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4.6 Student Writer at Work: Gretchen Panzer’s Feminist Response to F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby

The Great Gatsby may be the one novel that a majority of readers have read. It’s taught in high school and college classrooms alike and it’s read for pure enjoyment. In other words, The Great Gatsby is a cultural icon, at least for American readers.

Gretchen is a meticulous planner of her papers, as the focus on her process demonstrates. Originally, Gretchen wrote a journal entry exploring possible topics for her paper, particularly related to key symbols in the novel.

Gretchen’s Process

Exploratory Journal Entry

I definitely want to write about Gatsby, and my favorite scene is when he tosses the shirts about and Daisy starts crying. So I think I’m going to link the shirts scene to the scene with Owl Eyes and the books. Depending on what I find when I start researching, my thesis will be that the shirts and books are symbolic of Gatsby himself: real, but unopened. Like his possessions, Gatsby is authentic in some sense, or Nick wouldn’t respect him. But his potential is diminished by the people around him; they know nothing of his past/innermost thoughts and therefore see only the shiny cover.

With this tentative focus in mind, Gretchen skims through the novel, copying quotes that relate to her original idea as well as other passages that catch her interest. Reading her list, she finds that she is more interested in exploring the genre of “love story” and the way the story is cast as a dream or fantasy of Gatsby’s, who tries to “buy” Daisy’s love with material objects. After revising her thesis, finding secondary sources on her topic, and creating a new outline, Gretchen is ready to start composing her essay. The following is her first draft, which she brought to class for a peer-review workshop.

First Draft

Gretchen Panzer

John Pennington

Great American Novels

May 1, 20–

Before the tragic sequence of events begins to unfold in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, the novel almost seems as if it could be a perfect love story—one that will end not with death and disillusionment but with the promise of “happily ever after” for Jay Gatsby and the girl of his dreams. However, it is precisely because Daisy Buchanan is the girl of his dreams that their relationship is destined to fail. By simultaneously turning his dream-Daisy into an impossible ideal of love and a cheap symbol of material wealth, he loses any connection he might have had with the real, flawed person she truly is. Gatsby’s famous idealism should not be considered an admirable trait; it is, in fact, a product of his blatant sexism.

The way in which Gatsby constructs his dream world is made evident in Fitzgerald’s symbolism. Material possessions become the physical embodiment of the perfect love Gatsby pursues. Since he believes he cannot win Daisy’s affections unless he is a man of means, he devotes his life to accumulating objects, disregarding their value even as he hopes it will transfer to his person. Two types of objects are particularly obvious in their symbolic value: the books in Gatsby’s library and the array of shirts he displays for Daisy’s benefit. Both collections reveal Gatsby’s obsessive need to show off his wealth and seemingly paradoxical indifference to the objects themselves. Though the books are, as Owl Eyes points out, “[a]bsolutely real—have pages and everything” (Fitzgerald 50), they have never been read. Gatsby feels no need to actually make use of his library, for all the “thoroughness … [and] realism” he exhibits by purchasing actual books rather than those made from “a nice durable cardboard” (Fitzgerald 50). Clearly, Gatsby is more concerned with appearances than reality when it comes to his library—as long as his guests are impressed by its grandeur, the specific titles on its shelves are of no consequence.

As is the case with the books, Gatsby purchases vast quantities of clothing in order to impress Daisy. As part of the tour he gives Daisy, Gatsby tosses his expensive shirts in the air—a colorful display reminiscent of a peacock flashing bright feathers at a potential mate. Gatsby cannot take credit for their fashionable colors, however. He is not interested in personally selecting his own clothing, but delegates his shopping to an unnamed man in England (Fitzgerald 97). Mundane details such as color, cut, or fabric are immaterial to Gatsby, just as title and author make no difference in his selection of books. It is instead the books’ and shirts’ contribution to the general splendor of his home, and therefore their part in his scheme to win Daisy, that gives them value. As Barbara Will asserts, “[w]hat motivates Gatsby is not the desire for material betterment … but the evanescent and the intangible” (Will 131). That material betterment can be used to achieve the evanescent, intangible ideal of love is the aspect which interests Gatsby.

