Within and Without: Masculinity in The Great Gatsby, ch. 3

(Main text, part II)

George Wilson is the very opposite of what a man should be: he is “anaemic” (27), poor, and “his wife’s man and not his own” (130). In other words, he lacks social power, economic power, and physical strength and, as a result, he deviates from the norm. However , the fact that he is marginalized by society does not mean that he poses a threat to the existing order. In fact, Wilson strengthens the patriarchal hierarchy, since powerful masculinities are fortified by there being a “countertype” (Mosse 56) that reflects “the exact opposite of true masculinity” (Mosse 6). Just as Nick’s lack of physical strength accentuates Tom’s muscular body, so does Wilson’s lack of power strengthen Tom’s masculinity. Wilson’s weak and pitiful state makes it easy for Tom to seduce Myrtle, Wilson’s wife, and his having a mistress gives Tom’s manliness a boost.

The fact that Wilson lacks the qualities traditionally linked to men, does not make him question the existing order. Wilson has internalized the patriarchal ideology and by locking up his wife he attempts to retrieve the power she has deprived him of and in this way restore the order in his home. George Wilson, as well as Tom, Gatsby, and Nick, wants to increase his power and control. All four characters agree that “manhood is equated with having some sort of power” (Kimmel 145).

It is to gain power and control over his life that Nick attempts to establish a masculine identity. Just like Jay Gatsby, Nick has a clear idea of who he wants to be. Gatsby and Nick both believe that it is possible to create a self, and, as a result, they can be described as self-made men. The self-made man is a pervasive ideal in American myth, but the term usually pertains to material wealth. The description of Gatsby and Nick suggests that the ideal of the self-made man can include other aspects as well. In fact, because masculinity has to be proved, all men are self-made.

Nick strives for the ideal of the “well-rounded man” because he feels that “life is much more successfully looked at from a single window” (10). He is aware, then, of the fact that, as part of the process of forming an identity, one has to limit oneself. For Nick, however , having an established identity connotes freedom, not confinement. This may seem to be paradoxical, but as Barbara Ehrenreich explains, according to patriarchal ideology, masculinity means freedom, while femininity stands for entrapment (286). Thus, the fact that Nick is limiting himself to a single-window-view of life is perceived by himself to be liberating because it is the masculine view of life he is limiting himself to.

The link between identity and freedom is further established when Nick explains how, during his first days in the East Coast village of West Egg, he feels lonely, but after someone asks him for directions he feels that he belongs there and, thusis free. By asking Nick for directions, the stranger signals that he sees Nick as a local, a permanent resident at the center, and, as a result, he invokes a series of masculine ideals in Nick: “I was lonely no longer. I was a guide, a pathfinder, an original settler. He had casually conferred on me the freedom of the neighbourhood” (9).

Interestingly enough, the three types of masculinities that Nick envisions himself as are all linked to the West, rather than to the ordered life of the East. The guide, the pathfinder, and the original settler all represent something new and different and, as a result, they are situated outside civilized society. As the expressions “Out West” and “Back East” suggest, the western part of the U.S. is connected with change and innovation, while the east coast stands for tradition.

Because he is a follower rather than a leader[/annotax-freetext], Nick lacks the qualities linked to the pathfinder, the pioneer, and the guide. As he himself admits, he is “slow-thinking and full of interior rules” (59). However , Nick believes that Gatsby is a pathfinder. To Nick, Gatsby is great because he has a vision (107). Nick erroneously believes that Gatsby represents something new and unprecedented. As it turns out, Gatsby’s vision is a thing of the past rather than the future and the ideal Gatsby is striving for is that of the husband, not the pathfinder. While the pathfinder, the guide, and the original settler connote change, the figure of the husband am / is / wasis a defender of an already existing order[/annotax] .

When Nick pictures himself and Gatsby as pathfinders, guides and settlers, he describes ideals that are opposites to the ones they both struggle to possess. Nick and Gatsby strive to establish identities that are situated within civilized society, while the three ideals above are positioned outside civilization. Thus , masculine ideals can be divided into two categories: those who are situated within civilized society, the civilized masculinities, and those who are positioned outside civilization, the savage masculinities (Bederman 18–19). Even though they are opposites, both civilized masculinities and savage masculinities are perceived to be ideals.

The categorization of masculinities as either savage or civilized parallels the stereotyping of women as either angels or whores. While women linked to the angel-stereotype are perceived as protectors of society, those who are seen as whores are positioned outside the community (Moi, “Feminist…” 213). However , whereas women who are seen as whores are considered to be threats to patriarchal values, savage men are not so. Masculinities that are situated outside civilization, such as pathfinders and cowboys, for example, may threaten to overturn civilized society, but they are not threatening patriarchal values. What the angel-and-whore-concept have in common with the idea of the savage and the civilized man is that a combination of these two, seemingly opposite, roles appears to be desirable. Furthermore , the two concepts illustrate the fact that patriarchal ideology favors what Maggie Humm refers to as a “both/or reality”—it expects its members to perform “the act of being simultaneously inside and outside society” (7). Just as women are expected to play the roles of both angels and whores, so should men be both savage and civilized.

The reason why men are expected to possess two opposite characteristics could be that both nature and civilization are seen as feminine (Ehrenreich 286). Since men have to avoid everything that is linked to femininity in order to be perceived as masculine, men cannot be too close to either civilization or nature. David Leverenz suggests that “to be civilized and savage in one composite, self-divided transformation” is a distinctly American “myth of . . . manhood” (760). Theodore Roosevelt, who was president in the beginning of the twentieth century, possesses both savage and civilized qualities and he was seen as a “masculine archetype” (Kimmel 133). Leverenz claims that the image of Roosevelt “brought together both aspects of the new myth: the top rung of the ladder of social aspiration, and the gladiatorial animal arena sensed at the bottom” (763). That Roosevelt was seen as a masculine archetype, together with the fact that he was elected president, suggest that a combination of savageness and civilized manner was crucial if one were to uphold a dominant masculine identity at this time.

