A critical analysis of the relationship between narration, characterisation and gender in The Great Gatsby.
"She was incredibly dishonest".
In The Great Gatsby (Fitzgerald, 2001), Nick Carraway’s depiction of Jordan Baker contradicts essentialist beliefs about gender. Essentialism refers to the belief that gender is determined by biological sex. In this post, I will argue that Jordan represents a transgressive form of femininity that subverts traditional gender roles.
Jordan’s androgyny is first indicated by her name. The name Jordan does not clearly indicate which gender role she is expected to conform to. It is only when Jordan is described as being a “small breasted girl”, that the reader can identify her as female(Fitzgerald, 2001). The noun ‘girl’ is used to enforce Nick’s own masculine identity. Nick patronizes Jordan here as he renders her as immature by suggesting that she possesses a childish physique. Here Nick establishes femininity as a tool by which to measure one’s own masculinity. Moreover, in patronizing Jordan, Nick is displaying male dominance whereby females are silenced and marginalized by male authority. Nick determines Jordan’s characterisation and by extension her identity. Therefore Jordan’s underdeveloped physique not only establishes femininity as passive in comparison to masculinity but also establishes her as boyish. In characterising femininity as identifiable by a woman’s developed physique, Nick implies that an immature female body problematises gender identity. The lack of a female form is synonymous with a sense of masculinity. Femininity is separate from masculinity. Femininity and masculinity are in binary opposition of one another. The fact that Jordan’s perceived masculinity is characterized as immature further demonstrates how male dominance distinguished males as superior to females. Jordan is depicted as an immature male and a female at the same time. Immature suggests a deficiency. Even though Jordan can be aligned with masculine traits, she lacks the full capacity to be considered completely male. Thus, Nick suggests that femininity can only be aligned with masculinity in the most limited sense. Jordan can only be perceived as an immature male and never a fully ‘complete’ male because she is essentially female. Femininity here can only be aligned with masculinity when it refers to the most limited sense of a masculine identity- that of a childish, weak, and inferior male. The problematic nature of femininity is further illustrated by Nick’s depiction of Jordan’s androgynous behaviour.Jordan exhibits masculine gestures. For example, Nick explains how Jordan is seen to throw “her body backwards at the shoulder like a young cadet”. This simile suggests Jordan displays masculine behaviour as it likens her to a soldier. A cadet can be defined as a young trainee in the armed services During the early half twentieth century, the army would have consisted exclusively of men. Further evidence of Jordan’s lack of femininity is demonstrated through her masculine attributes. For instance, Jordan is known for her dishonesty in her golfing as she is seen to cheat in her tournament when “she […] moved her ball”. Here she actively rebels against traditional views of moral purity associated with females. In particular, her lie can be interpreted as the masculine trait of competitiveness. Within Nick’s narrative, competition is synonymous with male dominance. Male dominance is largely embodied by Tom Buchanan; the epitome of patriarchal power. For instance, Tom is well renowned for his dominance in the college league sporting world. As the top of his field, Tom beat all of his potential competition. Nick qualifies him as a “national figure” in the collegiate sporting world when he uses the superlative to explain how he was “the most powerful ends that ever played football at New Haven”. Therefore, in aspiring to succeed, Jordan is actively rebelling against traditional views of femininity. Izenburg’s statement, “if women could be […] as economically productive […] as men, there [would be] no real difference between masculinity and femininity other than reproductive roles”, could provide an answer for why Nick views Jordan as possessing an androgynous form of femininity (Izenburg, 2000, p. 11). Masculinity is associated with autonomy, whereby a man is free from external powers of control and can self-govern his own life. This is made possible through a male’s role as financial provider whereby he can act independently. However, a woman in the early twentieth century would have to depend solely on a male for support. Whether relying on her father or husband, a woman would be unable to exert any financial independence. It is thus significant that Jordan participates in golf as a career. Golf provides her with a financial income which means she can act in a self-sufficient way relying solely on her own economic productivity. Therefore, competitive aspirations, for Nick, are synonymous with masculine dominance and authority. Without the need to rely solely on a patriarchal figure, Jordan can embody both femininity and a form of masculine autonomy. In aspiring to succeed, Jordan is actively rebelling against traditional forms of femininity.
