Understanding Gender Criticism in The Great Gatsby

967 words | 4 page(s)

Gender Criticism is a way of understanding and reading a text by looking at how gender influences the manner in which the text is written and read (Froehlich, 216). In so doing, the reader will approach a text and examine the relationship between men and women, and the power dynamics that result from that relationship in the text; as shown through the text’s plot, characters, symbols, and images. This essay looks at The Great Gatsby from a feminist perspective. The paper argues that in The Great Gatsby, Fitzgerald examines the then American culture’s discomfort with the New Woman of post World War I (WWI) by propagating a patriarchal system that favors men.

Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby is arguably one of the most read texts of the 20th century. The novel came out just after the WWI in 1925. Central to the novel is the representation of the aftermath of WWI, in America. Years after WWI, the Jazz Age, a period of momentous social change, characterized American society. Women in the mid and late 1920s enjoyed the benefits that came with Women Suffrage. As a result, women changed their way of life (French 103). Many started drinking, smoking, going out with men without chaperones, and generally seemed wild and openly sexual. As a response, the traditional society started viewing this trend with contempt, stemming from worries that such behavior would be detrimental to the decline of morality and ultimately society. This societal reaction sought to bring about a long-standing (and strongly patriarchal) perception: that, women are bearers of traditional values and should be nonwage-earning caregivers. It is this understanding of the context of the novel that brings to light Fitzgerald’s portrayal of women in the text (Hearne 189).

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Throughout the novel, Fitzgerald represents women in a way that feminists would view as patriarchal. For example, the way Daisy is depicted as idealized is patriarchal (Froehlich, 224). Gatsby and Tom struggle over her. She is represented as some kind of token or possession. Tom declares that “She is not leaving me!” as though her views or feelings do not count. Men, as represented by Tom in this case, come around as powerful and domineering and oppress others especially women. However, from the feminist understanding of the time, women seem to be determined to put up a fight as when Jordan and Daisy say; “We’ve got to beat them down,’ whispered Daisy, winking ferociously towards the fervent sun” (Fitzgerald 14). Still, in some cases, women realize the pressure they are under from the yoke of patriarchy. Resigned after giving birth to a baby girl, Daisy says, “All right, I’m glad it’s a girl. And I hope she’ll be a fool-that the best thing a girl can be in this world, a beautiful little fool” (Fitzgerald 16). By this, Daisy reveals what social constructs have been formed of a woman in society, one that assumes that men are the geniuses while women are there to look pretty and give birth to children.

Physically, women are also abused in the text. This is evidenced when “Making a short deft movement, Tom Buchannan broke her (Myrtle’s) nose with his open hand” (Fitzgerald 32). In no circumstances would a respectful man do that, but because society had informed Tom that way, it seems “justified” to hit her in front of everybody. In the same way, nearly all marriages in the text are dysfunctional. There are affairs amongst almost all the main characters. While this could be used to show the women’s heightened liberalism, it might also indicate that women were being used in those affairs, like Daisy, or they were being abused back home in their marriages. More importantly, Fitzgerald seems to “crack down” on those women who “dare” to rebel against the strict traditional view of what a woman should be. For example, both Myrtle and Daisy have affairs outside their marriage. Whereas Myrtle seems to be opposed to the traditional ways, Daisy, though unsatisfied, goes with the flow. In the end, Myrtle is “killed while Daisy survives and even moves on with Tom (French 103).

Another way, which shows that Fitzgerald does present patriarchal undertones in the text, is the way he “treats” the minor female characters. He does so in a show of degradation to femininity. He is very critical, and hence degrading of the female party guests. He refers to some simply as “Beluga’s girls”. No name, because it does not matter. He also says “four girls… never quite the same ones in physical person but they were so identical one with another that it inevitably seemed that they had been there before” (Fitzgerald 64), ideally putting a tag on all of them.

Overall, gender criticism of any literary work examines how an author portrays the power dynamics between men and women in that piece of writing. It is hence understood that the relationship between these two genders is taken to be typically unequal; thereby propagating a patriarchal society that mostly favors men. This paper analyzed Scott Fitzgerald’s classic novel The Great Gatsby from a feminist point of view. The paper underscored how, from a post war-women-liberation era, Fitzgerald chose to depict American society’s discomfort with the cultural shake-up and major changes that characterized the New Woman (Hearne 190). To achieve this end, Fitzgerald propagates a traditional society which ideally fostered patriarchy at the expense of the woman.

  • Fitzgerald, F. Scott. “The Great Gatsby (Book).” Literary Cavalcade, vol. 55, no. 1, Sept. 2002, p. 6.
  • French, Liz. “So We Read On: How the Great Gatsby Came to Be and Why It Endures.” Library Journal, vol. 139, no. 14, 9/1/2014, p. 103.
  • Froehlich, Maggie Gordon. “Gatsby’s Mentors: Queer Relations between Love and Money in the Great Gatsby.” Journal of Men’s Studies, vol. 19, no. 3, Fall2011, pp. 209-226.
  • Hearne, Kimberly. “Fitzgerald’s Rendering of a Dream.” Explicator, vol. 68, no. 3, July 2010, pp. 189-194.

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