Wednesday, August 4, 2010

The Threat of Maternity in The Great Gatsby

With summer vacation already well past its mid-point, my 16-year-old sister recently decided that maybe she should start on the summer reading list for her Honors English class. When I heard that F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby (1925) was on the list, I recognized not only a chance to bond with McKenzie over literature (if only required reading, from her perspective) but also an opportunity to finally commit to reading Fitzgerald’s classic, a text that I’d somehow never managed to get through entirely. I thought that McKenzie and I could each read the novel and then discuss it when she comes to visit later this month. Resisting the temptation to—lovingly, of course—chastise my sister for not beginning her summer reading earlier, I communicated with McKenzie via text message (the best way to reach her these days) my plan to read Gatsby along with her, and, although I’m pretty sure that it didn’t earn me any street credit with her, she agreed to be my reading buddy. A few days later, I sent McKenzie a follow-up text: “Gatsby done last night. Still thinking about it, but don’t think it has very positive portrayal of women.” She replied, “Lol omgoodness ur crazy.” I briefly contemplating the possible reasons for her assessment of me as “crazy”—was it because I read the book in a relatively short period of time, because I attempted to instigate a conversation about the novel in a text message, or because I seemed about to discuss gender, a topic which I tend to harp on, at least according to her?. Ah, well, I decided, maybe we will discuss the book further when I see her face-to-face. In the meantime, perhaps my response to the book will be better received by readers of my blog than by my sister, a soon-to-be Junior in high school, someone who at this stage in her life is, at least somewhat understandably, more concerned with her hair and her boyfriend than with literary analysis.

So, here goes. As I began to articulate in my text message to McKenzie, I am troubled by Fitzgerald’s depiction of women in general and Daisy in particular. Although the characterization of Gatsby’s entire cast of characters is complicated by its development through the perspective of narrator Nick Carraway, women—and especially Nick’s cousin, Daisy Buchanan—seem to represent, at least for Nick, of all that is evil in Fitzgerald’s highbrow modernist sphere. Not only does the feminine come to symbolize weakness and carnality—as opposed to the masculine-coded strength and intellect—but also romance, in both the popular and literary sense of the word, as well as popular or “low” culture in general—as opposed to the “high” culture of Fitzgerald’s modernism. Linked to the association of women with popular culture in the novel is the depiction of women—and, again, Daisy most especially—as representative of the iniquitous power of money. In perhaps the most often quoted passage of the novel, Daisy’s voice is described as “full of money” (120). Indeed, many scholars have noted Nick’s misogynistic characterization of Daisy as a sort of siren who leads Jay Gatsby to his demise. What has been neglected in Gatsby scholarship, however, is how Daisy’s depiction as femme fatale is both compounded and complicated by the maternal imagery surrounding her relationship with Gatsby and her literal role of mother. I would claim, in fact, that it is at least in part because Daisy is a mother that she comes to represent such a threat to Nick Carraway.

Nick narrates the story of Gatsby and Daisy’s ill-fated love affair as it unfolds throughout the course of the novel. He learns that the two met and fell in love as teenagers, but that Daisy chose to marry Tom Buchanan, a “brutish” and even cruel man of the “Old Money” set, over Gatsby, a penniless serviceman doing a tour of duty in Europe. After the war, Gatsby went on to make his fortune independently and, through Nick, re-enters Daisy’s life as a new man. Gatsby offers Daisy a way out of her loveless marriage and an escape from the annoyance of Tom’s numerous affairs, but she is ultimately unable to commit to leaving the security and status afforded her as Tom Buchanan’s wife. After Tom manages to secure Daisy’s allegiance to their marriage in a dramatic show-down with Gatsby, Daisy (perhaps accidentally) strikes and kills Tom’s mistress, Myrtle Wilson, in a hit-and-run automobile accident in Gatsby’s car. The other characters blame Gatsby for the death, and neither Daisy nor Gatsby correct their assumption that Gatsby was driving when the accident occurred. Finally, Gatsby is murdered in an act of vengeance by Myrtle’s husband, and Daisy and Tom leave on vacation, not even bothering to attend the funeral. Throughout the narrative, Nick sees Gatsby as emblematic of the prototypical self-made man and even assigns to Gatsby the symbolism of “The American Dream.” When Gatsby dies to protect Daisy’s secret, then, Nick sees him as succumbing to the allure of romance instead of standing steadfast in the reality of his hard-earned success and power. The warning implied in Gatsby’s demise is, of course, that “civilization,” at least in the US, might give way to the frivolity and filth of popular culture and the dictates of capitalism that drive it.

