The Great Gatsby: The Illusion of Female Liberation

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In my reading of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, set in New York in 1922, I was struck by a metaphor that Fitzgerald employs when introducing Daisy and Jordan, the two main female characters. The phrase in question is “Two young women were buoyed up as though upon an anchored balloon”. What Fitzgerald seems to be presenting is an illusion of freedom. The balloon conveys a sense of movement, liberty and weightlessness, whilst the anchor is the restriction and limits placed on women in this society.

When we think of women in 1920s America, an image of flappers sporting bobs and short skirts springs to mind, with connotations of drinking, smoking and sexual liberation. Indeed, this period is regarded as the birth of the modern woman. But in the case of Daisy, at least, her freedom is by no means limitless. Daisy’s good friend Jordan encapsulates the independent, modern woman but is looked upon with scorn through the three male perspectives we view her through; Fitzgerald’s, Nick’s and Gatsby’s. This demonstrates that women still had societal conventions to adhere to. An example of this is how Jordan ignores the male gaze whilst Daisy revels in it, and thus the latter is the more admirable and socially accepted.

In 1920, women were given the right to vote, which was evidently a huge triumph for the female sex, who finally had their voices heard. Additionally, World War I played an important role as women adopted the positions of men who were fighting and thus proved themselves capable. These two events in particular lead us to believe that the 1920s was a period of female liberation.

However, in reality, it would appear that little changed significantly. Women were still expected to give up work when they got married, and indeed marriage and children remained the conventional goal for women rather than success in their career. Henry Ford, who notoriously created the booming car manufacturing business, said, “I pay our women well so that they can dress nicely and get married”. In many states the few women who continued to work once married saw the money that they earned paid to their husbands rather than themselves. Not that women would have been able to achieve high flying careers anyway, as they were barred from all but low-paid jobs; those who worked alongside men were paid significantly less. In fact, the female workforce declined in the 1920s to around 10 million, and this was made up of around a quarter of females aged 15 and over. The remaining three-quarters still worked, but for free in the house or on the farm.

Politically, aside from a handful of exceptions, suffrage campaigners returned to domestic roles after being granted the right to vote, and those who attempted to campaign for equal rights were left disappointed when it was refused in 1920. I do not in anyway wish to diminish the significance of women’s suffrage and the heroic plight of those who fought to achieve it: I merely wish to illustrate the frustratingly slow progress of women’s rights and demonstrate that freedom can be merely an illusion if we do not scratch the surface.

In a book that is all about the creation of illusions of status, intimacy and happiness, Fitzgerald breaks down the facade of female liberty. He himself stated that none of the female characters in the book are of any importance and it is through his belittling of the women in his story, who are almost always referred to as ‘girls’ and presented as deceptive and beguiling temptresses or social-climbing whores, that he shines light on the true female situation of 1920s America.

Words by Ella Khalek

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