The Queering of Nick Carraway

April 23, 2018 | 2 books mentioned 10 8 min read

In the middle of a class discussion of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby some years ago, a student raised his hand and asked, in essence: What are we supposed to make of the scene where Nick Carraway goes off with the gay guy?

And I said, in essence: Wait, what gay guy?

He pointed me to the scene that closes Chapter III. This is the chapter in which Nick accompanies Tom Buchanan and his mistress, Myrtle, to an apartment Tom keeps in Manhattan. Myrtle invites her sister and some neighbors, Mr. and Mrs. McKee, to join them, and they throw a raucous party that ends with Tom breaking Myrtle’s nose. Amid the blood and the screaming, Mr. McKee awakens from an alcoholic slumber:

Then Mr. McKee turned and continued on out the door. Taking my hat from the chandelier, I followed.

“Come to lunch some day,” he suggested, as we groaned down in the elevator.

“Where?”

“Anywhere?”

“Keep your hands off the lever,” snapped the elevator boy.

“I beg your pardon,” said Mr. McKee with dignity, “I didn’t know I was touching it.”

“All right,” I agreed. “I’ll be glad to.”

…I was standing beside his bed and he was sitting up between the sheets, clad in his underwear, with a great portfolio in his hands.

“Beauty and the Beast…Loneliness…Old Grocery Horse…Brook’n Bridge…”

Then I was lying half asleep in the cold lower level of the Pennsylvania Station, staring at the morning Tribune, and waiting for the four o’clock train.

I had, I’m embarrassed to say, never seen that passage before. Except that’s not true. I’d read the book half a dozen times since college, and taught it once, but I had somehow missed the fact that the narrator wanders off in a drunken stupor with a stranger and ends up in his bedroom.

Whether my student knew it or not, he was tapping into a strain of scholarly inquiry into the sexual orientation of Nick Carraway that dates back at least to Keath Fraser’s 1979 essay “Another Reading of The Great Gatsby.” Fraser ultimately equivocated on the question of Nick’s sexuality, but in 1992, Edward Wasiolek argued in “The Sexual Drama of Nick and Gatsby” that the gay subtext in Gatsby is crystal clear: “I do not know how one can read the scene in McKee’s bedroom in any other way, especially when so many other facts about [Nick’s] behavior support such a conclusion.”

In the decades since, suggestions that maybe, possibly, there’s more to Fitzgerald’s narrator than he’s letting on have given way to ever more self-assured, even faintly indignant, assertions of Nick’s queerness, with titles like The Atlantic’s 2013 article “The Great Gatsby Movie Needed to Be More Gay” or BookRiot’s 2017 piece “Nick Carraway Is Queer and in Love with Jay Gatsby.”

Most queer readings of Gatsby begin with that scene with Mr. McKee and branch out from there to note that Nick’s love interest in the novel, Jordan Baker, is an athlete who carries herself “like a young cadet” and is most alluring to Nick when they play tennis and “a faint mustache of perspiration appear[s] on her upper lip.” When she and Nick break up at the end of the book, Jordan tells him she had thought he was “an honest, straightforward person,” to which he responds, “I’m thirty. I’m five years too old to lie to myself and call it honor”—a line that rings differently if you read Nick as a closeted gay man.

Of course, all of this shapes how we view the relationship between Nick and Gatsby. In a straight reading of the novel, Nick is merely an interested observer who helps facilitate Gatsby’s mad dream to rekindle his love affair with Daisy, now unhappily married to Tom Buchanan. That Gatsby, the one taught for generations in high school and college classrooms, is a classic tale about the American Dream and doomed love and the impossibility of turning back time. In that novel, Nick loves Gatsby, the erstwhile James Gatz of North Dakota, for his capacity to dream Jay Gatsby into being and for his willingness to risk it all for the love of a beautiful woman.

