Is Honesty a Virtue in “Gatsby”?

During the last few minutes of class today (11:00 am section), a student prompted a poll on the general likeability of Tom Buchanan’s character. Unsurprisingly, most of us found him unsympathetic and didn’t appreciate various ugly aspects of his personality. A few, however, voiced the opinion that even when Tom was being offensive and bigoted, he was at least being honest, which is hard to say for other characters. They appreciated his direct and matter-of-fact manner.

If honesty is the yardstick we use to measure the basic “goodness” or worth of a character in The Great Gatsby, haven’t we chosen the wrong tool? Are we doing a disservice to other characters by writing them off as dishonest?

Jordan

Jordan Baker is described by Nick Carraway as being “incurably dishonest”. As an example, he cites a lie she uses at a party, and an incident at her first big golf tournament where she was suspected of cheating (p. 19). The lie at the party is told to us readers second-hand, and the other Nick doesn’t believe himself. If we dismiss Nick as a reliable narrator, what other ways are we told Jordan “deal[s] in subterfuge”?

Many have argued that not only Nick, but Jordan, are homosexual (or are, at least, fluid in their sexuality) and struggling to “pass” among their peers. Jordan succeeds quite successfully: unlike Daisy, she is financially independent and typically holds the power in the relationships she chooses, but through simple acts like dressing and her cool affectations, she is able to disappear into the background of women indistinguishable from another. She seems to have escaped notice even in our class discussions.

If you can accept that Jordan’s dishonesty is integral to her ability to lead the life of her choosing – a life that offers her freedom and mobility – should she be subjected to a harsher treatment than men like Tom? Contrast her desire to that of Tom’s: his desire to uphold the status quo he participates in enables him to speak so boldly and derisively of perceived threats to his privilege and whiteness. He loses nothing, risks nothing, by being “honest”. What is so admirable about that?

Resource: Jordan Baker, Gender Dissent, and Homosexual Passing in The Great Gatsby

2 thoughts on “Is Honesty a Virtue in “Gatsby”?

  1. I completely understand where you are coming from Reilly. To me, though Tom is brutally honest, I felt as though he was this way because he felt that he had a right to say and do as he pleases. His wealth and background afforded him the privilege to use and abuse everyone and everything around him. However, I can see where people may appreciate his abrupt manner because other characters seem to operate in some form of secrecy; therefore, Tom may seem like a breath of fresh air.
    But, I wonder if that is the point of his character? In a chaotic world filled with secrets and dishonesty, can we appreciate a transparent person who uses his honesty to denigrate others in order to illustrate his or her perceived position above them? Is that something that we all, to some extent, do to assert our own standing in society?

  2. For me ( the person that asked for the poll) having more time to think now, and not remembering if I, myself, said “honesty” would like to elaborate on this a bit.

    I mentioned this because from the moment Tom was introduced on page 7 and in EVERY SINGLE other appearance he has he in described with either, negative, hateful, harsh, or brutal words. As a reader on my first read through the book I could immediately tell that the author wanted my to hate this character with all my heart and soul.

    My first reaction to that was to say “Why Mr. Fitzgerald do you want me to hate this person? I’m going to go out of my way to find a reason to like him; just because your trying to make me hate him.”(I’m a rebel like that.) My second was,”Why is this character so completely transparent? Fitzgerald is a better writer than that!”

    So what I see when I look at the complete scope of the Tom Buchanan character is a direct, brutal, and true to self, Frankness. Tom is a man that is completely aware of the expected codes of conduct/rules of society; he has to be so that he can call people out on them when they don’t follow them to the letter in their interactions with him. But he him self does not feel constrained by them, and consistently offends other people when he breaches the expected codes of conduct. He is aware of what hes doing, he just doesn’t care.

    Tom Buchanan is a hypocritical, selfish, racist, bigoted, hateful, Bastard; who would love to punch your lights out if you so much as whispered that he was to some one else.
    Thankfully you don’t have to, stand in the same room with him for five minutes and he’ll tell you all that and more in the process of saying “good morning”l; and he won’t feel the least bit bad about it. That is what is admirable about Tom, its not the kind of person you should aspire to be, but it is remarkable that he is able to live with him self, much less have managed to woo some one else into wanting to spend the rest of their life with him.

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