The Great Gatsby (1925)

Author: F. Scott Fitzgerald

What is the connection between the author and the queer community?

F. Scott Fitzgerald had a famously tumultuous marriage with his wife Zelda Fitzgerald. Some scholars have suggested that he saw himself as the more submissive partner in his marriage and that he hated this aspect of his life (Delistraty). For Fitzgerald, some scholars argue, homosexuality was a character weakness (Delistraty). Nevertheless, Fitzgerald knew that one of his close friends, Gerald Murphy, was gay, even though Murphy was married to a woman (Delistraty). Fitzgerald used himself and Murphy as the basis for characters in tumultuous marriages in his novels, such as Tender is the Night and The Great Gatsby, in which a beautiful woman dominates a weak man (Delistraty).

F. Scott Fitzgerald

What is the plot of this novel?

Set in New York City and Long Island during the early 1920s, The Great Gatsby is a book of a very particular time and place. However, the excess and lavishness described in the book continue to this day in the United States. The mansion of millionaire Tom Buchanan in fictional East Egg, Long Island and the mansion of millionaire Jay Gatsby in fictional West Egg, Long island are just two examples of this excess. Tom is a white supremacist who comes from a wealthy family in Chicago. He is married to the socialite Daisy Buchanan, who hails from Louisville, Kentucky. Daisy is beautiful, selfish, and superficial, yet Jay pines for her. Gatsby and Daisy were lovers before Daisy even met Tom, but Gatsby left her to fight in World War I. 

When Gatsby returns from the war, he amasses a fortune through various criminal activities in order to woo Daisy. Gatsby imagines that he is Daisy’s one true love and that she will gladly leave Tom for her. Indeed, there are cracks in the foundation of Tom and Daisy’s marriage. Tom engages in a tumultuous affair with Myrtle Wilson, the wife of mechanic George Wilson, whose garage Tom passes on the way from East Egg to his job on Wall Street.

Into this emotional turbulence unknowingly steps the book’s narrator, Nick Carraway, who is also the catalyst for the main action. Nick is Daisy’s cousin, and he moves to West Egg upon accepting a job as a bond salesman. Although Nick is Gatsby’s next-door neighbor, he rents a modest house that does not compare to the grandeur of Gatsby’s mansion. 

After Nick moves to West Egg, he socializes with Daisy and Tom, and he meets Jordan Baker, a successful golfer and a friend of Daisy. The two have a very tepid romance that is truly an afterthought in the narrative. The primary focus of Nick’s energy is his friendship with Gatsby. Gatsby throws exuberant, opulent parties at his mansion, hoping that Daisy will discover him. When Gatsby discovers Nick’s link to Daisy, he asks Nick to stage a reunion between him and Daisy, who is unaware that Gatsby lives not far from her. The reunion is successful, and Daisy and Gatsby have an affair. 

Daisy awkwardly makes their affair explicit when Gatsby, Tom, Nick, and Jordan are visiting one afternoon. The five of them travel together to a swanky hotel room in New York City on a sweltering day in the summer. Tom and Gatsby have a contentious argument for Daisy’s affections. Tom pledges his devotion to Daisy and exposes Gatsby as an unreliable swindler. On the way home from this heated encounter, Daisy accidentally runs over Myrtle with Gatsby’s car as the two of them drive to Long Island. Seeking revenge for his wife’s murder, George kills Gatsby, whom he believes was driving the car that killed Myrtle. Later, Nick discovers that Tom told George that Gatsby was Myrtle’s murderer. 

Disillusioned with New York, Tom, and Daisy, Nick moves back to the Midwest, from which he came. Before doing so, Nick is dismayed to discover that he is one of only a few guests at Gatsby’s funeral. The many business associates who always phoned Gatsby and the revelers at Gatsby’s grand parties are nowhere to be seen. 

How is this book queer?

