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As F. Scott Fitzgerald said in his lifetime, “‘Women are so weak, really – emotionally unstable – and their nerves, when strained, break . . . this is a man’s world. All wise women conform to the man’s lead’”(Kerr 406). He demonstrates this idea through the surface level weakness of his female characters in The Great Gatsby. For example, when Daisy describes the birth of her daughter, she expounds the female inferior position: “‘All right,’ I said, ‘I’m glad it’s a girl. And I hope she’ll be a fool – that’s the best thing a girl can be in this world, a beautiful little fool’”(Fitzgerald 17). Although the women reflect this surface-level “foolishness”, The Great Gatsby provides several examples in which women empower themselves despite their inferior status. Although Fitzgerald may have viewed women as a weaker sex, several females in the novel demonstrate an underlying power through their relationships. Though they are not able to achieve the same amounts of success as men in the society, by attaching themselves to a suitable mate, women are able to share in the success of the men. In the patriarchal, greed-driven society of The Great Gatsby, the female characters are commodified by the men; yet, as illustrated through Daisy and Myrtle, by accepting this inferior position, the women are able to manipulate the emotions of men and use their sexuality in order to obtain financial security and social acceptance.
Although Daisy is disadvantaged due to her gender, she searches for a financially and socially stable relationship in order to be happy. Before entering into marriage with Tom, Daisy was in a relationship with Gatsby; yet, even at this stage of life, Fitzgerald demonstrates Daisy’s concern for stability. Gatsby deceives Daisy into believing that he is the financially stable man she is in need of: “He might have despised himself, for he had certainly taken her under false pretenses. I don’t mean that he had traded on his phantom millions, but he had deliberately given Daisy a sense of security; he let her believe that he was a person from much the same stratum as herself – that he was fully able to take care of her” (Fitzgerald 149). Daisy understands she is limited in society due to her gender, so she seeks out relationships in which the man is providing stability: “Jay Gatsby pursues Daisy knowing that her sense of happiness and the good life depends on money and property” (Callahan 380-381). Daisy’s sentimentality is unimportant compared to the financial security she is able to obtain through a relationship, so Gatsby realizes he must obtain the money and social standing Daisy desires. Although Daisy is at a disadvantage, she uses her sexuality in order to find security for the future. She makes love to Gatsby because she believes he can provide her with a secure future, yet, as she learns, he is not as established as he portrays himself to be, so when Gatsby leaves for war, Daisy continues her search for stability.
Daisy finds the security she desires with Tom Buchanan. Since Daisy feels vulnerable as a single woman with an unsure future, she pursues a different relationship with a man who has social and financial stability: “Daisy’s pursuit of happiness in the form of her dangerous, defiant love for Gatsby surrenders to the palpability of a safe, material, unequal propertied union with Tom Buchanan” (Callahan 382). As discussed in the previous paragraph, Daisy understands that love is not the most important aspect of a relationship; instead, as illustrated through her marriage with Tom, Daisy is willing to accept her inferior position in order to obtain financial security: “[Tom’s] family were enormously wealthy – even in college his freedom with money was a matter of reproach – but now he’d left Chicago and come East in a fashion that rather took your breath away . . . It was hard to realize that a man in my own generation was wealthy enough to do that” (Fitzgerald 6). Unlike Gatsby, who deceived Daisy into believing he could provide security, Tom is able to provide Daisy with the luxuries she desires, and, most importantly, with a superior social and financial standing she could not obtain alone. By allowing herself to be commodified, Daisy is able to succeed through her husband.
Although Daisy is objectified within her relationships, when Gatsby returns to her life, she is given the power to choose her fate. Since Gatsby has obtained money and an upstanding social status, Daisy is overwhelmed by the decision she is presented with. In fact, when she visits Gatsby’s house, she becomes superficially emotional due to the wealth and security she sees: “Suddenly, with a strained sound, Daisy bent her head into the shirts and began to cry stormily. ‘They’re such beautiful shirts,’ she sobbed, her voice muffled in the thick folds. ‘It makes me sad because I’ve never seen such – such beautiful shirts before’” (Fitzgerald 92); yet, on a deeper level, Daisy perceives the stability she may have with a different man. Although she has had security in her marriage to Tom, Daisy realizes she has the power to choose between two established men. She still has an inferior social position, but she is able to exploit the insecurities of the “secure” men through their emotions. For example, after she visits Gatsby’s house, Gatsby believes, “‘She didn’t like it’” (Fitzgerald 109). Although Gatsby exudes confidence and suaveness at his earlier parties, Daisy causes him to question his abilities as a host. Both Tom and Gatsby experience emotional insecurities due to Daisy. Even though the men compete over her as if she is a prize, Daisy takes advantage of her powerful position and sees an opportunity to be involved in an emotionally connected relationship with Gatsby; yet, she understands she must have proof of his financial stability before making a decision. Although Fitzgerald believed women were “emotionally unstable,” he portrays Daisy as a woman who considers her options before making a decision. Daisy’s choice is decided for her when Tom reveals the truth behind Gatsby’s riches. Again, Daisy understands that her inferior position makes her vulnerable, and, in order to obtain security, she remains with Tom: “she once again chooses the conventional, worldly protection of Tom Buchanan” (Callahan 382). Although Tom does not provide an emotional connection, he is the reason for Daisy’s social and financial stability, so Daisy accepts her commodified position in order to have a secure future.
