The Position of Women in Society in The Great Gatsby and The Glass Menagerie

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About this sample


Words: 2936 |

Pages: 6|

15 min read

Published: Mar 17, 2023

Words: 2936|Pages: 6|15 min read

Published: Mar 17, 2023

The term ‘society’was coined to create a moral high ground for men , a notion highlighted in both texts. The ‘societal’structure allows those who are prestigious to hold power against those that are vulnerable. These archetypes are mirrored by characters such as Myrtle Wilson and Amanda Wingfield, notably, both female characters. The two writers explore a theme of hierarchy and exclusion, whilst oppressing women. The era of both texts (early nineteen hundred) is something to highlight due to the position of women in society. The era, and social context in which both texts where written, is clear to have had an impact on the way female characters are presented.

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Tennessee Williams presents a society in which female characters are oppressed for depending on male characters and being stuck in the past. Whereas Fitzgerald presents women in an objectified manner, completely hopeless and at the mercy of males. Constant comparisons are made to show that women are subordinate to men in 1920's society's standards. Further, this objectification is shown through the characterisation of Jordan Baker. 'With Jordan's slender gold arm resting in mine, we descended the steps and sauntered about the garden': this simple quotation represents the epitome of the hopeless young girl who is delicate and fragile, it is arguably one of the most obvious examples of objectification in the novel. Moreover, the two texts rely heavily on female figures to explore the exclusion and social hierarchy that progresses within the American Dream. Both texts present characters that are trapped by societal standards and expectations and because of this cannot reach the goal of the American Dream.

The Great Gatsby is a novel centred around the American Dream, and the downfall of those who attempt to reach their exclusive goals. The dream is concentrated around acquiring wealth and status to achieve happiness. The term ‘American Dream’ was founded by James Truslow Adams , in 'The Epic of America' published in 1931, the term refers to a life that should be better and fuller for everyone, with opportunity for each according to ability of achievement, regardless of your social class. The term was later adopted by American society and has since been a trope used throughout wider literature.

Jay Gatsby is a character full of surrealism, he longs to relive his past. His character could be read as that of a magician, even if this is just the way he thinks and throughout chapter six he is at the height of his spell, his reunion with Daisy. Gatsby is a character known for his idealistic view of the American Dream; the theme of greed and the urge to achieve is a quality which is noticeable. Fitzgerald relates the theme of greed to masculinity and presents the tension between ‘old money’ and ‘new money’ as a divide between the upper class. He explores concepts of dominance, power, and status through using women as objects, allowing the patriarchal system to influence the American Dream and be exclusionary towards women. He is a result of the aristocratic American society he lives in. Despite his wealth, his mansion; Daisy is the ultimate status symbol, and he must have her, he puts her on an undeserved pedestal purely based on her beauty, wealth, and symbolism; in hope he can win her over. Fitzgerald reinforces the idea of status and greed, by moving the reader closer towards Gatsby, and making his character seem more relatable. This man ‘Jay Gatsby’ is one that is made up, his whole character is a facade. It is evident that Gatsby can be interpreted as obsessive, and this task of getting Daisy is shown as a religious mission. This era, often referred to as the ‘roaring twenties’, was one of freedom and the adoption of a carefree attitude ‘Laissez Faire’ this carefree notion was one seen in many members of society, particuarly those in the bourgeoisie.

The exploitation of vulnerability is also mirrored in the relationship that Tom holds with Myrtle. Even though Tom is married to Daisy, he still desires another woman. Tom sees the vulnerability in Myrtle and exploits it. She desires to have a luxurious lifestyle of wealth and power, and uses this to his advantage, taking her away from George Wilson and leading her astray. Tom and Gatsby famously argue over Daisy as if she is a belonging in chapter seven, 'The trouble is that sometimes she gets foolish ideas in her head and doesn't know what she is doing' is an example of Tom speaking for his wife, putting her in a place and exerting male dominance over her, proving that a woman's place is to be quiet, sit and look pretty and let the men tell them how they feel. Throughout The Glass Menagerie and The Great Gatsby, there is a clear similarity between the writer's approach to the role of women in society. This is shown to readers through the objectification of women throughout the novels, both depicting representations of 'the ideal form of a woman'.

Fitzgerald expresses the female stereotype of a white, well dressed, pure woman through the characterisation of Daisy Buchannan contrasting the depiction of Myrtle Wilson, allowing Fitzgerald to look at the two different extremes of women. According to Linda Alcoff in her essay ‘Cultural Feminism Versus Post-Structuralism; The Identity Crisis in Feminist Theory', a woman in society is ’always the object, a conglomeration of attributes to be predicted and controlled.' Therefore, Fitzgerald conforms to the societal standards of a woman, by emphasising their delicacy and pureness, allowing them to be easily exploited and controlled. He uses inconsequential roles to further explore expectations women. Jordan Baker's role is an example of a supporting role, that echoes a bigger meaning. Therefore, a characters sex is presented as a potential hindrance to their success in overcoming the American Dream.

