by Mya Nunnally (published 22 Sept 2017 in BookRiot)
As the title subtly suggests, I have a theory about the narrator of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s timeless classic, The Great Gatsby. This theory is one I’m sure some will totally disregard, saying I’m reading too deep into things that aren’t there (which, if I am, I do so not alone, for there is an entire essay written about Fitzgerald’s use of the color yellow). Or perhaps some stuffy old English professor might blanch at the suggestion that one of the most beloved novels of all time has a queer protagonist.
To me, it’s painfully obvious that Nick Carraway is queer. But my gaydar has been finely tuned by years of searching for the gay characters in books and movies and television shows in order to find some semblance of representation. So, for those of us who didn’t see the signs, or who were taught the novel by someone who refused to, I’ll offer evidence.
I’ll start by introducing the character just as Fitzgerald himself sets it up.
Nick Carraway is in his twenties. He went to Yale. He fought in World War I. His aunts and uncles are worried about him, and he’s still single. Throughout the book, Fitzgerald hints that there is something off about him, something that concerns his family. Something that would cause familial problems in a prominent family in 1922…his sexuality, perhaps?
Carraway is often unconcerned with the women in the novel. His fascination with Gatsby is what truly drives his inclusion in the plot along the way, as Carraway is mostly disinterested in parties and drama.
Within the first few pages, we know that Carraway is an especially flowery writer, and he’s unnaturally observant. He likes to distance himself from others. He prefers to scrutinize the ones around him. Through the way he describes others, we can infer certain things. For example, we know he can’t stand the obscenely wealthy. He speaks of how he should hate Gatsby because he stands for everything Nick tries to avoid, yet he feels drawn to him anyway. Does this sound like the beginning to a Nicholas Sparks novel yet?
DESCRIBING WOMEN AS ERECT?
When the reader is first introduced to them, Nick describes Daisy and Jordan as respectively, having a nice voice and having an erect carriage (?). In contrast, other characters regard these women as shockingly beautiful. But when we meet Tom Buchanan, who Nick doesn’t even particularly like, he takes a whole paragraph to illustrate his masculinity. In a way that, one could argue, seems pretty sexually charged.
“He was a sturdy straw-haired man of thirty with a rather hard mouth and a supercilious manner. […] Not even the effeminate swank of his riding boots could hide the enormous power of that body—he seemed to fill those glistening boots until he strained the top lacing, and you could see a great pack of muscle shifting when his shoulder moved under his thin coat. It was a body capable of enormous leverage—a cruel body.”
Just to recap—Nick, a highly observant individual, focuses mainly on Daisy’s voice instead of her supposedly apparent beauty. Next, he describes Jordan in a way that, without the comment regarding her breast size, could be about a man. And then, when we get to Tom, uses at least fifteen adjectives to tell us how built he is.
Besides this, I believe there is definitive proof of Nick’s sexuality in a small scene in the book. This is a scene that many people just skip over without a second thought due to its cryptic nature. It occurs after Nick parties with Tom and a few of his friends.
At this party, Nick meets Mr. McKee, who Fitzgerald takes the time to note is of a feminine nature. He feels comfortable enough with (or maybe attracted enough to) this man he’s just met to wipe the shaving cream off of his face while McKee is sleeping. Then, he and McKee leave their dates (Catherine, and Mr. McKee’s wife, respectively) and while they’re in the elevator, innuendo involving an obviously phallic elevator lever ensues.
‘”Come to lunch some day,” he suggested, as we groaned down in the elevator.
“Keep your hands off the lever,” snapped the elevator boy.
“I beg your pardon,” said Mr. McKee with dignity, “I didn’t know I was touching it.”
“All right,” I agreed, “I’ll be glad to.”
…I was standing beside his bed and he was sitting up between the sheets, clad in his underwear, with a great portfolio in his hands.
Then I was lying half asleep in the cold lower level of the Pennsylvania Station…’
So McKee asks him out to lunch, and they end up in his bedroom, with (at least) McKee nearly naked. Fitzgerald doesn’t use ellipses anywhere else in the book, so why leave this particular scene to the reader’s imagination? Nick could have very easily gone home with Catherine, as they were set up together. Instead, he ends up in a “feminine” man’s bedroom.
Fitzgerald’s works are often praised for how much they say using so little—as seen with The Great Gatsby. The book is barely 50,000 words, and though there are chapters that may seem as nothing more than filler, everything has a purpose. What would be the reason to include this scene, if not hinting (or blatantly implying) that his main character is not straight?
THE LOVE INTEREST
Now, let’s bring attention to the second half of my title. When Nick meets Gatsby, the description alone is enchanting. If you saw it out of context, I guarantee you would assume it was someone talking about a love interest.
“He smiled understandingly—much more than understandingly. It was one of those rare smiles with a quality of eternal reassurance in it, that you might come across four or five times in your life. […] It understood you just as far as you wanted to be understood, believed in you as you would like to believe in yourself, and assured you that it had precisely the impression of you that, at your best, you hoped to convey.”
Sure, sure, perhaps Gatsby is just so magical that everyone talks about him like this. Maybe. But let’s look at the larger context.
It is said that the Great Gatsby is about romanticism, about how building someone up to impossible, dreamlike standards can only end tragically. When he first meets Gatsby, Nick is instantly swept away, and spends the whole novel riveted by this man’s triumphs and secrets. It’s obvious that Gatsby romanticizes Daisy, but Nick is constantly romanticizing Gatsby. One could read The Great Gatsby as a rationalization of misplaced love.
Because, unfortunately, Gatsby doesn’t love Nick back.
Obviously his time with Gatsby affects Nick so much that he writes an entire novel about this time of his life; as the downfall and death of a love would do.
EVEN TOM KNOWS THE TRUTH
When Nick and Tom speak about the late Gatsby at the end of the novel, Tom tells Nick, “That fellow had it coming to him. He threw dust in your eyes just like he did Daisy’s,” and I think this line is probably the only time in the novel Tom says something worthwhile and worth reading into.
Tom’s revelation is spot on—that Gatsby was playing Nick as much as Daisy, but of course Nick won’t come to terms with it. Instead, he’ll write a whole book where he romanticizes all that happens involving the two of them. He’ll spend hours coloring the events through his love tinted lenses, he’ll be consumed with the past, as he so clearly is, and ignore the message his travels have told him.
This, of course, is just a theory. We’ll never know what was going through F.Scott’s mind as he wrote that controversial elevator scene; we’ll never know what his true intent was with most of this book. (Although: there are many rumors surrounding Fitzgerald’s sexuality and his relationship with author Ernest Hemingway. As The Great Gatsby has parts taken from Fitzgerald’s own life, perhaps this is a clue to one of the late author’s secrets.)
But I choose to accept that Nick Carraway is queer, and in love with Gatsby. I need to, in fact. I won’t preach about how diversity is important, but I’ll say this.
Gay characters shouldn’t have to hide behind the ellipses of a throw away plot point. Queer people shouldn’t have millions of articles dedicated to the theories of their existence in pop culture. They should be the protagonist of what has always been dubbed the “Great American Novel”.
The Great Gatsby teaches us that clinging to the past is toxic. So let’s learn from Fitzgerald and leave our heteronormative lenses in the dust. Let’s, for once, not become boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.