Certainly, Nick portrays Gatsby’s attachment to Daisy as the cause of his ultimate emasculation and death. It is Daisy who diminishes Gatsby’s extraordinary capacity for self-sufficiency and success. Before Gatsby kisses Daisy for the first time, he contemplates his seemingly limitless potential to self-create: “Out of the corner of his eye Gatsby saw that the blocks of the sidewalks really formed a ladder and mounted to a secret place above the trees—he could climb to it, if he climbed alone, and once there he could suck on the pap of life, gulp down the incomparable milk of wonder” (112). The maternal imagery in this depiction of Gatsby’s capacity for self-generation serves to characterize Gatsby as god-like, capable of creating his own destiny; he is both mother and offspring, able to nurture himself with the “pap of life” and “milk of wonder” and therefore grow independently of a woman. If he chooses to part with Daisy at this time, he will climb the ladder of success and pursue an existence of achievement and intellect. When Gatsby does act on his physical desire for Daisy, however, his powers of creation and nurturance are weakened: “He knew that when he kissed this girl, and forever wed his unutterable visions to her perishable breath, his mind would never romp again like the mind of God. . . . Then he kissed her. At his lips’ touch she blossomed for him like a flower and the incarnation was complete” (112). Not only is Gatsby here deprived of his god-like intellect and seeming ability to transcend his own body, but also his capability for self-creation is usurped by Daisy. Daisy plays a chief role in Gatsby’s re-birth and forever becomes his font of “incarnation,” thus taking on the figurative position of mother. No longer able to nurture himself, from this point on, Gatsby seeks out Daisy, his source of origin, as an infant seeks the comfort of his mother’s breast.

And as a mother figure, Daisy clearly infantilizes Gatsby. When the two reunite at Nick’s house, Nick is disappointed to find Gatsby the Great “acting like a little boy” (88). Over and over again the next few weeks, Gatsby becomes lost in Daisy’s voice and grows entirely insensible to his spectacular achievements and neglects his powerful social connections because of the power of Daisy’s spell over him. Finally, it is Gatsby’s need for Daisy that leads to his death.

Not only does Daisy thus come to represent for Nick a controlling, ensnaring maternal figure of emasculation, but she also acts to perpetuate the social system that ultimately causes Gatsby’s demise by visiting her own pathologies on her daughter, in effect creating the next generation of femme fatale. Although Daisy cried when she learned that her child was born a girl, in this way expressing an awareness of the gender limitations that have impacted the trajectory of her own life, she actively engages in training her little girl to become “a beautiful little fool” (17). Daisy makes a point of dressing the child in white dresses, for instance, just like the ones that she and her closest girlfriend wear, and ignores the little girl’s chatter, emphasizing only her doll-like appearance (117). Clearly, Daisy seeks to prepare the girl for a role like that which Daisy herself fills in her relationships with both Tom and Gatsby, to accept her status as an object of beauty and a representation of masculine financial and social success. In the end, of course, it is the much larger social system, a system that incidentally forces Daisy and her daughter into playing “fools,” that makes Gatsby’s destruction inevitable. But it remains that, as a mother, Daisy plays an important part in sustaining this social system, of ensuring its continuance into future generations.

As a woman and especially as a mother, then, Daisy both perpetuates and serves as a representation of the evil of flesh, carnality, romance, popular culture, money, and capitalism, the tangled themes that destroy Gatsby and “The American Dream” that he pursues.

Works Cited

Fitzgerald, F. Scott. The Great Gatsby. [1925]. New York: Collier Books, 1980.


  1. Wow. It's been a while since I Gatsby'd, but here goes.

    It's funny, but I've never really thought of Daisy as a mother. She doesn't seem the type. At all. Okay, I'll qualify that: she seems destructive, not nurturing, the quintessential BAD mother, focused only on herself. (I suppose I just tromped right through every cliche about mothers in the book, but it seems that's the role Fitzgerald assigns her.)

    And yes, she plays that strange mother role to Gatsby, infantilizing him and stealing his power as hers as been stolen from birth, because she HAS more power in the relationship than she has. Of course she's the bad mother--she's a woman with power! :-) Over him at least. And he hopes she'll "midwife" him into the society he will never really have access to, and of course she never will.

    Don't like Daisy. Never have. She's a twit. And Mia Farrow's portrayal of her didn't help at all.

    Two things strike me: the gorgeous lushness of the language in the excerpts you chose, which I'd forgotten about, and the vague memory that Nick is not at all, necessarily, a reliable narrator. Point being, I'm not sure the men come out of it any better than women in this novel, actually. Gatsby being perhaps the only exception, and even then you sort of want to shake him and tell him to snap out of it, before it's too late.

    She's not worth it. And that's the biggest tragedy of all.


  2. Ooh. I love the midwifery metaphor, Dani. Nice! Wish I would have thought of it.

    And I like that you point out the lushness of the kiss scene. I saw a YouTube video of a public service announcement for The Big Read, which apparently aimed to get people to read The Great Gatsby a couple of years ago. One of the bits in the ad featured a woman who was extolling the kiss scene as the most romantic scene in literature. I don't buy it, obviously, because of the implications for how Daisy is portrayed in this scene. But the "opening like a flower" part is pretty sensuous!

    Finally, I think that you are absolutely right to imply that Gatsby discovers upon re-uniting with Daisy that she is not the girl he's been dreaming of for so many years, just as the rich lifestyle that she represents isn't all that it is cracked up to be. Clearly, his unwillingness to let go of the Daisy fantasy leads to his death.

    I read an article today that basically says exactly what you've said here, that if you read Nick as a reliable narrator, you come out hating Daisy, but if you read him as an unreliable narrator, you come out hating everyone, including Nick and Gatsby: "Doubting Nick: Reading Nick Reading Gatsby Reading Daisy" by Cecilia Konchar Farr.

  3. Regardless of whether Nick is reliable or not, none of the characters in "THE GREAT GATSBY" comes off looking well.

  4. I would like to use some lines for my research paper. How can I cite this in MLA style?

  5. This might help: