Feminist Criticism Of The Great Gatsby English Literature Essay
Feminist criticism looks at the ways in which literature has been written according to issues of gender. It focuses its attention to the educational and financial differences in a male dominated society that has over powered women from recognizing their own potential. Feminist critics argue that women are often characterized as downbeat or inactive, while men are defined as the controllers. Feminist criticism centres on the power of relationships between the genders and examine the patterns of thought, behaviour, principles, and authority in the relationships between men and women.
There are three types of feminism, Liberal, Radical and Marxist/Socialist. Liberal Feminisms approach is reformist, they see gender as equal and relations should be brought about by equal opportunities policies. Their research focuses on gender representation using quantities content analysis of e.g. television advertisement. Some strategies used are teaching women’s studies to journalists and broadcasters.
Radical Feminism is very heavy as their thoughts are that men are the enemy and that they oppress women. Their approach investigates patriarchy’s effects on women but is very extreme as they reject all male society and encourages lesbian separatism. Research looked into is pornography and domestic violence and their strategies are women only communication productions / own media products e.g. “Spare Rib;” and “Virago.”
Lastly there is Marxist/socialist feminism, their approach does not focus exclusively on gender but incorporates social class, ethnicity, sexual preference, age and disability. Their research focuses semiotics where gender is constructed through language and imagery. The strategies they use are to reform mainstream media while concentrating on construction of a separatist feminist media system.
In this essay I will be looking at “The Great Gatsby” in a feminist critique and applying it to different forms of feminism. The Great Gatsby is a novel by American author F. Scott Fitzgerald. It was first published in 1925, and is set on Long Island's North Shore and in New York City in the summer of 1922. The novel tells the story of social instability after World War One, were American society enjoys high levels of affluence during the 1920s as the financial system soared. During that time, prohibition made millionaires out of bootleggers and led to an increase in organized crime. Although Fitzgerald idolized the riches and glamour he was uncomfortable with the unreserved materialism and the lack of morality that went with it.
The novel centres on the lives of seven characters. Nick Carraway, the narrator is a bond salesman from Minnesota and is Daisy’s cousin. Jay Gatsby is a young millionaire originally from North Dakota, with shady business connections and an obsessive love for Daisy Buchanan. Daisy Buchanan, a striking, bubbly young woman and the wife of Tom Buchanan. Gatsby had had a relationship with Daisy but it dissolved due to their social standing before the end of WW1. Tom Buchanan is an conceited millionaire who is having an affair with Myrtle Wilson. Jordan Baker is one of Daisy old friends who is a professional golf player with a shady reputation. George Wilson is a mechanic and owner of a garage who is the scorn husband of Myrtle and the one who killed Gatsby. Lastly there is Myrtle Wilson who is George Wilson's wife and Tom Buchanan's mistress. She is killed when Daisy accidentally runs her over while driving Gatsby's car.
Fitzgerald wrote in the context of an awareness of early twentieth-century feminism. Women in this book, especially Daisy, were still seen as the trophy wife who was only to be seen and not heard. When Daisy had given birth and found out it was a girl, she cried and said,
“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” The Great Gatsby (pg. 16).
These are spoken as she speaks of her hopes for her infant child, which reveals a lot about Daisy’s character. She alone is not just a fool, but is a product of a social environment that, to a great extent, does not appreciate the intellect in women. Her parent’s generation would have valued subservient and docile females whereas hers seek the values of pleasure-seeking which can be seen in her relationship with Gatsby. Her remark can be seen as sarcastic as although she refers to social values of her own era, she does not confront them. She portrays them as her own boredom of life and thinks that girls would have more fun if they were attractive and naive. Throughout the book you can tell that Daisy herself tries to act this part. Daisy conforms to a shared idea of American femininity in the 1920s to escape any tension filled issues of her love for Gatsby. This can be seen from a Marxist/Socialist feminism view in that it incorporates society as well as gender and in that she conforms to the shared idea of American 1920s femininity.
This text can be seen to be concerned by both Daisy and Gatsby’s addiction of the fantasies they have built around a projected “godlike person”. Fitzgerald has given the readers some insight into the disempowerment of men who agree to the male illusion of an idealized woman. He explores the irony that men exploit the women they idolize and use the process of idealization to justify it.
“He began to talk excitedly to Daisy, denying everything, defending his name against accusations that had not been made. But with every word she was drawing further and further into herself.” The Great Gatsby, (pg110)
Gatsby’s life is based on being authenticated throughout his relationship with Daisy without considering her in the process. A radical feminist would see this as oppression on women. Gatsby is trying to dominate Daisy to keep her from leaving him but she realises she has to get away from him.
