The Great Gatsby has always been one of my favorite books — which is a good thing, because I had to read it in 8th grade, 10th grade, and 12th grade. And the more I read it, the more it bothered me about how Daisy Buchanan was portrayed, both by the characters and by the reading public. Daisy Buchanan is almost always painted as the villain of the story. An out of touch, spoiled, brat who only cares about herself. She is dehumanized and put on a pedestal like a marble statue by the title character Jay Gatsby — and torn apart by the book’s unreliable narrator Nick Carroway. Her own husband doesn’t even care to get to know her. Almost every American high school student has written an essay about The Great Gatsby and almost every single person I’ve ever discussed the book with sees Daisy as the number one villain. Lucky for you, I live for drama, so I’m going to tell you why you’re all wrong.
The first thing to remember about The Great Gatsby is that it was written by a man and is told through the eyes of Nick Carroway — therefore a completely male gaze. When you’re reading Gatsby you’re not reading the events from some omniscient, impartial narrator – you’re reading the opinions about what is happening from a flawed, human character. A naive young man who is completely taken in by Jay Gatsby’s charm and appeal. A character who grew up and lives in a society with strict views on women — who they can and cannot be and what they can and cannot do. Nick Carroway’s character, at no point, portrays any feminist enlightenment, thus his entire view of Daisy is colored by the sexist attitudes of the roaring 20s.
In Nick’s eyes, Daisy is a selfish idiot. And yes, while she may be selfish, she is certainly not an idiot. Daisy Buchanan knows exactly what is going on. This is evident by her famous line about 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.” And that’s exactly what Nick and her husband think Daisy is – a beautiful little fool. Daisy is more self-aware than anyone gives her credit for, and probably the smartest character in the whole novel. She is also the unhappiest because of it. Which brings me to my main point.
Daisy Buchanan does every single thing society expected of her — and is extremely depressed and unfulfilled. She’s beautiful, she has a successful handsome husband, a lovely daughter, a gorgeous house, the fanciest clothes, an extremely active social life, and still seems to hate her life. And everyone (besides Gatsby) seems to hate her too. But, what else could Daisy have done? She is everything a woman of her time is supposed to be. But it doesn’t make her happy. She is looking for more. And for that, she is vilified.
This conundrum still pops up today. The question of “can women really have it all?” is a trope by this point. Today’s society wants a Daisy Buchanan on steroids. A successful career outside the home must now be added to the mix. And when women achieve it, society judges them for it. Think of Kim Kardashian. The woman is gorgeous, has a successful husband, a thriving business, two beautiful children, tons of money and is held up as the downfall of society. Why? Because her success doesn’t fit into society’s preconceived notions. She colored outside the lines. Are she and Daisy Buchanan the most likable people? Probably not. But that doesn’t make them villains.
So who is the villain of The Great Gatsby? For me, it’s author F. Scott Fitzgerald. Did you know that Fitzgerald had a beautiful and tortured wife, Zelda Fitzgerald? F. Scott dubbed her “The first American flapper”. She was beautiful and loved the high life and lavish parties. (remind you of anyone?) She also struggled with mental illness most of her life and kept a diary of her suffering. F. Scott Fitzgerald stole much of her diary to use for his novels. Did he ever credit her? No. He exploited her illness for book sales. Many scholars believe much of Daisy Buchanan was based on the real life behavior of Zelda Fitzgerald. Gatsby and Nick saw Daisy as a beautiful fool. F. Scott Fitzgerald saw Zelda as a tortured muse. Nobody seemed to see these women as human beings.
Fitzgerald died as The Great American Novelist. His wife Zelda died in a mental institution awaiting electroshock therapy.
You can see what I like to call “The Daisy Paradox” played out everywhere in modern life. Open any woman’s magazine, or turn on the TV. Women are constantly being pressured to be beautiful little fools. However, when they achieve fame and success for fulfilling society’s expectations, they are then vilified —torn to shreds for being “vapid bimbos.” Unfortunately, for all the strides that feminism has made, in this instance, it doesn’t seem like much has changed for women since the roaring 20s. Ironically, Fitzgerald’s (or Zelda’s) concluding words are prophetic in more ways than he knew —
“So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.”