Within and Without: Masculinity in The Great Gatsby, ch. 4

(Main text, part III)

Victorian novels abound with women who lose their identities when they get married2, and feminist critique has thoroughly investigated the effect marriage has had on women’s individual identities (Eriksson 59). The effect of marriage on men’s identities have not attracted the same attention since tradition has it that men’s selves are unaffected by matrimony. Fitzgerald’s novel suggests that this may not be the case. By rejecting the figures of the husband and the lover, the narrator in The Great Gatsby reveals a fear of the role women play in the establishing and upholding of masculine identities. Both the husband and the lover define themselves in relation to women. The husband cannot be a husband without a wife by his side and the lover is a pathetic figure without an object for his passion. Thus, both the husband and the lover depend on outside forces for their definition and, as a result, they can maintain their positions only as long as the outside forces recognize and reinforce their status as ideals.

There is, however, a difference between women’s loss of identity in Victorian novels and the loss of self that the male characters in The Great Gatsby experience. While women lose their selves when they get married, the self-images of the men in Fitzgerald’s novel remain intact until the women they love, or are married to, revolt. In fact, the male characters appear to gain selves through matrimony. The role as head of his family is crucial for Tom’s image of himself, which is indicated by the fact that the word “paternal” (12) is linked to him repeatedly.

Because the male characters in The Great Gatsby build their selves around their wives or lovers[/annotax-freetext], they are vulnerable. Nick recognizes this vulnerability and, as a result, he rejects the masculine ideals of the lover and the husband. In doing so, Nick does not challenge patriarchal ideology. Despite the fact that the figures of the husband and the lover are ideals, society admires and applauds men who avoid matrimony. The reason for this is that marriage is seen as something men are lured into by women. Thus , marriage is presented not only as a means to establish a masculine identity, but also as a threat to men’s selves. The patriarchal view of marriage is problematical and it exposes the fact that patriarchal ideology is fraught with contradictions.

Women’s  prominent role in the establishing and upholding of masculine identities is a pervasive theme in The Great Gatsby and the epigraph of the novel suggests that it is women who create men’s selves:

Then wear the gold hat, if that will move her;
If you can bounce high, bounce for her too,
Till she cry ‘Lover, gold-hatted, high-bouncing lover,
I must have you!’

Thus , Fitzgerald’s novel implies that it is women who define the norm and determine how men should be. In The Great Gatsby it is Daisy who prescribes what is right and wrong. Nick finds himself “looking at [his surroundings] through Daisy’s eyes” (100). Furthermore , he describes how Gatsby dismisses his staff and stops giving parties when he realizes that Daisy objects to them: “the whole caravansary had fallen like a card house at the disapproval in her eyes” (109). In addition, Gatsby “revalue[s] everything in his house according to the measure of response it [draws] from her well-loved eyes” (88).

Gatsby’s whole identity is built around Daisy and through the acquisition of her he hopes to “recover something, some idea of himself perhaps, that [has] gone into loving [her]” (106). When Daisy abandons him, Gatsby’s identity is dissolved and he is forced into the “new world” (153). In other words, Nick suggests that Daisy is both the source of Gatsby’s identity and the reason he has lost his self. Thus, the patriarchal view of women is similar to its view of marriage.

Also in the case of Tom is Daisy both a threat to, and a prerequisite for, his sense of self. Tom’s position as a patriarch depends on Daisy. In the novel , Tom is linked to the ultimate patriarch—God. Besides being compared to a clergyman, he seems to have a connection with Dr. Eckleburg, who figures in an advertisement on a billboard and who is confused with God in the novel. However , when Daisy puts Tom’s status as a patriarch in jeopardy by comparing Gatsby to the image of Dr. Eckleburg, Tom’s voice loses its “paternal note” (125). The fact that Tom’s sense of who he is hinges on his role as husband and patriarch suggests that he is “his wife’s man” (130), just like George Wilson. By pointing out the vulnerability of masculine identities, The Great Gatsby reveals that the patriarchal construct as a whole rests on unstable ground.

