Within and Without: Masculinity in The Great Gatsby, ch. 2

(Main text, part I)

The main character in The Great Gatsby is the narrator, Nick Carraway. Since he is the focalizer, the other characters in the story are seen through his eyes. Nick is one of the characters in the novel who attempt to establish acceptable identities. However , all major male characters in The Great Gatsby share his struggle. Nick’s attempt to create a manly self is reflected in Jay Gatsby. Tom Buchanan appears to be situated safely within the boundaries of masculinity, but, as the novels shows, even a dominant and powerful masculinity may falter. George Wilson represents the “countertype” (Mosse 56) that reflects “the exact opposite of true masculinity” (Mosse 6). He, too, however, is struggling to establish himself as a man.

Despite the fact that Jay Gatsby figures in the title of the novel, it is mainly Nick’s struggle for manhood that is described in The Great Gatsby. Through his description of the other male characters in the novel, Nick reveals what qualities he sees as desirable. In other words, Nick’s portrayals of Gatsby and Tom, as well as of George Wilson, are also portrayals of himself.

Nick’s struggle to find his masculine self takes the form of a journey. This journey involves both an actual move from his hometown in Midwestern U.S.A. to New York City, and a symbolic move from the margin, which is the feminine realm, toward the center. The fact that Nick sees his motherland as the margin is signaled by his description of the West as “the ragged edge of the universe” (9)1 and “that vast obscurity beyond the city” (171) .

While the journey-to-find-a-self-motif is not uncommon in American literature, this journey mostly goes in the other direction, from the East Coast to the western part of the country. Nick, however , leaves the West to establish his self in the ordered East. The main reason why Nick leaves the West is that he has to leave his home, with its extended family of aunts and uncles, in order to become independent. Furthermore , nature, especially wild and untamed nature, like that of the West, is linked to women and femininity (Flannigan-Saint-Aubin 244). By moving to the City, which he perceives to be the center, Nick attempts to escape the feminine realm. It is not, however, just femininity that he tries to avoid. Nick also reveals that he wants to escape one woman in particular, because he has “no intention of being rumoured into marriage” (24). The flight from women and femininity is important for the establishing of a masculine self (Kimmel 115) and Nick feels that, in order to be a man, he has to reject both women and everything that can be considered feminine,

Another reason for Nick’s move is that mobility itself is perceived to be a masculine quality (Kimmel 120–21). While men are linked to mobility, women, whowho are seen as men’s opposites, are connected with stasis [/annotax] (Ehrenreich 286). The move across the country is a way for Nick to prove his manliness. Another example of the link between mobility and masculinity is George Wilson’s plan to establish a manly identity by moving west. The fact that Nick moves east to establish a masculine self, while Wilson wants to move west for the very same reason, illustrates the fact that the patriarchal construct is fraught with ambiguities and tensions.

As Michael Kimmel suggests, the link between mobility and masculinity is not limited to geographic mobility; it also includes social mobility (120–21). While Nick’s move is geographical, Jay Gatsby Verbs and the -s endingattempts to move up on the social ladder[/annotax] . For Nick, the margin is symbolized by the “vast obscurity” (171) out west. Gatsby, however , links the margin to poverty. By acquiring Daisy, a girl whose voice is “full of money” (115) and who “gleam[s] like silver, safe and proud above the hot struggles of the poor” (142), Gatsby hopes to establish an identity within the boundaries of masculinity. The fact that poverty has an emasculating effect is seen in George Wilson, whose poor circumstances have rendered him powerless and, thus, marginalized him.

While Nick sees the East Coast as the center, for Gatsby the center is symbolized by the idea of a house. When he first meets Daisy, his image of her and that of her house are closely connected because to him they both represent that which is forbidden. Gatsby describes how “[s]he vanished into her rich house, into her rich, full life” (142). Furthermore , “Daisy’s house [has] always seemed to him more mysterious and gay than other houses” (145). Because the House symbolizes the center to Gatsby, his own house is closely linked to his image of himself. The house stands as a monument over his accomplishment and its destiny is linked to that of Gatsby. Thus , when Gatsby’s self “[breaks] up like glass” (141), the house no longer catches the light” (87), but instead it is a “huge incoherent failure” (171). The fact that Gatsby’s identity is linked to his house suggests that both men and women can be connected to their homes, and not just women, as feminist thought has claimed (Kimmel 116).

Tom Buchanan appears to embody maleness. He possesses all the qualities that the dictionary links to masculinity: he is “strong; robust; [and] powerful” (The New Webster Encyclopedic Dictionary 519). However , despite Tom’s status as a masculine ideal, Nick depicts him as a man in search of his self. Tom is described as “one of those men who reach such an acute limited excellence at twenty-one that everything afterwards savours of anti-climax” (11). Nick feels that “Tom [will] drift on forever seeking, a little wistfully, for the dramatic turbulence of some irrevocable football game” (12). Even though Tom, in the beginning of the novel, appears to be unaware of any loss of identity, Nick implies that he has lost the identity he once had and that, as a result, he has lost his self. By implying that Tom lacks an acceptable masculine identity, Nick questions Tom’s position within the boundaries of patriarchy.

When Nick describes Tom as a person without an identity, he disregards the fact that Tom is a husband and a father, as well as a lover. The fact that Nick ignores Tom’s current roles, which are all masculine ideals, could suggest that Nick sees these roles as inadequate. Howeverit could also be that Nick is describing his own situation, rather than that of Tom. In any case, Tom’s presupposed loss of identity is reflected in Nick and Gatsby. Both of them were soldiers during World War I and, as such, they possessed indisputably masculine identities. Since the war is over, they are forced to establish new selves.

