Masculine Identity Crisis in American Fiction
Troubled Men: Male Characters' Struggle for Masculine Identity in The Great Gatsby
After masculinity was discovered, as a field of study, by sociologists, cultural anthropologists, and psychologists, literary scholars and critics also started to explore the diverse concepts of masculinity crisis in literature since ‘literature can reveal aspects of masculinity that might not come out or be visible in daily life or in other types of cultural artifacts’ as Reeser states.1 The masculinity crisis finds its expression in literary works and cultural discourses of the early decades of the twentieth century.
In American fiction, the masculine identity crisis appears in many different facets and manifestations. But in the literary works in the 1920s, especially in the works dealing with wealth and social transition, the crisis of masculine identity is almost unanimously portrayed in young men who want to become rich and create a new identity or what is so called so-called the Self-Made Man. The young men who reject the new social values and embrace masculinity; men who try to live up to the ideals of traditional American masculinity. This essay will examine the crisis of masculine identity in F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby. It closely examines the male characters’ struggle in search of masculine identity. Furthermore, it will explore the portrayal of the male characters in relation to patriarchy and the demands of the society of being a man. But before starting, a brief introduction to the masculine identity crisis should be given.
The crisis of masculine identity has become one of the main themes of men's studies in recent decades. Looking back into the historiographical accounts of men's studies, it can be seen that the male identity crisis occurred as a result of war, inequalities, and social injustice. In addition, the transition period from the 19th to the 20th century is undoubtedly considered a time of industrialization, urbanization, women's and workers' movements, homosexuality, and degeneration. Facing these multiple changes in society, men in the early decades of the twentieth century felt strongly challenged and insecure. During that period of time, the transition in social and traditional values shook the secure status of the model of hegemonic masculinity and triggered the crisis discourse of masculine identity. Nicolas Tredell points out that First World War ‘caused some social dislocation.’2 The crisis of masculine identity manifests itself in various symptoms. In a pathological sense, these include, for example, anger, aggression, fighting spirit, assertiveness, and feeling threatened by new images of women and their movements. In other words, in the transitional period around 1900, there was a pluralization of crisis-ridden images of men.
The morbid attitude of men toward women signals the strong insecurity of men and expresses their crisis. The crisis of male identity has a huge negative impact on men's relations; it increases the non-functioning social relations, especially relations between sexes. Therefore, when analyzing masculinity and its identity in literary texts, the reader's attention should not be limited to individual male protagonists, but one should consider the male characters in their relationships with other male or female characters.
In The Great Gatsby, Fitzgerald depicts the social and cultural changes that followed the First World War. In this classic of world literature, the author has captured the unique atmosphere of the so-called Roaring Twenties, the 1920s in the U.S., which were marked by growing prosperity and increasing mobility, prohibition, and jazz. This era makes people like Gatsby grow up, but its dullness and levity deny him the fulfilment of his love. Bewley points out that Fitzgerald's novel is ‘a dramatic affirmation in fictional terms of the American spirit in the midst of an American world that denies the soul.’3 The Great Gatsby is considered one of the most important novels in American fiction. It deals with men's struggle to establish their masculine identity within a society that was undergoing a remarkable transition in social values. In addition, it depicts how it is difficult to live up to the ideals of patriarchy and its definition of manhood.