Being a modern domestic tragedy, ‘The Glass Menagerie’ explores in detail a key societal trope of the American Dream. Each character shows a different idea of the dream, suggesting the dream cannot be a shared value, everyone has a different idea of it, which could further suggest Williams is questioning the meaning and value of the American Dream.

'The Glass Menagerie' achieves much of its effect using symbols. The father's portrait looms above the family on their wall, although he has been absent, he remains psychologically present and significantly affects the attitudes of the characters. The representation of the portrait allows Williams to exert the dominance of the father figure onto the Wingfield family. We could suggest his presence may be aware to us due to his sex, perhaps if a female figure had died, we would not be so aware of the loss. In the play, every scene shows conflict between characters, the most obvious conflict between Tom and Amanda. This is shown through their frequent arguing, about how Tom chews his food or the number of cigarettes he smokes. Amanda patronises him and contradicts herself as she expects Tom to be the lead male figure of the family but does not allow him the power he needs. Tom despises this expectation that Amanda holds against him, but it further leaves the audience with a question. Does Amanda want to be independent? Or does she want to rely on a man for the rest of her life? As Elizabeth Osborne argues , Amanda is reliant on a man, yet somehow expects independence and freedom from the male dominated hierarchy, which creates a sense of confusion regarding her character and her desires. As Amanda and Laura are both presented through Tom's eyes, Williams presents them as a burden, Laura is shown to be fragile and delicate, whilst Amanda is desperate and dependent. . However, Williams presents several symbols in the play to allude Laura. She is better placed to bring out the elements of feminism in the play, she is portrayed as delicate and fragile just like the glass, objectifying her. To this, Williams shows that women are delicate just like objects and can easily break, suggesting women are emotionally vulnerable. Tom is never fully given the power he deserves, he provides for the family and takes care of his sister and mother but he is not enough. This creates a tragic element to the play, allowing us to feel sympathy for Tom and further introduce a more relatable quality to him. He is stuck in a cycle of unhappiness due to his mother's incapability to let him move on. Tom is held back because they cannot be independent and break free, they cannot capture their dreams and in turn are reliant on him, this ultimately makes Tom unable to strive for his dreams and ambitions.

As a result, the whole play is centred around the theme of appearance vs reality. The characters believe in a future, and past which are not realistic, these beliefs go on to affect the decisions they make throughout the play. Amanda frequently describes the days of her youth 'seventeen! - gentlemen callers!'. She describes these men as if they are desirable, powerful, or full of wealth. Despite the later reference to her negative experience regarding gentleman callers she now believes that Laura will too one day be visited by similar gentlemen callers. Tom is the opposite, rather than fantasizing about his past, he has a positive outlook regarding his future. His desires are full of happiness and joy, completely different to the life we see him living.

Laura is the character who is most obviously detached from reality. She cannot have normal interactions with people without it having a negative impact on her. A key example of this is after speaking to Jim and being in his presence, she becomes ill and frantic. Her emotional energy is invested in her collection of glass animals. The significance of the unicorn being her favourite animal is that the unicorn does not represent a realistic animal. The unicorn is a fantasy which represents Laura, similarly due to her detachment of her surroundings, she is so far from the truth of her natural life that she turns to her glass collection for happiness. This is also like Jim's nickname for her 'Blue Roses', similarly something that doesn't exist, a flower that is usually representative of love and class, but instead colouring it blue leads to an idea of complete demoralisation.

Structurally, the texts differ. One is a play, whilst the other is a novel, although they do share some similarities. The poetic structure that is used in 'The Glass Menagerie' allows Tom to be both presented as a narrator and as a character, fusing the past into the present, hoping for a better future. This is an idea that is mirrored in ‘The Great Gatsby’ as Nick is shown to be a narrator and a character.

Williams carefully plays with the theme of the magician. The truths are hinted at and gradually revealed, allowing the audience to stay interested. Tom only ever shows himself in small bits and pieces, we never see the full truth of his character. This is exactly like the fragments of the glass menagerie, Tom shows himself equal to the fragments, so there is a sense of ambiguity in the text as we are never completely sure of his character. Tom cannot choose between the life his mother longs for him to have and the life that he desires and so we are placed in the centre of a man stuck between the past and present.

One might argue that the play is autobiographical , Williams repeatedly uses symbolism to express the lingering feelings of his childhood regarding his mother and sister, Williams tends to manifest his experience of life into his plays, similarly in ‘A Streetcar Named Desire’, where Blanche DuBois gets sent to a mental asylum, mirroring his sister's struggle with mental health problems. The characteristics of Laura, as shy, delicate, and incapable could be argued to be inspired by the character of his own sister.