Overt queer male themes and characters do not appear in The Great Gatsby. A careful reading of the book suggests that Nick Carraway is queer and that he may also be an unreliable narrator, adding an additional layer to the male posturing so prevalent in this book. Readers may infer Carraway’s queerness from his descriptions of characters, his actions in certain scenes, and his relationship with Jay Gatsby.

While Jordan Baker may seem like the love interest for Nick Carraway, his interest in her is not abiding. Upon meeting her, Nick “enjoys” looking at Jordan. He describes her as “small-breasted” and compares her posture to that of a “young cadet.” This is a curiously masculine description of a female romantic interest. As Nick gets to know Jordan, he has a “tender curiosity” about her, but no feelings of love. Ultimately, the reader wonders if Nick ever has strong feelings for Jordan. Mild flirtations between Jordan and Nick mildly pepper the narrative. By the time the relationship dissolves in a telephone call, the dissolution seems like friends parting ways. Indeed, Nick does not remember who hung up “with a sharp click” and he did not care.

Even more telling is Nick’s description of Myrtle Wilson. While Myrtle seems to be the curvaceous bombshell who attracts Tom’s interest, Nick describes her in an unflattering way. Nick first notices Myrtle’s face, which in his estimation contains “no facet or gleam of beauty.” Nick describes Myrtle as “faintly stout, but she carried her surplus flesh sensuously as some women can.” Not appreciating the femininity of Myrtle, Nick is unimpressed with Myrtle’s “wide hips.”

Nick’s seeming apathy for Jordan and Myrtle contrasts with his characterizations of male characters. He describes George Wilson, the novel’s tragic weakling and eventual murderer, as “spiritless,” “anemic,” and yet also “faintly handsome.” While Nick struggles to find beauty in Myrtle, he can appreciate the handsomeness of her husband. Similarly, Nick describes Tom Buchanan, the novel’s most obvious jerk and racist, as “sturdy,” and he praises the “enormous power of that body” even in “effeminate” riding clothes. Nick notices the “rare” smile of Gatsby that contains a quality of “eternal reassurance.” Perhaps Nick believes that Gatsby intuits Nick’s queerness and accepts him nonetheless, which would explain the rare, reassuring nature of Gatsby and Nick’s fascination with Gatsby. Lastly, in contrast with his “handsome” wife, Chester McKee, the photographer at a party hosted by Myrtle, is a “pale feminine man.” These two descriptions imply Chester’s queerness, and Nick’s observations of his queerness imply his own queerness.

During the party scene with Chester McKee, Nick becomes very drunk and has a very suggestive encounter with Chester. Near the end of the party, Nick wipes away “the remains of the spot dried lather” from Chester, who sleeps in a chair. Later in the elevator on the way out from the party, Chester invites Nick to lunch. Before Nick can answer, the elevator boy scolds Nick for touching the lever. Not knowing where his hands are, Nick does not even realize that his hands are on the lever, a sign that Nick is very drunk and not in control of his movements. Nevertheless, Nick does accept Chester’s lunch invitation, though the narrative never discusses their lunch date. Fitzgerald uses an ellipsis to omit details in the narrative and thereby suggest that this is more than just a friendly encounter. Nick suddenly finds himself “standing beside” Chester’s bed as Chester sits in his underwear on the bed “with a great portfolio in his hands.” Through the ellipsis device, Fitzgerald next suddenly places Nick at Penn Station waiting for the 4:00 train, not knowing how he got there. The implication is clearly a drunken tryst between Chester and Nick.

Nick and Chester

Fitzgerald also uses the ellipsis device in another scene that seems like a non-sequitur to the central plot. While Nick rides the train from Long Island to Manhattan during a sweltering summer day, a woman sitting next to him drops her pocketbook. Nick picks it up and gives it to her, “holding it at arm’s length and by the extreme tip of the corners to indicate” having “no designs upon it.” Nick almost seems disgusted by the feminine pocketbook, suggesting his disgust with the actual female physique. The ellipsis transports the reader to a juxtaposition with the train conductor asking passengers if it is hot enough and leaving sweat stains on tickets as he takes them. Curiously, Nick is not disgusted. Instead, the encounter with the conductor makes Nick wonder if the extreme heat does not make people care whom they kiss. The comment suggests Nick’s interest in sexual fluidity is inspired not by the dropped pocketbook but rather the deposit of the train conductor’s bodily fluids on tickets.

