The Great Gatsby, is often deemed a canonical masterpiece, and rightly so. Fitzgerald explores the dysfunctionality of the ‘American Dream’, the mutability of identity, the immorality of the bourgeoise and the illusion of memory, seamlessly through the beautiful and romanticised writing of his narrator, Nick Carraway. However, overlooked are the matriarchal undertones prevalent throughout the text. Overlooked, due to the social climate in which he was writing, the contextual details and narratology of the The Great Gatsby novel often overshadow the strength of the female characters; in particular, Daisy. In fact, many critics believe the text to use the female characters superficially for the purpose of plot alone, as Makowsky claims: ‘Fitzgerald does not really develop … [female] character beyond its utility as a handy narrative technique’. However, what these critics lack, is the understanding of female characters in relation to the male hegemonic ideas of the society in which they are created. The women are victims of an unjust society and are presented through the eyes of a biased narrator; however, they are by no means silent victims, as many before have suggested. Surfacing through the undercurrents of the text, The Great Gatsby offers much more to its character, Daisy Buchannan, than one is led to believe through apparent observations.
Nick Carraway is the lens through which one reads The Great Gatsby, and the lens through which the reader is introduced to each character. Deemed an unreliable narrator, we may be persuaded to overlook the cavern in Nick’s narration as he very quickly establishes himself as a man who is not bound by bias and subjectivity. Chronologically, addressing the notion of an unreliable narrator on the very first page of the novel, Nick instead asserts that he is a man ‘inclined to reserve all judgment’, a man with an admittance of his imperfections, aware that he ‘snobbishly repeats’ that which his father ‘snobbishly suggested’, all the while overstating his integrity, claiming of his ‘tolerance’. Furthermore, Nick is not shy to confess his limitations, noting that ‘reserving judgment is a matter of hope’ and explicitly stating: ‘and, after boasting this way of my tolerance, I come to the admission that it has a limit’, immediately placing the reader within a balanced and seemingly fair judgement, albeit self-judgment, of himself. However, this honesty and morality comes ‘in consequence’ of his father’s guidance and so, the reader is exposed to the first partial piece of evidence convicting him of unreliability and bringing to light his susceptibility to influence. Furthermore, in doing so, it appears that the reader, too, has merely been ‘taken in by Carraway in the same way Carraway has been taken in by Gatsby’. The parallel between narrator and reader, Nick and Gatsby, and the fact that Nick’s character is examined within the first page, suggests the rest of the novel serves to obliterate the claims of the very first page. In doing so, Fitzgerald brings into question every other detail we are privy to throughout; including, but not limited to, the representation of the female characters. In consequence, one must look to what is beneath the beauty of Nick’s words to glimpse the truth.
Through Nick’s narration an entrance into the mind of Fitzgerald is also visible and Kerr’s notion that ‘Fitzgerald, not Nick, tells [Daisy’s] story’ becomes increasingly evident. The notion that it is indeed Fitzgerald who narrates and afflicts Nick with his own prejudice of women, is contextually supported. Writing in the 20th century, Fitzgerald’s female characters seemingly adopt the archetypes in which women in such an era often found themselves characterised; Pelzer argues that ‘women’s own attitudes about men, especially Daisy’s, paradoxically belie the depth of any real change in roles and expectations’. Arguing that it is due to the societal ideology inflicted upon Fitzgerald which leads to his bias of women and their permanent oppressive state in his novel. Using Fiske’s ideology that discourse is used in order to sway the emotions and ideas of the reader; ‘the language identifies and constructs a social position for the addresse’, through Nick’s surface narration he extends and immortalises the stereotype of submissive women; describing her as ‘helplessly’ turning to him.
However, Korenman suggests that ‘the character that [Daisy] results is both cool innocent princess and sensual femme fatale, a combination that further enhances Daisy’s enigmatic charm’. Not exclusive to America, 20th century westernised society placed value in the domestic and public spheres of society. Typically, women were to look after the domestic sphere, the home, and in doing so assumed an ideal characterisation of an ‘angel in the house’ archetype. Fitzgerald uses the domestic sphere as an extension of Daisy’s self, enabling her to exude the ‘innocent princess’ trait idealised in a patriarchal society. The houses on East Egg are described as ‘white palaces that ‘glittered along the water’, revealing connotations of royalty and elegance; commonly associated with Daisy’s character. Particularly important is the colour psychology of white, representing purity and innocence, introduced in the description of the house and further emphasised upon meeting Daisy who was ‘in white’ with her dress ‘rippling and fluttering’, it demonstrates her ethereal nature. Furthermore, after establishing her as a beautiful and angelic woman, she is delineated as an ‘anchored balloon’, referencing the male dominated society in which women are anchored to; a state still idealised in women during this era.