Nick Carraway is the main character in The Great Gatsby. Readers see the other characters through his eyes since he is the narrator as well. He tries to establish an acceptable masculine identity as other male characters in the novel. To establish this masculine identity, Nick firstly decides to leave his hometown, which he describes as’ the ragged edge of the universe,’ for New York City.4 It is a journey from a marginalized world, which is linked to femininity, to the centre where he can achieve his dream. Secondly, Nick is against the idea of marriage; he distances himself completely from women. Thirdly, through his moving, Nick proves his manliness since mobility is considered a masculine quality and ‘may also play its part in blurring and sharpening masculine identities,’ as Morgan states.5
Nick's journey takes a geographical, while jay Gatsby's journey takes a social form. Gatsby always believes that he can acquire Daisy, who shines ‘like silver, safe and proud above the hot struggle of the poor,’ once he becomes rich.6 For him, the margin is the poverty that prevents him from marrying his lover, Daisy. Moreover, poverty is perceived as a feminine quality; it emasculates men and makes them powerless and socially inferior. Gatsby wants to establish his masculine identity through his fortune and marriage to a rich girl. His identity is linked to his property since he accomplished what Daisy already has, her house. The house gives him a sense of his masculine identity. However, Bizzell suggests that his ‘heroic achievements of wealth are patently inappropriate to the era, have no significance beyond mere theatricality, and are hence absurd.’7 In other words, Glasby’s plan will never work since being rich does not confirm his male identity anymore.
Tom Buchanan seems to have typical masculine traits; he is strong, dominant, and assertive. Tom is presented as a man looking for his identity, even though he already embodies maleness. Lena states that ‘Tom Buchanan is a character that embodies the stereotype of the self-made man who has risen from nowhere, Buchanan represents the type of millionaire that is anchored in a solid tradition of socially acceptable (because inherited) wealth.’8 However, Tom is depicted as ‘one of those men who reach such an acute limited excellence at twenty-one that everything afterward savors of anti-climax.’9 Nick describes him as a man without an identity, although Tom is a husband of a rich, beautiful woman, a father of a daughter, and a lover as well. This could be interpreted that these masculine ideals are not in accordance with the ideals that Nick sees as masculine.
Since masculinity is not a natural fact but rather the product of a continuous performance of construction, these male characters are always on the move aiming to establish a masculine identity. This may imply that masculine identity is connected to movement and should continually be proved. In the sense of Simone de Beauvoir's famous quote, ‘one is not born a woman, one becomes one,' men also must reproduce and represent their masculine identity every day in interaction processes.10
Masculinity can be divided into three main categories: economic power, social power, and physical power. Men who possess these qualities have the highest place and status in society. At the same time, the men who lack such qualities will be seen as inferior, less masculine, and eventually compared to women. A good example of this in The Great Gatsby is Tom Buchanan and George Wilson. Tom has a good position in society; he is wealthy and strong, while George tries to survive and is almost unknown and powerless towards his wife.
Masculine identity is neither stable nor taken for granted; consequently, it should be reproduced and re-earned whenever men have a chance. Kaufman says: ‘Patriarchy exists as a system not simply of men's power over women but also of hierarchies of power among different groups of men and between different masculinities. ’11 This means that to confirm their masculine identity, men should look at the way they deal with other men. To feel superior to women does not confirm men’s masculine identity.
Tom uses his power against the other characters to confirm his male identity; he forces Nick to leave a train, for example. Nick feels that Tom is ‘stronger and more of a man than’12 the other characters and this what makes Tom maintain his male supremacy and have power over Nick. Furthermore, Nick lacks the qualities that Tom possesses, which makes Nick feel less masculine. However, Nick does not allow Tom to control him since he sees himself morally above Tom. Tom exercises his power over weak people even when he chooses his mistresses. He chooses them from the lower class, which ‘bespeaks his need to bolster an insecure psyche through power over others,’ according to Tyson.13
Nick helps Gatsby to meet daisy, Tom's wife. Once Gatsby succeeds in winning daisy back, Tom's masculinity will be rendered. As a result, Nick gets a higher potion on the masculinity scale and proves his masculine identity since he can use his power against other men. In the novel, Tom has the top position on the masculinity scale; he represents the Genteel Patriarch, who is ‘a doting and devoted father’ and spends ‘much of his time supervising the estate and with his family.’14 Tom considers himself the defender of ‘family life and family institutions,’ and he rejects the new social values and embraces the traditional form of American society.15 For the patriarch, family is essential to maintain his existence. Gatsby's attempt to win Daisy back confirms that male identity should be proved and re-earned, and men who possess power should hold the top position on the masculinity scale. Gatsby has physical strength and economic power, but he lacks the social power. As a result, he loses the battle against Tom, which results in rendering his masculinity to the ground.
