Works by female authors to pair with Great Gatsby?
August 18, 2023 9:04 AM   Subscribe

I'm teaching a long thematic unit on The Great Gatsby to 12th graders, trying to expand outward from the novel to see the specific sort of archetype that Gatsby celebrates/derides — namely, the hyperbolic masculine American archetype, both striving for "success" and mooning over some unattainable feminine ideal (whether said woman is interested or not). I have plenty of writings from across time and place to pair with Gatsby (see inside), but all of them are by men. I'm curious how to represent a counter-voice from women (with all due nods to the complexity of gender).

To go with Gatsby, I'm assigning excerpts from Dante (Gatsby's parties, the Valley of Ashes, Beatrice); a Dashiell Hammett short story (Fitzgerald loved Hammett), excerpts from de Tocqueville on the restless American character; chapters from Napoleon Hill's Think and Grow Rich; monologues from Angels in America; parts about Fitzgerald from Maureen Corrigan's book on him — all about the ambitious, fouled-up American man.

I would love to have short stories, poems, essays, even a short play by a woman speaking in some kind of counterpart to this masculine ideal. Dorothy Parker was of the time and clearly weary of Fitzgerald types, but I crave more. Even an entirely different worldview rather than a direct rebuttal is great.

All suggestions, from any era or origin or realms beyond merely "male" or "female," are welcome. Don't worry about the teaching part; I'll take care of that.
posted by argybarg to Writing & Language (27 answers total) 16 users marked this as a favorite
Possibly too obvious and too "popular" but what about Nghi Vo's The Chosen and the Beautiful? It's a retelling of the Gatsby story from Jordan's point of view (and also there is magic and demons and Jordan is a Vietnamese transracial adoptee which sounds like a lot but it's genuinely a good book).
posted by mskyle at 9:12 AM on August 18 [9 favorites]

The Yellow Wallpaper comes to mind, for a terrifying counterpoint to what that type of view does to the person subjected to it.

I wonder if there’s a place here for In A Lonely Place by Dorothy B. Hughes. It’s a fantastic noir novel written by a woman, in which two women figure out the identity of a serial murderer, while all the manly manness swirling around them cannot. It does a great job of showing the fear and toxicity and powerlessness inherent in being the ‘object’ in that particular social construct.
posted by Silvery Fish at 9:15 AM on August 18 [6 favorites]

Perhaps Tallulah Bankhead's autobiography?
posted by Rhedyn at 9:17 AM on August 18 [1 favorite]

Oh, let me second The Yellow Wallpaper! It’s quite a short piece; your students will surely “get it.”
I want to be in your class!
posted by BostonTerrier at 9:18 AM on August 18 [2 favorites]

Good for you -- Gatsby fucked up my sense of self at that age. (It's a gorgeous book that I still love, but I wish someone would have contextualized it in this way for me.)

I just pulled Rebecca Solnit's Recollections of My Nonexistence from my shelf and I think "Freely at Night," Chapter/Section 3, could be great. It's short, and it talks about double consciousness and the male gaze, women as muses rather than subjects, and the joy of reading, and complications of enjoying reading classics as a woman.
posted by lapis at 9:18 AM on August 18 [2 favorites]

I don't know if this is what you're looking for, but I, being born a woman and distressed by Edna St. Vincent Millay comes to mind as a female perspective on that milieu.
posted by Winnie the Proust at 9:19 AM on August 18 [5 favorites]

Why not Zelda Fitzgerald herself? Women can be ambitious and fouled-up too.
posted by kingdead at 9:23 AM on August 18 [3 favorites]

Maybe the story Golden Gloves by Joyce Carol Oates. Themes of male insecurity and re-invention. "He hadn't been a fighter at all, merely a victim".
posted by rollick at 9:49 AM on August 18 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Thanks for the excellent suggestions so far. A hunch from asking the question led me to Joan Didion's essay "On Self-Respect," which couldn't be more perfect.
posted by argybarg at 9:50 AM on August 18 [3 favorites]

Maybe an excerpt from Kate Zambreno’s Heroines? She writes about Zelda Fitzgerald and how F. Scott snuffed out her literary ambitions, how she was considered too feminine and emotional for the masculine literary archetype of the time. Also explores other female modernists and the various ways they were silenced. This book was very meaningful to me in my early 20s.
posted by rabbitbookworm at 9:52 AM on August 18 [2 favorites]

My Autobiography of Carson McCullers, by Jenn Shapland? McCullers was obviously from a slightly later generation of American novelists, but the exploration of her literary world and queerness is pretty great.
posted by Lawn Beaver at 9:54 AM on August 18 [1 favorite]

Lolly Willowes by Sylvia Townsend Warner, published 1926, would be an interesting counterpoint. It's a slim novel, and British, but it immediately came to mind for me given the timeframe and its themes.
posted by cocoagirl at 10:05 AM on August 18 [2 favorites]

How about Passing by Nella Larsen.

