[get the PDF] [updated 25 January 2006]

The advent of literary Modernism in the early 20th century fueled a larger cultural movement. By the 1920s, women across the globe were winning the right to vote and work as the cult of domesticity began a slow but sure dismantlement (a process still occurring today). Victorian moralism, along with its notions of courtly love, was viewed by the progressive margins as antiquated and meaningless. As people—veterans of the Great War, victims of urban sprawl, even the bourgeois literary elite—began to feel increasingly disenfranchised by a society no longer described by the dominant written culture, a massive moral, cultural, and literary shift pushed writers in a new direction, insistent upon a new and different idiom for describing human life and relationships (Childs 2).

Given the predominance of sexuality in Freud’s new psychoanalytic model and amorphous sexual mores creeping into the urban scene, sex and gender were at the forefront of the new movement, marking a pivotal moment in the development of sexual preconceptions and roles of gender in our lives. There are two landmark works of Modernism which deal at length with the ideas of sexual disenfranchisement and the death of the idyllic romance of earlier writers. T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land concerns itself, among other things, with female archetypes, a frank treatment of sexual meaninglessness and, some might say, homoeroticism. On the other side of the coin, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby deals primarily with the destruction of the old romantic ideal—but also, some might say, homoeroticism. As one may guess, homosexuality, bisexuality, and feminism are strong—if not obviously stated1—currents in Modernist writing (Childs 2).

Even well into the latter half of the 20th century, the number of successful female writers remained small. A white Anglo-Saxon/American male writer wrote largely from the center of the literary world. The burgeoning feminist movement did not fail to act upon some writers, however, as evidenced by T.S. Eliot’s treatment of the sexually disenfranchised woman. From him we get mixed images of women, the first as part of a larger plebeian group (which Eliot, being somewhat of an elitist, had little concern for) described in relatively pejorative terms, and the second sympathetically. In The Waste Land, Eliot’s description of two lower or middle class woman in a pub illustrates the common perception of women as sexual constructs only.

Now Albert’s coming back, make yourself a bit smart.
He’ll want to know what you done with that money he gave you
To get yourself some teeth. He did, I was there.
You have them all out, Lil, and get a nice set,
He said, I swear, I can’t bear to look at you.
And no more can’t I, I said, and think of poor Albert,
He’s been in the army four years, he wants a good time,
And if you don’t give it him, there’s others will, I said. (Eliot 41)

Here is clearly drawn a portrait of women through the filter of cultural objectification. Eliot describes Lil’s relationship as one of sexuality without fertility (lines 159-161); essentially, one that has been bankrupted by the demands placed upon the wife to serve as décor, as procreation machine, and as domestic servant. Before any serious inroads had been made into practical feminism, such as the involvement of women in higher education, T.S. Eliot—in the words of Gail McDonald—”[regarded himself] as a serious intellectual and a social progressive. Neither affiliation could be comfortably linked in that era to the female body in its heterosexual, reproductive capabilities. The life of the mind was understood to preclude the life of the sexed body, a residue of the monastic foundations of many institutions of learning” (184).

Though critics of Eliot may be quick to label him misogynist, Eliot’s attitude towards women “alternated at times among fear, disgust, worship, fascination, hostility, attraction, sympathy, and even understanding,” according to Richard Badenhausen (195). Eliot portrays three types of women in The Waste Land: those that are the product of physical or psychological violence by men (Dido, Ophelia, Philomel, & al), those living meaningless lives (the women in the pub, the typist, Marie, Mrs. Equitone), and those associated with the Black Arts (Sibyl, Madame Sesostris). These differentiations may be a reflection of Eliot’s myriad views upon the fairer sex (Drake 21), cognizant at once of their subjugation, their perceived ambiguity as moral agents, and their inherent power, respectively. Eliot’s mixed treatment of his female characters suggests that he suffered from the inevitable binary consciousness that Simone de Beauvoir explains in The Second Sex. Eliot, as a male, would have naturally defined masculinity as as “Self,” and femininity as a deviant or inessential “Other” (xvi-xxi). However, Eliot’s gender construction did not fall along such bold lines; rather, his depictions seem an assault on the usual inauthentic constructions of sexed characters. Eliot’s women are stereotypes only insofar as to suggest that all female stereotypes are necessarily flawed by their inherent subjugation to males and their inability to be “self-defined critical consciousness[es]” (Donovan 225). Rather than being objects who qualify or serve the projects of men, the women in The Waste Land damn the males—and any inherently masculinist reading of the work—as inescapably sexist and Selfish (230).

