Compare and contrast the effect of masculinity on society in 'The Great Gatsby' and 'Streetcar Named Desire':
Alongside James Joyce's 'Ulysses', 'The Great Gatsby' is arguably the benchmark for literary modernism - but undoubtedly the more accessible of the two. As put by lecturer Guy Reynolds: '['Gatsby'] has achieved the unusual status of appealing to both that mystic creature the 'common reader' and an academic audience.' Equally as ground-breaking Tennessee Williams' 'Streetcar' that pioneered the 'kitchen sink' drama, and came to define modern theatre by dramatizing the everyday banalities documented by Joyce and Fitzgerald 30 years previously .In the fractured post-war society both 'The Great Gatsby' and 'Streetcar Named Desire' detail the lives of characters coveting for hierarchal order, characters such as Tom Buchannan and Stanley Kowalski who have been left so emotionally desensitised by war that they've little else to fall back on other than their primitive masculinity. Amidst the chaotic scramble for 'alpha male', characters yearning for intellectual and emotional fulfilment such as Nick and Mitch are exiled - labelled outsiders. The World Wars of the early twentieth century are commonly referred to as 'the great equalizer of men', but the reality described the archetypal texts of the subsequent eras could not tell a more different story of an imbalanced masculine rank.
A man's ability to provide for his family is seen as measure of his masculinity in both texts. It's also recurrent theme in William's work, with 'The Glass Menagerie' written 3 years before 'Streetcar´ dramatizing the life of Tom Wingfield who shares Stanley's modus operandi -
"Man is by instinct a lover, a hunter, a fighter".
Perhaps the subject of providing for your family, being the breadwinner, was a universal theme for theatre at the time as Arthur Miller, contemporary of William's, wrote 'The Death of a Salesman' in 1949 which explores the same the theme in business. Scene one, 'Streetcar', and the first stage directions describe a man carrying a 'red stained package' from the butchers. This, most atavistic presentation of masculinity is the first of minimal description given to Stanley in the play, and strongly represents the patriarchal ideology he personifies. The 1951 film interpretation adapted the original script, with Stanley (played by Marlon Brando)'s first scene showing him in sweaty work clothes - but presented an equally primitive image as the original. A perfect reflection of this can be seen in the first presentation of Tom Buchannan in Gatsby. After Nick's drooling and exhaustive description of the estate, we are introduced to Tom 'standing with his legs apart on the front porch'. This territorial image of dominance subversively secures him as alpha male. The use of 'fractiousness' in the subsequent description, with its volatile and unpredictable connotations, confirms the reverent animalism seen in Tom and Stanley.
The prerequisite for order shown by these characters (perhaps influenced by their involvement with the war) creates an underlying sense of exclusive cliques in each text, and explores our innate necessity to form social groups. However the nature of these groups excludes people, and there is an equally strong sense of this in both texts. The distinction in Gatsby and Streetcar is made by the morals they uphold, which forms two distinguishable groups in Gatsby: the Buchannan's and Jay Gatsby. The juxtaposition throughout the novel of Gatsby's intense emotion and Tom's overt 'manliness' is exemplified in their opinions of Daisy. Nick writes:
'He hadn't once ceased looking at Daisy, and I think he revalued everything in his house according to the measure of response it drew from her well-loved eyes.'
For the physical embodiment of materialism to overlook his possessions in the presence of Daisy profoundly symbolises his feelings towards her. Compare this to Tom's heartless defence of his affair with Myrtle:
"Once in a while I go off on a spree and make a fool of myself but I always come back"
Tom's fixation on maintaining his masculine facade clearly outweighs his intention to respect Daisy, as is shown in this token apology. The blasé connotations of 'spree' in defence of something as serious as infidelity speak volumes about the superficiality and thoughtlessness of Tom's character. To me it seems Fitzgerald is questioning the lengths people will go to 'save face' in a society dictated by social opinion and egocentricity. Similarly in Streetcar, Stanley is torn throughout the play between preserving his marriage and the egotistical preservation of his rank in the social group. The conflict between Stanley's two passions reaches a climax in Scene Three: 'The Poker Night', and as in Gatsby the outcome favours his ego: '[There is the sound of a blow]'.
The aforementioned imbalance of power in either text varies by consequence of the differing social scenes. However, one corresponding characteristic during each brutal outburst (re. 'Myrtle's flat' and 'Poker Night') is the lack of intervention from any characters. Nick establishes his role as 'outsider' from the outset, and fully fulfils this prophecy when witnessing Tom brutalise Myrtle. The self-assigned moral compass of the novel recalls the event by description of the 'bloody towels' and 'women's voices' that followed -instead of his immediate response - and one can assume that the elaboration with which he recalls must surely mean he did little in response other than observe. This trait is also true of Stanley's friends who did little to respond to the abuse of Stella in Scene Three (and his eventual assault on Blanche) in fear of being outcast from the group. Rather than protest his actions, Mitch apathetically offers 'Poker shouldn't be played in a house with women'. The Hollywood adaptation of 1951 differed from the text by portraying the men to revolt against Stanley after he rapes Blanche - this morally appealing alternative is opposite to William's original ending. The institutionalisation of his sister left an 'indelible mark on his life and most of his literary work'˛ , and the exploration of the passive bystander in his work to me appears to be an assessment of how he could have intervened in his sister's case.
