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Strong Female Characters: Daisy Buchanan

For those of you that don’t know, Daisy is the leading lady of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s 1925 novel, The Great Gatsby. Set in the Roaring Twenties, the book tells the story of the enigmatic Jay Gatsby trying to win back his lost love – the now-married Daisy Buchanan – and how terribly, awfully wrong it ends up going. The book was not an instant success, but has since gone on to be recognised as one of the classic American novels, spawning countless film adaptations, ballets, computer games, operas, radio plays and an endless mountain of high school English essays. Daisy herself is at the centre of all this, widely regarded as one of the most divisive characters in modern literature and – depending on who you ask – one of the most hated, too.

But does she measure up to the hype? Let’s find out – but watch out for spoilers!

 

  1. Does the character shape her own destiny? Does she actively try to change her situation and if not, why not?

Daisy actually has very little control over her own life. She’s trapped in an unhappy marriage to Tom Buchanan and spends most of the book reacting to his infidelities in one way or another. Later, she meets her old flame Jay Gatsby, who has been pining after her for years, who she ends up having an affair with, but this is all instigated by him. Tom and Gatsby eventually confront each other about this, forcing Daisy to choose between them, but Daisy is so torn between them that she says she loves them both, a decision that neither one of them accepts. In the end, Daisy kills her husband’s mistress in a hit-and-run, but this has little to no effect on her life, as she ends up retreating into the safety of her wealthy marriage rather than face up to her mistakes.

giphy money
Like this. (image: giphy.com)

It’s made pretty clear to the reader that Daisy isn’t really the one in control of her own destiny – Tom and Gatsby are. When her husband is unfaithful, we don’t see her confront him about it, or try to make him change his ways. She doesn’t decide to pursue Gatsby – Gatsby has been pining over her for years, and has made it his life’s work to try and get her back. When Tom and Gatsby both try to get her to say that she never loved the other, and she tells them that she loved them both, both of them reject her attempts to explain her feelings and reach a solution that she’s comfortable with. When she runs over Tom’s mistress, Myrtle, Tom tells everyone that Gatsby was driving the car – which leads directly to Gatsby’s murder – and she simply doesn’t say anything to correct him. She doesn’t need to actually do anything in order for the story to progress; she can simply stay silent, let her suitors approach her, and stay in her unhappy marriage.

Personally, I think this is a pretty damning commentary on the kinds of values that are often caught up with ‘old money’ – namely, social conservatism, preserving the status quo and the need to save face. This is made clearer when we look at the flashback describing Daisy’s wedding. The night before, she receives a letter from Gatsby, gets incredibly drunk and, sobbing, tells them all she’s going to call it off. Her friends and servants don’t say a word – they simply clean her up, put her to bed, and the next day she marries Tom Buchanan without saying a word. Daisy’s unhappiness is never brought up again, and she starts making a life with the rich, entitled Tom just as everyone else expected her to.

To me, this exemplifies how trapped Daisy is by her own wealth and privilege. She can scream, she can cry, she can sleep with another man behind her husband’s back, and she can even kill a woman in her car, but no matter what she does her life will still be stuck on the same track. She will still be married to Tom Buchanan, still be ignoring his affairs, and still be unhappy, and there’s absolutely nothing she can do about it.

SCORE SO FAR: 0

 

  1. Does she have her own goals, beliefs and hobbies? Did she come up with them on her own?

 

We don’t see a lot of Daisy’s hobbies. She does a lot of fairly stereotypical ‘upper-class lady’ activities, but we rarely see her actually enjoy them. More often than not we see her judging other people – particularly the crass, ‘new money’ type she meets at Gatsby’s parties – but she doesn’t seem to enjoy this much, either.

Her goals and beliefs aren’t really all that clearly defined, either. We know that Daisy clearly holds some socially conservative values about the way people ought to act – this is clearly shown in her distaste for Gatsby’s ostentatious parties and her reluctance to get a divorce. She’s also pretty vocal about her daughter’s prospects: in one of her most famous lines, she declares that the best thing a girl can be is a “beautiful little fool”.

dinoriders11
Personally, I think the best thing a girl can be is a pilot for one of these laser dinosaurs. (image: aidanmoher.com)

You can read this statement either way – it could indicate a clear belief in gender inequality, or it could be a reflection of her own self-loathing and despair. But this is really all we get when it comes to Daisy’s beliefs, and we get considerably less when it comes to her goals. Daisy is a character marked by indecision, and her total lack of goals is a clear indication of this. Daisy wants to find happiness, but she has absolutely no idea where to start looking. I’ll give her half a point for her beliefs, but I can’t help but feel like I’m being generous.