Though Queer theorists have yet to make much of a case for The Waste Land as a sort of mourning for a male lover that died in the Great War, there have been marginal murmurings since John Peter first broached the theory in 1952. Colleen Lamos insists that, far from being either a secret undercurrent or central linchpin of his poetry, Eliot had “no ‘free access’ to either same- or other-sex desires[;] both impulses were locked in conflict with his sense of masculinity and his embattled relation to femininity” (Lamos 26). This is not to suggest that Eliot was a latent homosexual, but merely that same-sex affection required some outlet within the context of a rigidly defined western sexual identity. It must be noted that Eliot’s construction of genders in The Waste Land illustrates just such an odd conflict, especially as seen in the central person of Tiresias, a literal combination of genders, a vessel of both the sexual disenfranchisement of women and the dominant male persona who “[makes] a welcome of indifference” (Eliot 43). “Who can now determine,” Lyndall Gordon asks, “the exact ways people of the past bent their inclinations in order to construct gender according to absurd models of masculinity or femininity?” (Qtd. in Lamos 26).

Perhaps the question of Eliot’s own sexuality is a red herring. The larger question at hand is how the heterosexual status quo of the time was deconstructed by the emergence of pro-homosexual sentiment in the 1920s and, at least, the appearance of popular literature that seemed to describe a “heterosexual melancholia2.” I think that the strained state of sexuality at the time was not merely the product of sexual repression, but the center point of a variety of social impetuses, not least of which was a desire to reexamine the so-called “natural order” of things—again, as a means to create a new idiom for living, relating, and communicating.

Though expressions of homoeroticism remain points of contention, certainly the most visible of Modernist principles was the death of the Western ideal—in culture, in love, in expression, &c. In much the same manner as Tiresias watches the disaffected sexual chore of the typist, so Nick Carraway of The Great Gatsby narrates the destruction of Jay Gatsby’s romantic dream and—to a larger allegorical extent—the death of Victorian romance in general. Part of this death has to do with the separation of wealth from romance. In this respect, love was the product of individual merit, rather than the accumulation of worldly baubles (Lewis 41). The destruction of these Old World idioms by the war and ongoing industrialization and marginalization of the poor and disenfranchised led to the pessimistic plot turns of Gatsby.

There are three women of note in Gatsby: Myrtle, Jordan, and Daisy, each with her own sort of archetype. Myrtle Wilson is of a lower social class, doomed, it seems, to stay as such and be used and manipulated by the sexist Tom Buchanan. Myrtle’s role as insignificant cog in the larger machinations of the story seems to fit Fitzgerald’s obsession with the cult[ure] of wealth (especially old wealth). Naïveté and poverty together are too great an obstacle to ever allow escape from the valley of ashes, a place of infertility and misery. The most telling female characters, however, are the rich, in that their characters reveal more about contemporary ideas of gender construction and class. Nick arguably becomes involved romantically with Jordan, but she maintains a constant aloofness. Jordan is representative of the “new woman” of the 1920s: cynical, selfish, and dishonest. It is not a positive treatment of women, but one could argue that such a characterization is consistent with male archetypes that have existed for centuries; the portrayal of Jordan as having male qualities is indicative of the changing policies of gender in the Jazz Age. Fitzgerald’s extended metaphor of the good/bad driver binary hints at a sort of moral guide by which to judge his characterizations of women. Jordan Baker (a sort of portmanteau of two automobile manufacturers) seems to pride herself on her bad driving (Mangum 515). Daisy’s poor driving is ultimately the cause of all the death in the novel, and she refuses to accept responsibility. In Daisy, Fitzgerald unwinds the widening gyre of Alger’s American Dream, not of wealth—which Gatsby has in excess (ironically through illegal means)—but of romance and true love. Particularly interested in the idea of the “new woman” is Sarah Beebe Fryer, who wrote that “[Fitzgerald’s women] are a curious blend of confidence and uncertainty, for they live on the threshold of a new era and still feel the influence of the old order, which stubbornly insists on subordinating them to men.” Rather than creating superficial characters, “Fitzgerald has drawn female characters who struggle with conflicts common to many twentieth-century women who are brought up to marry, not work” (Qtd. in “American Novelist” 296). Fryer defends Fitzgerald as drawing accurate portraits of 1920s women, and being sympathetic to the plight of the dollhouse wife3.