Tom is the character in The Great Gatsby who most resembles Roosevelt, which is shown by the fact that they share the same opinions. Both Tom and Roosevelt have racist tendencies. Theodore Roosevelt popularized the term “race suicide” (Bederman 199) and Tom reflects TR’s fear when he warns that “if we don’t look out the white race will be—will be utterly submerged” (18). Furthermore , just like Roosevelt, Tom possesses savage and civilized traits. Because he is both a husband and a lover, Tom is situated within and without civilization. As Helena Eriksson points out, “the socially acceptable (licit) ideal of masculinity is embodied… by the husband (the ‘in-law’), while the socially unassimilated (illicit) ideal of the rebel is embodied… by the lover (the ‘outlaw’)” (64). Because of his dual roles as husband and lover, Tom is both a defender of family values, situated within society, and a rebel, positioned outside society. Tom’s dual roles partly explain the fact that, while both Nick and Tom’s wife, Daisy, describe him as a “brute of a man” (17), Tom sees himself as a defender of civilization (18).

Also Gatsby plays the dual roles of savage and civilized man. As a bootlegger, Gatsby holds the position of the outlaw. His status as a rebel is strengthened by the fact that he is also Daisy’s lover. However , Gatsby wants to be perceived as a civilized man, which is signaled by his “elaborate formality of speech” (49), his extensive library, and the time and money he spends on his appearance. In order to succeed in the bootlegging business, he has to possess savage qualities, but the ideal he strives for is that of the figure of the husband, which is positioned within civilized society.

Despite the fact that both savage and gentlemanly qualities are sanctioned by patriarchal society, Nick uses Tom’s savage qualities to undermine his status as a masculine ideal. Throughout the novel, Nick poses Tom and Gatsby as opposites by portraying Gatsby as refined and cultivated and Tom as a savage. While Gatsby’s speech is formal, Tom speaks “gibberish” (124); while Gatsby has a vision, Tom is guided by his instincts (119). In addition, whereas Gatsby plans for the future, Tom appears to move in the other direction, which is signaled by his making “a stable out of a garage” (113). The savage is portrayed as reactionary, while the civilized man stands for progress. While Nick attempts to turn Tom into a stereotype, he describes Gatsby as unique. By depicting Tom as a stereotype, Nick objectifies him, thereby challenging his manliness.

Despite the fact that Nick embraces masculinities that are situated outside civilized society, such as the guide and the pathfinder, he portrays Tom’s savage qualities as undesirable. Nick’s seeming inconsistency illustrates the fact that there are two types of savages. Savage masculinities, such as the guide or the cowboy, are situated outside civilized society, but within the boundaries of patriarchy. However, there exists another type of savage: the primitive savage, who is marginalized by society. By portraying Tom as a figure who speaks gibberish and is guided by his instincts, Nick turns Tom’s savage qualities against him in an attempt to undermine his masculine identity and that way lessen his power.

The contrast between Tom and Gatsby is strengthened by the fact that while much attention is paid to Gatsby’s clothes, his car, and his house, Tom is described as a “cruel body” (12). In other words, Nick indicates that clothes are a sign of cultivation and refinement, while the body is connected to savageness. Furthermore, he also suggests that there is a link between appearance and identity.

For Gatsby , clothes are crucial as he attempts to establish himself as a gentleman. Because he firmly adheres to the saying “clothes make the man,” Gatsby concentrates on the surface when he creates his self. Jeffrey Decker suggests that Gatsby’s concern with his appearance reflects a shift from a “notion of ‘character’ (founded on an inner sense of duty and piety)” to “the cult of ‘personality’ (based on image-making and competitiveness)” that took place in the beginning of the twentieth century (63). The fact that most characters in the novel seem to share Gatsby’s belief in the importance of appearance supports Decker’s claim. Much of the characters’ lives appear to revolve around their looks. Nick does not think it too irrelevant to mention that he wears a white flannel suit to Gatsby’s garden party (43), Daisy seems to be combing her hair every time she passes a mirror (120), and Myrtle, who is Wilson’s wife and Tom’s mistress, is attracted to Tom because of his “dress suit and patent leather shoes” (38). Nick emphasizes the link between clothes and identity by revealing that “[w]ith the influence of the dress [Myrtle’s] personality [has] also undergone a change” (33). In other words, clothes do not necessarily reveal who the characters are, instead they may project an image of them as they want to be perceived.

However , just as clothes can hide the characters’ true identities, they may also expose their real selves. The reason why Tom does not believe that Gatsby is an “Oxford man” is that he “wears a pink suit” (116) and Myrtle feels that Wilson deceived her because he married her in a suit that was not his own (37).

The emphasis on clothes in The Great Gatsby suggests that the establishing of an identity is the same as learning to play a role successfully, rather than finding a true self. In addition , it further emphasizes the fact that masculine qualities are acquired rather than innate and that there is no such thing as a masculine essence. Thusit is suggested in the novel that masculine qualities are both artificial and fragile and that men’s selves are shaped by, and depend on, outside forces.

The fact that image is everything is also shown in the case of Theodore Roosevelt, the “masculine archetype” (Kimmel 133). When Roosevelt entered politics, he was accused of being effeminate. In order to succeed as a politician, he changed his image and became known as the “Cowboy from the Dakotas” (Bederman 170–71). Both Roosevelt and Gatsby create masculine identities in order to be accepted in patriarchal society. The fact that men are compelled to create selves that are in accordance with masculine ideals suggests that patriarchal society is an oppressive force in men’s lives, as well as in women’s.