Similarly, Myrtle uses her sexuality as a tool to help her find social and financial success through men, yet, she does not receive the same amount leverage against the men since her husband is poor. Instead, Myrtle allows herself to be objectified by Tom in order to receive luxurious items and live a “rich” life. For example, Nick describes Tom and Myrtle’s apartment in New York, and the reader is able to compare the extravagance of the apartment to the bleakness of Wilson’s garage. Unlike Daisy, who accepts her inferior position in order to empower herself, Myrtle attempts to antagonize Tom by using Daisy’s name at the party. In response, Tom breaks Myrtle’s nose. This can be perceived as an emotionally unstable outburst by Myrtle because she fails to accept her inferior position. On the other hand, the argument can also be interpreted as a manipulation by Myrtle in order to test the amount of power she is capable of obtaining. Like Daisy, Myrtle is able to attack the emotional instabilities of men, which is apparent from Tom’s sudden lack of self-control. Even though Myrtle is left with a broken nose, she illustrates her ability to manipulate Tom and use him for his financial security from her commodified position.
Myrtle also has a strong influence over her husband, similar to the influence Daisy has over Gatsby. When Tom pulls into Wilson’s garage to get gasoline, he learns that Wilson intends to make money in order to take his wife away and make her happy. Like Gatsby, Wilson realizes he needs money in order to create stability and security for his wife. By providing her with the provisions she desires, he believes he can stop her infidelities. Myrtle does not trust the abilities of her husband, though; instead, she wishes to escape with Tom because he has financial stability and can provide her with a successful future. She understands her inferior position, and in order to achieve her goals, she makes threats and uses her sexuality to manipulate the emotions of both men. After discovering that Wilson intends on leaving with Myrtle to the West, Nick comments on Tom’s emotional state: “There is no confusion like the confusion of a simple mind, and as we drove away Tom was feeling the hot whips of panic. His wife and his mistress, until an hour ago secure and inviolate, were slipping precipitately from his control” (Fitzgerald 125). Although Myrtle is treated as property, she is successful in manipulating and disrupting the emotional stability of her husband and Tom. By doing this, she has motivated her husband to become financially stable in order to make her happy and demonstrated to Tom that she is not just a convenient object for his use.
Although they share inferior roles in the society, Daisy and Myrtle both empower themselves by manipulating the emotional instability of men. Furthermore, by accepting their commodified roles, they are able to use their sexuality in order to obtain financial and social stability. Fitzgerald may have believed that women were “emotionally unstable” and that they must conform to the patriarchal society, but through The Great Gatsby, he demonstrates the underlying power of women over men. James M. Mellard describes these women as the “focal points” in each love triangle (854). This is an important statement because the women – although treated as commodities by the men – demand the most attention due to their sexuality and ability to manipulate the emotions of the male characters. By accepting their inferior positions, Daisy and Myrtle (although she dies in the end) are able to gain financial and social stability throughout the novel, illustrating that women can be successful in a patriarchal society.
Callahan, John F. “F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Evolving American Dreams and the “Pursuit of Happiness” in Gatsby, Tender is the Night, and The Last Tycoon.” Twentieth Century Literature 42.3 (1996): 374-395.
Fitzgerald, F. Scott. The Great Gatsby. New York: Scribner, 1925.
Kerr, Frances. “Feeling ‘Half Feminine’: Modernism and the Politics of Emotion in The Great Gatsby.” American Literature 68.2 (1996): 405-431.
Mellard, James M. “Counterpoint as Technique in The Great Gatsby.” The English Journal 55.7 (1966):853-859.
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