Friday, September 6, 2013

Women in The Great Gatsby and The Sun Also Rises: Insignificant or Powerful Characters?

Ciao dears,

        I’ve mentioned that I wanted to share some things I’ve written on here because I love to write.  My blog is where I write about (and post pictures of) things I love, so it makes sense to me.  I have already shared some short stories, poems, and random musings that I’ve written on here in the past.  I know a lot of you probably only care to see fashion posts.  If so, there will still always be plenty of those on here as well, so keep checking back for new ones.  I’m doing well with my resolve to post once every day this month! Yay!  So, this is a paper I wrote for my English Literature Junior Seminar class in college.  I thought this was semi-relevant since I yesterday’s post was about The Great Gatsby.  I’ll be posting a few more Gatsby related things I’ve written soon as well.  Enjoy, tell me what you think if you read it! Smile Hemingway and Fitzgerald are two of my favorite writers by the way. Have you read any of their works?   

Women in The Great Gatsby and The Sun Also Rises: Insignificant or Powerful Characters?

        Women have often been marginalized and portrayed in a negative light both throughout history and in literature. Women are often made to look like weak, insignificant, powerless, and even evil characters in literature through the eyes of a male narrator. Both F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby and Ernest Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises feature prominent and powerful female characters, mainly Daisy Buchanan and Lady Brett Ashley, which are depicted by male narrators as weak, less significant than male characters, and at times evil or immoral. Although both these novels are set in the early 1920s, a time when women were starting to gain more rights and independence, women were still generally seen as lower in society than men. A feminist analysis of these works can prove that women are, in fact, very significant yet not evil characters in these novels that also hold power over men despite their lower position in society as a whole. This idea can be proven though examples from the novels, specific quotes from the novels, and various academic sources.

        The Great Gatsby tells the story of a group of people living in upper class New York during the 1920s. The narrator is Nick Carraway, a man who moved from the Midwest to New York to work in the bond business. He moves next to a man named, Jay Gatsby, who spent much of his life trying to acquire wealth and become a part of the upper class in order to win back the affections of his lost love, Daisy Buchanan. Daisy, a beautiful and overly feminine woman, fell in love with Gatsby before the war. She was supposed to wait for him but instead married the wealthy and aristocratic, Tom Buchanan. 

        The fact that Nick narrates the story is not very beneficial to the female characters. He tends to portray them in a misogynistic and morally biased way. Also, as the author of his story, Nick tends to over exaggerate things or romanticize them at times. For example, as Barbara Hochman points out in her essay, Nick seems to be fascinated with people’s speaking voices. He makes many remarks about the charm and musicality of Daisy’s voice. In contrast, Gatsby disdainfully replies to Nick that her voice is “full of money” (Fitzgerald 220).[1] This example show that Nick’s view of people, of women in particular, is not always in accordance with the view of others. Also, the men in this novel including the narrator tend to objectify women, viewing them as some type of somewhat unattainable object to be wished for and won. This is seen most obviously in Gatsby’s obsession with Daisy and also in Nick’s relationships with women. Nick seems to see women as objects to be disposed of when things get too difficult. He leaves both a girl in his hometown before he left for New York and another girl in New York from his office because things got a little too difficult. He almost idealizes Jordan Baker, the same way Gatsby does Daisy, for a while before becoming disinterested in her.

        In the beginning of the novel, when Nick sees Daisy for the first time in years, he talks about her slightly negatively and critically, as if he is better than her. He says things like “she laughed, an absurd, charming little laugh” (Fitzgerald 8), calling her laugh absurd. Also, after Daisy says “I’m p-paralyzed with happiness,” Nick comments: “she laughed again, as if she said something very witty” (8), which sounds misogynistic, as if a woman would not have anything witty to say. Lastly, when referring to the way she spoke Nick says “I’ve heard it said that Daisy’s murmur was only to make people lean toward her; an irrelevant criticism that made it no less charming” (9) While he finds her charming, he also criticizes her like an object to be amused by and not a person.

        Daisy seems to be, however, a very significant, if not central, character of Fitzgerald’s novel. Most of the story tells of Gatsby’s fixation on and obsession with winning her affection. Even Nick seems to be fascinated by her charm and mysteriousness. Tom, even though he cheats on her with Myrtle, will not leave her. She seems to have some sort of power over most of the men in the novel. Many critics, according to author Leland S. Person Jr., have harshly criticized Daisy’s character, labeling her empty, morally indifferent, amoral, vulgar and inhuman.[2] Daisy is portrayed by Fitzgerald’s narrator as greedy and cruel for wanting to be with Tom and his “old money” rather than Gatsby with his new money. She strings him along for a while and then changes her mind and decides to stay with Tom. Daisy only does this however, after finding out that Gatsby gained his fortune through illegal activities. Even though he did it out of a love for his fantasy of her, he was still technically wrong. Daisy protects herself and her marriage by staying with Tom. Should she really be criticized for that? She or anyone else could not have lived up to Gatsby’s idealized vision of her anyway. Daisy’s actions, some of which make her seem slightly cruel, could be a result of both the callous way her husband treats her combined with the way Gatsby over idealizes her. It is her situation that makes her seem “evil,” not something naturally in her personality because she is a woman. Even though she does seem to be shallow and indifferent at times, it is because she is a product of her environment. She lives in a world full of shallow, lost people and is oppressed by her cheating husband.

