Stills taken from The Great Gatsby, 2013
* SPOILER ALERT *
I know for a definitive fact that when you read The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald, you or someone you knew declared that Daisy Buchanan is the worst. That Daisy Buchanan is terrible and selfish and ruined everything. I also know for a definitive fact that Daisy Buchanan is one of the most complex female characters ever written, and stands for so much more than a spoiled upper-class socialite.
I don’t ask that you forgive Daisy her wrongs. I don’t ask that you read her as a perfect, morally faultless character. I only ask that you read her with compassion and with a lens to see what Fitzgerald makes her represent.
Surely when reading Gatsby, either for a class or independently, you recognized and perhaps discussed the idea that Gatsby is in love with his version of Daisy, a version from his past that lives on in his fantasy, and believes that Daisy of the present will be the Daisy of his dreams. Daisy is placed on a pedestal, unable to ever match up with the version of herself that Gatsby wants because that version of herself is long gone.
In the years between Gatsby and Daisy’s original affair and the events in the book, a lot happened. Daisy got married to a man who abuses her emotionally, if not also physically. She’s grown up and had a child—she’s not living a teenage fantasy anymore; she’s living the harsh reality of a ‘20s housewife. Her husband cheats on her and bruises her, and hardly even treats her as a real person.
The same goes for Nick, her own cousin, who, blinded by his appreciation for Gatsby, sees her as a “careless [person]” and dismisses her as a rich girl with no compassion. It is he, however, who lacks the compassion to try to understand why Daisy is so destructive. He buys into Gatsby’s narrative because it is the only narrative he choses to listen to. He never hears Daisy’s side, and as readers we do not either.
Worst of all is Gatsby, who Daisy does seem to really love, but who doesn’t love her in return. Gatsby demands that she tell Tom that she never loved him and that she must run away with him—all so that he can fulfill the dream scenario he has imagined for years. He asks her to rewrite her own history. Daisy gives in at first, but eventually breaks down and tells him, “You want too much! I love you now—isn’t that enough?” Not for Gatsby. Understanding Daisy’s feelings and growth in the years since they were together is not in his interest; it would shatter his ideal of Daisy: happy, perfect and always put together.
These three men, Tom, Nick and Gatsby, all have their own reason for dismissing Daisy’s feelings. But each of the three fails to see the cries for help Daisy makes. Daisy reveals to Nick, once alone and away from company, that she’s “had a very bad time... and [she’s] pretty cynical about everything.” Nick doesn’t bother to ask her why, or what happened to make her so totally apathetic about the world. The oft-quoted “I hope she’s a fool” line about her daughter is even more terrifying. Daisy wishes she could be “a fool” and hopes her daughter does not make the same mistake in not becoming one too. However, the question must then be asked: what does Daisy mean by “a fool”? Does she wish she could pass blithely through life, not realizing the wrongs done to her and the lack of kindness in the world? Or does “fool” take a Shakespearean meaning, indicating a character like a jester who must put on the front of humor and cheerfulness, but underneath has a superior and intellectual understanding of her world?
Either way, Nick once again doesn’t try to talk to her about her feelings. He just lets her make these remarks without extending a hand.
Today we would read Daisy as a chronically depressed character looking for help. She goes on to say “in a convinced way” that she “[thinks] everything’s terrible anyhow... Everybody thinks so—the most advanced people. And I know. I’ve been everywhere and seen everything and done everything.” Daisy does not explain why she has the drastic opinion that “everything’s terrible”; all we know is that she is “convinced” that the world is awful and she feels she has experienced this terribleness first hand—how so is unclear. Her claim that she’s “been everywhere and seen everything and done everything,” a clearly exaggerated statement, suggests that Daisy is bored of the world around her, as if she has given up on happiness or even life itself.
But Daisy does not get the help she needs, although this conversation with Nick is a clear cry for help. Because of his inability to empathize, Daisy spends the rest of the book shutting out her feelings, revealing nothing to anybody, and following what the men in her life tell her to do. She is so clearly depressed to the point that she holds no regard for the consequences of her actions or what happens to her in the future. Perhaps that is why, in her shocking final action, she turns so many readers off. She kills Myrtle, lets Gatsby take the blame, and disappears. I don’t advocate for letting others take the fall for your mistake, but I also think we must consider the complete disinterest in life that she must have in order to commit something so terrible and then let the man she loves take the consequences.
And before you say Daisy should have stayed with Gatsby, consider what you would do in her scenario. Someone you once loved reappears in your life as things are going very badly for you. You think, for a minute, that things could be good with this person, that things might start going well for you. Yet as time goes on, you come to see that this person doesn’t want you—they want this false version of you, a you that you can no longer deliver. The person is insistent, demanding you live out the fantasy they have of you. They destroy your relationships with others in your life in order to get what they want from you. And maybe you do something terrible, and maybe they rectify it for you—but after all your history, it’s clear that this person is manipulative. To say that women, or anyone for that matter, owe men who treat them terribly just because of their persistence is toxic. It’s part of rape culture, part of the problem with the "friend zone”. Men don’t deserve rewards from women (sex, love) just because they’re “nice guys”. It’s a sexist perception and it’s harmful to everyone involved.
In one of the most famous scenes, Daisy cries into Gatsby’s beautiful, expensive shirts. “They’re such beautiful shirts... It makes me sad because I’ve never seen such—such beautiful shirts before,” she says. Daisy, wealthy by birth and marriage, has most certainly seen such beautiful shirts before. Unprompted by a question as to why she is crying, Daisy feels the need to explain herself, to write off her emotions as materialistic and shallow. This building of a façade to look like a spoiled and happy golden girl wounds Daisy in that it inhabits her from speaking her mind and being honest about her feelings. Consequently, Daisy completely cuts herself off from those around her, from the narrator and the reader, as no one knows why Daisy feels the need to hide her emotions and where they come from. We don’t know why Daisy is really crying in this scene; perhaps she realizes what she has lost in not marrying Gatsby, or maybe she is overwhelmed by Gatsby’s “love” for her. But because Daisy cannot relate her feelings and Nick, the narrator, does not know why she is in so much pain, we as readers will never know which aspect of her life proved intolerably painful for Daisy.
Daisy Buchanan, trained to be “the golden girl”, happy and docile, was severely shortchanged by the male narrative of Gatsby. Unable to speak for herself, forced to maintain the façade she feels she must uphold, Daisy is emotionally indecipherable to us. The combination of the pressure to hide her feelings, and Tom, Gatsby and Nick’s failure to see the suffering they put Daisy through, Tom and Gatsby specifically, renders the reader unable to see what sets Daisy’s disenchantment with the world and distress into action. Because the male narratives which dominate the novel both silence and fail to understand Daisy, we do not get to understand her. In fact, aside from the brief narrative that Jordan provides in order to explain Daisy and Gatsby’s relationship (revealing in itself in that Jordan’s perspective, that of a woman, must be the one to explain Daisy’s past), women in Gatsby are rarely allowed to speak for themselves. The entire story is told either from Nick’s perspective, or Gatsby’s perspective through Nick’s narrative.
Telling of the time period, women are meant to please men and fulfill their dreams, as Daisy had to for Gatsby, but not to speak their own narratives. Pushed down and underestimated by the men in her life, Daisy stands out as the tragic figure of Gatsby; because while readers may mourn the death of the man that idolized her, Daisy must continue to live a lie, to hide her emotions, and to subsist in a society that doesn’t even try to understand her.