Using material objects, Gatsby builds his dream of being with Daisy. Each book, each shirt symbolizes a step he is taking to realize his dream, as evidenced by Fitzgerald’s use of a brick motif. The shirts are “piled like bricks in stacks a dozen high” (Fitzgerald 97)—tangible building blocks of an intangible dream. Despite their abundance, the dream-bricks create an unsteady edifice, as Nick learns when Owl Eyes hastily places the book they have been examining back on its shelf, insisting that “if one brick was removed the whole library was liable to collapse” (Fitzgerald 50). Because Gatsby constructs his life using dreams and meaningless material objects, it is structurally unsound, too fragile to reach the lofty heights he wants to attain. Ignoring this, he takes his idealism to such an extreme that he is unable to cope with the impossibility of his dream being realized—any forced confrontation with reality topples his tower of dream-bricks.

Yet confrontation with reality is inevitable. The dream-Daisy transcends all human limitations; Daisy could never live up to Gatsby’s expectations, if only because she lives in the first place. To be human is to be flawed, to be dynamic rather than static—a concept Gatsby does not seem to grasp. He spends years waiting to be reunited with the girl he remembers, only to be disappointed when she does not measure up to the memory he has stretched and distorted into an impossible ideal. This phenomenon is explained as Nick observes the lovers’ reunion:

There must have been moments even that afternoon when Daisy tumbled short of his dreams—not through her own fault but because of the colossal vitality of his illusion. It had gone beyond her, beyond everything. He had thrown himself into it with a creative passion, adding to it all the time, decking it out with every bright feather that drifted his way. No amount of fire or freshness can challenge what a man will store up in his ghostly heart. (Fitzgerald 101)

By continuously embellishing his memory of Daisy with his own creative touches, Gatsby unintentionally ensures that the memory, or more accurately the dream, will surpass the reality and leave him disappointed and confused. The confusion sets in when Gatsby encounters the green light for the first time after he is reunited with Daisy:

the colossal significance of that light had now vanished forever. Compared to the great distance that had separated him from Daisy it had seemed very near to her, almost touching her. It had seemed as close as a star to the moon. Now it was again a green light on a dock. His count of enchanted objects had diminished by one. (Fitzgerald 98)

The green light, which in Gatsby’s eyes signifies the dream-Daisy he is separated from, becomes another inconsequential material item. Like the books and shirts, it is a tangible object valued by Gatsby not for its own worth, but for the deeper meaning it holds. Yet the green light is inescapably linked to money itself—the green paper currency that enables Gatsby to present himself to Daisy.

Fitzgerald’s use of the color green to symbolize both Daisy and material wealth recurs throughout the novel, perhaps most interestingly when Daisy says to Nick, “‘If you want to kiss me any time during the evening, Nick, just let me know and I’ll be glad to arrange it for you. Just mention my name. Or present a green card. I’m giving out green—’” (Fitzgerald 111). With this statement, the connection between Daisy and material wealth loses its innocence. Money is no longer just a means for Gatsby to attain the loftier, more beautiful dream of love; it has an allure of its own. The “green card” Daisy mentions as a joke buys only kisses, but Gatsby’s cash (as he supposes) can be used to purchase Daisy herself. Though she is the inspiration for Gatsby’s dream, she becomes another brick in his architecture, one of the objects he uses to chase after his dream-Daisy. Gatsby’s collection of “enchanted objects” has decreased not by one, but two—the green light and the real Daisy.

Demoted to the status of “object,” Daisy becomes a symbol of the very substance Gatsby uses to win her over: money. Her vibrant charm, the source of which Nick could never discern, is falsely linked to material wealth. Nick, enthralled by Gatsby’s idealistic vision, eventually agrees with his abrupt conclusion that “[h]er voice is full of money … that was the inexhaustible charm that rose and fell in it, the jingle of it, the cymbals’ song of it” (Fitzgerald 127).

No longer awestruck by her mysterious charm, “Nick and Gatsby progressively devitalize Daisy’s symbolic meaning until she exists as a vulgar emblem of the money values which dominate their world” (Person 255).

Works Cited

Fetterley, Judith. The Resisting Reader: A Feminist Approach to American Fiction. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1978. NetLibrary. Web. 7 May 2009.

Fitzgerald, F. Scott. The Great Gatsby. 1925. New York: Scribner, 2003. Print.

Person, Leland S., Jr. “‘Herstory’ and Daisy Buchanan.” American Literature 50.2 (May 1978): 250–57. JSTOR. Web. 23 Apr. 2009.

