Great Gatsby through the Lens of Feminism

Sarah Hyun

November 5, 2018

ENGL 100. Prof Whitley

The Great Gatsby through the lens of Feminism


Feminist criticism examines the ways in which literature has been written according to issues of gender. It focuses its attention on how cultural productions such as literature address the economic, social, political, and psychological oppression of women as a result of patriarchy. Patriarchal ideology has a deeply rooted influence on the way we think, speak, and view ourselves in the world, and an understanding of the pervasive nature of this ideology is necessary for a feminist critique. Demonstrating how people are a product of their culture, feminist criticism of The Great Gatsby reveals how the novel both supports and challenges the assumptions of a patriarchal society. The Great Gatsby displays various aspects of feminist philosophy by reflecting opposing principles of society’s model through very different female characters. By using a range of characters who respond to the figure of the New Woman, the novel shows how difficult it was to defy the norms of the time.

The novel paints a picture of America in the 1920’s. Before the war, women had no freedom, and they had to remain on a pedestal prescribed by the limits of male ideals. But now, women could be seen smoking and drinking, often in the company of men. They could also be seen enjoying the sometimes raucous nightlife offered at nightclubs and private parties. Even the new dances of the era, which seemed wild and overtly sexual to many, bespoke an attitude of free self-expression and unrestrained enjoyment. In other words, a “New Woman” emerged in the 1920’s. The appearance of the New Woman on the scene evoked a great deal of negative reaction from conservative members of society who felt that women’s rejection of any aspect of their traditional role would inevitably result in the destruction of the family and the moral decline of society as a whole.

The main female characters in the novel – Daisy, Jordan, and Myrtle – despite their many differences in class, occupation, appearance and personality traits, are all versions of the New Woman. All three display a good deal of modern independence. Only two are married, but they don’t keep their marital unhappiness a secret, although secrecy on such matters is cardinal in a patriarchal marriage. The women also challenge their assigned roles as females by preferring the excitement of night life to the more traditional employments of hearth and home. There is only one child among them, Daisy’s daughter, and while the child is well looked after by a nurse and affectionately treated by her mother, Daisy’s life does not revolve exclusively around her maternal role. Finally, all three women openly challenge patriarchal sexual taboo. Jordan engages in premarital sex, and Tom is even prompted to comment that Jordan’s family “shouldn’t let her run around the country in this way” (14). Daisy and Myrtle are both engaged in extramarital affairs, although Myrtle is more explicit about it than Daisy.

One of Daisy’s most memorable quotes is “All right, 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 food” (16). Daisy speaks of her hopes for her infant child, which reveals a lot about her character. Her bitterness and cynicism are signaled as she expresses this devastating critique of women’s position in society with reference to her daughter. It is clear that Daisy is a product of a social environment that, to a great extent, does not appreciate or value intellect in women. While Daisy conforms to a shared, patriarchal idea of femininity that values subservient and docile females, she also understands these social standards for women and chooses to play right into them. In this way, Daisy is a more subversive feminist.

Jordan is prescribed as a more masculine female character and seems to resist social pressure to conform to feminine norms. Not only does she have her own successful career, something that most women in the 1920’s did not have, but her career is in the male-dominated field of professional golf. She seems androgynous in her appearance and is described as having a “mustache of perspiration” and being “slender, small-breasted, with an erect carriage which accentuated by throwing her body backward at her shoulders like a young cadet.” The numerous masculine references in her physical descriptions through words such as ‘mustache,’ ‘erect,’ and ‘cadet’ demonstrate how she was not the typical 1920’s woman.  She is also very honest and direct, where the patriarchal norm would be to remain submissive and quiet.

Myrtle’s characterization is more focused on her physicality, and she is more quickly undermined as artificial and even grotesque. Her death is undignified and stresses the destruction of her feminine aspects, with her left breast “swinging loose” and her mouth “ripped.” It is possible to argue that Myrtle is severely punished for her expression of sexuality, while Daisy, less overt about her illicit relationship with Gatsby, and a less sensual character altogether, is able to resume her life with Tom once she has left Gatsby.

The novel also abounds with minor female characters whose dress and activities identify them as incarnations of the New Woman, and they are portrayed as clones of a single, negative character type: shallow, revolting, exhibitionist and deceitful. For example, at Gatsby’s parties, we see insincere, “enthusiastic meetings between women who never knew each other’s names” (44), as well as numerous narcissistic attention-seekers in various stages of drunken hysteria. We meet, for example, a young woman who “dumps” down a cocktail “for courage” and “dances out alone on the canvass to perform” (45) and a “rowdy little girl who gave way upon the slightest provocation to uncontrollable laughter” (51). The novel’s discomfort with the New Woman becomes evident through these characterizations.

In conclusion, the women in this text are shown to be victims of social and cultural norms that they could not change, demonstrating how influential culture can be in shaping the lives of individuals. There is an attempt to redefine society and culture in a new way by gender relations and the women in this novel actively try to change the social norms through their attitudes and actions. It becomes clear, however, that patriarchy is deeply internalized for these characters, demonstrating how powerful and often devastating this ideology can be.

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