It is often debated whether Gatsby’s eventual rejection by Daisy is the result of her corruption by greed and old money’s influence, or whether Gatsby simply reads too much into their tryst in Kentucky. To Daisy, Gatsby may have been just another soldier she entertained in Louisville; more special than some, perhaps (deserving of sex, at any rate), but not worth forsaking her distinct wealth or social class. Jordan tells Nick about Daisy’s past:

She was just eighteen, two years older than me, and by far the most popular of all the young girls in Louisville. She dressed in white, and had a little white roadster, and all day long the telephone rang in her house and excited young officers from Camp Taylor demanded the privilege of monopolizing her that night. (Fitzgerald 79)

For the purposes of Fitzgerald’s morality play, it would seem, all the novel’s injustices may be heaped not upon Jay Gatsby’s naïveté, but upon the postwar degradation of prewar idealism. Fitzgerald’s withholding of Gatsby’s impoverished past until the end of the novel is not, as Edith Wharton suggests, an attempt at rhetorical Modernism, nor is it merely an attempt to cast Gatsby in a sort of mysticism, but instead a means of revealing the “rootlessness” of postwar culture and its “restless alienation” (Lewis 46). In other words, the malaise that postwar America (or the West in general) suffers from is “heterosexual melancholia.”

Modern writers did not only paint homosexuality with broad strokes; sometimes they became more explicit. It is important to note that many critics take from Gatsby the sense of Nick Carraway’s homosexual attraction to Jay Gatsby. Readers are given only clues to Carraway’s orientation. He says in the first paragraph of the novel: “I was privy to the secret griefs of wild, unknown men. […] I have feigned sleep, preoccupation or a hostile levity when I realized by some unmistakable sign that an intimate revelation was quivering on the horizon” (Fitzgerald 6). Later, Nick has what might be interpreted as a tryst with the photographer, Mr. McKee. Fitzgerald uses sexually charged language (“groaned,” “lever”) to describe the scene in the elevator, and suddenly Carraway is standing beside McKee’s bed, the latter clad only in his underwear (Fitzgerald 42). Such language may be interpreted sexually, though Fitzgerald’s sparing use of it suggests that he was not comfortable writing more candidly about the subject (Armstrong 20-21). Lois Tyson insists that it is not only these more explicit passages that enable a “queer” reading of the novel, but symbols and subtext as well. Some, like Gatsby’s pink suit, or his “extravagantly feminine” possessions, are noticeably blunt in their suggestions (348-349). However, Tyson also takes note of the manner in which the heterosexual relationships are depicted: all of them “transgressive”—that is, premarital or adulterous—and realizes that this only underscores the dire state of heterosexuality (346). While Nick’s apocryphal homosexuality may have no larger narrative or significance within the story, Fitzgerald’s oblique references are interesting in a social context. Homosexuality was on the rise in the Jazz Age. The tendency of Modernism to broach such issues, if obliquely, gives license to such readings of Gatsby. Just as Woolf’s Clarissa Dalloway experiences a youthful and passionate love with Sally Seton, but both are eventually resigned to dull “heterosexual melancholia” within the confines of accepted culture (read: husband’s servant, children’s mother, idle domestic), so might certain readings of The Great Gatsby or The Waste Land reveal notions that the archaic depictions of romance have fallen into disrepair and disrepute, waiting to be replaced by the inchoate ideals of a new age. A new generation with new sexual mores was ready to spearhead the revolution of gender identity and the broader cultural stance toward gender roles. Such is the burden of Modernist writers, that, given tabula rasa in terms of literary and cultural idioms, they are themselves marginal, even located geographically within centres of culture. They must forge entirely novel identities that not only acknowledge their position relative to the existing white Christian male hegemonies, but as protofeminists, homosexuals, soldiers, Americans, atheists, colonists, colonized, &c.

