Fluid identities for a fluid world

Identity is a significant issue in The Great Gatsby, with a number of the characters depicted with obscure or fluid identities, and the concept of national identity also under scrutiny at certain moments. 

Nick’s first comment on Gatsby raises the issue of ‘personality’ as a ‘series of unbroken gestures’, hinting at the notion that the self is something mutable, achieved by performance of ‘gestures’ rather than being an inner and fixed quality that is manifested in outward actions. This notion is presented in a conditional clause (‘If…. then… ‘) which itself creates uncertainty.

The influence of contacts

Gatsby, despite Nick’s attempts to describe him in Chapter 1, has the most fluid and elusive identity, as the many versions of his origins and his past unfold in the novel. He is said to have conceived his own identity as a seventeen-year-old but Wolfsheim makes a counter-claim after Gatsby dies: ‘I made him’. This may simply refer to his financial status, but also depends on Gatsby being ‘an Oggsford man’ whom Wolfsheim notices and exploits. 

The influence of circumstance

Gatsby, Wolfsheim and several other characters are able to exploit the economic opportunities of this period in American history and some recreate themselves in order to achieve greater wealth. Myrtle, for example, undergoes a change in her personality once she is in Tom’s apartment, her ‘intense vitality’ being ‘converted into impressive hauteur’. Wilson’s identity also seems to change under the pressure of losing Myrtle, to the extent that Michaelis is ‘astonished’ by his behaviour and his words. 

A clean slate

Gatsby, by changing his name and abandoning his origins, is an extreme example of the potential in 1920s America for the self to be remade. Gatsby’s intention to achieve this is discernible in his ‘Schedule’, listing the work to be done in self-fashioning. Alongside various ‘improving’ actions, he intends to ‘study needed inventions’ in keeping with this period of technological and economic progress, but possibly also hinting at his self-invention. Perhaps also related to this is Nick’s reference to the discovery of American land by Dutch sailors, which expresses the excitement at finding a ‘tabula rasa’ or blank slate upon which the ‘last and greatest of human dreams’ can be realised. 

National identity

The challenge to white supremacy

National identity is a particular concern of Tom Buchanan, arguably the most representative member of his social class. In Chapter 1, Tom expresses considerable anxiety about the influence of ‘other races’ and worries that the ‘dominant race’ will lose their power and, consequently, civilisation will disintegrate. His citation of ‘The Rise of the Coloured Empires by this man Goddard’ is an allusion to The Rising Tide of Colour by Lothrop Stoddard, a work of ‘scientific racism’. 

In choosing Tom as the vehicle for these ideas, Fitzgerald may be satirising such anxieties. Tom’s vision of ‘everything overboard’ is intermarriage between black and white people. Nick articulates a clear rejection of this ‘impassioned gibberish’ in Chapter 7, when Tom ironically expresses his disgust at the collapse of ‘family institutions’. However, Nick too is sensitive to the social changes which enable black Americans and immigrant populations to challenge the power structure of established society. His laughter at the ‘haughty rivalry’ of the ‘modish negroes’ in Chapter 4 has sometimes been interpreted as suggesting Nick’s racism, though it may be that this laughter instead mocks the society which resists being remade.

Social fluidity

Social mobility is a recurrent idea in the novel, culminating in Nick’s comment on the novel being a ‘story about the West’. He identifies himself, Daisy, Tom, Jordan and Gatsby as all being ‘Westerners’ and ‘subtly unadaptable to Eastern life’ because of a ‘deficiency’. This identification unites the main characters where they have previously been set in contrast, and offers another perspective on the notion of a national identity, albeit not wholly convincing. The sense of failure and loss in this passage ultimately suggests that the fluidity of society and individual identity is not a comfortable experience, and the deaths are directly related to instances of mistaken identity. Myrtle believes Jordan to be Tom’s wife, and runs out to a car which she mistakenly believes is being driven by Tom. Wilson misidentifies Gatsby as his wife’s killer. 

The most haunting image of the loss of identity is in Nick’s ‘grotesque’ vision in Chapter 9 of the drunken woman in the white dress, whose name is not known and who is brought to the ‘wrong house’ on a stretcher. The comment ‘and no one cares’ is the most chilling indication that this loosening of the notion of identity is compounded by an absence of compassion.

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