In a queer reading of Gatsby, Nick doesn’t just love Gatsby, he’s in love with him. In some readings, the tragedy is that Gatsby doesn’t love him back. In others, Gatsby is as repressed as Nick, each chasing an unavailable woman to avoid admitting what he truly desires. “Nick chooses Jordan for some of the same reasons Gatsby chose Daisy,” writes Wasiolek in “The Sexual Drama of Nick and Gatsby.” “Daisy is Gatsby’s defense against women, and Jordan is Nick’s against women.”

That last one, I’ll admit, is a touch too Freudian for me, but if Nick were gay and in love with Gatsby it sure would clear up some things—such as what exactly Nick sees in Gatsby, a social-climbing fabulist with gangster friends who moves heaven and earth for a woman Nick plainly sees as a ditz. It would also make sense of Nick’s emotionally sterile affair with Jordan. And, of course, if Nick is queer, his trip to Mr. McKee’s bedroom isn’t merely a mysterious interlude in a canonical book, but a secret key that opens the door onto one of America’s first great gay novels.

So then, is Nick gay? The short answer is we’ll never know. The only person who could say for sure is F. Scott Fitzgerald, and he’s been dead since 1940. But it’s worth noting that when he wrote Gatsby, Fitzgerald was the golden boy of American letters at a time of near-universal homophobia. Had readers picked up even a whiff of gay subtext in Gatsby, he risked losing everything: his career, his marriage, his reputation, his friends. But no one did see it, and, in fact, as Wasiolek notes, among the thousands of essays and critical studies of one of America’s most widely read novels no one noted the gay subtext in the McKee bedroom scene until Fraser wrote about it in 1979.

So, making Nick a closeted gay man makes little emotional or artistic sense unless Fitzgerald was using Nick’s sexuality to explore in a deeply coded way his own guilt and shame over his unspoken desires—a theory that runs into the not inconsiderable hurdle that there is zero evidence that Fitzgerald was attracted to men. Yes, his wife Zelda did once accuse him of being in love with Ernest Hemingway, but at the time their marriage was unraveling and she was months from being hospitalized for schizophrenia. (Zelda also despised Hemingway, whom she reportedly saw as “a pansy with hair on his chest.” Hemingway, for his part, hated Zelda right back, times approximately a million.)

But here’s the thing: If Fitzgerald had wanted to scratch a sexual itch badly enough to make him write coded gay characters into his books, he suffered no shortage of opportunities. For the last decade of his life, he lived apart from Zelda in European resort towns and in Hollywood, where he was surrounded by men living more or less openly gay lives. Yet not one credible story of Fitzgerald having sex with another man has turned up, either in his journals or in the famously gossipy movie colony. Instead, he had a few minor flings with female starlets before settling into stable relationship with gossip columnist Sheilah Graham, who was with him when he died.

But okay, people are complicated. Maybe Fitzgerald had a secret life he was able keep under wraps his entire adult life despite the fact that he was falling-down drunk for much of that time, or perhaps he desired men, but was so disgusted by this need that he never acted upon it. There is, I think, a deeper reason to question a queer reading of The Great Gatsby: It doesn’t sound much like a novel F. Scott Fitzgerald, gay or straight, would write.

coverFitzgerald was a compulsively autobiographical writer who wrote his flaws into his work, unflinchingly and in plain English. When he drank, his characters drank along with him. When his marriage failed, his characters lost their wives, too. When he had a nervous breakdown, he wrote a searingly honest set of essays called “The Crack-Up” for Esquire. It strains credulity to suggest that if Fitzgerald were gay, he would expiate his guilt and shame by writing a veiled gay love plot nobody would notice for half a century. It’s just not how his artistic apparatus worked. As a writer, Fitzgerald wore remarkably few veils. For 20 years, he opened a vein and beauty flowed onto the page.