Jay Gatsby’s desire to “beat on […] against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past” seems, both as a double entendre and as a booklong theme, a desire to regress not only to a time when Daisy was his, but when the context itself was entirely different, before the metamorphosing world outmoded prevailing identities and required that new ones be formed from entirely different molds (Fitzgerald 189). Nick narrates his vision of the Sound as the Dutch colonists might have seen it, green and virgin and untouched. Immediately afterwards, he thinks again of the green light on Daisy’s dock, and by these symbols he implies that Daisy was an untouched frontier, that Gatsby was “face to face for the last time in history with something commensurate to his capacity for wonder.” Daisy was not only a love interest, but a doorway to a time before the influence of Tom’s corruption, or the alienation of the war. But Gatsby’s dream was “already behind him, somewhere back in that vast obscurity beyond the city” (189). Susan Resneck Parr suggests that The Great Gatsby houses a series of paradoxes, the most important of which is that the illusions that people such as Gatsby embrace are typically rooted in the past, even though, as Carraway says, “You can’t repeat the past” (Fitzgerald 133). Moreover, a third paradox borne from that suggests that though such illusions may be tempting, their embrasure “in the face of time’s movement, human fraility [sic] and a modern world that has become a moral and spiritual wasteland… [is] likely to be destructive” (Parr 60).

Parr’s use of the word “wasteland” is no coincidence. In fact, The Great Gatsby owes a great deal to The Waste Land. Common to both is an un- or understated sense of homosexuality, not to say that the writers were either of them latent homosexuals, but that in the course of writing as modern Anglo-American novelists/poets, the inclusion of such ideas was inevitable. Such homosexuality, whether a look forward to a rejuvenated sexual culture, an elegiac expression of love, or even a rebellious poke at the straight hegemony of Anglo-American culture, was necessary for both literary discourse and the progression of culture into the postwar era. Furthermore, ideas of sexual disillusionment, so closely tied to the relatively liberal perceptions of homosexuality, began to change how sensitive male writers portrayed and looked to women, and how up-and-coming female writers wrote against the status quo of domesticity and dollhouse wives. The wasteland of human relationships, so to speak, could only call the thunder by dispelling the widespread alienation of females and homosexuals by effete Victorian moral norms. This sort of sexual revolution (as would occur again in the 1950s) was a galvanizing force in women’s rights to equity in other areas of life, as well. Sexual, political, and occupational equality are all closely interwoven. That art, of such an essential nature to any culture, pioneered such matters, even prior to the advent of Modernism as we know it, speaks especially to the literary community and the vital force by which it ushers culture forward and not, perhaps, vice versa.