Men who live at the margin of society and deviate from the norm are considered less masculine since they lack social power physical strength, and the economic power. According to Mosse, they provide a ‘countertype;’16 they are considered ‘the exact opposite of true masculinity.’17 George Wilson in The Great Gatsby is a good example of this type of men. He is poor, marginalised, dominated by his wife, and depicted as ‘his wife’s man and not his own.’ Tom takes advantage of Wilsons's weakness and seduces Wilsons's wife, Myrtle, which ‘reinforces Tom’s sense of his own masculine power,’ according to Tyson.18
The valley of ashes is located between West Egg and New York and was created by the dumping of industrial ash. It symbolizes moral and social decay, and at the same time, the difference between the social classes becomes clear. Wilson lives bleakly and impoverished in the valley while the rich pass through it on their way to pleasure. Yet the valley is actually a result of capitalism: while the rich think solely about increasing their wealth, they give no thought to possible consequences for others. It is a place linked to femininity where men are weak and emasculated due to poverty. According to Connell, marginalized masculinities are generally masculinities of oppressed classes and ‘subordinated classes.’19 In this context, the subordination of certain groups of men, like Wilson, ensures the production and maintenance of the hegemony of other men, Tom, for example. Connell's concept thus does not only focus on the relations between men and women but also on the relations between men themselves.
Wilson accepts the fact that he lacks the traits that are traditionally viewed as masculine, and he does not live up to strict gender norms. Yet, he tries to gain some control or power over his wife to prove his manhood. Gatsby, Tom, Nick, and George Wilson always try to boost their power and control over each other to prove their masculine identity. This desire for control supports Kaufman's argument ‘that manhood is equated with having some sort of power.’20
The social changes in the 1920s also brought about new images of women. Although a conservative image of women was still widespread and accepted in society, women emerged from their obscurity and introduced themselves to social life in a new way.
The new female type, the flapper, is characterized by a changed appearance, a great enthusiasm for life, and participation in musical events. They were self-confident and independent and seemed to ‘embody the New Woman in appearance and social freedom;’ they listened to jazz and enjoyed their sexuality but didn't go to the extreme. Tyson argues that the ‘novel’s discomfort with the New Woman becomes evident.’21 In no other novel of his time was the flapper given such a monument as in The Great Gatsby. Whenever one undertakes an interpretation of The Great Gatsby, one must also address this new type of woman, which only existed in the Roaring Twenties since it plays a key role in defining the masculine identity. Not only the character of Daisy can be seen as a typical flapper, but the other ladies of the fine party society on Gatsby's estate also embody this type of woman.
Fitzgerald highlights the role of women in defining the norms and masculine traits. Gatsby's dream of gaining wealth quickly and winning Daisy back was the main drive behind his journey of establishing his male identity. In addition, Gatsby's fancy parties were to draw the attention of Daisy, but she objects to them later. Gatsby seems to be obedient to Daisy; he does not give parties anymore as he realizes that Daisy is not interested. Daisy is not the only woman who can determine how a man should be. Women from lower classes, like Myrtle Wilson, could render the male identity of their husbands and make them powerless. Despite her humble roots, Myrtle is a character who desperately strives to be refined and wealthy. Myrtle has been unhappily married to her husband for two years because of his lack of wealth and social status. Her rebellious behaviour and secret relationship with Tom weaken her husband's male identity on the one hand and confirms Tom's masculinity on the other hand.
