There has been much ado about The Great Gatsby in recent months, for obvious reasons. And with that ado has come a resurgence of interest in Nick Carraway’s unclear sexual orientation — something you probably missed as a high school sophomore, but is obvious with even a little attention as an adult reader. Earlier in the year, in an article at Salon, Greg Olear pointed out that nagging passage that suggests Nick’s homosexuality, nestled in between those ellipses and coming directly off of a blatant penis joke. And today in The Atlantic, Noah Berlatsky argues that Baz Luhrman’s new film adaptation suffers from not being gay enough, and thereby undermining Nick’s character and eliminating his connection to Gatsby based on “their shared need for deception.”
On the other hand, Olear argues that the reason Nick’s homosexuality is important is because it reveals him as an unreliable narrator. He writes, “Nick runs into Tom one last time before he leaves New York. This is at the very end of the novel. Of the late Gatsby, Tom says, ‘That fellow had it coming to him. He threw dust in your eyes just like he did in Daisy’s….’ And that’s why it matters that Nick is gay and in love with Gatsby: because Tom’s assessment is spot-on, but Nick will never admit it. Instead, he’ll write a whole book denying the truth.”
Both are worthwhile points in a complex, subtle novel. But what does the slippery presentation of Nick’s sexual preferences reveal about Fitzgerald’s attitudes towards homosexuality? Certainly they must have been complex — Fitzgerald was famously sensitive about his masculinity, and Zelda supposedly once claimed that her husband was a “fairy” who was having an affair with Hemingway (there’s no proof of that, though there is that scene in A Moveable Feast where Hemingway takes a look at Fitzgerald’s, let’s say, manly equipment, and judges it to be adequate).
So one might expect a renunciation, or a cartoonish portrayal (surely Fitz had enough opportunity with Gatsby’s ragers to throw in a few stereotypical gay party boys), but neither of these exist in this novel. Rather, the characters with the most unclear sexual orientations seem to get away, as it were, in part by the fact of their stations in between worlds. The Great Gatsby is a tragedy — we’re left feeling doubtful of the happy futures of anyone — but ultimately, Nick is the character who gets away the cleanest, at least in his own eyes. He may be disillusioned and friendless, but he hasn’t been killed, or shown to be morally bankrupt. The other character who makes it out relatively unscathed? Jordan Baker, who can be read as at least possibly homosexual herself (a female athlete, particularly unusual at the time; all those remarks about going on trips with other girls).
But it’s Nick who is both the removed witness and the ambivalent center of the book, and who is ultimately absolved by his liminality. He lives in a tiny house, forgotten between two mansions; he’s a displaced Midwesterner; he is clearly interested in both male and female lovers. He identifies himself as someone who reserves judgement, an assertion that is quickly proven false. After all, this is a book that remarks upon its own bookishness, with Nick as the supposed author, whose job as artist is to judge, shape, and present a story that he took part in, with all of the complication that implies.
If Fitzgerald bestows an unsteady reward upon this remove, it may be because he himself occupied this liminal space in some respects, and not only because he was an artist. As Angus P. Collins writes in F. Scott Fitzgerald: Homosexuality and the Genesis of Tender Is the Night, “In [Miss Taube and her friends] the homosexual is not just a symbol of moral and sexual chaos, but a projection of vocational insecurity. He is a creature with whom one part of Fitzgerald finds it impossible not to identify, who is possessed of an active and authenticating sexuality that amply defines Fitzgerald’s own lack of authenticity, and who in an impasse of obvious relevance to Fitzgerald’s creative difficulties is both more and less of a ‘man’ than Fitzgerald himself. Thus Fitzgerald’s notorious sensitivity about his masculinity, as well as the acute homosexual doubts attested to in him by observers such as Morley Callaghan, may well derive not just from the fact that he was so often the self-confessed ‘woman’ of his marriage, but from the Achilles’ heel of his insecure masculinity as it related to matters of craft: Fitzgerald in these years appears to have suspected that he himself was the true homosexual in his choice of vocation. Homosexuality therefore defines the circle of his creative difficulties in that he is homosexual both in his moral and artistic commitment and in his proneness to moral collapse: homosexuality can convey to him both his own much greater emasculation (the attenuations of art) and his own capacities for self-abandonment (the perils of self-indulgence).”
In the same article, Collins cites a letter Fitzgerald wrote to Richard Knight in 1932, which gives some insight into his feelings on homosexuality: “I’m sorry I used the word fairy and that you found it offensive,” he writes. “I have never in my wildest imaginings supposed you were a fairy, and I admit that under similar circumstances I would be inclined probably to bristle if the word were thrown around by someone whose attitude towards me was not unchallengeable. It is a lousy word to anyone not a member of the species. I offer you my sincere apologies and put it down to the fact that I was half asleep when you came and subsequently a little tight.” While this isn’t definitive evidence as to his feelings on homosexuality, Fitzgerald claims a semi-conscious use of of the word “fairy” as an insult, blurted out while half asleep, and follows with sincere apologies — perhaps an indication of a conflicted mind.