The Accuracy of the Portrayal of the 1920s Woman in “The Great Gatsby”
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Many American historians have described the 1920s as a “period which crystallized the vast social changes initiated in World War I. It was an era of carefree release” (Jenkins). One of the most significant legacies of this era was the loosening of restrictions on women. By this decade, “Victorianism and the turn of the century Gibson Girl were out, and in her place was a saucy, booze-drinking, cigarette smoking, modern women” (Rayburn). The Great Gatsby accurately depicts, with few exceptions, the women of the 1920s as having a much freer moral and social conduct than their predecessors.
Throughout the course of the novel, the character Daisy accurately reflects the 1920s image of the “golden girl.” Golden girls were described as straight, fearless, exciting, and somewhat egotistical women who were characterized by their “kissing and not telling.” The women possessed “illusory unsophistication” which compelled men with a need to protect them (Jenkins 70). Fitzgerald describes Daisy as being ” . . . high in a white palace” (127). She is “the king’s daughter, the golden girl” (127). The novel upholds this portrayal in both Daisy’s appearance and actions. When describing Daisy, Fitzgerald states, “Her face was sad and lovely with bright things in it, bright eyes and a bright passionate mouth–but there was an excitement in her voice that men who had cared for her found difficult to forget . . . ” (14). Daisy unintentionally hints at her need for protection when the narrator remarks, ” . . . [she] held my hand for a moment, looking up into my face, promising that there was no one in the world she so much wanted to see.
That was a way she had” (13). This emphasizes Daisy’s portrayal of the “golden girl.” Many of these “golden girls” wore elegant, sexy, classic styles, consisting of light fabrics such as chiffon (Wang, et al.). Daisy’s white fancy dresses were characteristic of the “golden girl” and illustrated as “rippling and fluttering” (Fitzgerald 12) because of their light fabrics. These women also wore small, snuggly fitting hats called cloches. Daisy is observed wearing one when she is leaving home and heading for town with Gatsby, Jordan, Nick, and Tom. The men exit the house “followed by Daisy and Jordan wearing small tight hats of metallic cloth . . . ” (127). Even though the image of the “golden girl” seems somewhat complacent, she often threw away her proper attitude and engaged in immoral acts.
The novel accurately depicts the 1920s as a time of demoralization for women. The emphasis seemed to shift from politics and economics to questions of freer moral and social conduct. Suddenly “nice” women were openly “smoking, drinking, clothing themselves in more revealing apparel, and behaving generally with less cautious restraint than their predecessors” (Reader’s Digest Association 435). A prime example of this in The Great Gatsby is Tom’s party in Chapter two. Along with smoking cigarettes, the women, along with the men, were drinking illegal whiskey which “Tom brought out . . . from a locked bureau door.” (33) The women at the party lied and spoke with little restraint. Another example of the diminishing morals is in Chapter three of the novel, when Nick discovers that Jordan is “incurably dishonest” (63). He remembers that she had once cheated in a golf tournament.
Nick, like other men, did not punish women for the immoral things they did; instead, Nick disregarded Jordan’s acts and came to the conclusion, “Dishonesty in a woman is something you never blame deeply” (63). Yet another example of the demoralization of women is the character of Myrtle. During the course of The Great Gatsby, it is never stated or even hinted at that Myrtle feels any guilt over her affair with Tom. It does not seem to bother her that she is hurting both Daisy and Mr. Wilson. When Tom is around, Myrtle hardly even acknowledges Mr. Wilson’s presence, and certainly doesn’t show him that she cares for him; an example of this is in Chapter two when Fitzgerald writes:
She smiled slowly and walking through her husband as if he were a ghost shook hands with Tom, looking him flush in the eye. Then she wet her lips and without turning around spoke to her husband in a soft, coarse voice: “Get some chairs, why don’t you, so everybody can sit down.” (30)
The decrease in moral standards had a widespread impact on many people in the 1920s (Herald 7). Women like Daisy and Jordan, who were experiencing this decline of morality, seemed to think it was all right to be openly promiscuous. Daisy illustrates this point when, while in a room containing other people besides Gatsby and herself, she “pulled his [Gatsby’s] face down kissing him on the mouth” (122). Daisy goes on to suggest that Jordan “kiss Nick too” (123). Jordan replies by saying, “What a low, vulgar girl” (123)! In response to this statement, Daisy declares, “I don’t care” (123)! Another instance in the novel where the openness of promiscuity is present is in Jordan’s talk with Nick: “These things excite me so,” she whispered. “If you want to kiss me at any time during the evening, Nick, just let me know and I’ll be glad to arrange it for you” (111). Along with this breakdown of morals, women also acquired many new social liberties.