None of this, of course, proves that Nick isn’t gay—that can’t be proven one way or the other—but I suspect the queer readings of Nick Carraway say more about the way we read now than they do about Nick or The Great Gatsby. We read with a perpetually queered eye, forever on the hunt for coded language or secret lives in characters. This is not in itself a bad thing. It layers our reading, opening our eyes to stories within stories that we missed before, but it can blind us, too, because once we know the code, we start to think all writers are in on it, when some of them might not be. Just because Fitzgerald wrote a scene that reads to us like a gay tryst doesn’t mean that Fitzgerald was gay and trying to send us a message in a bottle. Similarly, the fact that Nick meets a gay man and doesn’t run screaming doesn’t make Nick gay. Maybe it just means he’s tolerant and curious about people, whether they’re closeted gay men or bootleggers who want to turn back time.

Let’s go back to that scene with Mr. McKee. No writer as attuned to wordplay and symbols as F. Scott Fitzgerald could have written that line about touching the elevator lever before a scene in which two men end up in a bedroom and not meant for a reader to catch the double-entendre. Whatever his sexual persuasion, Fitzgerald wasn’t an idiot.

To us, reading with our queered eye, the double-entendre must be a veiled hint that Nick is gay, but that’s us now when the closeted gay man has become a stock character in film and literature. Fitzgerald’s original readers wouldn’t necessarily have come to the same conclusion. The savvier among them might have picked up that Mr. McKee is gay. It’s McKee, after all, who invites Nick for lunch and gets accused of touching the lever. It’s also McKee who’s in bed in his skivvies while Nick stands, outside the bed, listening to McKee drone on about his photo album.

Of course, Nick does follow McKee from the party and accept his lunch invitation, but that’s Nick’s role in Gatsby: he follows people and agrees to things. Nick’s tolerance, his curiosity about people, isn’t just some minor character quirk. It’s key to Nick’s character and central to Fitzgerald’s narrative strategy. Over and over, Nick meets bizarre, interesting people and reserves judgment until they reveal themselves to him—and us. It’s right there on the first page of the novel, when Nick relates the advice his father gave him about keeping in mind that not everyone has had his advantages. “In consequence,” Nick explains, “I’m inclined to reserve all judgments, a habit that has opened up many curious natures to me and also made me the victim of not a few veteran bores.”

Thus, when Gatsby’s friend, the gangster Meyer Wolfsheim, winds up a story about a mob hit by showing off his cufflinks fashioned from the “finest specimens of human molars,” Nick doesn’t back slowly out of the room and call the cops. He looks closer at the mobster’s cufflinks and exclaims, “Well! That’s a very interesting idea.” Later, when Gatsby arranges for Nick to set up a date with Daisy, a married woman Gatsby hasn’t seen since he was a poor boy about to be sent off to war, Nick doesn’t tell Gatsby gently and firmly that he’s out of his mind. No, he calls Daisy to set up the date.

This, to my mind, is what a queer reading of Gatsby misses: Nick’s tolerance, his willingness to reserve judgment about things his world found frightening or wrong. Yes, it’s possible Fitzgerald was using the scene with Mr. McKee to speak in code of his own hidden desires, but more likely it’s a scene in which a straight man in 1920s America meets a closeted gay man—and listens to him. Likewise, maybe Nick’s love for Gatsby is queer, but more likely it’s queer in the nonsexual sense, meaning odd, uncanny. Maybe Nick really is who he says he is: a nice, decent, rather conventional bond salesman from the Midwest who knows he shouldn’t admire Jay Gatsby, but does anyway. Maybe he loves Gatsby, not because he wants to have sex with him, but because he wants to understand him, make sense of his queer and improbable dreams.

