Sensual energy

Myrtle Wilson is described by Nick as having great ‘vitality’ and he focuses on her body for much of the opening description. She is ‘in the middle thirties’, married to George Wilson, and ‘thickish’ or ‘faintly stout’ with ‘rather wide hips’. Nick observes that she ‘carried her flesh sensuously’ and appeared to be ‘smouldering’. Once she is in Tom’s apartment in New York, her ‘intense vitality’ becomes ‘impressive hauteur’. She is also revealed to be acquisitive and greedy, enjoying a shopping spree using Tom’s money. 

Like Gatsby, Myrtle is ambitious to attain social prestige. She also exemplifies the hedonism and amoral attitudes of the time. She explains her rationale for engaging in an affair with Tom, a complete stranger whom she met on the train and then got into a taxi with, with carpe diem urgency:

All I kept thinking about, over and over, was ‘You can’t live forever; you can’t live forever.’

The constraints of poverty

Myrtle wants more from life than her conditions afford her. Her sensual voraciousness appears to have drained her husband and she now walks through him ‘as if he were a ghost’. She says she married Wilson ‘because I thought he was a gentleman,’ but soon discovered he’d ‘borrowed somebody's best suit to get married in’.

Myrtle is next seen in passing, ‘straining at the garage pump with panting vitality’ as Nick and Gatsby drive towards New York for a lunch appointment. This momentary image of her prefigures the later instances of passing by the garage, as the wealthy characters impinge on the lives of the poor characters.

A passionate death

When Nick, Jordan and Tom drive into New York in Gatsby’s car, we have another glimpse of Myrtle, ‘eyes, wide with jealous terror’ as she misidentifies Jordan as Tom’s wife. This is important for the narrative, as it provokes the jealousy which may motivate her leaping at the car when it returns from New York (this time carrying Daisy and Gatsby). Myrtle’s death is crucial to the narrative chain of events, as her avenging husband then kills Gatsby and himself. Furthermore, the description of her death represents the extinguishing of vitality in a more general sense. 

Even in death, the language associated with Myrtle is active rather than passive:

Myrtle Wilson, her life violently extinguished, knelt in the road and mingled her thick dark blood with the dust… her left breast was swinging loose like a flap… The mouth was wide open and ripped at the corners, as though she had choked a little in giving up the tremendous vitality she had stored so long.

This provides a stark contrast to the depiction of Gatsby’s death. His blood is mixed with water rather than earth, and his death is presented in passive dreamlike terms, using images of the water and impersonal terms to represent his body.

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