Write an essay analyzing the role of women in The Great Gatsby, as represented by Daisy, Jordan, and Myrtle. What kind of influence or power do they wield? Consider their social positions and interactions.
The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald depicts the oppression of the women, placed as they are in a society of male dominance where they apparently enjoy high social status, a position bestowed upon them by their male counterparts. The female characters, particularly Daisy, Myrtle and Jordan are divested of their personal identities as they adapt to please the men around them. Jordan is an important exception with her building her social positions on her own merit and yet this leads to her eventual isolation. Based after the Great War in 1922, the book picturizes the flapper culture of the Roaring Twenties when though women were portrayed to be morally permissive in short skirts and liberated social habits, they were actually expected to surrender to domestic demands.
In The Great Gatsby, in describing the social interactions of the three female protagonists, Fitzgerald uses negative capability to convey the conflict between individual personalities and society. These women are compelled to behave in ways not their own and keep individual needs aside in order to comply with the demands of society. The usage of negative capability highlights the inherent conflict in the women as they are fragmented between their personal choices and the obligation they feel to appear pleasing in their social interactions. This is apparent when Daisy says, “It makes me sad because I’ve never seen such – such beautiful shirts before.” (5,98) Daisy’s surprising outburst signifies her realization of the life she could have led had she married Gatsby. This moment speaks of Daisy’s materialism, where she emotionally breaks down at this conspicuous proof of Gatsby’s newfound wealth. But it also speaks of her strong feelings for Gatsby, and how touched she is at the lengths he went to to win her back. Similarly, Myrtle when she says, “I married him because I thought he was a gentleman. I thought he knew something about breeding, but he wasn’t fit enough to lick my shoe,” (2,37) she is torn between her husband George and the new life that Tom showcases to her. Thus, the two female characters are both bound to their social statuses because of their spouses and are not able to initiate any social elevation by themselves. In contrast, Nick comments about Jordan, “Instinctively, avoided clever, shrewd men, and now I saw that this was because she felt safer on a plane where any divergence from a code would be thought impossible.”(3,58) Jordan, aims to elevate her social position on her own without the support of men as she is aware that the men will impose restrictive duties on her, curbing her chances. Thus, in their social interactions, Daisy and Myrtle display negative capability as they are forced to choose between their personal desires and following the commands of their men in order to maintain their social positions.
Having conveyed the lack of individual power among the female protagonists, Fitzgerald continues to depict that they draw the limited influence they have from the men who are besotted by them. He conveys through symbolism the powerlessness of these women, to which Jordan is an exception, and the limited influence that their social positions entail which is largely drawn from the male characters. Although both Daisy and Myrtle are portrayed to be beautiful women who exercise considerable influence on their male counterparts, in social situations they are depicted as completely powerless as they are not able to manipulate the situation to their own advantage. This can be seen when Tom and Gatsby confront each other over Daisy and the latter in utter helplessness keeps requesting that they should all disperse and go home. Ironically, though Daisy is the subject of the confrontation, both men refuse to take what she says into account. Similarly, when Nick, Tom, Myrtle and her friends visit New York City, just the mention of Daisy from Myrtle makes Tom erupt and he strikes her. Through this action, Tom proves that Myrtle is powerless compared to him and she holds less significance in his life than his married wife.
The limited power that the female characters possess is derived from the male characters and is portrayed in symbols throughout the novel. Thus, in the fourth chapter, Daisy gropes “around in a waste-basket she had with her on the bed and pulled out the string of pearls. “Take ’em downstairs and give ’em back to whoever they belong to. Tell ’em all Daisy’s change’ her mine. Say ‘Daisy’s change’ her mine!’.” (4,74) In this flashback, narrated by Jordan, the reader learns about Daisy’s past and how she came to marry Tom, despite being in love with Gatsby. In fact, she seems to care about Gatsby enough that after receiving a letter from him, she threatens to call off her marriage to Tom. However, despite this brief rebellion, for the sake of her public image, she is quickly put back together by Jordan and her maid in preparation for her wedding. The dress and the pearls symbolize Daisy fitting back into her prescribed social role. And indeed, the next day she marries Tom “without so much as a shiver,” showing her reluctance to question the place in society dictated by the men around her. Similarly, in the fifth chapter, Nick describes Myrtle as they make their way to New York, “Mrs. Wilson had changed her costume some time before and was now attired in an elaborate afternoon dress of cream colored chiffon, which gave out a continual rustle as she swept about the room. With the influence of the dress her personality had also undergone a change.”(2,33) Through this, the reader can see how Myrtle transforms from her more physical persona into that of someone desperate to come off as richer than she actually is. The dress symbolizes the power that Tom can bequeath to Myrtle and how without his presents and association with her, she would be nothing. Again in contrast, there is Jordan who seems to enjoy considerable influence on the other characters as she moves the plot by her actions. She often leaves hints or exposes secrets like when she mentions to Gatsby, “The rumour is that that’s Tom’s girl on the telephone” (7,110) indicating that she is aware that Tom is unfaithful to Daisy. Such actions symbolize the power and influence Jordan has as an individual, to the point where the male characters, particularly Gatsby rely on her to gain personal information of others. With her reputation as a professional golfer, she holds Gatsby’s trust. Therefore, both Myrtle and Daisy do not have any personal power though they have a limited amount of influence over their lovers, while in contrast, Jordan holds power and influence over her male counterparts.
Lastly, to further depict the emasculation of the female characters, Fitzgerald objectifies both Myrtle and Daisy through visual imagery, often connecting them to their social status. However, to contrast these two characters, Jordan is not objectified or described in any way which would make her an image of a social class. In the fourth chapter, Gatsby says, “Her voice is full of money,” (7,115) showing that he explicitly ties Daisy and her voice to wealth. This particular line is crucial, as the image it depicts is one connecting Daisy to the idea of the American Dream. Rather than an individual, she is portrayed as the exhilarating pursuit of wealth that all the characters are involved in. In comparison, Myrtle is sexually objectified due to her lower class, where in the last chapter, “Michaelis and this man reached her first but when they had torn open her shirtwaist still damp with perspiration, they saw that her left breast was swinging loose like a flap and there was no need to listen for the heart beneath. The mouth was wide open and ripped at the corners as though she had choked a little in giving up the tremendous vitality she had stored so long.” (7,131)) In her violent death, Myrtle’s physicality and vitality are emphasized even while the image remains overtly sexual. Through this moment, Fitzgerald portrays Myrtle as one who represents her social class and in presenting her mutilated body, he connects her to the idea of promiscuous sex. In contrast, descriptions of Jordan do not slot her into a social class. She is described as “polite reciprocal curiosity out of a wan, charming, discontented face.” (1,16). As an individual Jordan stands on her own and is not connected to her social class while Daisy and Myrtle’s individuality is often diminished as they are objectified by their social status.
In conclusion, in the novel, there is no specific role for the women protagonists other than to drive the plot through their presence. Since they lack empowerment and have no or limited influence over the males, they are reduced to subsidiary roles of providing love interest to the men and a motivation for them to achieve their dreams. Their social interactions merely reflect their economic status and thereby these women provide a class structure rather than being strong individuals on their own merit. In the case of Jordan, though she is not objectified or disempowered like Daisy or Myrtle, but because of the harsh facade that she insists on maintaining, she ends up lonely and without a partner. Through her character, Fitzgerald expresses his opinion how these kinds of women would end up in the social structure that the American society of the time offered. In contrast, even in death George follows Myrtle while Daisy returns to Tom. Thus, through the roles of these women Fitzgerald concludes that it is powerful to be powerless.