Daisy is not unique in her ability to make and undo masculine identities. In fact, her name, which is also the name of a common flower (Fetterley 73), indicates that her power is rather widespread among women. In The Great Gatsby, Daisy’s power is shared by Myrtle Wilson. Myrtle’s husband is “his wife’s man” (130) and Myrtle is able to walk “through her husband as if he were a ghost” (28). George and Myrtle Wilson serve as an illustration of what could have happened if Daisy had not returned to Tom. In his description of Daisy and Myrtle, Nick implies that married life involves a battle for power and that if the husband is not careful, his wife will render him powerless, that is, deprive him of his identity and force him into the feminine realm.

Nick suggests that no man is safe from scheming women. Dan Cody, Gatsby’s mentor, is described as a “pioneer debauchee” and he is linked to the “savage violence of the frontier brothel and saloon” (97). Furthermore, it is Cody who helps Gatsby take his first steps toward manhood, by picking him up on a shore with the telling name “Little Girl Bay” (96). Nick reveals that Gatsby’s and Cody’s friendship “might have lasted indefinitely, except for the fact that Ella Kaye came on board one night in Boston and one week later Cody inhospitably died” (97). In other words, not only do women interfere with men’s friendships, they are also deadly.

The narrator in The Great Gatsby seems to suggest that a reversal of roles has taken place. The women have selves and are in control, while the men lack those qualities or are deprived of them during the course of the narrative. Nick describes the women at one of Gatsby’s parties as “wanderers, confident girls who weave here and there” (42), while “the cocktail table [is] the only place in the garden where a single men [can] linger without looking purposeless and alone” (44). In other words, while the women are mobile, the men are compelled to stay in one place. DemonstrativeThis[/annotax] is shown also in the case of Wilson and Myrtle. While Myrtle goes to the City to pursue a career (as Tom’s wife), Wilson sits “on a chair in the doorway and star[es] at the people and the cars that pass . . . along the road” (130).

Also when it comes to love, the roles are reversed. Nick claims that when Gatsby kisses Daisy, she “blossom[s] for him like a flower and the incarnation [is] complete” (107). In reality, however, it is Gatsby who is transformed, while Daisy “vanishe[s] into her rich house, into her rich, full life” (142). When Daisy moves on, Gatsby is left behind. Furthermore , Nick reveals that when Gatsby and Daisy meet again, five years later, Gatsby undergoes a change that is “simply confounding” (86).

In the relationship between Nick and Daisy’s friend, Jordan Baker, it is Jordan who is in control. Nick describes how Jordan “deliberately change[s their] relations” (59). Furthermore , Jordan is described as self-sufficient (14), which suggests that she is a complete person and does not need anyone to define her. Nick, on the other hand, lacks an identity. Lack is a quality that patriarchal ideology links to women (Moi Sexual/Textual… 166). The fact that Jordan is self-sufficient could be the reason why Nick is drawn to her. Perhaps he senses that she is safe because she is complete, which, since it is the opposite of lack, is a masculine trait. Nick describes Jordan as a tomboy and he emphasizes her “jauntiness” (51) and the fact that she is a “sportswoman” (70). Furthermore, he compares her to a “cadet” (16). In other words, it appears as if it is Jordan’s lack of feminine traits that attracts Nick.

Throughout The Great Gatsby Nick appears to be afraid of femininity. In fact, he longs for the all-male society of war and he says that he “want[s] the world to be in uniform… forever” (8). Sandra M. Gilbert suggests that World War I had an emasculating effect on the soldiers who participated in it (303) because it led to a reversal of roles as women filled the voids that men left behind on farms and in factories (283). Thus, when Nick misses the war it could be that he longs for the patriarchal order he feels has been disrupted.

Gilbert refers to the returning soldiers as “No Men, nobodies” (283). The fear of becoming a “nobody” is prevalent in The Great Gatsby and it is because of this fear that the male characters attempt to establish masculine selves. Gatsby tells Nick his whole made-up life’s story because he does not “want [him] to think [Gatsby is] just some nobody” (66). The fact that there is a link between lack of identity and being a “No Man” is shown also in the case of George Wilson. Wilson is presented as both “spiritless” (27) and a “ghost” (28), which indicates that he is, indeed, nothing.