Works Cited

  • Armstrong, Paul. An analysis of F.Scott Fitzgerald’s ‘The Great Gatsby’ through a consideration of two Italian translations. Libera Universita’ Di Lingue E Comunicazione Iulm. 25 Mar. 2005 <http://www.translationdirectory.com/article118.htm>.
  • Badenhausen, Richard. “T.S. Eliot speaks the body.” Gender, Desire, and Sexuality in T. S. Eliot. Ed. Cassandra Laity. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2004. 195-214.
  • Childs, Peter. “Modernism, 1890-1940.” 20 Sept. 2002. Literary Encyclopedia. 2 Apr. 2005 <http://www.litencyc.com/php/stopics.php?rec=true&UID=1219>.
  • Drake, Al. Introduction to Literary Modernism. University of California at Irving. 1 Apr. 2005 <http://www.ajdrake.com/e336_fall_03/materials/guides/c20_modernism.htm>.
  • Eliot, T.S. Complete Poems and Plays. New York: Harcourt, 1952. 37-55.
  • Fitzgerald, F. Scott. The Great Gatsby. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1995.
  • Lamos, Colleen. “The love song of T.S. Eliot: elegiac homoeroticism in the early poetry.” Gender, Desire, and Sexuality in T. S. Eliot. Ed. Cassandra Laity. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2004. 23-42.
  • Lewis, Roger. “Money, Love, and Aspiration in The Great Gatsby.” New Essays on The Great Gatsby. Ed. Matthew J. Bruccoli. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1985. 41-58.
  • Mangum, Bryant. “The Great Gatsby.” Encyclopedia of the Novel. Ed. Paul Schellinger. London and Chicago: Fitzroy-Dearborn, 1998. 514-515.
  • ———. “F. Scott Fitzgerald: American Novelist and Short Story Writer. Reader’s Guide to Literature in English. London: Fitzroy-Dearborn, 1995. 293-296.
  • McDonald, Gail. “Through schoolhouse windows: women, the academy, and T.S. Eliot.” Gender, Desire, and Sexuality in T. S. Eliot. Ed. Cassandra Laity. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2004. 175-194.
  • Parr, Susan Resneck. “The Idea of Order at West Egg.” New Essays on The Great Gatsby. Ed. Matthew J. Bruccoli. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1985. 59-78.
  1. Virginia Woolf is one very notable exception[]
  2. This term was coined by Judith Butler, meaning that normative gender identities in a Western heterosexual culture are the direct product of the disavowal of homosexual attachments. The idea is certainly arguable, but the phrase seems wonderfully suited to Eliot’s depictions of sexuality in The Waste Land.[]
  3. A Doll’s House by Henrik Ibsen (1879).[]
§566 · June 21, 2005 · Tags: , ·

5 Comments to “The Great Waste Land: Sexual Normativity in Two Works of Modernism”

  1. […] I will be presenting this paper at the 15th Annual Undergraduate Conference on English Language and Literature at the University of St. Francis on March 18th during the 10:30-12:30 session. […]

  2. alyssa carlson says:

    this article wonderfully explores the gender changes in the Great Gatsby and i am using many quotes from this article and for my english teacher to accept it i need to know the author which is not listed here. Who is the author of this article?

  3. Ben says:

    The author would be me, Ben Gunnink. The PDF version linked at the top of the article lists my name.

  4. lovelit says:

    Thank you so much for writing this article. I’m currently teaching "Gatsby" to my high school juniors, and we have been discussing the "homosexual" vibe that Nick gives from the beginning…after the "lever" in the elevator and Nick’s standing next to the "underwear clad" Mr. McKee we all agreed that the vibe wasn’t just a vibe. We’re only to Chapter 3, but the students are doing a wonderful job of understanding and moving beyond the literal. You’ve further clarified Fitzgerald’s reasoning behind his inclusion of the less than subtle homosexual tone.

    Also, what do you think about Myrtle’s sister Catharine? She and her "girlfriend" went to Monte Carlo and spent $1200 in "private rooms". I realize that the time in which it was written may account for the language, and I may be reading too much into it, but again, what do you think??

  5. Connie says:

    this article is brilliant and very interesting…I’m studying The Waste Land but I love The Great Gatsby too. Some very interesting perspectives. Will definitely be citing it!

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