As represented in The Great Gatsby, women during the decade of the 1920’s gained many new social freedoms that brought about various expressions of a new sense of freedom (Todd and Curti 637). The American woman after World War I gained freedom from custom and tradition. Nowhere else in the world could a single girl be free to choose how to spend her money or time (Schlesinger 131). “Girls were certainly less restrained by conventions and inhibitions from doing whatever boys of the same social set might do” (Schlesinger 134). For example, in The Great Gatsby, the character of Jordan was a well-known golfer. (47) In the past, golf, like many other sports, was seen as a thing only a male could pursue. Although Jordan achieved this new freedom, some men still discouraged the act. Tom displays this discouragement by saying, “She’s a nice girl . . . they oughtn’t to let her run around the country that way” (23). Another freedom women received was the freedom of choice involving marriage. No longer was marriage the inevitable way of living (Schlesinger 134). Many women, like Jordan in The Great Gatsby, remained single by choice.
The devastating loss of so many men during World War I meant that the women outnumbered the men; because of this, women were able to set higher standards and had a greater variety for choosing their husbands. The Great Gatsby displayed this freedom in the character of Mrs. McKee. She almost married a “little kyke” (38) whom she knew was way below her. Because of her new freedom, Mrs. McKee didn’t settle for this man and instead waited until someone better, like Mr. McKee, came along (38). The idea of voting was also a new freedom for women. With the passage of the 19th amendment and a number of new laws, the status of women in regards to voting changed (Herald 11). Surprisingly, though, the upper-class, city women voted less in the U.S. during the 1920s: “If they voted at all, they voted like their husbands” (Anderson 54). The Great Gatsby exemplifies this because, throughout the novel, there is never a mention of the upper-class women like Jordan and Daisy voting. In the 1920s, women were not only free to choose their occupations, politics, and mates; they could also choose their hair color. Many brunettes bleached their hair because blondes were said to be favored more. In the novel, when speaking to two girls at one of Gatsby’s parties, Jordan casually remarks, “You’ve dyed your hair since then” (47). This shows that dying one’s hair was socially acceptable in the society of The Great Gatsby.
While the status of women was changing in the 1920s, their roles in relationships, as seen in The Great Gatsby, were, too. Until the1920’s, women had been expected to stay at home and care for their families, but these new women rejected all that. They craved adventure, and in order to get what they wanted, they changed people’s ideas about what a woman should be. Feminists would never be quite the same (Rubel 47). A new woman came about during this time who rejected the traditional female roles and refused to believe in the superior competence of men. She denounced the traditional roles that were previously imposed on women in sexual and social relationships (Todd and Curti 637). An example of this new woman in The Great Gatsby is the character of Myrtle. In the relationship between Mr. and Mrs. Wilson, Myrtle is seen as the stronger member. She is a forceful, directed, ambitious partner while Mr. Wilson is seen as the weak man with no direction. She displays her power over him when she orders him to get some chairs.
He “hurriedly” (30) goes off and immediately retrieves the chairs. (30) This shows the reversal of traditional roles in this marriage. The role of the upper-class housewife also changed. Nowhere else did the housewife have so “wide a margin of leisure for amusement, self-development, or public work as her fancy might dictate” (Schlesinger 131). Daisy was able to do many things at her own leisure without her husband, like going to Nick’s house for tea. When asked about bringing her husband, Tom, she innocently replies, “Who is ‘Tom'” (88)? Although she had the leisure to do what she pleased, the upper-class housewife also experienced some dilemmas. The upper-class wives of the post-war era “discovered that the exercise of their expressive function often decreed an almost complete abdication of marital intimacy” (Ryan 174). Throughout the novel, Daisy and Tom did not seem to be a very intimate, loving couple. This observation is accented by the fact that both Tom and Daisy had lovers outside the relationship. Tom was cheating on Daisy with Myrtle (19), and Daisy later cheated on Tom with Gatsby (122).
In conclusion, the freer moral and social conduct of women in the 1920s is correctly portrayed in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby. Throughout the novel, many different female characters like Daisy, Jordan, and Myrtle accurately represent the different kinds of women in the 1920s. Although each of these characters came from different backgrounds and had different lifestyles, they all seemed to hold a similarity with the 1920s woman. This similarity was the fact that all these women possessed a degree of freedom in their moral and social conduct.