The 1920s novel, The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald is one of the quintessential novels of The Jazz Age. The novel explores the relationships between a small group of individuals who lived amongst the wealth and the poverty of Long Island, New York, Queens, NY and Manhattan, NY. The novel is often interpreted with regards to the income inequality that is seen amongst the characters in the years when America was in a financial boom. However, the novel also represents a period when much in society was changing. Women appeared to be greatly liberated when compared to the previous generations. However, the novel shows that women were in a changing climate with regards to gender roles. Myrtle was still clearly dominated by men, while Jordan was more liberated. Daisy represented the change in women. She was more rebellious and willing to engage in an affair; however, she recognized that women still suffered from limitations. These women were surrounded by men who maintained traditional gender roles and attempted to control the women.
As the women tried to free themselves from the traditional roles, the men forced them to return to them. The novel discusses the illicit love of Jay Gatsby for Daisy Buchanan. There are three main female characters in the novel: Daisy, Jordan Baker and Myrtle Wilson. Jordan Baker clearly represents the “new woman.” She is androgynous, as indicated by her name. She also is an athletic woman, rather than a feminine one. She is a professional golfer. She begins a relationship with the narrator of the story, Nick. Nick describes her as “a slender, small-breasted girl with an erect carriage which she accentuated by throwing her body backward at the shoulders like a young cadet” (Fitzgerald 26). This is far from a feminine description for a woman. She also has no problem directing men to her wishes. When she and Nick are at a party at Gatsby’s house, Jordan insists that she wants to leave the party and explore the home. She does not wait for the man to direct her. She is independent and even drives her own vehicle. This would not be consistent with a woman who allows men to lead the relationship. Eventually, Nick ends their relationship. Nick returned to the traditional gender roles in which a man would make the decisions.
Myrtle Wilson, however, is the opposite. She is entirely at the mercy of the men in her life. Myrtle is the wife of a poor mechanic who owns a shop in Queens. She struggles with the dismal existence of her life and leverages the only thing of value she has: her sexuality. She begins an affair with Tom Buchanan, Daisy’s husband. She clearly does this in order to escape her dismal life in the Valley of the Ashes. Her husband suffers from inferiority due to this financial situation. He is at the mercy of the richer, more powerful men. Myrtle is a casualty of this situation. She attempts to control her husband, but eventually he refuses this relationship. She directs her husband to “Get some chairs, why don’t you” when Tom and Nick arrive at their shops (Fitzgerald 37). She is also blatantly sexual, unlike Jordan’s androgynous looks. While she was not beautiful, “her body [was] continually smoldering….she wet her lips” (Fitzgerald 37). She also is far from slim, but rather has the curves of a woman and her dresses accentuated these. She is, sadly though, using her sexuality to spend time away from her existence in the Valley of the Ashes. While George Wilson does not appear to object to the obvious, he later insisted upon ruling Myrtle’s wife. Wilson recognizes that his wife has been unfaithful. He responds by locking her away and says, “She’s going to stay there till the day after tomorrow and then we’re going to move away” (Fitzgerald 120). Myrtle attempted to break free from her life; sadly, she was forced to use her sexuality to do so. Tom was merely having a cheap affair with her; he was willing to use her. Her husband may have loved her. However, he also insists upon controlling her in the end.
Daisy’s character is not as dependent as Myrtle, but certainly not as openly independent as Jordan. She engages in an affair with Gatsby. Tom believed in the idea that men could have affairs, but women should not. He objected to his wife engaging in the same behavior as he did. Daisy did not originally appear as the independent and free-spirited woman of the Twenties. Gatsby indicated that she was the “first ‘nice’ girl he had ever known” (Fitzgerald 130). The use of italics on the word “nice” indicates that she was likely a virgin who did not engage in sexual relations outside of marriage. However, Gatsby also saw Daisy merely as property. Women, sadly, were viewed as property in previous times. According to Gatsby, the interest of other men in Daisy, “increased [Daisy’s] value in his eyes” (Fitzgerald 130). Daisy realizes that women are valued only for their looks and frivolity. With regards to her own daughter, she states, “I hope she’ll be a fool—that’s the best thing a girl can be in this world, a beautiful little fool” (Fitzgerald 30). Daisy knows that beauty will bring her daughter security; she hopes that she is too foolish to question her place in the world. Daisy realizes that she is in a world controlled by men with wealth and power. Tom Buchanan is abusive to her; she cannot leave him because he has these things. In the novel, Tom and Gatsby both represent the men who will control their worlds, even if it involves deceit to do so. Sadly, George Wilson has little control over the world, as he is poor. He still does try to control his wife though. Even Nick, the most sensible character in the novel, refuses to give Jordan the upper hand in the hand.
In the novel The Great Gatsby, the men attempt to maintain traditional gender roles, which includes controlling their wives and girlfriends. They do not believe women should act in a similar manner. The women in the novel all attempt to act in an independent manner to some degree. They are not allowed to do so. Sadly, they use their beauty and sexuality as a way to break free. Jordan is the most independent and non-sexual one of the women. However, none of these ways allow the women to achieve independence.
- Fitzgerald, F. Scott. The Great Gatsby. New York: Scribner, 1925.