Pretty Little Liar

I’ve always loved Daisy Buchanan, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s most well-known female character. As a teenager reading The Great Gatsby for the first time, I rooted for the forbidden pairing of Gatsby and Daisy, or Gatisy, as a true “shipper” would call them. Daisy’s charisma, confidence, and beauty captivated me and, like Gatsby, I easily forgave her for her sins. Rereading the novel as an adult, my previous fondness for Daisy returned, along with a renewed appreciation for the complexity of her character.

After examining some of the on-line commentary about The Great Gatsby, I discovered that many critics do not share my opinion and condemn Daisy for her selfish actions and shallow heart. This criticism perpetuates the belief that Daisy represents the upper class wastefulness Thorstein Veblen railed against in his seminal work The Theory of the Leisure Class [1]. As more students look to The Great Gatsby to help them understand white society and culture in the first few decades of the twentieth century, it is imperative that scholars reassess their analysis of Daisy Buchanan to avoid turning her into a stereotype and to develop a more nuanced understanding of her.

Photo by Gareth Davidson, June 17, 2006. Wikimedia Commons.

The name Fitzgerald chose for his female lead provides strong insights into his characterization of her. Daisies are simple, beautiful flowers that have yellow centers surrounded by white petals. The color white traditionally symbolizes innocence and purity. It is a color frequently associated with Daisy, who is wearing a white dress and driving a white car when she meets Gatsby [2]. Although the color yellow can represent several different things, in the novel it symbolizes destruction and corruption, as best evidenced by Gatsby’s yellow car, which Daisy is driving when she hits and kills Myrtle Wilson [3]. Fitzgerald’s heavy-handed symbolism makes it clear that Daisy’s external charms cover an internal immorality. While a superficial analysis of Daisy often ends with that metaphor, a deeper exploration reveals her admirable self-awareness, sharp survival instincts, and ability to make calculated decisions.

Daisy is not a passive, idle, or mindless consumer of luxury goods and men’s hearts. Instead, she possesses a high degree of social intelligence and understands the consequences of her words and actions. Daisy tends to her reputation with care and does not put herself in situations that will undermine it. By refusing to drink alcohol and disapproving of Gatsby’s wild weekend parties, she demonstrates her desire to control her social situations and her unwillingness to follow the crowd when their whims do not suit her agenda [4].

Daisy also possesses a strong instinct for survival and an ability to thrive in difficult situations. When Daisy must chose between her husband, Tom, and Gatsby, a choice she never intended to have to make, Tom successfully introduces doubts in her mind about the legitimacy of Gatsby’s wealth. During the same conversation, as Gatsby implores Daisy to tell Tom that she never loved him, she realizes that Gatsby only loves the idealized image of her that he constructed in his mind. Understanding that a relationship with Gatsby would be impossible for personal, economic, and social reasons, Daisy rejects him [5]. I interpret Daisy’s decision to turn her back on Gatsby and stay with her husband not as a passive bending to her husband’s will, but as a calculated decision designed to protect her personal freedom, economic well-being, and social position. When Daisy kills Myrtle Wilson, she and Tom close ranks and flee New York, letting Gatsby take the fall for her crime [6]. This decision, while heartless, is the most practical, self-preserving decision Daisy could have made given the circumstances.

Is Daisy a shrewd manipulator who measures every action against the effect it will have on her pocketbook and reputation? Of course. Does that diminish her appeal? Not a bit! Alternating between charming and heartfelt one moment and superficial and heartless the next, Daisy possesses a rich complexity that makes her as alive and relevant today as she was when the novel was published in 1925. Indeed, it is unsurprising that director Baz Luhrmann is remaking The Great Gatsby for a modern audience. If the popularity of shows such as CBS’s The Good Wife, Showtime’s Nurse Jackie, and ABC Family’s Pretty Little Liars are any indication, there is a market for female protagonists with strong personalities, questionable morality, and personal agency.

[1] Thorstein Veblen, “The Theory of the Leisure Class,” in The American Intellectual Tradition, eds. David A. Hollinger and Charles Capper (New York: Oxford University Press, 1997), 137.

[2] F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby (New York, NY: Scribner, 1925), 79.

[3] Ibid., 147.

[4] Ibid., 82.

[5] Ibid., 142.