Everything that allows Daisy to be the stereotypical woman, is utilised to her advantage. Once she has been established as a submissive and innocent character, her ‘sensual femme fatal’ is shown through her control and dominance of the narrative. After establishing Nick as an unreliable narrator, it is not difficult to see how Daisy can manipulate narration and the perception of herself. Firstly, by altering the tone of her voice, making it so that the subject of her attention felt like ‘there was no one in the world she so wanted to see’ more , establishes a sense of power over the male characters in particular. Furthermore, drawing attention to ‘her little finger’ she accusingly says to Tom; ‘you did it, Tom … I know you didn’t mean to but you did do it. That’s what I get for marrying a brute of a man, a great, big, hulking physical specimen of a again assuming a weaker ‘innocent princess’ disguise; a disguise that is taken deeper through the purposeful use of floral and femininity in her name, Daisy Fae. Critically, however, Daisy gives her husband a name he strongly objects to; ‘I hate that word hulking … even in kidding’ and moreover a title that Daisy ‘insisted’ on even more. Much like Nick does through Fiske’s notion of discourse being constructed in order to sway the reader, Daisy’s power continues to work on two levels. She uses her voice not only in the sense of words, but also physically changing the tone to manipulate the way in which men view her. Furthermore, in manipulating the men of the novel, and more importantly the narrator, Daisy takes control of the narrative, the readers perceptions and the story; critically, how she is viewed in it. While Daisy has an underlying ‘femme fatal’ charm, her ‘innocent princess’ disguise serves as a protector from the patriarchal ideology of the society in which she lives.
Further utilising the significance of names in the novel, Daisy further hides through the connotations of her name. While associated with innocence and fragility, Daisy also wields the connotation of death; ‘pushing up daisies’, and both Gatsby and Mrytle die as a direct result of her; while she escapes any repercussions. After associating her with the ‘angel in the house’ archetype, Fitzgerald provides the opposite; she assumes an ‘angel of death’ embodiment. In providing the duality of her power, Fitzgerald suggests that females have much more power than men believe, however, it is still a power not necessarily celebrated.
While still being patriarchal, it is important to note that 1920 society was more relaxed than any other period before. The introduction of flappers and the proliferation of cinema gave women a new-found sense of femininity within a misogynistic society. Daisy’s manipulation of the narrative and dominance in the exchange between her and Tom, parallels the changing notions of society. Operating within the domestic sphere of society, where women spend the majority of their time, also confirms the notion that the patriarchal undertones of society were starting to gradually shift. Historical context is imperative to our understanding of the novel. It is through the changing attitudes within society, that Daisy is able to assume a more powerful role within the narrative of The Great Gatsby.
However, 1920 America was far from equal. The undercurrents of the text serve to show the ways in which Daisy both adheres to societies patriarchal norms of femininity and breaks them. Firstly, Tom sweepingly shows Nick the plethora of ‘pungent roses’ in his garden, almost in passing. However, they are there for his viewing, and at his pleasure; like his wife, they are to make his home look beautiful. Consequently, Daisy is again reduced to an object, trapped in the narrative of her era. The roses are plural, suggesting all women, especially those in the novel, are there for the male characters. However, the symbolism of the rose arises again during one of Gatsby’s parties; a woman asks Nick to ‘reach me a rose, honey, and pour me a last drop into that there crystal glass. Not only is the woman commanding, her use of the word ‘rose’ is singular. Furthermore, Fitzgerald inserts this use of the word rose while at Gatsby’s, the place of ‘new money’ and progressive morals; outside of Daisy’s domestic sphere. In doing so, she is separated from both the traditional domestic sphere and the male hegemonic ideology prevalent in society. From the plethora of roses in the Buchanan’s, to the now singular use of rose, the progressive bodies of femininity are placed within a changing society; giving power to the female characters.
In using the symbolism of the rose, Fitzgerald grounds his female characters in nature, utilising it as another device to separate them from ‘man’, albeit a negative form of power. Causing Gatsby to lose his life, Nick comments that he must have ’shivered as he found what a grotesque thing a rose is’ referring to Gatsby’s material want for Daisy. Even though her grotesqueness is the subject of the sentence, Nick unknowingly elevates her above Gatsby. It is not the rose, grounded in nature, that is grotesque, it is Gatsby’s materialistic want for the unattainable. Due to this, the reader may be able to discern the place where feminine power actually lies. The consumerist notion of society has corrupted the minds of men, however, women who aren’t involved in the public sphere of society, will always remain, to a certain extent, pure. It is this purity and morality that allows women their power. When the ‘grotesque’ description is once more associated to Daisy, as Nick intended it to be, Fitzgerald partners Daisy’s crime with the symbolism of the rose to further suggest they will always have power over men; in this case Daisy’s ‘innocent princess’ disguise which ensnared Gatsby, protects her from the wrath of Wilson.
Through the power of Nick’s writing, Fitzgerald both adheres to the stereotypes of women on the surface and challenges the notion of patriarchy through the undercurrents of his novel. Redefining female power in The Great Gatsby, historical context becomes imperative to the observations behind Nick’s male privileged words. Although not explicit, the female characters hold much more power than Nick allows them credit, albeit not always a positive power. While the language of The Great Gatsby remains oppressive, one can see the power that, Daisy in particular, wields, especially in the domestic sphere of society.