However, Jordan does not strictly adhere to ideas of masculinity either. Nick implies this when he explains how “Jordan’s slender golden arm [was] resting in mine”(Fitzgerald, 2001). The use of colour imagery establishes Jordan as exhibiting a form of female helplessness. Gold connotes a sense of preciousness. The act of being precious is associated with the character of Daisy Buchanan. Daisy embodies femininity when she is described as “the golden girl”. This association with a delightful helplessness manifests in Daisy’s decision to remain married to Tom and fulfil her role as a submissive female, despite her apparent unhappiness. Daisy explicitly exhibits her dissatisfaction when she explains her desire to see her daughter grow up to become “a beautiful little fool”, which for her is “the best thing a girl in this world can be”. Daisy’s decision to perform the idea that a woman should be too ignorant to understand just how unhappy she is, and by proxy remain married, can be understood in terms of historical context. Williamson’s statement, “whether she was a queen or a fishwife, a woman was subservient to the man she married”, suggests that Daisy’s decision to stay married is due to her dependency on Tom (Williamson, 1986, p.38). Abandoning her marriage would lead to economic ruin. Marriage is primarily a patriarchal institution, and if she were to leave Tom she would lose not only her reputation but her security as well. It is significant that Daisy, whose “voice was full of money” remains married (Fitzgerald, 2001). She can only sustain her wealth as long as she is subservient and loyal to her husband. Therefore, the delicate Jordan is established as feminine when she is physically dependent on a man. This iterates a form of patriarchal rhetoric as it suggests that a woman’s identity as female derives from her value as a future subservient. Thus, the notion of being feminine and being autonomous at are odds with one another. One cannot be autonomous and feminine simultaneously. The two concepts cannot coexist with one another. In ‘this world’ femininity and autonomy contradict each other. The fact that Jordan is financially autonomous suggests she cannot fit exclusively into either gender category. Moreover, within The Great Gatsby, traditional views of femininity are problematized by a transgressive form a femininity that is based on autonomy. In exerting autonomy, Jordan cannot be identified as strictly feminine because she rebels against a patriarchal institution that prescribes females financial dependency. For Nick, Jordan exists in a liminal space. He cannot comfortably categorize and fit her into either gender sphere. Jordan’s existence, for Nick, is a contradiction. Her androgyny disrupts preconceived notions of gender that traditional bolstered male authority.
Nick’s depiction of Jordan as transgressive and androgynous suggests that gender is performative. In particular, Judith Butler (1990, p. 50) states that “there is no gender identity behind the expression of gender”. She claims that culture creates the gender roles prescribed as appropriate behaviour. Thus gender identity is a “performatively constituted” (p.54) expression of societal ideals. Consequently, Nick is undecided about his own gender. Once Jordan has demonstrated how femininity can no longer be used as a way to define masculinity as a separate entity, Nick suffers his own identity crisis. For instance, he contemplates how during the course of his narration he feels both “within and without, simultaneously enchanted and repelled by the inexhaustible variety of life”( Fitzgerald, 2001). Here Nick shows an awareness for the contradictory means of measurement used in life. Whether it be the process of measuring one’s own position in the world or one’s gender identity against another, Nick is aware of the deterioration of such preconceived binary oppositions. This is due to the fact that Jordan destabilizes gender roles by rendering them as mere concepts. Therefore, Nick questions his own masculinity through his inadvertent critique of essentialist views of gender roles.
Butler, J. (1990) Gender Trouble: The Subversion of Identity. New York, Routledge.
Fitzgerald, F. (2001) The Great Gatsby. London, Wordsworth Classics.
Izenberg, G. (2000) Modernism and Masculinity: Mann, Wedekind, Kardinsky Through World War I. Chicago, The University of Chicago Press.
Williamson, M. (1986) The Patriarchy of Shakespeare’s Comedies. Detroit, Wayne State University Press.