Tom mentions 'The Rise of Coloured Empires' multiple times throughout the book, which sheds light on the type of progression that society was facing during the time. 'The rise of coloured empires'' is a eugenicist text written in 1920 by the American political scientist Lothrop Stoddard . Minorities are often fixated on in small passages throughout the book; women, black men and women, people of the lowerworking class, older men, Jews, weaving into the general contempt that is felt towards these groups of people. Women are constantly being oversexualised. There are also large strings of antisemitic imagery; Meyer Wolfsheim is held to antisemitic stereotypes using his job, his character and his physical appearance to stereotype his religion. Black men are often described as 'bucks', which heavily implies that they are animals for hunting. It becomes very apparent that there is little sympathy for characters of a minority, and they are held to a standard of the narrator, limiting the view that the reader can have on them.

Furthermore, there is a pattern seen in the male characters, they project their idealistic views onto the female characters, and they are reprimanded if they fall short of these unrealistic expectations. Myrtle Wilson is a female character who stands for desire and sexuality, using her sexuality to get what she wants. Fitzgerald punishes her with the brutal description of her dead body. Her dead body is described as 'violently extinguished', her shirt has been ripped open, 'her left breast was swinging loose like a flap', her vitality is seen as her downfall, 'The mouth was wide open and ripped a little at the corners as though she had chocked a little in giving up the tremendous vitality she had stored for so long'. If you free Myrtle Wilson from the outrage that is Nick's narrow-minded narration, you can appreciate the tragedy that is her life; she is a victim of abuse of Tom, she had been sold a dream by him, only to be repeatedly lied to. However, due to the nature of the narration, we as readers project the idealistic male view on women onto her and feel little to no sympathy for her due to the description of her dead body, carefully composed by Fitzgerald. Which leads to the tragic end of Myrtle Wilson's life, left with no justice or peace, a brutal death dealt with in inhumane ways.

Leading on from this, Daisy is held to a very different standard to Myrtle Wilson. Despite both women being in extra-marital affairs, only one is reprimanded, and this is Myrtle Wilson. One might suggest this is due to her class and Daisy does not face the repercussions of her affair as she is of higher status. The double standard that Nick Carraway has is highlighted in his sympathy for Daisy's extramarital affair with Gatsby, he romanticises it although reprimands Myrtle Wilson for doing the same. Both women are in loveless marriages and feel the need to try and escape. Myrtle is shown to be a foil to Daisy, the name ‘Myrtle’ refers to a weed, which is a clear symbol of her attempt to climb through society's ladder. This name juxtaposes that of ‘Daisy’, known to be a pretty, delicate flower which represents purity and elegance. Nick oversexualises Myrtle's every move, ‘I had a glimpse of Mrs Wilson straining at the garage pump with panting vitality as we went by’, by doing this he is objectifying Myrtle, likening her to an animal. She is also highly sexualised, 'she carried her flesh sensuously as some women can', Nick shows a habit of using hyper-sexualisation to demonise Myrtle, a logic that he doesn't apply to Daisy. One could suggest that Fitzgerald believes one's class should dictate their position in society due to this characterisation of Myrtle Wilson and Nick's derogatory and misogynistic descriptions of her. Nick is presented as an unreliable narrator; Fitzgerald depicts him as a biased observer. Although initially, he claims he is 'inclined to reserve all judgements.' A key notion to be highlighted is that Nick is a journalist by profession, meaning his narration is often hyperbolic and ambiguous.

Furthermore, both authors depict society as exclusionary and elitist. This is exposed through degrading women and placing an emphasis on a social hierarchy. Both texts explore characters that struggle to overcome the American Dream and are moreover placed in an ongoing cycle of unhappiness. Fitzgerald and Williams present the dream as an unobtainable accomplishment that is impossible to reach. They project greed to be an inevitable quality of the upper-class aristocracy, these members are shown as a corrupt aspect of society, as they repress women to remain in a position of power and wealth. This then allows both writers to explore masculinity and create characters of great wealth, power, and audacity to further explore the notion of The American Dream. Through both novels, the authors challenge the notion that the American Dream is achievable as we question whether any characters achieve their dream in the end, or if aspects of themselves (such as class and biological sex) hinder them from doing so.

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In conclusion, the American Dream is presented to be in reach, but is unobtainable for women to overcome. It is a false idealist view that cannot be reached, as females are trapped by expectations and moral standards, in turn they cannot capture their dreams or ambitions. They are held back by patriarchal societal needs, allowing them to be easily exploited and left completely vulnerable. The American Dream is not what it seems to be, it ultimately leads to greed and decay. Both authors imply this, meaning the dream will inevitably lead to a form of destruction, whether it be emotional: the breaking of the Glass Menagerie, or physical: the death of Jay Gatsby.

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The Position of Women in Society in The Great Gatsby and The Glass Menagerie. (2023, March 17). GradesFixer. Retrieved June 21, 2024, from
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