SCORE SO FAR: 0.5

 

  1. Is her character consistent? Do her personality or skills change as the plot demands?

Daisy’s character is pretty consistent. She’s charming, flighty, insincere and irresponsible – and, if you ask me, more than a little emotionally stunted, but I’ll get into that later. We don’t see much of her skills beyond her ability to charm people, but that remains consistent throughout the book, so I’ll give her the point.

SCORE SO FAR: 1.5

 

  1. Can you describe her in one short sentence without mentioning her love life, her physical appearance, or the words ‘strong female character’?

Actually, you can’t. Daisy’s role in The Great Gatsby is inextricable from her position as Tom’s wife and the object of Gatsby’s desire, and a lot of that is tied up with her physical appearance. You can describe her personality, but it’s impossible to describe her role within the story without referencing her love life or physical appearance.

SCORE SO FAR: 1.5

 

  1. Does she make decisions that aren’t influenced by her love life?

Daisy doesn’t actually make a lot of decisions at all, as most of the time she’s just reacting to the actions of other characters, but those she does make are exclusively surrounding her love life. She decides who to marry, she decides to start a secret affair with Gatsby, she decides to eventually go back to Tom.

It’s worth noting that you could make the case that in Daisy’s eyes, Tom and Gatsby represent more than just a choice of lovers. It’s implied that Daisy married Tom for his wealth, as when their initial courtship is discussed it’s peppered with references to all the fancy gifts he bought her. He comes from an old, established family and she has a child with him, too, so it’s pretty clear that he represents the kind of life she’s always known. But if Tom represents stability and privilege, Gatsby represents something a bit more unobtainable. Based on their strong connection to the past, and on Daisy’s own fond recollections of her life before marriage, I’d say that for her, Gatsby represents a chance to reclaim all the brilliance and promise of youth, when she was adored by everyone and hadn’t yet learned to be cynical. In this respect, you could argue that Daisy isn’t just choosing between men, she’s choosing between lifestyles: the financial security and stability of traditional Tom and the uncertain, flashy brilliance of garish Gatsby.

giphy genie
Alliteration is just so great. (image: giphy.com)

However, it’s also important to remember that this interpretation is mostly conjecture (and not least because I just came up with it in the past ten minutes). Daisy’s internal struggle is never once illuminated by the narrative, so we have no idea what she’s really thinking. It’s true that she is the focus of the novel, but it’s a very selective kind of focus – she is the object of two men’s desires, but Daisy’s hopes, dreams, fears and motivations are never once discussed in any kind of detail. What is discussed in detail is her physical appearance, her charming personality, her considerable wealth and her well-respected family name – but I’ll discuss the implications of this later on. For now, I’m withholding the point, because there simply isn’t any confirmation that this is how Daisy sees her two suitors.

SCORE SO FAR: 1.5

 

  1. Does she develop over the course of the story?

Daisy doesn’t develop over the story at all, and this is actually central to the wider themes of the novel. She learns absolutely nothing as the novel progresses, because the buffer of her wealth means she doesn’t have to learn anything. She’s never once confronted with anything that makes her consider changing her behaviour, so I’m withholding the point.

SCORE SO FAR: 1.5

 

  1. Does she have a weakness?

Daisy has plenty of weaknesses. She’s careless, shallow, indecisive, cowardly and snobbish. What’s more, she’s actively unable to break ties with the traditional values that have been the cause of so much of her unhappiness. Personally, I see her as a character that’s also somewhat emotionally stunted, as she frequently reacts to things in a very childish way and doesn’t always seem to understand the consequences of her actions. This ties into the point I made in question six – she’s been so sheltered by wealth and privilege that the vast majority of her behaviour is excused or covered up because of it, and thus she never has to face up to her mistakes like an adult or grow as a person. I’m giving her the point.

SCORE SO FAR: 2.5

 

  1. Does she influence the plot without getting captured or killed?

Daisy is another one of those characters who influence the plot in a very passive kind of way. She has an effect on the plot just by being beautiful, charming and unobtainable, and making people fall in love with her. When you take that away, she mostly ends up reacting to other characters’ actions, whether that’s Gatsby pursuing her or Tom trying to win her back. I’ll give her half a point for this, because her reactions do have a pretty big impact, but I’m not happy about it.

SCORE SO FAR: 3

 

  1. How does she relate to stereotypes about gender?

This is going to get complicated.

giddy marysue
Get ready. (image: themarysue.com)

So much of Daisy’s character is based on gender stereotypes that it’s almost impossible to separate her from them. She starts the novel being portrayed as an ingénue – a childlike, innocent and beautiful young woman who is silly, naïve and cosseted by those around her. This is how Gatsby sees her through most of the novel, and it’s heavily implied that due to her considerable wealth, he sees her as something of a ‘princess’.

