Gender Roles within The Great Gatsby Essay

When seeking to understand F. Scott Fitzgerald’s novel, The Great Gatsby, within terms of gender roles and the ways in which the individual characters approach their own identity as well as the gender identities of their fellow characters within the novel, one quickly comes to the understanding that F. Scott Fitzgerald approaches gender roles in both a predictable and a visionary way. As a means of understanding this unique dichotomy, this brief analysis will discuss the methods by which F. Scott Fitzgerald utilizes both traditional/conservative understandings of gender roles as well as incorporating key elements of visionary and/or avant-garde interpretations of these constructs within the novel.

As a function of the conservative ways that F. Scott Fitzgerald approaches the issue of gender roles, the reader can readily note that within the confines of the novel, men typically are dominant over women and are responsible for earning money and providing for the material needs of the family or relationship(s) that they maintain.  The gender roles for men are strongly presented with Fitzgerald writing the following concerning how male and female are understood within society, “Across the courtesy bay the white palaces of fashionable East Egg glittered along the water, and the history of the summer really begins on the evening I drove over there to have dinner with the Tom Buchanans” (Fitzgerald 15).  As one can readily see from the above passage, the way in which male and female are referred to by the first name of the male household owner is highly sexist and indicative of gender norms of that time.  However, as one might assume a level of comfort and predictability from the way that men are represented within the novel, the same cannot be said for the way that women are represented.  Although Fitzgerald’s male characters are seemingly one-dimensional with respect to their exhibition of gender roles and the understandings thereof, the means by which the female characters can be effortlessly be characterized is quite another matter.

The most blatant and glaring example of deviation from the traditional gender roles that existed within Fitzgerald’s own time is of course with relation to the character of Jordan.  Jordan represents the androgynous gender-bending example of the character that does not comfortably fit into either the traditional gender role of the male or female character.  In this way, even the name which Fitzgerald chose for such a character was meant to evoke a level of androgyny and confusion with relation to the traditional interpretation of gender and role observance.  Moreover, Jordan’s character engages in many traditionally male-dominated forms of entertainment and sport.  Likewise, the character of Jordan is one that does not reflect the gender roles and traditional dress of the times.  Fitzgerald describes her in terms of the following: “I noticed that she wore her evening dress, all her dresses like sports clothes-there was a jauntiness about her movements as if she had first learned to walk upon golf courses on clean, crisp mornings” (Fitzgerald 46).  Such a definition obviously points to the fact that Jordan was neither comfortable nor familiar with the feminine clothing and fashion that was worn by her contemporaries.  The novel further describes Jordan as the following: Jordan Baker instinctively avoided clever, shrewd men, and now I saw that this was because she felt safer on a plane where any divergence from a code would be thought impossible. She was incurably dishonest. She wasn’t able to endure being at a disadvantage and, given this unwillingness, I suppose she had begun dealing in subterfuges when she was very young in order to keep that cool, insolent smile turned to the world and yet satisfy the demands of her hard, jaunty body” (Fitzgerald 159)  In pointing out this divergence in something as small as mere clothing, Fitzgerald is able to point to the fact that Jordan defies convention and does not necessarily ascribe to the traditional norms of gender that existed within the timer period.  

Conversely, Fitzgerald’s representation of the other women within the story serves to compound traditional gender roles that both existed at the time and to a large extent continue to pervade our own understandings of gender and gender roles today.  For instance, Myrtle is continually defined as highly sensuous and great attention is given to the physical aspects of her body as well as the provocative and feminine clothing she wears throughout the novel.  In this way, Myrtle is effectively sexualized and objectified; thereby providing an example of the ultimate epitome of traditional female gender roles in that Myrtle’s sole purpose within the confines of the story is to serve as a type of decoration for her lover.  However, rather than leaving the interpretation of Myrtle, and to a large extent Daisy, up to the dictates of traditional gender roles, Fitzgerald notes of the sarcastic contrast that exists when both women wear white dresses; seemingly indicative of chasteness and purity – yet a concept that is far from the truth with regards to exemplifying the lifestyles that both of these women live.  This in and of itself is also unique due to the fact that by sarcastically examining the lack of chasteness that is exemplified within the lives of these two women, Fitzgerald himself uses traditional gender roles as the measuring stick to determine whether or not these women can be defined within the constructs of the time.  Fitzgerald notes of this dynamic, “The only completely stationary object in the room was an enormous couch on which two young women were buoyed up as though upon an anchored balloon. They were both in white, and their dresses were rippling and fluttering as if they had just been blown back in after a short flight around the house. I must have stood for a few moments listening to the whip and snap of the curtains and the groan of a picture on the wall” (Fitzgerald 27).