Myrtle was hit and killed, and the driver hit and ran. Tom suspects that Gatsby is the driver. Back at Tom's house, he finds out that Daisy was driving the car, not Gatsby. Gatsby, however, wants to take the blame for proving his male identity. Wilson, Myrtle's husband, is devastated by his wife's death. Tom tells Wilson that Gatsby was driving. Wilson drives to Gatsby's house, shooting first Gatsby in revenge and then himself. Nick goes back to the West while Gatsby and Wilson die. Tom is the only male character who succeeds in establishing an acceptable masculine identity.
In conclusion, the crisis of masculine identity is a central theme in The Great Gatsby. Most male characters in The Great Gatsby failed to establish their masculine identity following the patriarchal order. Moreover, the belief that men at that time in America could establish a stable male identity is a dream that never came true despite the hard work. In addition, they build their identities on social and patriarchal values and women's expectations rather than on their own motives and goals. Men who fail to attain their masculine identities land again on the margin where they are compared to women.
1 Todd W Reeser, ‘Concepts of Masculinity and Masculinity Studies’, in Configuring Masculinity in Theory and Literary Practice, ed. by Stefan Horlacher, DQR Studies in Literature, volume 58 (Leiden: Brill Rodopi, 2015), pp. 11-38 (p. 11).
2 Nicolas Tredell, Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby: A Reader's Guide, Continuum Reader’s Guides (London: New York: Continuum, 2007), pp. 9-10.
3 Marius Bewley, ‘Scott Fitzgerald’s Criticism of America,’ in The Great Gatsby: A Study, ed. by Frederick J Hoffman (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1962), pp. 263-85 (p. 283).
4 F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby, 1. Auflage (Weimar: Aionas Verlag, 2018), p. 4.
5 David Morgan, ‘Class and Masculinity,’ in Handbook of Studies on Men & Masculinities, ed. by Michael S. Kimmel, Jeff Hearn, and Raewyn Connell (Thousand Oaks (Calif.): Sage Publications, 2005), pp. 165-77 (p. 171).
6 Fitzgerald, p. 115.
7 Patricia Bizzell, ‘Pecuniary Emulation of the Mediator in The Great Gatsby’, MLN, 94.4 (1979), 774-83 (p. 778) <https://doi.org/10.2307/2906299>.
8 Alberto Lena, ‘Deceitful Traces of Power: An Analysis of the Decadence of Tom Buchanan in The Great Gatsby,’ in F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby, ed. by Harold Bloom, Bloom’s Modern Critical Interpretations, New ed (New York: Bloom’s Literary Criticism, 2010), pp. 39-58 (p. 40).
9 Fitzgerald, p. 7.
10 Simone De Beauvoir, The Second Sex, trans. by Constance Borde and Sheila Malovany-Chevallier (New York: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, 2010), iii, p. 330.
11 Michael Kaufman, ‘Men, Feminism, and Men’s Contradictory Experiences of Power,’ in Theorizing Masculinities, ed. by Harry Brod and Michael Kaufman, Research on Men and Masculinities Series, 5 (Thousand Oaks (Calif.): SAGE, 1994), pp. 142-64 (p. 145).
12 Fitzgerald, p. 8.
13 Lois Tyson, Critical Theory Today: A User-Friendly Guide, 2nd edn (New York: Routledge, 2008), p. 42.
14 Michael S. Kimmel, ‘Masculinity as Homophobia: Fear, Shame, and Silence in the Construction of Gender Identity,’ in Theorizing Masculinities, ed. by Harry Brod and Michael Kaufman, Research on Men and Masculinities Series, 5 (Thousand Oaks (Calif.): SAGE, 1994), pp. 119-41 (p. 123).
15 Fitzgerald, p. 100.
16 George L. Mosse, The Image of Man: The Creation of Modern Masculinity, Studies in the History of Sexuality (New York, NY: Oxford Univ. Pr, 1996), p. 56.
17 Mosse, p. 6.
18 Tyson, p. 60.
19 Raewyn Connell, Masculinities, 2nd edn (Berkeley: Univ. of California Pr, 2008), p. 80.
20 Kaufman, p. 145.
21 Tyson, p. 124.