Thursday, November 29, 2012

Even Feminism Can be Fallacious: Feminist Reading of The Great Gatsby

Lois Tyson's feminist reading of The Great Gatsby is largely dependent upon a logical fallacy. Because the patriarchy involves negative feelings towards women, especially 'New Women,' she equates negative descriptions or characteristics of women in literature with a reinforcement of the patriarchy.One's gender, race or religion cannot make them immune from criticism; in any group, there are people that are unlikeable, obnoxious, pretentious or have any of a myriad of other negative criticisms. If a book is dedicated to or largely focused on flaws it shows as only present in a specific group, it is clearly advancing a sexist, racist or similar agenda. But a novel having many unlikeable characters is not sexist just because some of those characters are female. Tyson writes that "[t]he novel abounds in minor female characters whose dress and activities identify them as incarnations of the New Woman, and they are portrayed as clones of a single, negative character type: shallow, exhibitionist, revolting and deceitful" (122). Few women are shown in a sympathetic light, but that is just because few people are. The book is a critique of the culture to which they belong. Fitzgerald hated the attitudes that prevailed in the over-privileged, and he was no kinder to men. Further, Fitzgerald almost certainly saw the movement of which they were ostensibly a part as not truly being a step forward. A society built on dulling the senses with alcohol in order to drown the overwhelming sense of meaningless that consumed their luxurious lives is not sound, and the actions it encourages, the behavior of those that take part, are valid to critique. Apparently liberated, these New Women were objectified in many of the same ways that they had been before. Social moors against such sexual and behavioral freedom condemned both men and women, but encouraged the view of the burgeoning Women's Lib movement as made up of degenerates who wanted the breakdown of society. Tyson simply never mentions his overall condemnation of the Jazz Age elite, instead focusing just on the negative light cast on the women. Their status as liberated females in an oppressive age does not protect them from all criticism, but condemning criticism on essentially those grounds is a censorious and absurd view of The Great Gatsby.

One other major fallacy permeates the reading. The idea that the assorted fates of the characters is dependent on their morality, as though Fitzgerald were God, intentionally punishing the wicked and helping the good is ridiculous. The assertion that, for example, Myrtle was killed because of her status as a sexually free New Woman completely ignores the actual significance of the events. Discussing the reasons for what she sees as Fitzgerald's targeting women, Tyson writes, "all three women violate patriarchal sexual taboos: Jordan engages in premarital sex, and Daisy and Myrtle are engaged in extramarital affairs. That the novel finds this freedom unacceptable in women [italics mine] is evident in its unsympathetic portrayals of those who exercise it" (124-125). Jordan is, to me, one of the less repellent characters. Her fate is not particularly unhappy; she and Nick even part relatively amiably. Myrtle, while worse than Jordan, is not entirely unsympathetic. Certainly, Tom's portrayal is infinitely more so. Before becoming indirectly responsible for Gatsby's death, Tom's sins amount mostly to infidelity, the same as Myrtle though for somewhat different reasons. To say that Myrtle is shown negatively because of her infidelity completely ignores the fact that male characters, Tom most notably, are treated the same way for the same reasons. Furthermore, the opinion that adultery is wrong is not patriarchal or sexist if it is applied equally to men and women, and Nick is, if anything, harsher in his view of Tom than Myrtle.

Both of these fallacies essentially rest on a double standard that Tyson holds. Based on her reading, she seems to think that criticizing a woman is inherently patriarchal and sexist. Tyson illustrated this belief in a personal anecdote, one of a series of much more serious and legitimate stories: "And when I noticed that one of my professors seemed extremely uncomfortable whenever I approached him and would quickly leave whatever group he was talking with when I came near, it didn't occur to me that it might have something to do with my being the only woman in the graduate program in philosophy ... or with my being a head taller than he was" (129). Yes, it might have. On the other hand, maybe it's because he didn't care for Tyson on a personal level; being found unsympathetic and unlikeable in real life is no more proof of discrimination than it is if the same occurs with a character in a novel. Of course, equality includes acknowledging the flaws in individuals rather than glossing over them because of race or sex. The Great Gatsby is not hesitant to point out the flaws in every character and, ultimately, the society that supports them.

There are plenty of other points I could write about, but these flaws are the ones which most caught my attention during my reading. But ultimately, while there are without doubt instances of sexism which you could even argue that Nick supports or accepts, Tyson seemed to find the novel patriarchal in large part because of a double standard which depends on glossing over flaws in women in the same way that society ignored the flaws of men. Finally, a question: Does a novel accurately reflecting contemporary opinions on race and gender mean that it supports those opinions if it does not then explicitly condemn them? That is, might the sexism present in the book serve as a critique of it in the same way that the book treats the excesses of the very rich?

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