The twentieth century was filled with many advances which brought a variety of changes to the world. However, these rapid advances brought confusion to almost all realms of life; including gender roles, a topic which was previously untouched became a topic of discourse. Many authors of the time chose to weigh in on the colloquy. In F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby and Kate Chopin’s The Awakening, gender role confusion, characteristic of modernist literature, is seen in Nick Carraway and Edna Pontillier as they are the focal points in the exploration of what it means to be a man or a woman, their purpose, place, and behavior in society.
The Gender roles of the 1900s were strictly defined in society, providing rigid boundaries for human existence and expression. Men were envisioned dominant and aggressive, and women were submissive. Male aggression was demonstrated through the playing of sports (Becker et Schirp). Society determined the role of the woman was to be a wife and a mother with little individuality. Jennifer Gray states, “The hegemonic institution of nineteenth-century society required women to be objects in marriage and in motherhood, existing as vessels of maternity and sexuality with little opportunity for individuality” (53). Women’s roles were strictly determined and any deviation from these roles could be grounds for isolation.
During the time period of The Awakening Creole culture has strict customs for women to obey. Edna Pontellier feels her purpose in society is to be an independent woman free from social constraints, which is contrary to the traditional role of women as domestics in Creole society. Edna no longer feels the need to stay at home on Tuesday’s to receive and entertain guests because she wants to use her time for other things (Chopin 50-51). By disobeying her husband and social convention Edna goes against Creole society further making her an emancipated woman. Ideologies have subjects born into them who are forced to blindly follow their conventions (Gray 55). Edna’s betrayal of social conventions is a veritable sign of her freedom.
1920s culture had set roles for male behavior. Nick Carraway feels his purpose is to be a bondsman, not because it is what he wants to do, but because it is the socially correct role for him to fulfill at that time. However, Nick expresses his real desires when he states,
There was so much to read, for one thing, and so much young breathe to be pulled out of the young breath-giving air. I bought a dozen volumes on banding and credit and investment securities, and they stood on my shelf in red and gold like new money from the mint, promising to unfold the shining secrets that only Midas, Morgan and Maecenas knew. And I had the high intention of reading many of other books beside. I was rather literary in college – one year I wrote a series of very solemn and obvious editorials for the Yale News – and now I was going to bring back all such things in my life and become again...