In addition to the encounters with minor characters, Nick’s relationship with Gatsby may be the strongest indicator of his desire. Although not initially having a good time the first time he attends a Gatsby party, Nick’s mood lifts once he actually talks to Gatsby. Jordan asks him, “Having a gay time now?”, to which Nick replies, “… much better.” From this first positive encounter, it is no surprise that Nick becomes Gatsby’s confidante and eventually his lone defender. After the car accident, as Gatsby’s grim fate begins to unravel, Nick talks with Gatsby and intently listens to Gatsby’s actual life story. Nick even eats breakfast with Gatsby and contemplates missing work because he “didn’t want to leave Gatsby.” While Gatsby waits desperately for Daisy’s phone call, Nick calls Gatsby several times from his job. By the novel’s end, Nick is the only one on Gatsby’s side. At Gatsby’s funeral, Nick tells Gatsby’s father that they were “close friends.” Nick’s devotion to Gatsby, a known swindler and criminal, is inexplicable. Perhaps Nick hoped to be more than “close friends” with Gatsby.

While Nick’s loyalty to Gatsby is never fully explained, Nick may be an unreliable narrator with regard to how he describes his sexual identity and emotional desires. At the beginning of the book, Daisy pesters Nick about rumors of his engagement to a girl in the Midwest. Nick shrugs off the rumors by claiming that he moved to New York to escape the rumors, an implausible explanation. Equally unusual is Nick’s claim that he ends an affair with a woman in his office because of her brother’s disapproval. Only later in the book when Nick commits to getting more serious with Jordan does the reader discover that Nick has been writing insincere love letters to a woman in the Midwest. Nick is suspiciously abrupt about the women he sees to the point of questioning his allegiance to these women.

While Nick’s approval wavers on at least one occasion, it is not enough to deter him from his devotion to Gatsby. At the novel’s end, Nick tells Gatsby that he is “worth the whole damn bunch together,” affirming Gatsby’s superiority to Tom, Daisy, and their lot. In doing this, he privately admits to himself that he “disapproved” of Gatsby “from beginning to end.” However, Tom Buchanan observes that Gatsby throws “dust in his eyes” and in the eyes of Daisy to make them love Gatsby despite their disapproval. Nick’s devotion to Gatsby until the end happens most plausibly because he is in love with Gatsby. Symbolically, this is clear from the beginning of the book. Upon leaving Daisy’s house and returning to his own house, Nick sees Gatsby in his yard looking at a green light across the bay. Gatsby strives to win Daisy’s affection as Nick strives to win Gatsby’s affection. When Nick looks at the green light, Gatsby disappears, and Nick is “alone again in the unquiet darkness,” the turmoil of his inner desires.

Who would enjoy reading this book?

If you are interested in the tragedy of the pursuit of the “American dream” and tales of New York, this book will interest you. If you are interested in differences between film portrayals of novels, it is interesting to compare the many film versions of The Great Gatsby, namely the 1974 and 2013 productions. Both film versions omit the suggestively queer scenes with Nick Carraway. An open embrace of Carraway as a queer character would better explain his devotion to Gatsby on the big and small screen.

References

Delistraty, Cody. “Distinctly Emasculated.” The Paris Review, 5 Dec. 2018, www.theparisreview.org/blog/2015/04/24/distinctly-emasculated/.

Fitzgerald, F. Scott, and James L. W. West. The Cambridge Edition of the Works of F. Scott Fitzgerald. Cambridge University Press, 2007.

Olear, Greg. “Nick Carraway Is Gay and in Love with Gatsby.” Salon, Salon.com, 9 Jan. 2013, http://www.salon.com/2013/01/09/was_nick_carraway_gay/.

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.