Through the interactions between male and female characters, Fitzgerald depicts a variety of social expectations regarding “typical” male behavior in the 1920’s. In the novel The Great Gatsby, characters such as Tom Buchanan, Jay Gatsby, George Wilson and Nick Carraway demonstrate behavior that acts to maintain and live up to expectations inherent in society. Through their controlling ways, these characters strive to define the “typical” man in the 1920’s.
The notion that a man’s success can be measured by his possessions becomes evident through the actions of Tom, Gatsby and Wilson. These characters strive to obtain more than just material possessions. For example, Tom seems to view the women in his life as mere possessions, a sign of his success and wealth. His attitude and interactions with Daisy, his wife, and Myrtle, his mistress, demonstrate this. Through out the story, Tom does not show respect or genuine caring for either woman. Rather, he commits open adultery with Myrtle. Tom makes this affair public because it is just another way of showing-off, another of his possessions and thus boosting his ego. Tom does this without regard for the shame his affairs may bring onto his wife.
Daisy comes to represent a treasured and sought possession for both Tom and Gatsby. Although on the surface it appears that Gatsby has an ever-lasting love for Daisy, I feel that his longing for Daisy stems from his need to recapture a possession which he lost during his youth. Nick comments “He talked a lot about the past and I gathered that he wanted to recover something, some idea of himself perhaps, that had gone into loving Daisy” (117). Furthermore by possessing Daisy’s love, Gatsby can reject defeat and feel successful as a man.
In the novel, Gatsby goes as far as to view the green light as a symbolic way of holding onto his possession and keeping Daisy in some way close to him. After obtaining his dream of being reunited with Daisy, the green light begins to lose its symbolic strength. “Now it was again a green light on a dock. His count of enchanted objects had diminished by one” (98). Now that the realization of his dream has begun, Gatsby needs to feel a greater sense of possession or control over Daisy. He may feel the need to obtain another enchanted object to replace the loss of the symbolic meaning of the light. Now the only enchanted object which he is left to obtain is Daisy’s complete and everlasting.
Likewise, Tom refuses to forfeit Daisy to another man or even believe that she could love another. Tom states “But all the rest is a God damnened lie. Daisy loved me when she married me and she loves me now.” (138). If Tom were to give up Daisy to another man, this would surely be a sign of defeat and failure like losing a football or polo trophy. Instead of admitting defeat, Tom rationalizes Daisy’s behavior by demeaning her will. For example, he states “The trouble is that sometimes she gets foolish ideas in her head and doesn’t know what she’s doing” (138).
Another social expectation of “typical” male behavior in the 1920’s depicted in The Great Gatsby is the notion that a “real” man should be in control of the woman in his life at all times. This notion is exemplified through the struggling relationship between George and Myrtle Wilson. Although Fitzgerald describes George as “one of these worn-out men…He was his wife’s man and not his own.” (144), a need for control takes over George when he discovers his wife had “some sort of life apart from him in another world.” (131) with perhaps another man. To gain control over this situation and thus live up to the social expectation, George takes drastic measures. He states “I’ve got my wife locked up in there. She’s going to stay up there till the day after tomorrow and then we ‘re going to move away.” (143). Through his actions, George forces his will on his wife and strives to maintain control over his possession, his wife.
In addition, Tom demonstrates control over Myrtle when the issue of whether she has the right to mention Daisy’s name out loud. During the heated argument, Myrtle attempts to assert power and control by stating “Daisy! Daisy! Daisy! I’ll say it whenever I want to.” (41) In order to regain control over the situation Tom breaks her nose with his open hand. Although it may seem as though Tom is defending his wife, in reality I feel that this is merely Tom’s way of instilling fear into Myrtle as a device for maintaining his control over the situation and his mistress.
Gatsby also attempts to demonstrate control over Daisy. For example, Gatsby takes it upon himself to inform Tom of Daisy’s love for him. Gatsby states, “Daisy’s leaving you.” (140). In this situation, I feel that Gatsby is forcing Daisy to openly declare her feelings even though it may not have been her intention or wish to do so at the time. By doing this, Gatsby is hoping to fully regain a future with Daisy and therefore be in control of her feelings.
Through analysis of the male characters it became evident that during this time period it was acceptable for men to have extra-marital affairs. For example, it was a well-known fact that Tom had a mistress, Myrtle. Early in the novel this is conveyed through a conversation between Jordan and Nick. “You mean to say you don’t know?” said Jordan honestly surprised. “I thought everyone knew… Tom’s got some woman in New York: (19). In addition, there is reference to an affair Tom had with a hotel chambermaid at the beginning of his marriage to Daisy. Eventually the affair became public following a car accident in which the woman was injured.
The novel goes on to convey the notion that although it is socially acceptable for men to have extra-marital affairs during this time period, it was unacceptable for woman to do so. This becomes evident when Tom declares “I suppose the latest thing is to sit back and let Mr. Nobody from Nowhere make love to your wife. Well, if that’s the idea you can count me out… Nowadays people begin sneering at family life and institutions and next they’ll throw everything overboard…” (137). This passage implies that a man’s affair did not threaten family life or the institution of marriage. However, a woman’s affair could easily unravel the threads of social conformity.
Throughout the novel, it becomes evident that the “typical” man in the 1920’s was expected to take care of the woman in his life. For example when attempting to persuade Daisy to remain with him, Tom states “I’m going to take better care of you from now on.” (140). This notion is also exemplified when Nick comments on Gatsby’s relationship with Daisy years ago, “but he had deliberately given Daisy a sense of security; he let her believe that he was a person from much the same strata as herself- that he was fully able to take care of her.” (156). From these statements, it can be concluded that men were expected to be financially responsible. Thus, men gained a sense of control over women, who were expected to be dependent.