Similarly about ambition, social climbing and people striving to meet an archetype but to their detriment. Set in a similar milieu to Gatsby.
posted by BAKERSFIELD! at 10:08 AM on August 18 [13 favorites]

Is memoir OK? Beryl Markham was a contemporary of Fitzgerald's and wrote a memoir called West with the Night. Markham was a pilot - the first to fly solo nonstop across the Atlantic east to west. Hemingway said of this book, she "can write rings around all of us who consider ourselves as writers ... it really is a bloody wonderful book." A pilot I knew was pretty astonished by Markham's descriptions of flying under very difficult conditions in Africa. She could be a good contrast with Daisy Buchanan's wanting her daughter to be a beautiful little fool.

Warning: She's also a British woman who writes about growing up in Africa, so there are going to be some colonialist assumptions (it's been so long since I've read it that I don't remember exactly). You'd be using excerpts anyway, so you could decide whether or not to highlight that.
posted by FencingGal at 10:10 AM on August 18 [4 favorites]

How about Kate Chopin's The Awakening?
posted by victoriab at 10:24 AM on August 18 [8 favorites]

How about The Age of Innocence?

Seconding Passing by Nella Larsen. In general I would go looking for writers (female and otherwise) from the Harlem Renaissance, since the Great Migration will serve as an interesting contrast to Gatsby.

If you want to get out of New York, Willa Cather was active in the 1920s. Ellen Glasgow is another regional novelist from that time period who was an early feminist.
posted by toastedcheese at 10:49 AM on August 18 [6 favorites]

Fitzgerald loved Cather's novels and wrote her a letter after the release of Gatsby saying he'd noticed a similarity between a passage in A Lost Lady and a passage in his manuscript. A Lost Lady is a wonderful novel in its own right but also a great book to read with Gatsby, because it transplants a lot of the central ideas and feelings of Gatsby into an environment that for students is going to be way less [surface-level] glamorous and familiar.
posted by Polycarp at 11:06 AM on August 18 [4 favorites]

I wonder about Woolf's Mrs Dalloway, which I think has some of the same themes about ideals, social facades and the shapes of lives and choices (with the caveat that I read Gatsby for A level decades ago, and I'm sure it reads differently in the US context than the British).
posted by paduasoy at 12:01 PM on August 18 [3 favorites]

In case you are still looking for works: Edith Wharton was a few decades older than Fitzgerald but writing at the same time and about some of the same kinds of people. They had a (famously?) bad tea together; Fitzgerald would have aspired to be in Wharton's social class, and he admired her greatly. She has lots of novels, obviously, but short stories as well.
posted by bluedaisy at 12:25 PM on August 18 [2 favorites]

Dawn Powell, Angels on Toast. She may not be regarded at the same level as Fitzgerald but have a look.
posted by zadcat at 12:42 PM on August 18

I immediately thought of Kate Chopin's The Awakening.
posted by epj at 12:45 PM on August 18 [1 favorite]

I started writing an answer to this, got busy, then several other people mentioned Edith Wharton in the interim, but I'm still going to specifically recommend The Custom of the Country, whose main character, Undine Spragg, is about as close as you can get (though in many ways not that close) to "Gatsby as a woman" -- a Midwestern striver trying to become a real New York rich person, with all the compromises that entails. And it's just a great novel, as good as her more famous ones but not as widely read.
posted by escabeche at 12:51 PM on August 18 [9 favorites]

Gentlemen Prefer Blondes” was published the same year as The Great Gatsby, and is in some ways a counterpoint as an interrogation and satire of the hyperfeminine archetype. It’s funny, more substantial than it seems, and frankly I enjoy it so much more than Gatsby. And, for what it’s worth, Fitzgerald, Faulkner, and Wharton all praised the book, with Wharton calling it “the great American novel”. There’s a meta-conversation to be had about why we all read Gatsby in high school, and most people have never heard of Anita Loos.
posted by alligatorpear at 2:50 PM on August 18 [6 favorites]

How about Gilead by Marilynne Robinson? Captures a different, but still archetypal, America masculinity of the silent, stoic Midwesterner.
posted by scantee at 3:30 PM on August 18 [1 favorite]

The first person I thought of as a role model is Eleanor Roosevelt. She wrote an autobiography, and there must be multiple biographies.
posted by SemiSalt at 4:33 PM on August 18 [1 favorite]

I will mention The Last of Her Kind by Sigrid Nunez, because it's a book that was trying hard to be the answer to your question, with lots of explicit allusions to Gatsby. I can't say I loved it, but I'm just one reader!
posted by aws17576 at 7:39 PM on August 18 [1 favorite]

So Big by Edna Ferber? Set in the 20s as well but the main character is a farm woman. Might be a nice contrast.
posted by jabes at 2:14 PM on August 20 [1 favorite]

« Older Where did OneNote on Android store its local...   |   recommendations / experiences / thoughts on Google... Newer »

You are not logged in, either login or create an account to post comments