Queer Criticism of The Great Gatsby
Often readers only focus on the overtly heterosexual themes when analysizing The Great Gatsby; however, upon deeper investigation readers can discover that Fitzgerald uses homosexual themes to underscore the reliability of Nick Carroway as a narrator. The book is tied to the idea of sexual promiscuity between unhappy heterosexual couples, so in that sense Nick Carroway subverts the tradition of the novel by having homosexual undertones, yet fits with the theme of the novel by promoting promiscuity and ignoring cultural norms. Fitzgerald “others” Nick through strategic homosexual language. The author describes Jordan Baker as extremely masculine and describes a homosexual encounter that Carroway had as well. By going against the “norm” of marital bliss Carroway belongs with Daisy, Tom, and Gatsby; yet he distances himself and his role in the group by having overtly homosexual urges which were still seen as marginalized at this time. Because Nick Carroway is seen by readers of the time as possibly gay, he is by default viewed as unreliable. By creating a balancing act between promiscuity and taboo, Nick is able to tell this story in a way that emphasizes its themes without becoming a part of them.
Nick follows the tradition of the novel by breaking with sexual norms, yet distances himself from the group by having overtly homosexual urges. When Nick Carroway first sees Jordan Baker she is described 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 11). There is obvious sexualality in this statement. Charged words such as “breasted,” and “erect,” fit with the sexual tone of the novel. Yet these words are contrasted by homosexual statements such as “throwing her body backward at the shoulders like a young cadet.” The fact that Carroway describes Jordan as a “young cadet,” emphasizes a hidden desire to view her as a young man rather than a woman. By slyly showing the readers his true sexual preference he puts himself outside of “straight storyline” while still emphasizing the novel’s sexual themes.
Nick’s lack of affection towards Jordan also highlights his closested homosexuality. Even his language towards Jordan shows overt disdain especially when he says her, “wan, scornful mouth smiled, and so I drew her up again closer,” implying an incredibly loveless kiss between the pair (Fitzgerald 80). Due to the fact that Nick’s sexuality is closested, the romantic emphasis falls on the couple who is much more secure in their sexuality: Tom and Daisy. The lack of stability in Nick’s romantic expression adds to the growing case that Nick Carroway is a closested homosexual which therefore makes him an unreliable narrator to readers of the time. His unique lens of a closested homosexual allows him to emphasize the sexuality of the story, without being an active player in the love triangle.
Jordan and Nick are seen as the sexual foils to Daisy and Tom which further emphasize their defining stereotypes. Whereas Daisy is a mother and wife, the feminine ideal, Jordan is a professional athlete, a stereotypically male-dominated profession. Tom is seen as a hulking athlete, while Nick is a measly banker. Daisy and Tom are always contrasted with Jordan and Nick. Whereas Tom and Daisy fulfill their traditional gender roles, Jordan and Nick subvert them. Tom and Daisy are the driving force behind the plot, yet Jordan and Nick add a different tone of sexuality, one that is marginalized both in society and in the plot of the novel. Because Nick’s own love story is marginalized, it tells the reader that it lacks authenticity. The relationship between Nick and any female is going to be lackluster and by default it will emphasize the passionate heterosexual couple. By engaging in sexual acts with Jordan he is “accepted” into their friend group, but Carroway still distances himself by being a homosexual.
Another instance that shows the reader that Nick is a closested homosexual is his encounter with Mr. McKee. Mr. McKee is described by Nick as being a, “pale, feminine man,” (Fitzgerald 30). The fact that he describes him as so shows that he wants to justify this sexual encounter by describing him as feminine. Nick Carroway also fixates on a, “white spot of lather on his cheekbone,” which he later wipes off himself, also emphasizing a sexual tension between the pair (Fitzgerald 30). The encounter ends with Nick trailing off saying he was, “standing beside his bed,” as Mr. McKee was, “clad in his underwear,” clearing implying there was some sort of sexual encounter (Fitzgerald 38). The sexually charged scenes between Mr. McKee and Nick are purposefully inserted into the narrative to make the reader question Nick’s reliability. Because the scenes are so sexually charged, they do not seem out of place in the narrative. They fit in with the overall tone, yet subvert the message. If readers were not paying close attention, this scene could have been between Tom and Myrtle due to its language alone. But, because this scene is between two men it allows Nick to be within the themes of the novel while still being in complete contradiction of the main love triangle.
The fact that Nick is a closested homosexual shows readers that he is in fact unreliable for many reasons. First, at the time, homosexuals were marginalized therefore through the eyes of the reader he cannot be honest due to his sexual orientation. Second, because of his own pent up sexual frustration, Nick Carroway is more likely to focus on the sexual aspects of the story, at times probably sensationalizing the story, also rendering him unreliable. And lastly, if Nick fails to be honest with himself about his own sexuality, how can he be honest with the reader about the rest of the story? The fact that he lies about a key part of his identity proves the fact that he is unreliable. Carroway’s character is shrouded in sexual mystery in a novel where sexuality is so open and prevalent. The fact that Nick is secretive about his sexuality shows the reader his unreliability. His sexuality gives him a unique perspective in the way that he is able to insert himself into sexual themes while still remaining unaffected by heterosexual love, giving a unique perspective to a love affair gone wrong.