As the description of Nick, Gatsby, and Tom suggests, masculinity is associated not with stability, but with fluctuation. In her book Male and Female, Margaret Mead writes that “[m]aleness in America is not absolutely defined, it has to be kept and re-earned every day” (318). Furthermore, “masculinity has constantly to be proved” (Flannigan-Saint-Aubin 244). In other words, in order to be masculine, one is forced to define and redefine oneself constantly.

When speaking of masculinity, or gender in general, the key word is power. As Michael S. Messner states, “power [is] the central dynamic in the construction of a multiplicity of gender identities and relations” (98)This power is mainly expressed as control over others, but it also includes power over one’s own situation and over the environment.

Masculinity is an abstract construct, but it is expressed in three main areas: physical strength, social power, and economic power. In her book Sexual Anarchy, Elaine Showalter suggests that masculinity can be constructed as a scale (91). Men who are strong, wealthy and have a high standing in society score high on the scale, while those who lack these qualities are situated closer to the dreaded border where masculinity and femininity merge. Thus , while a man like Tom Buchanan, who is rich, physically strong, and has a prominent position in society, scores high, someone like George Wilson, who does not even have power over his woman, is situated in the grey area close to the borderline.

However , since masculinity is not stable, but fluctuating, Tom cannot take his top position on the scale for granted and Wilson will move up if he gains power. By proving one’s masculinity, one also determines where on the scale of masculinity one is situated. One way of proving one’s masculinity is to test it against other men. As Michael Kaufman suggests, “[p]atriarchy exists as a system not simply of men’s power over women but also of hierarchies of power among different groups of men and between different masculinities” (145). To confirm his masculine status, Tom exercises his power over the other characters in the novel. As a consequence, Nick finds himself moved around by Tom’s “authoritative arms” (134) “as though [Tom] were moving a checker to another square” (16). Furthermore, Tom forces Nick off a train (27), he turns him around “by one arm” (13), and he compels him to visit people he has no wish to meet (27). The reason why Tom is able to take advantage of Nick is that Nick feels Tom “is stronger and more of a man than” he is (12–13). In other words, Nick links Tom’s masculinity to his physique and he also recognizes that he himself lacks that kind of power.

Nick, however , does not sit idly by and let Tom take advantage of him. By emphasizing his exceptionally high morals, Nick implies that he is above Tom. Furthermore , throughout the novel he attempts to undermine Tom’s power both by ridiculing him and by indicating that he does not belong within the masculine realm. In addition , by helping Gatsby to meet Daisy, who is married to Tom, Nick actively supports him in his attempt to take Tom’s position on the scale of masculinity.

Despite Nick’s efforts to lessen Tom’s power, Tom holds the position of the patriarch in The Great Gatsby. The patriarch is situated at the top of the scale of masculinity. Tom’s status as patriarch is indicated by the fact that his voice has “a touch of paternal contempt in it” (12) and that he sees himself as a defender of “family life and family institutions” (124). Jay Gatsby plays the role of the aspiring patriarch in the novel and, as such, he poses a threat to Tom Buchanan. When Gatsby makes a claim on Daisy, he puts Tom’s position at the top of the scale of masculinity in jeopardy. A patriarch is a father and he cannot exist without a family to preside over.

When he woos Tom’s wife, Gatsby does not challenge the patriarchal order, he only challenges the sitting patriarch. In fact, Gatsby’s attempt to dethrone Tom enforces patriarchal rule and the existing criteria for what “real” masculinities should include. By challenging Tom, Gatsby confirms the notions that masculinity must be proved and that the man who has the most power secures the highest position on the scale of masculinity. Also Nick adheres to patriarchal values when he supports Gatsby’s rebellion. If Gatsby wins the struggle against Tom, Nick’s power will increase too. From a Freudian perspective, Nick and Gatsby must challenge the patriarch, the Father, in order to establish independent masculine identities.

As mentioned earlier, in order to reach the top of the scale of masculinity, one has to fulfill certain criteria. While Gatsby is rich and has a manly body, he does not have the right background. Because he is aware of what it takes to become a patriarch, Gatsby creates a past and an image that fits a potential patriarch. The fact that Gatsby creates a masculine identity challenges the patriarchal notion that gender-related qualities are innate rather than socially constructed.

The final encounter between Tom and Gatsby, where the combatants establish who has the most power, takes the form of a duel. The duel takes place on neutral grounds, in a hotel, and even though the weapons they use are not revolvers but words, the outcome is the same: one of them ends up shot as a direct result of the other person’s actions.

Because  Tom wins the battle between him and Gatsby, his position as patriarch is strengthened, while Gatsby is rendered powerless. Gatsby’s loss of power is illustrated by the fact that he is forced to give up the “old, warm world” and enter the “new material world” (153). This new world that Gatsby is forced into is the world in which George Wilson resides: it is the world of the powerless. By losing the duel, Gatsby is moved down on the scale of masculinity to the border, where femininity and masculinity merge. In other words, Gatsby is forced from the center to the margin. Gatsby’s descent into no-man’s land will make him a “poor ghost… breathing dreams like air” (154), just like Wilson.


1 All quote references from The Great Gatsby refer to the Penguin edition of the novel.