Academic journal article The Space Between

Jordan Baker, Gender Dissent, and Homosexual Passing in the Great Gatsby

Academic journal article The Space Between

Jordan Baker, Gender Dissent, and Homosexual Passing in the Great Gatsby

Article excerpt

Jordan Baker instinctively avoided clever shrewd men . . . because she felt safer on a plane where any divergence from a code would be thought impossible. She was incurably dishonest. She wasn't able to endure being at a disadvantage, and given this unwillingness I suppose she had begun dealing in subterfuges when she was very young in order to keep that cool insolent smile turned to the world and yet satisfy the demands of her hard jaunty body.

-F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby (63)

Nearly every early twentieth-century American social bias is represented in F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby (1925). We see such bias in narrator Nick Carraway's ruminations on class and on women, in the rumors of criminality surrounding the newly rich Jay Gatsby, and, most explicitly, in the racism, classism, anti-Semitism, and anti-immigrant sentiment espoused by Tom Buchanan, whose wealth, race, and gender position him as the voice of the dominant ideology. Tom's reading of "The Rise of the Colored Empire" by "that man Goddard" (17) is, of course, a reference to Lothrop Stoddard's The Rising Tide of Color Against White World Supremacy, a popular work of scientific racism published just five years before Gatsby.1 Largely following Walter Benn Michaels' reading of The Great Gatsby in the historical context of early-twentieth-century nativism, recent critics have interpreted Fitzgerald's allusion to racialist discourse as a linking of class with race, perceiving the narrative of social mobility as representing a kind of "passing [which] is figuratively rendered in terms of racial blackness" (Lewis 174). Such readings, I think, have it all wrong. It's difficult to imagine a character less interested in flying under the radar; Jay Gatsby wears a pink suit and colorful silk shirts, he drives a ridiculously tricked out car with a three-noted horn, and he plays host to wild, raucous parties likened to those of Trimalchio in The Satyricon (113).

There was another discourse of identity emerging in the latenineteenth and early-twentieth centuries, that of sexuality and of same-sex desire, which is, in some ways, remarkable in its absence from the text. During this period, discourses on sexuality, like those of race, were being constructed, as the work of Sigmund Freud-which represented homosexuality in terms of psychological dysfunction-came to replace the medical discourse of "sexual inversion" in the work of Richard von Krafft-Ebing and Havelock Ellis, in which homosexuality was presented as congenital (like Tom's scientific racism, of which he tells Nick: "It's all scientific stuff; it's been proved" (17)).

Anyone familiar with the biography is well aware that, throughout his life, Fitzgerald was terrified of being identified as homosexual and uneasy about his sexuality and sexual performance, and he expressed a vehement hatred of, in his word, "fairies." Homosexuality is treated explicitly in Fitzgerald's next novel, Tender is the Night (1934), and the author's notes for the novel show that he was, at least by that time, familiar with works on sexology: "Must avoid Faulkner attitude and not end with a novelized Kraft-Ebing [sic]-better Ophelia and her flowers" (qtd in Bruccoli 334). So, in some ways, it seems strange that homosexuality is not addressed in The Great Gatsby. Strange, that is, unless we recognize sexual transgression as the open secret of the novel.

What I'd like to suggest is that Fitzgerald's odd references to racialist discourse in The Great Gatsby reflect the author's recognition of the connections between the two incipient ways of conceptualizing social identity and that his representation of such intersections in the novel in 1925 affirms recent insights in contemporary studies of race and sexuality. Lisa Duggan highlights the relatedness of racial and gender discourse in the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries in Sapphic Slashers: Sex, Violence, and American Modernity: "The increasingly rigid racial binary of the 1890s encountered a shifting gender binary and interacted to produce a new sexual binary implicitly marked by race and class" (26); and in Queering the Color Line: Race and the Invention of Homosexuality in American Culture, Siobhan B. …

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