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Since the beginning of time there have been gender roles. Men and women never had the same responsibilities and daily routines as one another. Men were typically considered the “breadwinners,” while women were housewives and stayed at home, only working to please their husbands and take care of their families. Obviously, over time these norms were not socially acceptable as women wanted more of their lives. This idea of gender norms was explored in both Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby and Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun. The way gender norms are explored is different in both stories as they are set in different time periods, the economic conditions were different, and they focus on different ethnicities and racial groups.
The Great Gatsby is set in the 1920s. It is a story about an eccentric millionaire named Jay Gatsby and his ambition for love as told by the narrator Nick Carraway. The women in this time period were finally able to start expressing themselves as they were finally given the right to vote. Many of them were considered “flappers”. These were women who smoked in public, wore more conventional clothing and strayed away from the old gender norms. They were much more expressive than the women of previous generations.
Linda Simon wrote an article discussing the state of the “flappers” during that time period. She quoted “In the stories of F. Scott Fitzgerald, who summed her up as “pretty, impudent, superbly assured, as worldly-wise, briefly-clad and ‘hard-berled’ as possible”. Flappers were more expressive than any other generation of women before them. This era of growth for women really set the tone for their freedom from gender roles and norms in the future.
The Great Gatsby represents the 1920s flapper through the character Jordan Baker. She is a professional golf player and is completely content with not marrying if she gets to keep playing. Jordan even claims that, “I like large parties. They’re so intimate. At small parties there isn’t any privacy” (Fitzgerald 54). Flappers prefer larger social situations so they can converse with tons of people at once and act however they would like to. In smaller situations they would feel forced to act differently and have boring conversations.
For example, Jordan Baker avoided smaller gatherings and was only rarely seen outside of parties. If she wasn’t playing golf, she was at a party. She was the complete opposite of a character like Daisy, who can be seen wearing fancy clothes and filling more of a stereotypical female role. She was much less expressive than Jordan and stuck to traditional housewife esque activities. Daisy was much more feminine than Jordan and preferred fancy attire and singing over golf and short skirts. The Great Gatsby was not only able to explore the flappers of the time period but all roles of women.
A Raisin in the Sun is set in the 1950s. Hansberry tells the tale of an African American family who gets a check for $10,000 and their struggles as to where the money will go and what they will spend it on. “The dilemma most American women faced in the 1950s, feeling the need to project an ideal image of themselves, but suffering inside for its lack of coherence to reality” (Barker Ellsworth). The women in this story seemed to take more of a controlling role in the family. Since Walter was the only adult male in the house, he felt the need to follow in his father’s footsteps and be the “man” of the house. However, since there were so many women with varying opinions, he found it very difficult to fulfill this idea. Mama and Beneatha were two prominent women in the novel. Mama being the eldest, had the most influence on the major decisions in the story. Beneatha represented the young female of the time period that was trying to get a good education and a good job.
In the 1950s, men and women seemed to finally be on an equal playing field. With this playing field being normalized in society, it came back to impact the relationship between Walter and Beneatha. Walter has dreams of opening a liquor store which is inherently a good investment. Walter is content with achieving this dream and wishes to achieve it by any means. He was more than willing to use the family’s $10,000 for his own benefit.
However, the family had a contrasting viewpoint on how to use the money. With shifting dynamics of the modern day, it would be a wise investment to spend the money on Beneatha’s medical school. In turn, she would also be able to uplift the entire family on the backing of her career’s salary. Before this time period, Walter would have been able to use the money however he wanted due to the patriarch of the family having the most say in financial decisions. Now, he has to be held accountable and possibly lose his dreams in order for the rest of the family to benefit, especially his sister. It is honestly more stable for Beneatha to become a doctor instead of a liquor store being the primary source of income.
Gender norms were greatly affected during the 1920s due to the fact that the economy was booming. “The U.S. economy entered a period of unprecedented expansion and higher living standards that continued until the autumn of 1929. Industrial production almost doubled over that span — the result of more efficient management, greater mechanization, and more intensive new-product research. Due to the many improvements to infrastructure, some entrepreneurs and businessmen were able to make a fortune.
Unfortunately, not everyone prospered from the economic boom during this time period. There were three social classes in the 1920s, lower, middle, and upper. Lower class citizens consisted of the unemployed and low-paid workers. The upper class is the richest of the rich, and their occupations usually have a high status. The middle class is everyone in between. This system is very similar to today, however, the population in the 1920s seemed to be more evenly split between the lower and the upper class. There was a much smaller middle class population than there is today.
Surprisingly, the economy during the 1950s was not very different from that of its predecessor in the 20s. Both economies existed after world wars. TIME Magazine wrote an article about the history of the U.S. economy. They used headlines from newspapers to summarize each decade’s economic conditions. For the 1950s they wrote, “ The U.S. and the dollar reign supreme. The boomer economy fuels construction of homes, schools and highways”.
Both time periods prospered economically because of an increase in consumer spending. Post war countries require reparations and maintenance to return to their previous conditions. Neither of these wars were just regular wars. Both were worldwide and required a lot of materials and resources to occur. In turn, post world war economies would be booming because of all of the consumer spending; causing the economy to prosper and further creating more jobs for both men and women.
The Great Gatsby primarily focuses on the white culture in New York City. There was a much higher population of whites than blacks during the 1920s, so it only makes sense that the story is about white people. The Great Gatsby contains many rich white people who only care about themselves and how much money they have. Jay Gatsby is probably the richest character in the entire novel. He earned his money through illegal means just to get closer to Daisy. He is only interested in himself and his love for her.
Nick Carraway gave a brief description of Gatsby’s daily parties. He recalls, “There was music from my neighbor’s house through the summer nights. In his blue gardens men and girls came and went like moths among the whisperings and the champagne and the stars. At high tide in the afternoon I watched his guests diving from the tower of his raft, or taking the sun on the hot sand of his beach while his motor-boats slid the waters of the Sound, drawing aquaplanes over cataracts of foam. On week-ends his Rolls-Royce became an omnibus, bearing parties to and from the city between nine in the morning and long past midnight, while his station wagon scampered like a brisk yellow bug to meet all trains” (Fitzgerald 43). Gatsby has all of this wealth, but he is still not happy because he only wants to rebuild his relationship with Daisy.
A Raisin in the Sun focuses on the opposite end of the spectrum. The story focuses on a poor African American family. The Youngers are much more focused on family and the American Dream. Mama asked Walter why he always talks about money; “Mama: Oh — So now it’s life. Money is life. Once upon a time freedom used to be life—now it’s money. I guess the world really do change . . . Walter: No — it was always money, Mama. We just didn’t know about it.
Mama: No . . . something has changed. You something new, boy. In my time we was worried about not being lynched . . . You ain’t satisfied or proud of nothing we done. I mean that you had a home; that we kept you out of trouble till you was grown; that you don’t have to ride to work on the back of nobody’s streetcar — You my children — but how different we done become” (Hansberry). In questioning Walter about money, Mama has helped the reader come to the realization that money really is a problem for the people in this story. When the $10,000 check comes into play, all of the characters have contrasting opinions about what it should be spent on.
In regards to the ever changing dynamics of societal dreams and struggles, the Younger family has been affected greatly. Originally, the Youngers and all other African American families merely yearned for freedoms that were only offered to whites. Nowadays, in 1950’s Chicago, freedoms were slowly being granted to African Americans as shown through Walter’s attitude towards his own goals and aspirations. Mama protected her family from the societal prejudices that she faced growing up. In doing so, Walter was able to grow a more independent viewpoint on his own success. He got himself to the point where he didn’t require the aid of working off of someone else’s successes.
Walter wanted to be able to make money to support him and his family. These ideals were not present in The Great Gatsby because all of the characters already had some sort of wealth. None of them really had a family to support either, just money for their own amusement. For example, Gatsby did not have to worry about supporting a family or fulfilling the American dream. He was a white male, and he was already wealthy unlike the Younger family. The socioeconomic struggles and cultures each character adheres to are inherently different since Walter and Gatsby are of different races and come from different economic situations.
When Mama recalled how her generation fought for their freedoms, it directly correlated to the education that Beneatha would receive. Mama wanted her children to understand the importance of an educated, African American female during this new age. If Beneatha earned an education it would benefit not only the last generation, but also the current, and the next, and those that come after them. Education is one of the many new freedoms women were given and it is very empowering to them.
On the opposing side, a liquor store has more liabilities towards it. Items such as supplies, expenses, location, and attracting customers are all integral in the upkeep of that business. A motivated young woman, who is willing to learn and earn an education is a much more secure route to take. Her education may lead to a higher yield of income. Since Walter is a younger man, he can still find another job and finance his money. Walter, along with his wife making a sizable income, could one day, open up a liquor store later on in life. This will of course take time and patience, but if it is his dream, he should pursue it. Mama was looking at the big picture, while Walter had tunnel vision and could only see the instant benefit for himself if he got his liquor store. The cultural differences between Mama’s generation and Walter’s generation are subtly inserted into the subtext of the story through their contrasting beliefs and ideals.
The clashing of viewpoints from a cultural standpoint between Walter and Mama would never happen in The Great Gatsby. This is because a cultural shift similar to this was not present in The Great Gatsby. However, the fact that Gatsby did not have a motherly figure in the story may have contributed to the lack of cultural differences between two generations of family members. Gatsby was a dreamer, similar to Walter.
The primary difference between the two however, is that Gatsby was able to achieve his dreams because of his wealth. Gatsby went off to war and came back to find the love of his life was with another man. This was so devastating to him that he resulted to illegal measures to gain his riches. He thought this was the only way he could have a chance with Daisy again. Gatsby always dreamt of becoming rich, he never wanted to cheat his way into his dream. He was affected by his love for Daisy. This is quite similar to how Walter was so persistent in using the money to invest in a liquor store of his own. He wanted a quick result with little work.
The gender norms greatly vary between both stories, The Great Gatsby and A Raisin in the Sun. Due to each novel being set in different time periods, the characters in each story have contrasting gender roles. The economic conditions also contribute to this contrast as the need for money causes certain characters like Beneatha and Mama to have to work, while characters like Daisy do not have to because they have so much wealth as it is.
The fact that each novel focuses on different ethnicities and racial groups also plays a part in the different gender roles. The rich white women are never seen working or struggling in any way in The Great Gatsby. The African American women in A Raisin in the Sun seem to have it much harder as they are concerned with finding work for a living. Gender norms exist not only in these two stories but in everything. Despite the varying differences between them, gender roles and norms are prevalent in all things and life as a whole.
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