[6] Ibid., 152.

11 thoughts on “Pretty Little Liar

  1. I have always had mixed feelings about Daisy. At some moments I see her as sharp and perceptive, while at others she seems flighty and aloof. In a similar way to Gatsby, Daisy also seems constrained by the parameters of elite society. From the standpoint of someone who likes Gatsby, and also “rooted” for their pairing, Daisy can be an easy target. Though Gatsby’s actions were his own, there is a feeling that she drug him towards his downfall. After all, her actions did directly set into action the chain of events leading up to his death. Then to make matters worse she “abandoned” Gatsby and returned to life with the less-than-likeable Tom.

    In other words, Daisy’s actions in survival situations are also episodes where it is often easier than not to place a negative light upon her character. However, I think your post is a noble defense of Daisy and bears strong points in regards to her strength, intelligence, and complexity.

  2. While it’s hard to to like Daisy’s somewhat flighty personality and commitment to her own well-being, I do agree with Matt about her being far from blameless. Although she’s calculating and acts in her own best interest, every time I read the book I flinch when she says that she hopes her daughter will be stupid, living in blissful ignorance. If, as you say Sarah, Daisy is perceptive, and if she’s “survived” this long, I wonder how ignorant she really wants her daughter to be. Personally, I think the statement itself is ignorant. Only people with a highly privileged upbringing are, in my opinion, afforded this blissful ignorance, and that’s only become material goods and living necessities are easily acquired.

  3. Allow me to take this flower analysis a bit further. Flowers are defined by their look and their scent. Daisies have the innocent, sweet look down pat, but they have no fragrance. I learned this useful bit of information when Marc Jacobs released his perfume “Daisy” in 2007. I read a few articles upon the scent’s release where Jacobs talked about how excited he was by the creative possibilities of bestowing a scent upon a flower which inherently had none. Because daisies don’t smell, “Daisy” could be anything he wanted it to be.

    Similarly, I see Fitzgerald’s Daisy as not really having any true essence. Her physical characterization is almost non-existent. I can’t believe this girl turned out to be a brunette. There was so little said about what she actually looked like that I imagined her to be this pale, flaxen-haired wisp of a woman that just kind of fades into herself and her surroundings. Daisy’s personality is likewise pretty bland. How is she “charming”? What are her likes and interests? What does she actually do? What excites her? At least Jordan plays a sport and is actually upfront about her aloof attitude.

    Daisy’s one defining characteristic is this low, husky voice all these men seem to be so disarmed by. Isn’t it funny, then, that for all the breathy murmuring she does, she never really says anything? Her lack of conviction and confused sense of self allow Tom and Gatsby to make her into whatever it is they want her to be. That’s why at the end of the day they both still wanted her. Like Marc Jacobs and his perfume, Tom and Gatsby took creative control over their Daisy to create something that never existed in the first place.

    1. I love your analysis. Thanks for adding the part about Marc Jacob’s Daisy perfume. I hadn’t known about that until you brought it up. I also imagined Daisy as a blond. Although I think we both thought that because of the actresses who have played Daisy on screen.

      What I find most frustrating about Daisy is how distant she is from the reader. She is not present for much of the novel and her point of view is never given. As a result, her motivations are up for interpretation. Where I see a woman whose survival technique is to deliberately allow others to make her into whatever they want her to be, you see a woman with a bland personality who lacks a true essence. At the very least, is it sign of a well-developed, complex character that they inspire both admirers and detractors?

    2. Liv,

      I agree with you. Daisy can be read as a character made by a man for a man’s purpose. In reality, I don’t think she has any agency. She is almost more like a carefully crafted plot device than a woman. By making her so mutable, Fitzgerald was able to use her to drive the plot. She becomes whatever Tom, Gatsby, or the reader wants at any particular time.

      For me, she is a symbol of the uncomfortable boredom of the wealthy. For Gatsby, she is the unattainable holy grail. And, for Sarah she is pretty little liar who is able to get what she wants.

      I can’t wait to see Baz Lurhman’s interpretation of Daisy. He always gives characters that we love and hate such a unique spin. He makes them truly modern and thought provoking.

      I’m a big fan of Baz! (And F. Scott for that matter.) I’m looking forward to it.

