Fryer, Sarah Beebe. “Beneath the Mask: The Plight of Daisy Buchanan.” Fitzgerald’s New Women: Harbingers of Change, UMI Research Press, 1988, pp. 43–55.
Feminist criticism looks at the way gender roles are represented in a work of literature. In terms of The Great Gatsby, the focus falls on the illustration of Daisy Buchanan we see through Nick’s eyes, which, at first glance, appears to detail a shallow, ditzy, selfish woman. Daisy is usually thought to have wronged Gatsby, but it is rarely discussed how deeply wounded she is herself. In her book, Fitzgerald’s New Women: Harbingers of Change, literary critic Sarah Beebe Fryer focuses a chapter on Daisy’s motivations, her struggle with her emotions, and the nuances of her character which narrator Nick seems to ignore. Fryer offers a thorough analysis, which can be strengthened with even more textual evidence, showing that “beneath the mask,” Daisy is a complex character. Fryer’s analysis also demonstrates how female representation in literature can often be nuanced or pushed into the background by male narrators unaware of the very real complexities of women.
In her essay entitled “Beneath the Mask: The Plight of Daisy Buchanan,” Sarah Beebe Fryer states that though most critics agree that Daisy is altogether shallow, foolish, and unworthy of Gatsby’s adoration, she herself challenges that, preparing to identify how Daisy’s motivations are much more painful, requiring specific attention to truly understand her as a character. She begins by identifying that “Daisy embodies conflicting values and expectations: the longing for the only security her social stature offers…and the impulse toward independent efforts to achieve self-fulfillment” (Fryer 43). Because of her social standing, being a rich southern belle, her expectations are to find stability in a wealthy husband who can provide for her and not damage her carefully constructed image. What other critics believe makes Daisy shallow, to Fryer, imprisons her in a specific role that she clearly suffers emotional trauma from. In turn, a lot of Daisy’s actions and words show an underlying distress and pain that, because we see them through Nick, are not elaborated on, as he himself doesn’t understand her or care to try. For instance, Nick repeatedly describes Daisy “in terms of her gaiety, restlessness, fear, and artificiality.” It is his subsequent “ignorance of–and apparent lack of curiosity about–what Daisy’s affectation conceals [that] influence[s] the reader’s opinion of her” (45).
That being said, Fryer goes on to look carefully at Daisy’s language and Nick’s word choice in his descriptions. One of Nick’s first descriptions of her is of her face: “Her face was sad and lovely with little bright things in it, bright eyes and bright passionate mouth,” despite her overall sorrowful countenance (Fitzgerald 9). Already the reader sees an outward expression of her internal conflict, which becomes clearer as Daisy continues to displace her emotion surrounding Tom’s infidelity with jokes and flirty language. Fryer really drives the point that Daisy is conflicted in her pain, but doesn’t want to admit her emotions to herself, and so she exudes an aura of careless whimsy when in reality her words allow her pain to escape into the open air. Fryer’s most striking example is her analysis of Daisy’s comments on her daughter’s birth that, though pitiful, reveal how deeply pained she is. Daisy, when told of her daughter’s gender, weeps that she hopes her daughter will be a fool, as “that’s the best thing a girl can be in this world, a beautiful little fool” (17). Within this dialogue Fryer sees how Daisy wishes that for her daughter because she herself wishes she were a fool, “incapable of and invulnerable to ideas and emotions” (49). Daisy has suffered: through losing Gatsby whom she truly loved and marrying a man that though he is financially supportive, is disloyal, already running off with another woman while his wife gives birth. Daisy wants to shelter her daughter in this way, and her desires show how deeply hurt she is by losing Gatsby and choosing disloyal Tom.
Fryer makes multiple other strong points about Daisy’s ability to love Gatsby, as readers often see her as playing games with him or being unworthy of his passionate devotion. Fryer dives into the scene of Daisy’s wedding eve to show how desperately she clings to Gatsby, drinking away her pain, clutching his letter, and demanding her wedding gift pearls from Tom be returned to “whoever they belong to” (Fitzgerald 78). To Fryer, it is understood that Daisy’s deep love for Gatsby was romantic, but for Tom it was practical, and she is torn over both men, who each provide something she needs but neither are whole for her. An example Fryer does not use to demonstrate her point is the scene where Daisy is touring Gatsby’s house, which itself has substance and provides further evidence that Daisy tends to displace her emotion as a means to cope (though the reader isn’t necessarily aware of that without further investigation). In the scene, Daisy is in awe of all of Gatsby’s treasures, and when he begins throwing piles of his expensive beautiful shirts in the air, she breaks into sobs, exclaiming, “They’re such beautiful shirts!… It makes me sad because I’ve never seen such–such beautiful shirts” (92). Fryer takes Daisy’s occupation with the objects to demonstrate how desperately she searches for anything tangible to grab on to since she can’t have Gatsby, but there is another way to view the scene. Daisy, uncomfortable with emotion and only rarely letting slips of her true feelings leak through, is so overcome with love and longing that she tries to direct her pain onto his objects, even dedicating her interest and attention on them rather than on Gatsby himself. Though materialistic, she isn’t overwhelmed by his wealth, but rather by feelings of romance and anguish that are resultant of painful memories. Thus, her tears are significant, as well as the reality that she is dancing around her feelings toward him in any way she can. Furthermore, her feelings are only that strong because of how deeply hurt she was by him, and how engrossed she had been in their love. Though it is easy to see Daisy as using Gatsby and doing wrong by choosing Tom, it can be seen that Daisy really is conflicted and trying to push off her feelings because she isn’t equipped to handle them well.
An additional example of this is during the Plaza scene, when Daisy keeps trying to change the subject, not wanting to choose between her heart and her brain. Daisy tends to be blamed for being weak and leading Gatsby on, then retreating into her money and security, but it is important to note the sheer magnitude of the emotional distress she experiences. If she were just dragging Gatsby along, she wouldn’t be so desperate to pacify the situation and her raging feelings. She would cast Gatsby aside in order to please Tom, without at first admitting her feelings and pain. “You’re revolting,” she says to Tom as he attempts to justify his infidelity. In the opening scene Daisy doesn’t dare confront his actions, and hadn’t ever previously, always disguising her hurt with flirting or joking to suffocate her feelings. Her love for Gatsby, her confrontation with her own pain regarding Tom, and the pressure to for once be heard and voice her opinion all prove there is complexity and pain under her glowing persona. These revelations about Daisy coincide with the missions of feminist criticism that Fryer and I try to demonstrate: being that there is a morphed representation of women in literature. In Fitzgerald’s case, and what is the mission of Fryer’s critical essays, is to prove that through the nuances and the bold declarations, there are layers to female characters that remain untapped, that often suffer because of patriarchy and the tendency for female voices to be ignored. Daisy Buchanan exemplifies a complex character shrouded by misconceptions and serves to highlight the truth of female misrepresentation.