I only just found out this week that people don’t like Daisy Buchanan and I am livid.
The exact words I heard used to describe Daisy were vapid and air-headed, which of course is just code for female. However, this characterization of Daisy is also inaccurate and denotes a very shallow reading of The Great Gatsby.
Daisy is privileged, there’s no doubt. She’s a rich socialite living in Long Island—none of which are terms that elicit much pity. However, the fact remains that she is a woman in the early 21st century and no amount of wealth can erase all the ills that that entails. Like many women of the era she was married before she had left her teens and pregnant soon after. By the time Daisy is in her mid twenties, she finds herself stuck in a loveless marriage to the boorish Tom Buchanan. Daisy is judged for remaining with a man she does not love, but it’s important to remember that though we often refer to Daisy as rich, she is not. Her husband is rich. While Daisy is married to Tom she is rich, and if he left her she would have nothing. Despite being intellectually and emotionally superior to her husband, Daisy is necessarily relegated to a position of subservience.
Faced with this numbing existence, it is natural that Daisy shows an interest in reigniting an old affair with the dashingly unsuitable Jay Gatsby. Yet this is the problem and the crux of the book—Daisy wants an affair while Gatsby wants a complete return to the past and a love that’s gone. In this way Daisy is a lot more practical than the other characters in the novel, more focused on her present than her past. This is often portrayed as an example of her shallowness, while in reality it’s a hard earned survival skill.
Daisy angers people because she is consistently incapable of communicating honestly with Gatsby. But what speaks to an oppressed female autonomy more than a learned inability to communicate your needs and boundaries? Daisy’s whole life has been dependent on maintaining the favor of the men around her, and as a result she has learned to never share her own opinions or thoughts. Take, for example, the way she responds when Tom talks about his white supremacist beliefs. She has been taught not to openly question her husband’s opinions, so she is left to register her disagreement sarcastically. At one point when Tom is talking about The Rise of the Colored Empires, Daisy whispers to her guests, “We’ve got to beat them down”, while “winking ferociously”. Another time Tom demands to know what she was talking about with her cousin Nick and she replies, “I can’t seem to remember, but I think we talked about the Nordic Race. Yes, I’m sure we did. It sort of crept up on us and first thing you know—”, before Tom cuts her off. So we see that Daisy is neither vapid nor airheaded, but a smart, funny, and complex person who has simply never been allowed to express herself without a veil of sarcasm or backhandedness. She is not trying to harm Gatsby by being coy, she is just trying to please everybody. The villain, then, is not Daisy, but a society that stops women from advocating for themselves.
Another important thing to consider is that when we read The Great Gatsby, we tend to focus on the emotional duress that Daisy inflicts upon Gatsby. We neglect to consider the emotional duress Gatsby inflicts upon Daisy. He has put her in an impossible position. She is his American Dream, the crux of years of struggle, the key to his happiness. His entire self worth depends on her love, which is a lot of pressure for any one person. Only thing is, he never once considers if she feels the same way about him, if she watches the light on his dock night after night. In this way the situation is all sort of horrific; it’s akin to going over to the house of somebody you haven’t seen since high school and finding their walls plastered with your pictures. If anyone is shallow it’s Gatsby, yearning away for a perfect woman who doesn’t exist. Daisy is a complex and interesting person, but Gatsby is not interested in that. He wants to be in love with the guileless ingenue again and return to both a less complicated time and person.
In the end this misguided yearning is Gatsby’s tragic flaw. Daisy is not a return to the past or a path to the future, not an answer or solution, not a trophy, not a dream. She’s a person, as flawed as any other person. We must not be disappointed in Daisy for neglecting to magically solve everybody’s problems, but instead be disappointed in Gatsby for expecting her to. If Gatsby is disillusioned, it is only because he was more preoccupied with the illusion of perfection than the real, human woman before him.