 

is a staff writer for The Millions and a contributing editor for Poets & Writers Magazine. His nonfiction has appeared in The New York Times, The Globe and Mail, The National Post, Salon, and The Economist. His fiction has appeared in Tin House, December, The Southampton Review, and The Cortland Review. www.michaelbournewriter.com

10 comments:

  1. Thanks for the Queer reading of “The Great Gatsby” article. I have read the book countless times and missed reading that scene between Nick and the closeted married man. Is Nick Queer in the modern Why can’t he be bisexual? It is pretty obvious to me, a Queer man, that Nick’s attraction to the athletic, flat-chested Jordan Baker, could be suppressed desire to express his Queerness. Like many men of his time period, staying in the closet was a safety measure to keep from being attacked or being murdered. In every reading of this classic, which was not considered a best seller at the time it was released, I totally got the love story, the sense of loss and regret, the racism of Tom and Daisy, and the total disaster of Nick’s relationship with Jordan, but I need to go back and reread it for the Queer subtext.

    Anyway, thanks again for a thought-provoking article which I plan to share with my fellow writers and MFA graduate students.

    Sincerely,
    Rob McCabe

  2. Thank you for your insightful article. To look to an earlier novel for signs of gender issues: Fitzgerald had written drafts of “Tender Is the Night” with a young man in the role Rosemary would assume. Then Fitzgerald decided that his character should be a young woman and easily affected the change with a few deft touches, such as giving the character a peignoir instead of a robe.

  3. Terrific article. I think in the 1970 movie “Getting Straight” there’s a long scene where a professor tries to get Elliot Gould to say that Nick Carraway is bisexual. Somebody might want to check, but my memory is that the movie presents this as the height of idiocy and as proof that the students are right to embrace the counterculture and reject literary studies as it was being practiced back then.

    Here the scene is described in detail from an NYT review of the film:

    https://www.nytimes.com/1970/06/07/archives/getting-getting-straight-straight.html

  4. Why does Fitzgerald need to be gay in order for Nick to be gay? Is it impossible for a straight man to write a gay character?

    More importantly, who cares about Fitzgerald? The book is beautiful and a pleasure to read. I don’t need it to solve some mystery about it’s author.

    Also Nick is totes gay.

  5. https://www.wattpad.com/58007976-gay-implications-in-the-great-gatsby%27s-nick

    (The above link will take you to my full article on the subject, complete with citations.)

    First, the McKee sequence is at the end of Chapter II, not Chapter III.

    Second, you left out some essential buildup ot the scene than you’ve quoted–Nick’s reference to McKee as “a feminine man” and the spot of shaving cream Nick wiped from McKee’s face.

    Thirdly, you fail to mention a second homoerotic scene on the 3rd page of Chapter VII where Nick interacts on the commute train with a woman passenger and the conductor.

    Given the strictures against homosexuality of Fitzgerald’s milieu, the two scenes with homoerotic overtones—Nick’s encounters with McKee and later a train conductor–throb with relevance toward the book’s main theme of corruption. On the heels of such sexually charged and controversial novels as DH Lawrence’s The Rainbow (1915) and the confiscation by US Customs and banning of James Joyce’s Ulysses (1922) for obscenity and the publishing of TS Eliot’s elegy “The Wasteland” (1922), it is highly doubtful that someone as accomplished as Scott Fitzgerald would plant two vaguely homo-erotic scenes without a clear purpose. That Fitzgerald dealt with homosexuality in significant detail in his next novel, Tender is the Night is evidence of his more than passing interest in the subject.

    What people choose to make of these two controversial scenes is largely a matter of literary taste and social conditioning. Vagueness and abstraction have an honored place in artistic expression, but can result in a work being misunderstood. From all indications, Fitzgerald went to his grave disappointed “that of all the reviews, even the most enthusiastic, not one had the slightest idea what the book was about.”

    Given today’s increasing acceptance of homosexuality, I sense that the greater depth of The Great Gatsby is dawning on a lot people.