The fine line between the assertiveness that Stella adores and his volatile aggressiveness is the source of turmoil in Stanley's character, and indeed the entire play. When discussing Stanley's role in the war with Blanche, Stella confides - "of course there were things I had to adjust myself to later on." This pivotal line foreshadows the worsening of Stanley's explosive temper alongside Blanche's increasing incompatibility with Stanley's temperament. An identical imbalance of power is presented in Gatsby - just as Stella forgave Stanley time and time again, Myrtle continued to pursue her affair with Tom despite his brutality, all in virtue of moving in circles with the rich and famous. Through this Fitzgerald is questioning the lengths people will go for social acclaim, and how readily people will sacrifice their morals in the face of temptation.
The manner in which Gatsby is written starkly contradicts the undertow of masculinity it struggles with throughout. Despite fitting neatly amongst the register of landmark modernist pieces such as Crime and Punishment (1866), Ulysses (1922) or the poetry of T.S Eliot - the flamboyant style of Fitzgerald couldn't be any more different than the brutality of Dostoyevsky and other modernist contemporaries. In a review of The Love Legend in 1922, Fitzgerald criticised the novels 'masculine defects'ł and went on to say:
"Solid blocks of strong words fitted into consecutive pages like bricks."
His critique of the 'masculine style' reveals the passion harboured by Fitzgerald for the lurid, flowing and often overwritten descriptions seen throughout Gatsby. So why would Gatsby be regarded as a modernist piece? The fragmentation of thought seen in Nick's narrative as the party in Myrtle's flat dissolves -'beauty and the beast... loneliness... old grocery house... brook'n [sic] bridge'- is epitomical of Henry James' 'Stream of Consciousness'. An ideology that sparked a new wave of unbounded literature entailing that our ideas do not follow a logical, pragmatic order as once thought - but are sporadic and continuous. The events in Myrtle's flat are presented as Nick recalled them, not a censored version.
An extension of modernism is surrealism. Williams contrasts the gritty realism that earned the play it's 'kitchen sink' classification and represents the rigid masculine values held by characters in the play; against the surrealism of Blanche's instability and illusion. The stage directions order a print of Van Gogh's as the backdrop of the chaotic Scene Three, set against the 'solid blues, a purple, a red-and-white check' intended by Williams to represent men 'at the peak of their physical manhood'. This juxtaposition of style foreshadows the conflict in Scene Three, and is symbolic of the conflict in all scenes.
The excess of consumerism from both 'Eggs' spills over into the 'Valley of the Ashes' that separates them from the city. Fitzgerald has a talent for pulling back the curtains on every theatrical whim or novelty a character enjoys; revealing the army of 'ash-grey men' working frantically to balance. Workers the likes of Tom Buchannan, brimming with the sense of their overt manliness and obscene wealth, look down on with 'two shining, arrogant eyes'. In my mind, the description given the 'valley of the ashes' is entirely indebted to T.S Eliot's 'The Wasteland' (1922) exploring the struggle with morality and humanity in a fragmented post-war society, known as 'The Lost Generation'. Itself largely influenced by Dante's 'Inferno', 'The Wasteland' strives to express the hellish despair Eliot sees in modern people. Line 56 describes a fortune teller who "sees crowds of people, walking round in a ring."⁴ which is possibly a reference to Dante's 'circles of hell⁵', but to me seems more an evaluation of the monotonous daily grind modern people must go through - that which Fitzgerald and Williams wish to expose with their writing. Evidence of Eliot's admiration for Gatsby can be seen in his letter to Fitzgerald, where he suggested the novel was 'the first step in American fiction since Henry James.' Fitzgerald's representation of this in 'The Valley of the Ashes' explores the very same concept, only with more reference to the role played by consumerism. Striking similarities can be seen in the extract:
"a fantastic farm where ashes grow like wheat into ridges and hills and grotesque gardens where ashes take the forms of houses and chimneys and rising smoke and finally, with a transcendent effort, of men who move dimly and already crumbling through the powdery air"
The 'men who move dimly' have an undeniable resonance with the 'dark march' referred to by Blanche in Streetcar. But whilst Fitzgerald symbolises a dim movement into consumerism, William's is suggesting the dark march into the brutal and unimpassioned future symbolised by Stanley.
The prescience of each text is the key to the vitality that has endured since their writing. Each writer's ability to capture, as put by New York Times critic Edwin Clark 'the mystical, glamorous story of today'⁶ has provided a snapshot into two dystopian post-war societies. The struggles with identity, particularly masculinity, have if anything heightened over time alongside the continued rise of mass consumerism from Gatsby to the domestic conflicts of Streetcar. Both written on the crest of literary/theatrical revolutions, as such - their respective influence on current works can't be understated. Some might argue the fervent rivalry between emotion and masculinity exposed by Williams and Fitzgerald is irrelevant in today's comparatively sympathetic society, but human's innate prerequisite for hierarchy means both pieces will be relevant for many years to come - 'borne back ceaselessly into the past.'
1.Guy Reynolds 'The Constant Flicker of the American Scene'
2.Clay Morton 'Not Like All Other Horses: Neurodiversity and the Case of Rose Williams'
3.F. Scott Fitzgerald 'The Obidan' 1922
4.T.S Eliot 'The Wasteland' 1922
5.Dante 'Inferno' between c. 1308 and his death in 1321.
6.Edwin Clark 'Scott Fitzgerald Looks Into Middle Age' The New York Time, April 19, 1925.
- 1900 with quotations.
- 1722 without quotations