        Another woman in this novel is Jordan Baker, a friend of Daisy’s. Although she is not as significant to the story as Daisy, Jordan also has an important role. She is a woman who is more focused on her career as a golfer than on men like Daisy. Nick has a short relationship with her, although they were never extremely close. Jordan is a powerful woman in that while she does have a relationship with Nick for a while, that is not all that defines her. She is very interested in her career, perhaps even too much. Jordan is criticized by the narrator for her dishonesty, particularly for when she cheated to win a golf tournament. This shows his bias towards men because Gatsby is also dishonest yet he is viewed by Nick as a tragic hero who died for his love of Daisy. His entire wealth was based on dishonesty and illegal activity yet he is not so criticized.

        Like Fitzgerald’s novel, Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises, tells the story of a group of lost souls during the Jazz Age. This group of friends spends most of their time engaging in frivolous activities like drinking and traveling. The narrator, Jake Barnes, meets Lady Brett Ashley, a wartime nurse, when he is injured during World War I.  They seem to love each other, but Brett does not love Jake enough to overlook Jake’s physical disadvantage of impotency he acquired during the war. The novel also features Jake’s friends, Robert Cohn, Bill Gorton, Frances Clyne and Mike Campbell among others.

        The obviously prominent woman in this novel is Lady Brett Ashley. There are very few women in this novel at all and Brett, although she is called “Lady,” is not the most ladylike woman. She is rather independent and loves to use her sexuality as a power to control men. Her strength and independence, according to typical gender roles, make her more masculine and thus more powerful. Similarly to Daisy, Bret’s character has often been harshly criticized, according to Lorie Watkins Fulton. Brett has been labeled destructive among other derogatory terms.[3]

        Again, the narrator in this novel is a male character, Jake. The reader’s view of Brett is shaped through his eyes and thus tends to be a bit conflicted. Although Jake loves Brett, he also seems to be resentful and critical of her because she rejects him most of the time. Because Brett has some sort of relationship with many of the men in the novel, this also affects Jake’s perception of them as well. He even states that “I feel I have not shown Robert Cohn clearly. The reason is that until he fell in love with Brett, I never heard him make one remark that would, in any way, detach him from other people” (Hemingway 52). This proves that Jake’s narration is biased against both Brett and those with whom she has relationships.

        Hemingway’s portrayal of Brett in this novel can be seen as very misogynistic. She is depicted as a woman who uses her sexuality to get in between the friendships of the various men in the novel. Because she is an independent, strong woman, she is seen as a threat to men. For example, even Brett thinks she will be a threat to the bull fighter, Pedro Romero’s career because she is not overly feminine and weak. Similarly to Daisy, Brett’s criticisms about her character can also be attributed not to an “evil” associated with being a woman, but to her circumstance and environment. Brett’s first love was killed during the war, leaving her saddened and forever searching to replace that love. She does this through mostly physical love, except with Jake, with whom she has a more emotional connection but cannot have a physical one.

        Masculinity is very much idealized in this novel. Things like boxing, bullfighting, and fighting in the war are all seen as very masculine and therefore, powerful and courageous activities. Ironically, participating in the war robs Jake of his masculinity in a physical way. Brett, as an independent woman, a trait traditionally associated with men, is somewhat looked at as “manly” by this society because of it. Based on Todd Onderdock’s essay, Jake, on the other hand, while he did fight in the war, play tennis, and enjoy bullfighting, all very masculine activities, is also sensitive, passive, and quiet at times, traditionally feminine qualities.[4] Jake is considered then, slightly feminine, while Brett is considered slightly masculine. Despite her flaws, in their society, Brett would be considered the more important and powerful character in that case.

        In conclusion, in both Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby and Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises, there are strong female characters that are central to the stories told by their male narrators. Although the narrators’ view of them is biased, it can be observed through feminist criticism that these women are both very important in the understanding of these novels and that they also have a certain amount of power over the men in their worlds despite their lower position in society. Lastly, the negative views and criticisms often placed on these characters are not always true and can be explained by their particular circumstances. To answer the question posed in the title, the women in these novels are surely not insignificant, but powerful and central characters.

Works Cited

Dumenil, Lynn. "The New Woman and the Politics of the 1920s." OAH Magazine of History 21.3 (2007): 22-26. Academic Search Premier. Web. Oct. 2011.

Fitzgerald, F. Scott. The Great Gatsby. New York: Scribner, 2004. Print.

Fulton, Lorie Watkins. "Reading Around Jake's Narration: Brett Ashley and The Sun Also Rises." The Hemingway Review 24.1 (2004): 61-80. Academic Search Premier. Web. Oct. 2011.

Hemingway, Ernest. The Sun Also Rises. New York: Scribner, 2006. Print.

Hochman, Barbara. "Disembodied Voices and Narrating Bodies in The Great Gatsby." Style 28.1 (1996): 95-118. Academic Search Premier. Web. Oct. 2011.

Onderdonk, Todd. ""Bitched": Feminization, Identity, and the Hemingwayesque in "The Sun Also Rises."" Twentieth Century Literature 52.1 (2006): 61-91. Academic Search Premier. Web. Oct. 2011.

Person Jr., Leland S. ""Herstory" and Daisy Buchanan." American Literature 50.2 (1978): 250-57. Academic Search Premier. Web. Oct. 2011.


[1]. Paraphrased from “Disembodied Voices and Narrating Bodies in The Great Gatsby” by Barbara Hochman

[2]. Paraphrased from “”Herstory” and Daisy Buchanan” by Leland S. Person Jr., page 250

[3]. Paraphrased from "Reading Around Jake's Narration: Brett Ashley and The Sun Also Rises" by Lorie Watkins Fulton.

[4]. Paraphrased from”"Bitched": Feminization, Identity, and the Hemingwayesque in "The Sun Also Rises."

                                                           

                                                                                                         ♥♥ Xoxo Gabriella

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