The “No Man” in the novel inhabits No-Man’s Land, which is an actual place in The Great Gatsby. The nameless place where Wilson lives is situated between Long Island and New York City. Its location emphasizes the fact that it is the border, the margin. Nick describes the place as a “valley of ashes” with “ash-grey men, who move dimly and already crumbling through the powdery air” (26). George Wilson is covered with grey dust that “veil[s] everything in the vicinity—except his wife” (28). The “valley of ashes” is linked to the feminine, as its borderline position and lack of name indicate. As a consequence , it is a place where women are strong and men weak. The gender roles are reversed in No-Man’s Land: Wilson is dirty, which suggests that he is unable to separate himself from the surrounding environment. His wife, in the other hand, is clean. Dirt is linked to the feminine (Modleski 67).

Margaret Mead suggests that “[b]oys are unsexed by failure” (318). This also includes men. If they fail to live up to masculine ideals, members of the male sex turn into nobodies. George Wilson is a nobody because he does not have the power that patriarchal ideology demand that men have. However , George Wilson is not the only nobody in The Great Gatsby. When Gatsby is stripped of his identity, he becomes “Mr. Nobody from Nowhere” (123) and is forced into the “new world” that Wilson inhabits.

Thus , men who fail become Others who inhabit the chaotic margin beyond the center. Gatsby is perceived as an Other even before he loses his self at the end of The Great Gatsby. Throughout the novel, there are rumors about Gatsby’s background. Common for these rumors is that they pose him as an enemy. Repeatedly , gossip casts Gatsby as a German spy (45) and/or a murderer (60). The gossips sense that Gatsby is an intruder and a foreign element in the upper class circles he wants to belong to.

Gatsby is not the only Other in Fitzgerald’s novel. In fact, all the male characters in The Great Gatsby share his Otherness. Wilson is the most obvious Other in the novel, while Tom’s Otherness is perhaps not as easily detected. However , throughout the book Nick attempts to undermine Tom’s masculinity by posing him as a primitive savage. Furthermore , Nick strengthens his description of Tom as an Other by implying that he lacks the versatility that is one of the key ingredients in a masculine identity. When he refers to Tom as “Mr. Tom Buchanan, the athlete” (110), Nick implies that Tom is limited, which is a quality linked to femininity. Also Gatsby attempts to lessen Tom’s manliness by calling him “Mr. Buchanan . . . the polo player” (101). The most serious blow to Tom’s masculinity is, however, Daisy’s rebellion; that is, her threat to leave him.

Nick is, as he himself says, “within and without” (37). This is emphasized by the fact that he is both the narrator and a character who actively participates in the course of events in the novel. The portrayal of Nick is ambiguous because, while he describes his struggle to fit in, he also idealizes the position of the outsider. For example, on the first page of the novel, Nick reveals that he has an exceptionally high quantity of the “fundamental decencies,” but he also says that he is a “normal person” (7). Furthermore , even though he wants to belong in West Egg, he states that “life is much more successfully looked at from a single window (10, emphasis added). It would, then, appear as if Nick is quite happy being a person situated on the outside, an observer. However , as mentioned earlier, Nick does not want to be outside as much as he wants to be above. Nevertheless , by distancing himself from the east coast society which he perceives to be the center, Nick positions himself as an Other. Nick’s status as an Other is strengthened by the fact that he returns to the West, to what he perceives to be the margin, at the end of the novel. Nick’s ambivalence to life in the East could be an attempt to conceal his failure to fit in.

Thus, all four characters in The Great Gatsby have traits that do not fit a masculine identity. The characters’ Otherness undermines their masculine selves and, as a result, they all run the risk of becoming “no men,” inhabitants of the “new world” (153).

By describing the world of George Wilson, and also of Gatsby, as the “new world,” Nick indicates that he is afraid of the future. The inhabitants of the new world are men who have been “unsexed by failure” (Mead 318) and therefore do not exist except as “ghosts, breathing dreams like air” (154). In other words, because they have been deprived of their status as men, they have become “no men” which is the same as being women. Nick’s fear of the future is reflected in Tom, who alternately claims that the world will be swallowed by the sun (112) and that “the white race . . . will be utterly submerged” (18). Tom also warns that “[n]owadays people begin by sneering at family life and family institutions, and the next thing you know they’ll throw everything overboard and have intermarriage between black and white” (124). Tom sees the disruption of the patriarchal order as the beginning of what he perceives to be a catastrophe of apocalyptic magnitude.

