I had not anticipated how much time I’d end up spending on The Great Gatsby. At this point, I have seen it in the theatres twice and just finished reading the novel for the first time since high school, and there’s a lot to unpack here. Given the slant of this blog, I’ll try to keep focused more on the portrayal of women in the film and novel, but so much more could be said about how race, wealth, poverty, and any number of other issues are addressed. (For the earlier and briefer “tl;dr” review, go here.)
There are going to be spoilers in this review, as the movie sticks fairly close to the book, the book came out close to a century ago, and you should have read it in high school. Proceed accordingly. If you are unfamiliar with the characters and their relationships with each other, this is kind of a gorgeous character map.
As I mentioned in the short review, I learned through extensive research (yes, that is sarcastic) that Fitzgerald drew a ton of inspiration from his relationship with his wife, Zelda Fitzgerald, to the point of lifting text directly from her diary and inserting it into one of his books. In fact, there’s stenographic record of Fitzgerald basically losing it when Zelda had the temerity to write a fictionalized account of her own mental breakdown and hospitalization, since he had been planning on using that material in future works:
I don’t want you….to write a novel about insanity, because you know there is certain psychiatric stuff in my books, and if you publish a book before me, or even at the same time, in which the subject of psychiatry is taken up, and people see “Fitzgerald,” why, there is Scott Fitzgerald’s wife, they read that… Everything we have done is mine. If we make a trip….and you and I go around, I am the professional novelist, and I am supporting you. This is all my material. None of it is your material.
So… yeah. Fitzgerald had a complicated relationship with the primary lady in his life and the material of both of their lives as fodder for his writing. As such, how he deals with both the primary woman and his narrator are worth greater examination, as well as the choices Luhrman makes in bringing these characters to the screen.
First off, the echoes of Zelda are not subtle in Daisy. Zelda was the “golden girl” of a wealthy family in Montgomery, Alabama, where she first met Fitzgerald as a young officer in 1917. The war ending before Fitzgerald was ever deployed, Zelda broke off their first engagement, convinced that Fitzgerald could not support her financially. They only reconnected and married once Fitzgerald managed to get his first novel published and the money started coming in, and their daughter was born about a year after their marriage. In fact, Daisy’s line at the birth of her daughter (“I hope she’ll be a fool – that’s the best thing a girl can be in this world, a beautiful little fool”) is cribbed directly from Zelda’s comment at her daughter’s birth.
We’ll start with Tom and Daisy’s daughter, because this is an interesting divergence from the film.
I’ll admit that Daisy’s “beautiful little fool” line grated on me pretty severely the first time that I heard it, until I started reconsidering the context. Daisy is not – as I first thought – saying that the world needs more foolish, beautiful women, or that they are the best type of women period, etc etc. She is speaking from her own pain of knowing too much about her husband (and his infidelities) and other men (who abet her husband’s infidelities); since it seems that the cruelty of men is unchangeable, the only means of protection from that pain is ignorance of their faults. Being a fool.
In the film, this is the only mention of Daisy and Tom’s daughter until we see them leaving their Long Island home at the end of the movie; while their daughter hardly has a huge part in the novel, there is a scene prior to the disastrous lunch at the Buchanan’s in which Gatsby meets their daughter. Daisy and Gatsby have by this time reconnected, with Gatsby pressuring her to leave Tom. The nurse brings in Pammy (the only time the daughter’s name is mentioned is by the nurse) to greet the guests. Gatsby’s reaction is telling:
… He kept looking at the child with surprise. I don’t think he had ever really believed in its existence before.
In the book we are stuck in Nick’s head, and Nick does not notice if Daisy sees Gatsby’s reaction. In the movie, we are not as chained to Nick’s perspective, and perhaps for that reason alone I wish that this scene was in the movie. In all of his grandiose plans for himself and Daisy, Gatsby never seems to have considered that Daisy’s daughter would be part of them, and I don’t think it’s impossible that this factors into Daisy’s decision to stay with Tom.
The second major difference is the story of why exactly Daisy and Gatsby did not get married in the first place. Luhrman is heavy-handed in emphasizing the “old money vs new money” theme. Fitzgerald wasn’t exactly subtle about it himself, but Luhrman goes overboard. He inserts Jordan’s boorish date at one of Gatsby’s parties telling Nick that “rich girls never marry poor boys”. He adds Tom spewing out some classist bullshit at Gatsby when he’s pushed Daisy too far, about how he and Daisy are fundamentally different from Gatsby, down to their blood. The culmination of the trope is when Nick asks Gatsby what was in the letter he sent to Daisy that arrived the night before her marriage to Tom. Gatsby says that he revealed to her that he was penniless, and we’re treated to an image of the cursive word penniless dissolving into the bath water as Daisy destroys the letter.
