald 2).
Along with his aforementioned comment about Gatsby’s “rare smile,” Nick sees him as a one-of-a-kind person, someone that you only meet once in a million years. Out of context, this quote would have one believe Nick was describing an old lover rather than an old “friend.” Additionally, Gatsby’s appearance is a clear “repository of homosexuality” (Tyson 332):
“[Gatsby owned] shirts with stripes and scrolls and plaids in coral and apple-green and lavender and faint orange…” (Fitzgerald 92).
Eccentric colors and flamboyant wardrobes were and are still seen as staple aspects of the LGBTQ+ community, especially homosexual men. Gatsby is never seen wearing simple suits or shirts, always dressed in pastel or eye-catching colors, exuding a flamboyancy that coincides with the stereotypical gay man.
F. Scott Fitzgerald illustrates the overwhelming and perpetual existence of the patriarchal society in The Great Gatsby, and does so through the point of a view of a homosexual protagonist. He portrays the consequences of sexual freedom for women through infidelity, tragedy, and loveless relationships. Despite the emergence of the “New Woman” in the 1920s, the characterization of women in The Great Gatsby prove just how existent the patriarchy is and always will be.
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