As mentioned earlier, Nick thinks Gatsby is a great man because he has a vision. Nick believes that Gatsby sees a future. As it turns out, however, Gatsby is no more able to see a future than Nick and Tom areIt is telling that when Nick attempts to put Gatsby’s vision into a bigger context, he links it to an event four hundred years earlier—when the Dutch first laid eyes on Long Island. However , while the landscape that met the Dutch was filled with maternal images—“a fresh green breast” (171)—the landscape of the new world is barren: “a fantastic farm where ashes grow like wheat” (26). The contrast between the old world and the new world emphasizes the role-reversal that has taken place and by depicting the new world as barren, Nick hints at the catastrophic effects of the role-reversal. Furthermore , the fact that the new world is infertile suggests that it is linked to the “new woman,” who was accused of being barren (Showalter 40). Thus, Nick shares Tom’s concern that a disruption of the patriarchal order will lead to the end of the world.

Masculinity in The Great Gatsby is easily upset, which indicates that it is a fragile construct. Because “[m]aleness . . . has to be kept and re-earned every day” (Mead 318), men constantly run the risk of becoming inhabitants of No Man’s Land. The fact that Tom, Nick, and Gatsby have to re-earn their manliness every day could be the reason why they are all restless. Nick describes Tom’s eyes as restless (169) and Gatsby is “never quite still; there [is] always a tapping foot somewhere or the impatient opening and closing of a hand” (63). Furthermore , Nick himself comes “back restless” (9) from the war.

However , the three characters’ restlessness may also originate in their not knowing what they are striving for. The fact that “[m]aleness . . . is not absolutely defined” (Mead 318) suggests that it is not exactly clear what masculinity is. Because competitiveness is an important factor in the establishing of a masculine identity (Flannigan-Saint-Aubin 244), men are constantly in a state of transformation. The male characters in Fitzgerald’s novel search for their selves, but according to patriarchal ideology it is not possible to acquire and then keep a masculine identity. If it were possible to do so, men would not have to keep on proving their manliness.

At the end of The Great Gatsby , George Wilson and Jay Gatsby, the two inhabitants of the new world, are dead. Nick returns to “that vast obscurity beyond the city” (171), while Tom goes on being “aggressive” and “restless” (169). In other words, Tom appears to be the only one of the four characters who has succeeded in maintaining a masculine identity. However, Tom has failed too. If he had performed his role as patriarch successfully, Daisy would not have rebelled against him. While Nick, earlier in the book, compared Tom to a clergyman (125), at the end of the novel he feels “as though [he] were talking to a child” (170). By comparing Tom to a child, Nick suggests that Tom’s power is imaginary.

The fact that all four characters in The Great Gatsby fail to acquire selves in accordance with patriarchal ideology suggests that masculine identities are unattainable. Indeed, how could they be attained if masculinity “has to be kept and re-earned every day” (Mead 318)? That masculinity has constantly to be re-earned indicates that it will always be out of reach. In other words, men can never be all that patriarchy asks them to be.

Margaret Mead  writes that “[p]eople in America of course live in all sorts of fashions, because they are foreigners, or unlucky, or depraved, or without ambition; people live like that, but Americans live in white detached houses with green shutters” (258). The same is true of men. Persons of the male sex have all sorts of personalities, because they are deficient somehow, or unlucky, or without ambitions, but men are masculine. As a result , those who fail, like Jay Gatsby and George Wilson, are banished to the margin, which is the feminine realm.

In order not to be marginalized, men must establish masculine identities. The quest for selves is a pervasive theme in The Great Gatsby and the four characters, Nick, Tom, Gatsby, and Wilson, all seek to form identities that are in accordance with patriarchal ideology. However , by implying that masculine identities are fragile and that they rely on outside forces, such as women, for their definition, Fitzgerald’s novel challenges their ideal status. Through its description of masculinity as problematical, The Great Gatsby undermines the patriarchal construct, which is the basis for existing values and rules. The novel implies that, just as masculine identities, patriarchal society depends on the very forces that threaten to destroy it, for its sense of self. In addition , by portraying manhood as a never-ending test, the book suggests that masculine selves are unattainable. Simone de Beauvoir writes that “One is not born a woman, one becomes one” (qtd in Moi, Sexual/Textual… 92). In The Great Gatsby it appears as if the men are stuck in the becoming, without ever reaching the end station.



2 The most famous being perhaps Cathy, in Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights, who does not recognize her own reflection in the mirror after she has married Edgar Linton.