This simply does not happen in the book. Gatsby is penniless at that time, to be sure, but at no time does he tell Daisy that until after they’ve reunited. In fact, after the war he doesn’t seem to tell her much of anything about why he cannot come back to America.
…[T]here was a quality of nervous despair now in Daisy’s letters. She didn’t see why he couldn’t come. She was feeling the pressure of the world outside, and she wanted to see him and feel his presence beside her and be reassured that she was doing the right thing after all. … She wanted her life shaped now, immediately – and the decision must be made by some force – of love, of money, of unquestionable practicality – that was close at hand.
How surprising is it then that, without any input from Gatsby as to what his plans are, Daisy eventually moves on? Gatsby himself is vague when speaking to Nick about what exactly kept him from returning, and for whatever reason he goes from Oxford back to France – by which time Daisy has married Tom – before returning to the States. There are a few clues to his behavior when he talks about the golden days of their relationship in her parents’ house at Louisville:
What was the use of doing great things if I could have a better time telling her what I was going to do?
The romantic that he is – and that’s not really a compliment – Gatsby only gets down to the business of making sure he can support his lady-love (whom he had already tacitly mislead about his financial situation) after she’s married someone else and the situation is dramatic and dire.
Despite these changes and omissions, Carey Mulligan’s performance and a few changes by Luhrman do present a more sympathetic Daisy in the film than I was expecting. Luhrman adds a scene when Daisy and Gatsby are together and she wishes aloud that they could just “run away”. To Gatsby, this is unthinkable. He wants to stay in the house that he designed for Daisy – conveniently located right across the water from where Daisy’s current husband lives – and despite the obvious awkwardness that would entail for Daisy, he does not want to leave. He clearly hasn’t thought through the fact that, whether they leave or stay, Daisy divorcing her husband would be a scandal of a proportion that would ostracize her from New York society… and that maybe a fresh start elsewhere is the only realistic option for both of them.
Realistic options as a matter of course do not seem to occur to Gatsby.
In Defense of Daisy
Excepting this one addition, Luhrman’s film contributes to a lot that is troublesome about the narrative that’s been passed down about The Great Gatsby, most particularly in regards to Daisy. She chooses to go back to a demonstrably abusive, cheating, and racist husband over a nice guy who got a huge house for her and threw large parties, just because nice guy wasn’t born rich. The facts that said nice guy is not interested in relocating away from his house directly opposite abusive husband, nice guy is involved in increasingly worrying illegal activities, and that nice guy idealized Daisy to the point of being entirely blind to reality don’t enter into the equation. Instead, as Stephen Colbert puts it, the takeaway is “Bitches be crazy”. Greg Olear is even harsher:
Daisy is a piece of shit—one of the biggest pieces of shit in all of literature. As a young woman, she is in love with Gatsby, but when he ships out, caves almost immediately under pressure from her family and marries Tom, whose hateful and racist rants she permits. She has no job, no discernible skill (unlike her BFF the professional athlete), and her life is one of complete leisure. She is a lousy mother—her daughter, raised by a nanny, makes a cameo appearance but does not factor into any of her decisions. As soon as Gatsby reveals his ardor, she goes off with him, betraying her husband. … Whatever dollar-pegged gaiety might exist in her voice, we can’t hear it, her voice is filtered through Nick’s; all we know is that she is a horrible human being.
This reading ignores entirely the limited options that a woman would have had in early 20th century America. Tom is a racist, yes, and so is the majority of the population in America. Fitzgerald/ Nick even refers to the African-Americans in a limousine as “two bucks and a girl”… so the entire narrative is pretty bad in that regard. She “permits” his racist rants because a) kinda par for the course in that time and place and b) we know Tom does not have issues breaking women’s noses. No job/ discernible skill? Same goes for most women raised in the quasi-aristocratic world, particularly in the South. (Jordan is an exception to this.) Bad mother? Quite possibly – Tom is no prize father either – but we only see her when Nick sees her and when she is entertaining guests. Going off with Gatsby? Wait, so she’s terrible for caving and marrying a racist, and then also for cheating on her racist husband? And then ALSO terrible for not running away with the man with whom she’s cheating on her husband?
Do I think Daisy is a great person? No. I don’t think there are really any good people in this book OR in the movie, very much including Nick Carraway.
Nick and “Third Person Sanctimonious”
There’s another line that Luhrman (in my opinion) wisely added to the movie. When taking Nick Carraway along to show off Myrtle, his mistress, Tom tells him “I know you like to watch.” And Nick really is the worst kind of voyeur – observing the fraught relationships colliding around him and judging without doing much of anything of all to mitigate the situation. A few telling moments occur in the same scene as the line I just quoted, when Nick is at Myrtle’s apartment. (This scene takes place in both the book and the film, although, as noted, there are differences between the novel and the film in the scene’s details. I’ll do my best to be clear about what’s what.)