Will, Barbara. “The Great Gatsby and the Obscene Word.” College Literature 32.4 (Fall 2005): 125–44. JSTOR. Web. 23 Apr. 2009.

As Gretchen writes her paper in light of the feedback she’s received from her peer-review partner and her professor, she discovers that the focus on “blatant sexism” seems overly obvious—and as she delves into the evidence, she keeps repeating the same idea about sexism. She realizes, after immersing herself in some feminist literary criticism, that a key concept is that of “voice”—that is, how women are often denied their voice in fiction, particularly in works written by men. Consequently, Gretchen takes what she has already written on Daisy’s voice and rethinks her paper.

We told you that Gretchen was a meticulous planner, so she went through the novel again and constructed a detailed outline of evidence that will guide her as she revises her paper with the new focus. Here is the final draft of Gretchen’s paper. Note that the opening of the paper is two paragraphs, and it will be useful to compare her introduction in the final version to the original introductory paragraph. Gretchen’s process demonstrates how papers develop: initial ideas are modified, first drafts become exploratory drafts where writers discover ideas while writing, and revisions highlight the intellectual development of a paper.

Final Draft

Gretchen Panzer

John Pennington

Great American Novels

May 1, 20–

A Lost Voice: Sexism in The Great Gatsby

A typical reading of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby focuses on Jay Gatsby’s supposedly universal appeal. He is considered an “everyman,” representative of all determined, idealistic young Americans seeking the elusive American dream. Though this interpretation has some merit, its flaw lies in the assumption that Gatsby’s famous idealism is indeed admirable. While Gatsby may truly be an “everyman,” his quest for romantic idealism has disastrous effects upon the women in the novel. Gatsby seeks a “happily ever after” ending with the girl of his dreams, Daisy Buchanan. He worships this dream-Daisy as an impossible ideal of love and devotes himself to achieving wealth and status in order to win her affection. Ironically, his idealism prevents him from achieving his goal. By simultaneously distorting Daisy into an ideal of love and a cheap symbol of material wealth, he loses any connection he might have had with the real, flawed person she truly is. Gatsby’s idealism should not be considered an admirable trait; it is nothing more than ill-disguised sexism.

As the novel progresses, Daisy loses her voice—literally and metaphorically—when it is overwhelmed by the incessant clamor of the more forceful males. Initially revered as a romantic ideal, Daisy’s beautiful, captivating voice is increasingly stifled by the competing voices of the two men in her love triangle: her husband and Gatsby. Reduced to a symbol, and then to a sham of a symbol, Daisy is devalued by men even as they claim to love her. Fitzgerald’s dialogue and vivid descriptions of the characters’ voices make it abundantly clear that Gatsby’s “everyman” dream of winning a woman’s heart is rooted in the notion of male superiority.

From the beginning of the novel, Daisy’s voice is established as an instrument of self-expression. Nick’s first description of his cousin focuses on the beautiful, but disturbing, quality of her voice. He remarks that, “I’ve heard it said that Daisy’s murmur was only to make people lean in toward her; an irrelevant criticism that made it no less charming.” (Fitzgerald 13). The irony of this statement is subtle but very present; as Judith Fetterley points out in The Resisting Reader, “the criticism is not irrelevant or Nick wouldn’t mention it, and indeed it does make Daisy less charming for it implies that the quality of her voice is simply something put on in order to gain an advantage over others” (84). Even as Nick admits that Daisy’s voice is beautiful, he is driven by masculine insecurity to negate its power. By assuming that she is manipulative, he devalues her “charming” manner of speaking and defines vocal expression as a method of obtaining power over others. While Nick is certainly justified in recognizing the power of a voice, the idea that Daisy, of all people, desires control over others is laughable. She is not attempting to lure hapless men into a deathtrap with her siren-song—she only wants to preserve what remains of her own voice, and ultimately is unable to even accomplish that. Her voice is indeed a weapon, but she does not use it as such; instead, it is used against her by Gatsby, Tom, and Nick.