Another uniquely interesting dynamic of gender roles is the way in which women are presented by other women within the story as somehow less important and not worthy within the society.  Says Daisy of a prior encounter, “It’ll show you how I’ve gotten to feel about – things. Well, she was less than an hour old and Tom was God knows where. I woke up out of the ether with an utterly abandoned feeling and asked the nurse right away if it was a boy or a girl. She told me it was a girl, and so I turned my head away and wept” (Fitzgerald 117).  In this way, the reader is made to understand the girls are traditionally unprized and unhoped-for with relation to a male child.  

A full and complete analysis of gender roles within F. Scott Fitzgerald’s novel cannot be fully analyzed without seeking to analyze the effect to which flapper fashion of the 1920s impacted upon the means by which women integrated into society.  In short, flapper fashion was in and of itself a liberation from the clothing enslavement that Victorian and post-Victorian fashion had dictated.  Due to the fact that the fashion itself changed and allowed women to play a more active part within the society and within otherwise male-dominated sporting events and activities, Fitzgerald presents a ridiculed view of how the women within the novel posture themselves in an uncomfortable attempt to control their own sexuality and integration within society.  Such a level of ridicule obviously originates from the fact that Fitzgerald himself could have been relating a degree of uncertainty and/or disgust with relation to how women of the time we’re entering uncharted territory and seeking to integrate with gender norms and mores that were otherwise unknown to them at that point. 
Many analysts have pointed to the fact that although Daisy, Jordan, and Myrtle are all prominent ladies within the confines of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s novel, none of them are easily comparable or define the same attributes of traditional womanhood.  In their own way, each of the three women can be understood to represent different unique facets of femininity; outside of the traditional interpretation of gender roles as they existed within Fitzgerald’s own time.  As an athlete, Jordan has of course often been described by analysts as a type of androgynous or lesbian representation of femininity.  Her fascination and comfort with aspects of the “man’s” world further exemplify this type of definition.  Likewise, Daisy’s portrayal as the beauty who appeals to the male characters within the story further exemplifies a very traditional gender role that women have played within society for as long as recorded history has tracked.  Notes Fitzgerald of Daisy, “Through this twilight universe Daisy began to move again with the season; suddenly she was again keeping half a dozen dates a day with half a dozen men, and drowsing asleep at dawn with the beads and chiffon of an evening dress tangled among dying orchids on the floor beside her bed (Fitzgerald 19).  This type of open representation of raw sexual energy was outside the bounds of traditional gender norms that were accepted at the time and therefore helped to cast a different light on the way that Daisy is understood within the constructs of the story.

  Finally, Myrtle, although still defined as attractive, is indicative of the sexual liberation that was just begun to be realized within Fitzgerald’s own time.  As a function of Myrtle’s raw sexual energy, she exerts a level of independence and empowerment that was of course far beyond the times in which the story was itself set. 
Finally, reverting back to an interpretation of male gender roles within the story, it can be understood that Nick is perhaps the only male character that significantly deviates from the traditional understanding o masculinity that existed within Fitzgerald’s time.  This is due to the fact that Nick is somewhat overpowered by Jordan’s clearly masculine dynamic and is somewhat locked into continuing a relationship that he does not wish to pursue.  However, this level of gender role and deviation is corrected near the end of the story due to the fact that Nick ultimately exercises his own will to power and breaks off the relationship.  Moreover, as previously stated, the other male gender roles within the stories are presented in terms that do not significantly deviate from traditional understandings.  Says Gatsby, “It made no difference to me. Dishonesty in a woman is a thing you never blame deeply – I was casually sorry, and then I forgot. It was at that same house party that we had a curious conversation about driving a car. It started because she passed so close to some workmen that our fender flicked a button on one man’s coat” (Fitzgerald 159).  This level of acceptance of women as weaker creatures that need the firm and directive hand of the male is represented throughout.  Sadly, one of the themes that are also analyzed is misogyny.  In one instance, the novel notes, “Making a short deft movement, Tom Buchanan broke her nose with his open hand” (Fitzgerald 125).  By presenting such a horrifying example of how males viewed females within the constraints of the story and of the society, the patriarchal nature of the established gender norms is fully evidenced.  Although such is disheartening, there also exists within the novel the exemplification of gallantry and chivalry with regards to how Gatsby and Wilson ultimately kill themselves as a means protecting the women in their life.  Says the novel, “It was after we started with Gatsby toward the house that the gardener saw Wilson’s body a little way off in the grass, and the holocaust was complete” (Fitzgerald 112)

Although there is a number of different levels of meaning that can be interpreted from F. Scott Fitzgerald’s novel, the fact of the matter is that the gender roles and their representation within the plotline of the novel help to provide perhaps the greatest level of definition to the characters and the situations that ultimately befall them.  As a function of these traditional and nontraditional gender roles, F. Scott Fitzgerald provides the reader with nuanced characters that epitomize different layers of the gender dynamic of humanity as well as incorporate the influences of a recently instigated sexual liberation and feminist dynamic that had only then begun to sweep the nation.  

Work Cited

  1. Fitzgerald, Scott F. The Great Gatsby. Simon and Schuster, New York. 1925.