The Great Gatsby: the Ragged Transition from Victorian "Self-Made"

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The definition of what it is to be a man is one of fluidity and contradiction. In Gail Bederman's essay "Remaking manhood through race and 'civilization'", she proposed that as the United States entered into the 20th century, the framework behind white manhood was challenged by the economy, women and minorities, as well as by men themselves. This confrontation of the Victorian ideals resulted in a tumultuous transition from the hard-working self-made man to its antithesis, the leisurely well-rounded man. The various stages and conflicts of this transformation can be seen in F. Scott Fitzgerald's turn-of-the-century novel, The Great Gatsby. Using Bederman's essay as a guide, it becomes apparent that four of the male characters, Tom, Nick, Gatsby and Wilson, are in different phases of the Victorian to Modern evolution, demonstrating the inherent complexity of remaking manhood. To adequately analyze the modernization, or lack thereof, that exists in Fitzgerald's characters, a reflection on Bederman's essay is necessary in order to distinguish the causes and features of the two stages. First, the Victorian man. During the 1800's in the United States, the self-made man was a prized feature of society. Pulling oneself up by the bootstraps, working one's way up the corporate ladder and running a business was not only the norm, it was expected. This process required a great deal of strong character and powerful will which were equated to "masculine passions" (Bederman 12). The acquisition of these traits (or passions) directly affected the family life because "by gaining the manly strength to control himself, a man gained the strength, as well as the duty, to protect and direct those weaker than himself: his wife, his children, or his employees" (Bederman 12). According to Bederman, not only was family life affected, but also the entire societal construct of the middle-class was tied into these passions. She states that "a manly character built on high-minded self-restraint was seen as the rock on which middle-class men could build their the end of the century, a discourse of manliness stressing self-mastery and restraint expressed and shaped the middle-class identity" (12). The turn of the century brought a different kind of man to the forefront. Economic changes rendered the ambition of owning one's own business almost impossible and the expanding low-level clerical work "meant that young men beginning their careers as clerks were unlikely to gain their father's had" (Bederman 12). With these narrowing career options, the self-restraint of the Victorian man became less relevant and new opportunities for leisure became more appealing. Also, the decreased earning potential of the middle-class man eroded the previous sense of power over those considered weaker. The modern man began to re-establish his power through physical fitness and strength (via team sports and strenuous exercise), opposing excessive femininity and overindulgence in leisurely activities. The previous Victorian ideals were then cast-off as outdated and weak resulting in the creation of "the new epithets 'sissy,' 'pussy-foot,' 'cold feet' and 'stuffed shirt' to denote behavior which had once appeared self-possessed and manly but now seemed overcivilized and effeminate" (Bederman 17). A cherished hard-working self-made man was transformed into an easygoing well-rounded man. For some men, this transition from old to new was relatively smooth, for others it wasn't. In The Great Gatsby, the narrator Nick Carraway represents the easy side of this change. He is the product of Victorian self-made men, his great-uncle having "started the wholesale hardware business that [his] father carries on to-day" (Fitzgerald 3). This old style of man lives on through Nick not only in his appearance ("I never saw this great-uncle, but I'm supposed to look like him" (Fitzgerald 3)) but also in his education at New Haven. Ironically,...
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