  6. My students pick up on the scene with McKee pretty quickly–wasn’t Nick just headed home? Hadn’t he and McKee agreed to meet for lunch later, not head right to McKee’s place? Nick’s gushing that there was “something gorgeous” about Gatsby at least points to some type of crush or adulation that has at least a tinge of a physical basis. And the scene with McKee, well, Nick was black out drunk, and we don’t know what happened between the lever-happy McKee and him from the time they are in the elevator to the moment Nick comes to and finds himself next to the underwear-clad McKee in his bed. FSF would have had a million other ways to portray Nick’s black-out drunkenness (such as having him suddenly regain awareness at Penn Station, which follows the episode with McKee). Nick’s broken engagement (which he refuses to acknowledge) and his rather non-physical relationship with Jordan Baker just add to Nick’s peculiar portrayal, as do his predisposition to lying (he’s only been drunk twice in his life yet is boozing it up throughout the book) or being oblivious to the truth right in front of him (San Francisco, well, geography, Yale grad, simple geography).

  7. The reading that Nick is gay/bisexual/queer is imprortant to further establish that he is unreliable, that despite the self awareness he often shows, he is lying to himself about who he fundamentally is, which casts doubt over his assessments and evaluations of the other characters. Fitzgerald gives the reader ample evidence to see that, despite Nick’s careful attention to detail, his judgements of other characters are often biased and inaccurate. When I say that Nick is lying to himself about who he fundamentally is, I don’t just mean his sexuality. Nick tells us, apparently earnestly, that he is one of the few honest people that he knows. He tells us this after relaying that he essentialy ghosted a working girl who he was having an affair with when her brother got wind of it (whether Nick’s lack of seriousness about the young woman is because she is a working girl or because he is gay or both is open to interpretation). Immediately after relating this annecdote, Nick explains how he came to be romantically interested in Jordan, and explains that he felt before he could get romantically entangled with her, he had to exticate himself from an engagement with a girl back home (who he has already assured us he is not engaged to in chapter, but who he now admits he has been writing to weekly, signing letters, “love, Nick”). The only character that Nick has a less reliable perspective on than of himself is Gatsby.

  8. A couple of corrections.

    The McKee scene is at the end of Ch. II, not III, and the “moustache” was not Jordan’s, it was Nick’s previous girlfriend, the one he wrote letters to signed, “Love, Nick.”

    Otherwise, nicely done.

    Readers need to curb their homophobia and face the fact that Nick was gay and Gatsby,not Daisy, was driving.

  9. I’m just not really understanding how you’ve never once had to discuss the probability of Nick and Gatsby being a thing. Like, two seconds into the book and my class was like “they’re so gay for each other when are they gonna f**k?” Like, have you read how Nick describes all of the women he’s been with? It’s very clear he’s into the more masculine side of things. He’s always highlighting how they’re muscular and stuff. I don’t know about you but that’s pretty gay.

    Also you seem to lack a lot of understanding about gay people, so I’ll enlighten you. It’s from a reliable source since I myself am gay, so don’t worry. The first thing that I’d like to address is the fact that one does not have to be gay to put a gay character in their story. And even if said person was in fact gay, that doesn’t mean that they don’t have standards. Maybe Fitzgerald really did have a thing for men but didn’t like any of the ones around him? That’s a thing. Gay people have standards too you know. And I’m also not really understanding how a gay man can’t be tolerant. Like we of all people should know how to be cause of all the bullsh*t we have to put up with. We know how to sit down with someone, listen to them, and then reserve judgment. In fact, we encourage it, ask people to do the same. Honestly, you wrote this in 2018, how the hell are this close-minded about gay people still?

    Now let’s get onto the last part. I’m just very confused on the whole “elevator lever” thing. Like, did you consider that a sexual innuendo? Cause either I’m losing it or that just seemed like a normal exchange. Now, it would have been different if it was Nick telling him about the lever, especially if he was using a normal tone of voice, or if McKee didn’t say he didn’t realize he was even touching it. It would have been more of an innuendo if he either didn’t say he didn’t know about it or if he used more of a sarcastic tone of voice. So overall that whole exchange just seemed pretty normal to me or am I just not that versed in 1920 innuendos?

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