The ultimate value of Feminist Criticism is to make the oppression of women easily visible so that we can better incorporate and appreciate women’s role in society. Tyson argues the “ultimate goal [is] to change the world by promoting women’s equality” (92). But changing the world is no easy task. As the long battle of women’s suffrage raged on the world slowly did change, yet the transition to male and female equality is far from complete.
The problem is inherent in the complexity of the ideology we have all grown up living in, while not readily identifying itself as ideology, but rather, just the way things are. That man has fought to maintain economic, political, and social power in society is an extension of his fight to maintain such in his very household. Patriarchy is simply an outdated ideology that is slow to remove its entangled web. The traditional gender roles that have been used to justify inequities between men and women was brought about by the division of labor within the family. But as modern society has grown and changed over the years the entire notion of family and traditional roles has changed too.
When Fitzgerald wrote The Great Gatsby the social and political rights and changes that women had been fighting for were newly won. The ideology of patriarchy was resistant to women’s new role in the family and society. The role of the “New Woman” was seen as a threat to traditional family lifestyle and as a “moral decline [in] society as a whole” (Tyson 121). The “New Women” of The Great Gatsby were Daisy, Jordan, Myrtle, and even Catherine. All of these women step outside the traditional female roles in their family and push new limits of accepted behavior in society. The women in the novel are strong, independent, sexual, and looking for new adventures. Daisy and Myrtle both have sexual and emotional affairs with men other than their husbands. Jordan is making her life in golf, a male dominated sport. Jordan is also dating Nick and is quickly engaged to another man after Nick breaks up with her. Catherine is supporting her sister’s affair with Tom; she attends parties at the NY city loft, and is drunk when she hears of Myrtles death. But the men in the novel fight to keep the women in place.
Tom wins Daisy back in the end as she submits to his authority after Myrtles death. And Daisy’s most severe punishment will be living with the knowledge that Gatsby died for her mistake. Even Myrtle’s gruesome death appears to punish her sexual mischief by mutilating her body, when they inspected her “they saw that her left breast was swinging loose like a flap” (Fitzgerald 137).
It can be argued that the men in The Great Gatsby see women as objects, and use them as objects, and as objects the women are denigrated by patriarchy to a lesser importance than men. Written during the turmoil of change for women’s place in the family and society the novel brilliantly highlights the flawed ideology of patriarchy.
Why is Gatsby great? Why did Fitzgerald choose The Great Gatsby for the title of this brilliant novel? If organic unity is the culmination of the work as a whole, including the formal elements and theme, then the title of the book itself is critically important to the overall value, because we have to look at the work in its entirety and not measure its greatness from any particular part. From a New Critics perspective Gatsby is great because of what he achieves and who he is, just as the novel is great for what it achieves. Gatsby is great because (1) he’s able to acquire massive amounts of wealth in very short period of time, (2) his character is such that he imparts “eternal reassurance” to others, and (3) he’s able to win Daisy’s love from her husband, who she also loves. Such claims need to be confirmed by a close reading and specific meaning within the novel.
Gatsby is enamored with Daisy, both the girl and the idea of her- her money and status. He’s crushed by her decision to marry Tom shortly before he returns home from the war. Even though his ambitions for wealth and success predate Daisy he decides to pour his efforts into winning her back. While standing outside his palatial mansion built in the likeness of Hotel de Ville in Normandy Gatsby says to Nick “It took me just three years to earn the money that bought it” (90). Three years is not a lot of time, the meteoric rise in wealth and social class is great regardless of his means of procurement.
When Nick first meets his neighbor Gatsby during one of the lavish parties he was renowned for throwing he’s quick to praise his elegant qualities. Nick says Gatsby had one of those rare smiles with a quality of eternal reassurance in it, that you may come across four or five times in life. It faced-or seemed to face- the whole external world for an instant, and then concentrated on you with an irresistible prejudice in your favor. It understood you just as far as you wanted to be understood, believed in you as you would like to believe in yourself, and assured you that it had precisely the impression of you that, at your best, you hoped to convey. (48)
The description of Gatsby is nothing less than great, for who wouldn’t want those qualities described by Nick. Gatsby has a way with people that facilitates his achievements, the combination of motivation and personality makes Gatsby an iconic figure, a symbol of the great American dream.
Soon after the initial awkwardness of their reunion Gatsby and Daisy are back in love. The complexity and order of the romance is equivalent to the complexity of the human experience of love. Daisy is brash and kisses Gatsby when Tom leaves the room. While at lunch, the critical betrayal of her monogamy to Tom is witnessed when she says to Gatsby “you look so cool…[y]ou always look so cool” (Fitzgerald 119). The ensuing fight between Tom and Gatsby for Daisy’s love results in Daisy admitting that she loves Gatsby more. However, the victory is short lived as Tom continues to persuade Daisy that Gatsby isn’t truly her social equal, and not worthy of her love. Despite loving Gatsby more, Daisy chooses Tom because of the security and status he provides.
In all these ways Fitzgerald imbues greatness on Gatsby. Through images of opulence and greatness, and with outstretched arms towards the green light at the end of Daisy’s dock, which is the novel’s symbol for unfulfilled longing, the text portrays the complications of life and the human experience, that at some level, we can all relate to. The tension between the “lyric imagery” and “vulgar materialism” creates “a theme of universal human significance that transcends the historical period” (Tyson 152) of the novel, and makes it great, just as the title implies.
Originally published at www.happinessfootprint.com on April 6, 2012.