Gatsby’s assault against Daisy’s voice begins innocently enough. They are long-lost lovers, reunited after years of separation, and he positively worships her. But Gatsby’s admiration for Daisy is unhealthy; she is no longer a real person to him, but an impossible ideal. Even Gatsby cannot ignore his own impracticality, as his reunion with Daisy illustrates:

There must have been moments even that afternoon when Daisy tumbled short of his dreams—not through her own fault but because of the colossal vitality of his illusion. It had gone beyond her, beyond everything. He had thrown himself into it with a creative passion, adding to it all the time, decking it out with every bright feather that drifted his way. No amount of fire or freshness can challenge what a man will store up in his ghostly heart. (Fitzgerald 101)

By continuously embellishing his memory of Daisy, Gatsby unintentionally ensures that the memory—or more accurately, the dream—will surpass any possible reality and disappoint him. Yet something about Daisy’s voice calls him back. As Nick watches:

His hand took hold of hers and as she said something low in his ear he turned toward her with a rush of emotion. I think that voice held him most with its fluctuating, feverish warmth because it couldn’t be over-dreamed—that voice was a deathless song. (Fitzgerald 101)

A human voice cannot be immortal, but Gatsby’s overactive imagination persists in viewing Daisy as superhuman: flawless, timeless, and “deathless.” As Barbara Will points out in “The Great Gatsby and the Obscene Word,” he does not concern himself with reality, but with “the evanescent and the intangible” (131). Because he is obsessed with the intangible, the ideal, Gatsby attributes the appeal of Daisy’s voice to the wrong source. There is nothing magical or mythic about it—its “fluctuating, feverish warmth,” a very human characteristic, is the true source of its power. For all his professions of love, Gatsby fails to comprehend the emotive power of the human voice. He does not notice how Daisy’s irrepressible emotions draw him in, how “a stirring warmth flowed from her as if her heart was trying to come out to you concealed in one of those breathless, thrilling words” (Fitzgerald 19). When Daisy sings, she tips into the air her “warm human magic” (115), not the cold, implacable power of a goddess. By clinging to the impossible ideal he has created, Gatsby fails to recognize the true source of Daisy’s charm: her real, human emotions.

These emotions are essential to one particularly telling scene: when Gatsby tosses his shirts into the air to show off his wealth. As the pile grows, Daisy is struck by the force of her emotions: “Suddenly with a strained sound Daisy bent her head into the shirts and began to cry stormily. ‘They’re such beautiful shirts,’ she sobbed, her voice muffled in the thick folds. ‘It makes me sad because I’ve never seen such—such beautiful shirts before’ (98). While part of this emotional outburst may be attributed to “her unexpected joy” at being reunited with Gatsby (94), her grief cannot be ignored. As Leland S. Person argues in “‘Herstory’ and Daisy Buchanan,” “[t]he important point to recognize is that Gatsby is as much an ideal to Daisy as she is to him” (253). As Gatsby flaunts his material wealth in front of her eyes, Daisy begins to understand his motives, and subsequently feels the loss of her ideal lover. The beautiful shirts upset her because she realizes that they are representative of herself: desirable, but material. Gatsby believes that he wants to be with Daisy, but he actually wants to have Daisy—a very different goal. That Daisy’s voice is “muffled in the thick folds” of Gatsby’s shirts shows that already his voice is beginning to smother her own, and her dream of Gatsby as a perfect lover is an illusion. Gatsby is oblivious to Daisy’s despair, misinterpreting what she tries to express.

As the novel progresses, Gatsby’s misinterpretation of Daisy’s voice becomes less accurate and more destructive. Eventually, like Nick and Tom, he views her as nothing more than a material object—a symbol of power, but herself powerless. Before Tom and Gatsby do verbal battle over Daisy, she desperately tries to calm them, using her beautiful voice. “Her voice struggled on through the heat, beating against it, moulding its senselessness into forms” (Fitzgerald 125), but instead of preventing the argument, it acts as a catalyst. Tom is incensed when Daisy’s voice betrays what her words do not. When she tells Gatsby, “[y]ou always look so cool,” everyone in the room is aware that “[s]he had told him that she loved him” (125).

At this moment, both Tom and Gatsby realize that neither can feel secure in his relationship with Daisy without seizing total control over her voice. Both men find it nearly impossible to speak after Daisy’s lapse. Tom does not answer when his wife addresses him directly, and Gatsby “started to speak, [but] changed his mind,” only speaking “with an effort” when Tom forces him to (126). It is not the tension between the two men that makes it hard for them to converse, but their helplessness in the face of Daisy’s power. Gatsby tells Nick, “I can’t say anything in his house, old sport”—yet it was Daisy, not Gatsby, who gave away their secret. Nick recognizes this, commenting on Daisy’s “indiscreet voice” (127). To restore his sense of control, Gatsby joins this attack on Daisy’s voice, and the two conclude that “[i]t was full of money—that was the inexhaustible charm that rose and fell in it, the jingle of it, the cymbals’ song of it.… High in a white palace the king’s daughter, the golden girl” (127).