The first moment is in the novel, not in the film: Nick finds out that Tom has lead Myrtle to believe that Daisy is Catholic and refuses to divorce Tom, and that this factor is the only thing standing between Tom and Myrtle marrying and leading a (relatively) virtuous life together. Nick knows that Daisy is not Catholic, and he is “a little shocked at the elaborateness of the lie”… yet says nothing to correct the mistake.
The second moment is in the film, and Luhrman adapts it beautifully, as Nick, increasingly intoxicated, feels both “within and without, simultaneously enchanted and repulsed by the inexhaustible variety of life.” Myrtle and Tom stumble back into the room with Myrtle insisting that she has every right to say Daisy’s name aloud, at which point Tom breaks her nose.
Nick valiantly hides on the fire escape. Judgement comes easy. Action does not.
Katherine Schulz‘s essay pins down a lot of what I find interesting and problematic about the book, much of which focuses on Nick and (it appears) how closely Fitzgerald identifies with Nick. She observes that,
Like many American moralists, Fitzgerald was more offended by pleasure than by vice, and he had a tendency to confound them. In The Great Gatsby, polo and golf are more morally suspect than murder.
She also coins the term “third-person sanctimonious” (I think in this case it should be first person sanctimonious, but no matter) as the style in which the novel is written. Maybe the earliest clue to this in the text is after Nick has left that first awkward dinner with Jordan, Daisy, and Tom and has begun to see the chasms in Daisy and Tom’s marriage:
It seemed to me that the thing for Daisy to do was to rush out of the house, child in arms – but apparently there were no such intentions in her head.
Nick does not seem to consider where exactly Daisy would run to in this situation, as a single woman, child in tow, would not have a wealth of options. All that matters is that her failure to escape is a moral failure – victim blaming at its most essential.
Excepting the example at Myrtle’s apartment, Luhrman unfortunately soft-pedals Nick’s primness, which to me is a significant loss. As I mentioned earlier, film gives the audience greater freedom from the narrator’s perspective, and the medium would have allowed many more opportunities to point out what Nick fails to observe. Luhrman also cuts out almost all of Nick’s relationship with Jordan Baker, a loss on multiple levels, not in the least because Nick’s feelings for Jordan obliquely reveal more of Nick’s imperfections than we would otherwise discover. In the course of confronting his attraction to Jordan, Nick briefly compares her to his two other romantic relationships of that summer… emphasis on “briefly”. He spends less than a sentence or so apiece on his fiancée back West (referred to only as “that tangle back home”) and a workplace colleague with whom he has a short affair. His dismissive attitude towards them is perhaps as troubling as his own non-monogamy, particularly given his judgment of the infidelity surrounding him. Even in the novel, this revelation of Nick’s hypocrisy is rare, and it’s unfortunate that this side of Nick is entirely absent in the film.
While I appreciate Luhrman’s adaptation of The Great Gatsby overall, there are both divergences from the story and missed opportunities to subvert the novel that I wish he had not done. Fitzgerald was not particularly kind to his women characters to begin with – evidence in the form of Fitzgerald’s quote “Women learn best not from books or from their own dreams but from reality and from contact with first-class men” shows Nick’s views are not so different from his author’s – and Luhrman does not do much in his script to correct this. Carey Mulligan in particular acts quite well and brings a life and sympathy to Daisy that I didn’t expect, but the script still falls into the lines of her being an unreasonable, ungrateful bitch. Luhrman also repeatedly misses the chance to show Nick for the unreliable narrator that he is; instead, as in the book, we are largely trapped within Nick’s “unbiased” perspective, and even more of his flaws are elided in the film than in the text.
But so what? The book is nearing 90 years old. What does it matter?
I first read this book in high school, as have many other students – it’s short, the prose is fairly easy, and the symbolism is low-hanging fruit. And at no time in the discussion of the book did we tackle its very problematic aspects: the endorsement of “nice guy syndrome,” Gatsby’s impossible idealization of women, and Nick’s / Fitzgerald’s approval of Gatsby as a character. Gatsby is respected as a dreamer, in fact as an emblem of The American Dream despite his inauthenticity and criminal activity, while the women characters in their ultimate practicality are cast as petty villains, dragging down all of these “first-class men”. These narratives are, as Kate Beaton says,
and a lot of work needs to happen to fight their prevalence. An adaptation of a flawed work (and what work in its own way, isn’t flawed?) is an opportunity to challenge aspects of it even while remaining faithful to its spirit. I just wish Luhrman had taken greater advantage of this.
– Lucinda will always, despite great efforts to change, be an English major.