      1. I agree about her lack of agency. As I read it, Daisy exacts little control on her own life and instead seems to be a simpering victim of upper class femininity. She is easily swayed by the men in her life – both Tom and Gatsby – and ultimately defers to them. For example, after she hit Myrtle, Gatsby took over and got them off the road and out of sight while Tom crafted their escape from Long Island. Daisy must be taken care of, as she doesn’t have the wherewithal to take care of herself.

  4. Yep, Daisy’s a shrewd, manipulative, self-aware, superficial, heartless survivor. For Daisy, the ends to justify the means. This Machiavellian philosophy is troubling, because it brings in the question of morality. Morality (and judgment) is an implicit theme throughout the book, suggested by the eyes of Dr. T.J. Eckleburg. Can we, should we judge Daisy according to moral standards? And whose standards can we judge her against? Her contemporary society? Our contemporary society? Dr. Eckleburg’s? Fitzgerald’s?

    1. That is a good question, because it seems that most of the revulsion directed at Daisy is of a moral sort. While her actions may be understandable, I find it hard to excuse them. I think Daisy’s main failing is a failing of empathy. Sure, she understands other people’s worldviews, but only in the sense that she is able to manipulate them. She does not seem to consider that other people might have feelings and interests that are just as legitimate as her own.

  5. After the readings we did about hipsters, I think I might consider Daisy as a pre-hipster hipster. She has this fascination with “slumming it.” She is so bored with her own life and situation that she finds a perverse pleasure in going to the city and mingling with those below her. This is similar to the way a hipster gets off from being like the “real” people below them.

    Daisy’s psychology resembles that of the trust fund hipster. She strives to escape the boredom of privilege. She is always looking for the next thrill that will just make her feel something. Once she goes too far she falls back into the embrace of privilege. Like many hipsters, she dances with danger, but returns to the safety of her place in society. She knows it is always there to catch her.

  6. Daisy. I think everyone has made great points about her character. I started reading Sarah’s blog, intending to bash Daisy, but upon reading your defense I had to retreat and regroup. My perception of Daisy is similar to Matt in that she has glimpses of light and brightness then shrewd wilting moments, similar to her name sake. This wilting usually occurs around Tom (whom I loathe). I saw Daisy more through the lense of her marriage to Tom then as Gatsby’s lover. I saw her as more of a woman attempting to gain some sense of courage and self possession in light of a bad marriage. I found that Tom’s treatment of her made me sympathize with her more. I loved that in her youth she was a young, fiesty free spirit that had the guys running, but I balked when she got married to Tom after learning about Gatsby on her wedding day! I could forgive this however since she was young and unsure of her future with Gatsby at the time.

    But I could not forgive her going back to Tom after the scene with Gatsby and Tom in the hotel. I wanted to smack both Tom and Gatsby for treating Daisy like she wasn’t in the room during that fight and I would have smacked Daisy for staying in the room. Both men treat Daisy like and object and both men revealed the condition of their time: That white male power and paternalism is nothing without an object to exert that paternalism on. I wanted to laugh when Tom lost his cool when Daisy said she loved Gatsby, but I was equally affronted by Gatsby’s smugness as the power shifted to his court. I read this power play and wanted to scream at both me.

    So, my ultimate view is similar to Nicks observation at the beginning of the book: Daisy should have taken that baby and left the house. She could have gone back home she could have gone to Nick’s house! He’s her cousin! I know that this is the modern independent woman in me talking and putting my impressions on a 1920s female character, but hey, even the Vanderbilts got divorced back in the day. I think Daisy should have packed her stuff and left both Tom and Gatsby. The book would have been over but I probably would have had a lot more respect for her if she did.

    1. I have to agree with you in regards to the power struggle between Tom and Gatsby. It was disheartening as a female reader from the 21st century to watch as Daisy swayed back and forth (as if caught by a changes in the wind) between her husband and the man from her past (which she knew he would destroy her reputation and status).

      But Daisy is certainly more complex than that. In the very beginning of the book she appears almost childlike with her “witty” comments and mumbling, but she hints only when she is alone with Nick what her true thoughts and motives are. She is a woman who sees what she could be (even dreams briefly), and remains bitter to the fact of her current status of affairs. But she is a realist when it comes down to it. Happiness is not as concrete of an ideal as her life with Tom.

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