It would seem that there is a focus on individuals who break the social norms within the text. The narrator of the story, Nick, reflects on the relationship Tom Buchannan has with both Myrtle and Daisy. He uses and abuses Myrtle whilst dominating and over powering his wife. When Myrtle taunts Tom by continuously saying Daisy’s name he,
“Making a short deft movement, Tom Buchannan broke her nose with his open hand.” The Great Gatsby, (pg. 32)
The only problem with this is that he done it in front of an audience in his and Myrtles New York apartment. It is the social norm of this period to dominate the female, but it would be seen as to be out of control if she is physically abused in front of other people. Again this would be seen by a Radical Feminist as oppression towards the female gender as Tom sees the only way to apprehend Myrtle is to do it physically. It is the common behaviour of the social norm of the time period that Fitzgerald is using in his critique. Tom objectifies both Daisy and Myrtle and uses his social, physical and economic authority to overpower them. Women in this text have no power, even when they try to gain it.
Tom uses public violence to keep Myrtle “in line” and this defines what the social norm is. Men are in control and women just take it. Although male, Fitzgerald seems to be critical of this social norm. This is done by the use of Nick, the male narrator. He somewhat comes off as having a calm and fairly disconnected understanding of these relationships. But this should not be read as though it is Fitzgerald himself taking action towards standing against male dominance. He could be equally critical of the involvement of the women. He gives a critique in the mistrust of Nick’s analysis of Daisy’s character and the choices she has made with her relationships with Gatsby and Tom.
“I was confused and a little disgusted as I drove away. It seemed that the thing for Daisy to do was to rush out of the house, child in arms – but apparently there was no such intentions in her head.” The Great Gatsby, (pg. 19)
He appears to be critical of both Daisy’s and Gatsby’s inability to have any independent thought for themselves. With Daisy, as shown in the quote above, he is talking about how she would not walk away from Tom if she knew about his mistress, although it is suggested she does.
It would seem that this text is a restrictive analysis of male dominance that is mostly seen by the nature of his narrator, Nick Carraway. He gives a biased view on the relationship between men and women, and the social structures that determine these relationships. Nick seems to be unable to relate to Jordan Baker on the same level as he interprets her simplicity in morally critical ways, without considering that he thinks this way as well. To a radical feminist this again is seen as oppression as although Nick is not as dominant as Gatsby and Tom, he still has the social norms of a man in this time period and is not thinking of Jordan as an equal.
There are power changes within the relationships of the text as they have to be negotiated between the men and women. The Great Gatsby reflects the significant redefinition of gender roles and personal identity in the early 1900s. Fitzgerald is careful in being open to these changes which can be seen in the choices of his characters. If Myrtle wanted to assert her own independence sexually and financially she still has the need of belonging to her relationship with a man. Tom shuts her up when she tries to verify her independence. Again this could be seen from a radical feminist’s point of view as oppression but a Marxist Feminist could see this as progression as it shows that Myrtle could try to be equal with men but within the context of the time period she would still need the relationship with a man for her own comfort and for the social implications.
Because of financial issues, Daisy chooses to stay with Tom. He is a hypocrite as he claims he has rights over Daisy due to their marriage despite having a relationship with Myrtle. Gatsby, Tom and George (Myrtle’s husband) are shown to be broken down and have destroyed themselves and Myrtle and Daisy due to their pride of masculinity. This seems to have also destroyed the little chance these women had of renegotiating their statuses. Although powerful as desirable women, they are weak in their own right. This would be seen from a radical feminist as total oppression. These men have destroyed these women in a way that they cannot become independent in their own right.
Gatsby’s past is alluded in the novel. If women knew about his past they may not be as attracted to him. He was poor and gained his money through bootlegging. Once Daisy had found out about this, she left him to go back to her husband for the stability. Before his lies are found out Nick is in awe of Gatsby and goes on at length about how marvellous he is in what some feminists may see as homo eroticism.
In conclusion the women and men in this text are shown to be victims of social and cultural norms that they could not change. There is an attempt to redefine society and culture in a new way by gender relations and is shown to be a shaky path to the renegotiation of gender. The text can be mostly applied to radical feminism in that it oppresses the female gender by the attitudes of the men. But in some ways it can be seen from the view of a Marxist view point in that women are trying to gain equality in the genders. Women in this novel do try to change the social norms, with Daisy wanting to be with Gatsby, who was not from “old money” and having a life with him, but conformed to the social norms because she felt she would be more comfortable and stable with a man she did not love.
A liberal feminist would see this book as a stepping stone to equal opportunities as it is the beginning of change in gender and social norms, despite the women falling back on the social norms they are comfortable with much like Daisy. The radical feminists would see this novel as oppression towards women, as the men want to control their relationships with them and be the dominate male. Like Tom and his abusive relationship with Myrtle and Gatsby’s obsession with Daisy. A Marxist would see the novel a bit like a liberal in a way as it is again, a stepping stone in changing the social/gender norms. But they would look at it more broadly as it is also a look on the changed in social class in which they also take into account. This can be seen with the rise in people with “new money” not coming from family and the change in women’s stance in social class.
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