But this is a façade. It’s made clear that Daisy’s charm covers up an aching gulf – scrape away the top layer and there’s not much there. In the novel, what fills this void is petty, careless, selfishness, but subsequent film adaptations have attempted to redeem her character by showing the deep extent of her unhappiness. In many of the movies, Daisy acts the way she does because it’s easier for her to pretend than face up to her own aching despair. In the book, she’s portrayed much more unforgivingly, and is depicted as an overwhelmingly shallow gold-digger.

This is where interpreting Daisy’s character gets a little tricky. In the book, she passes from one stereotype to another, going from the delicate, innocent ingénue to the ruthless, shallow, silly woman who chooses wealth over love. This is hugely and deeply problematic for obvious reasons. However, when more modern adaptations show her as a woman facing considerable societal pressure and struggling with a certain amount of despair and self-loathing, it becomes pretty clear that this interpretation doesn’t really hold water any more. She becomes a slightly different character – still shallow, still silly, but not so much ruthless as scared. She becomes less of a gold-digger and more of a victim.

It’s worth noting that this sympathy for her character is pretty much absent from the original novel. Fitzgerald drew on real women he’d loved as inspiration for Daisy’s character – including his wife, Zelda – which throws up some really worrying implications if you stop to think about it. But whichever adaptation you look at, there’s no getting away from the fact that much of Daisy’s appeal stems from the fact that she is a representation of certain values and things, more than an actual character.

If you look closely at the descriptions of what makes Daisy attractive, they’re all closely linked to wealth. Her voice – supposed to be one of her key charms – is described as “full of money”. She’s the “golden girl”, the “king’s daughter”, who lives in a “high white palace”. She’s frequently associated with the colour white, which as well as symbolising purity and innocence is closely linked to wealth – because in the 1920s, unless you were wealthy enough to pay someone else to do your cleaning for you, you just wouldn’t have been able to keep a white dress white. It’s implied that this is also part of the reason why Gatsby is so hung up on her in the first place, as she is the living embodiment of all the wealth he never got to experience growing up. In this respect, she’s a twisted version of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl – not a character in her own right, but a catalyst to force male characters into action.

theory-salon-blog-6-pic-23
I swear I’m having flashbacks… (image: theoryhairsalon.com)

When you combine this conflation of her wealth and physical attractiveness with her passive status, her shallow demeanour and her lack of concrete goals, it becomes pretty clear that Daisy isn’t intended to be a realistic depiction of a woman trapped in an unhappy marriage. Rather, she’s a representation of a certain set of values and morals, tied up with Fitzgerald’s own views on the fickleness of women. She represents the allure of wealth, the corruption it can engender, and the directionless, hollow morals of the Jazz Age as a wider whole, and this is tied up with all sorts of gendered nonsense. I’m withholding the point.

SCORE SO FAR: 3

 

  1. How does she relate to other female characters?

We don’t see Daisy relate to many other female characters. She never meets her husband’s mistress, and the only other female characters we actually see her interact with are her young daughter and her friend Jordan. Her daughter, Pammy, is treated like little more than a favourite pet – Daisy kisses and cuddles her when she’s brought in to see her, but when she’s taken away she doesn’t give her so much as a second thought. We don’t see a lot more to her relationship with Jordan, either – while they’ve been friends for a long time, and Jordan is the reason we find out about her past with Gatsby, we don’t actually see much of what actually brought them together in the first place. Initially, they’re set up to contrast each other – where Daisy is more traditionally feminine, Jordan is much more direct, cynical and assertive – but as the novel progresses, it becomes clear that they’re much more similar than they first seem.

FINAL SCORE: 3.5/10

 

Daisy is a consistent character with a range of weaknesses who affects the plot in a limited capacity but ultimately, she hasn’t passed my test. While subsequent adaptations have done their best to redeem her, her portrayal in the original novel isn’t fleshed out enough to let her pass my test.

A lot of this is due to the fact that she isn’t really a character in her own right – she’s a symbol. Her function in The Great Gatsby is to represent things – whether that’s the restrictions of old money, the unobtainability of true wealth, or the disappointment of dreams – rather than to exist within the story as a character in her own right. She doesn’t really do anything – she’s just, you know, there, being unobtainable and silly and shallow. The narrative doesn’t really develop her as a character, but instead focuses on how her presence develops the men around her. Daisy herself consistently takes a back seat, even though so much of the story revolves around her. This is a direct result of how women were viewed in the 1920s, and I suspect Fitzgerald’s own messy relationships with women influenced Daisy’s role as well. Either way, she still fails.

Next week, I’ll be going back to one of my favourite series. Ginny Weasley, I’m coming for you.

 

And if you’re looking for all my posts on Strong Female Characters, you can find them here.

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