By Catie Summers, V Form
Tantalizing Taboos: Homoerotic Language in The Great Gatsby
F. Scott Fitzgerald does a fantastic job of lacing taboos throughout The Great Gatsby. The most common, however, is homosexuality and homoerotica. Of course, the outlook on homosexuality and the rest of the LGBTQ+ community has changed dramatically over the past one hundred years. It was quite negative and derogatory during the time of the story, commonly referred to as the Roaring Twenties. F. Scott Fitzgerald incorporates aspects of homosexuality in The Great Gatsby through the narrator, Nick Carraway, and his interactions with other male characters throughout the novel. Specifically, Nick’s descriptive language carries a homoerotic affect, meaning his presence in the narrative invites, at least, a queer reading of The Great Gatsby.
Fitzgerald premiers Nick’s homoerotic tone in his description of male characters, particularly in Tom Buchanan. When Nick first meets Tom, Nick speaks as though in reverence of Tom’s physique by stating, “not even the effeminate swank of his riding clothes 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 coat” (Fitzgerald 7). This passage has a sexual appeal to it, a climax, one might argue. Fitzgerald alludes to this by tantalizingly and purposely influencing readers to anticipate a sexual reference after “he seemed to fill those glistening…” but then dropping off and finishing with the word “boots.” By primarily setting a homoerotic tone for Nick’s description, it is natural to assume that this phrase should be an innuendo or euphemism. Yet, Fitzgerald’s writing is so meticulous and nuanced that by ending the phrase with the word “boots,” he allows an ambiguous reading of the phrase, implying a simple in-depth physical description of a character or a subtle hint as to Nick’s sexual tendencies and a queer side to his character unrecognizable before that point.
Nick’s observations of other male characters continue to harness an air of homoerotica through almost the entirety of The Great Gatsby. Another blatantly obvious scene where Nick’s affect contributes as an element of the novel’s homoerotica is when he describes the conductor on the train. The city of New York is in the midst of unbearable heat as the intensity of the story begins to rise. The heat does not only affect the intensity of the story but also turns up the sexual appeal of all the characters. It is common to associate heat with sexual desires or actions, as the two often come hand in hand. The train scene, in particular, illustrates, most efficaciously, a cause and effect relationship of the heat and sexual tension of characters. Nick is sitting on the train platform when he looks up and notices the conductor and thinks to himself, “[why] anyone should care in this heat whose flushed lips he kissed, whose head made damp the pajama pocket over his heart!” (Fitzgerald 115). Nick appears to be huffy when he notices the conductor’s perspiration, but he only describes the man’s lips. Nick’s immediate jump to the conductor’s mouth is a clear indicator as to what captures his attention, a hot and bothered working man whose lips cause Nick to feel a sense of arousal. Furthermore, the phrase “why should anyone care” resonates with lust hidden by a sheath of scorn. Nick is enticed by the heat and this man’s “flushed lips,” and he is perhaps interested in kissing them himself. To cover up Nick’s longing, Fitzgerald’s tone of “why should anyone care” impresses upon the reader that Nick is scoffing at the absolutely preposterous idea that this man is attractive, yet the reader knows this is not the case based on the slew of evidence from earlier in the novel, resulting in a sort of dramatic irony. Not only do Nick’s descriptions of other males in the story carry an homoerotic affect, but the juxtaposition of those and his descriptions of female characters further supports Nick’s obvious pull towards other males in the story.
Nick’s accounts of females in the story come off as dry and almost apathetic compared to his thorough captivated descriptions of male characters such as Tom and the conductor. This dull interpretation of female characters is best seen through Nick’s description of Jordan, where he illustrates her to be a “slender, small-breasted girl, with an erect carriage, which she accentuated by throwing her body backward at the shoulders like a young cadet” (Fitzgerald 11). This sentence is the entire, and only, physical description of Jordan Baker in her introduction to the story. Furthermore, the description of Jordan highlights her boyish features: “small breasts,” “an erect carriage,” and her resemblance to “a young cadet.” One could argue that this was simply the way she was, as a boyish figure on women was the fashionable norm for the 1920s. Yet, it cannot be coincidental that Jordan’s most masculine features are the features Nick chooses to describe to the reader, almost as if those are the features that he is attracted to most in the young woman. This tendency to find masculine energy in women again proves that Nick’s aura of homoerotica draws him towards masculinity. Yet no other scene between Nick and another character in the story is as eluding to Nick’s homosexuality than the infamous elevator scene.
The elevator scene is one of the most controversial scenes in the novel. Like Nick’s description of Tom, there are two ways to read it: a simple yet intoxicated altercation between two grown men or a one-night0stand between two closeted homosexual men. At the close of chapter two, Nick is highly intoxicated after spending a day drinking at Tom’s friend’s apartment in New York City. The other people at the apartment include Tom’s mistress, Myrtle; Jordan Baker; and a photographer named Mr. McKee. Mr. McKee and Nick enter an elevator which is operated by the elevator boy. As they ride the elevator the boy tells Mr. McKee, “Keep your hands off the lever,” to which Mr. McKee replies, “I beg your pardon, I didn’t know I was touching it” (Fitzgerald 37). Here, The elevator lever represents male genitalia. The elevator boy’s immediate response of reprimanding Mr. McKee for grabbing the lever is symbolic of how society viewed homosexuality at that time—taboo, derogatory, and unnatural. Mr. McKee attempts to glaze over the awkward situation by acting aloof and ignorant as to what his wandering hand was doing. The most powerful part of the scene, however, is what directly follows the dialogue between Mr. McKee and the elevator boy.
The ellipsis that is placed at the end of the elevator scene has almost as much impact on the story as if Fitzgerald had explicitly states that Nick and Mr. McKee slept together, if one were to read it that way. The ellipsis in itself is an innuendo for having a sexual encounter. It again invites an ambiguous reading of the scene maybe only appearing to those who were expecting a scene like that to occur. For that to happen, the reader must have previously picked up on Nick’s homoerotic affect. Not only does the ellipsis itself imply Nick and Mr. McKee’s affair but the words directly after do as well: “… 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” (Fitzgerald 38). Even if the reader interpreted the story so that Nick and Mr. McKee did not sleep together or even if Fitzgerald did not mean to imply as much, the fact that Mr. McKee and Nick are together in their underwear is not typical for two heterosexual men in the 1920s. It was not the societal norm for two grown men, unrelated and just that day formally introduced, to spend time with each other with only underwear on. The elevator scene in The Great Gatsby is the quintessential depiction of Nick’s homoerotic affect and his sometimes-closeted signs of homosexuality.
F. Scott Fitzgerald weaves the theme of homosexuality everywhere throughout The Great Gatsby by outwardly displaying the narrator’s, Nick Carraway, homoerotic affect. Nick is influenced by this critical piece of his being so much so that his descriptions and interactions with other characters are often glazed with a touch of homoerotica. This may have been a taboo theme during the time that the novel was written, but F. Scott Fitzgerald was certainly ahead of his times regarding his writing on homosexuality and homoerotica.
Catie Summers is a V form boarding student from Amherst, New Hampshire. Her favorite classes are English and studio art.