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 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?