With this, as Person notes, “Nick and Gatsby progressively devitalize Daisy’s symbolic meaning until she exists as a vulgar emblem of the money values which dominate their world” (255). First painted as a portrait of perfection, Daisy is now reduced to a crude symbol of power in its most vulgar form: money. As Person argues, she “is victimized by a male tendency to project a[n] … ultimately dehumanizing image on woman” (Person 257). Her beautiful voice is no longer a human quality, or even a superhuman quality. Instead, it is a mere object: something to be bought, sold, and fought over. By objectifying Daisy, the men can fight for control; whoever suppresses her voice most completely will be the winner.

Though the confrontation between Tom and Gatsby affects Daisy most of all, she cannot participate. The men take it upon themselves to speak for her, leaving her powerless. Whichever man she chooses—and choosing neither is never suggested as a possibility—will overpower her voice with his own. Fetterley is correct in noting that “Daisy’s choices amount in reality to no more than the choice of which form she wishes her oppression to take” (100). Both men speak for her without once asking how she feels. At one point, Gatsby answers when Tom addresses Daisy directly (Fitzgerald 138). Daisy’s only contribution to the conversation is to “helplessly” (137) interrupt them with pleas to stop and to reluctantly say whatever they want to hear. The erasure of her voice is complete when Gatsby launches into a lengthy defense of his good name:

with every word she was drawing further and further into herself, so he gave that up and only the dead dream fought on as the afternoon slipped away, trying to touch what was no longer tangible, struggling unhappily, undespairingly, toward that lost voice across the room. The voice begged again to go. (142)

Not only must Gatsby face the death of his dream, but also Daisy. She, too, had hoped that their love would be perfect, and now she must face Gatsby’s imperfection. As he struggles to control her by smothering her voice with his own, he destroys the very quality he has always found most alluring in Daisy. Her voice—her identity as a human being—is “lost” forever. Fitzgerald does not write that “Daisy begged again to go”; the plea is made by “the voice,” a disembodied, dehumanized entity. With this, Gatsby’s part in the annihilation of Daisy’s voice is complete. Even after he has lost her, Gatsby still insists that Daisy never loved Tom, that “she hardly knew what she was saying” when she made her final decision (Fitzgerald 159). He refuses to believe that she might be capable of knowing—and speaking—her own mind. And he is right in that respect: after all he and Tom have done to stifle her voice, how could she speak for herself?

The last time we see Daisy, she is both literally and metaphorically mute:

[Tom] was talking intently across the table at her and in his earnestness his hand had fallen upon and covered her own. Once in a while she looked up at him and nodded in agreement. (152)

She does not utilize her beautiful voice but communicates nonverbally, and then only to agree with Tom’s words. Once revered as a perfect being, the ideal of love, Daisy is ultimately reduced to a “dead dream.” In forcing Daisy to possess the symbolic value he desires, Gatsby de-values her. She is no longer a captivating woman with a beautiful voice; Gatsby, aided by Nick and Tom, has destroyed that voice forever. Gatsby will never achieve his “happily ever after”—not because he loses Daisy to Tom, but because he ensures that Daisy is lost to herself. She cannot give of herself when her voice, her identity, is stolen and destroyed by male tyranny. Perhaps it is this unjust, sexist ending that makes Fitzgerald’s novel a story of the American “everyman.” Though Gatsby’s treatment of Daisy is not admirable, it is certainly typical of American gender relations.

Works Cited

Fetterley, Judith. The Resisting Reader: A Feminist Approach to American Fiction. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1978. NetLibrary. Web. 7 May 2009.

Fitzgerald, F. Scott. The Great Gatsby. 1925. New York: Scribner, 2003. Print.

Person, Leland S. “‘Herstory’ and Daisy Buchanan.” American Literature 50.2 (May 1978): 250–57. JSTOR. Web. 23 Apr. 2009.

Will, Barbara. “The Great Gatsby and the Obscene Word.” College Literature 32.4 (Fall 2005): 125–44. JSTOR. Web. 23 Apr. 2009.