Myrtle Wilson: For Love or Money

I have to admit, while reading F. Scott Fitzgerald’s, The Great Gatsby, the character of Myrtle Wilson made my stomach turn a bit. Although I saw the 1974 film adaptation of the book a few years ago, the most memorable scenes for me included Myrtle. In the film and the novel, she can be seen flying off the handle, stumbling around like a lunatic, or screaming at either her husband George Wilson or her lover, Tom Buchanan. Digging a bit deeper into her character, I came to the conclusion that in using men to define herself and her value, Myrtle chose money over love.

As a 21st century-female, I am immediately turned off by the thought of a woman who defines herself by men. In the case of Myrtle Wilson, she struggled to redefine herself and her class, and escape a marriage that she believed did not reflect her place within the social hierarchy. In the novel, Myrtle is married to George Wilson, a financially unstable gas station owner and mechanic in the Valley of the Ashes. She tells her sister that although she was “crazy for him” when she met him, she did not know that he was not a “gentleman”. [1] She is disgusted by the fact that he had to borrow a suit for the wedding. When Myrtle talks about the first time she met Tom Buchanan, a married man from established wealth, she  also describes him in terms of his clothing. “He had on a dress suit and patent leather shoes, and I couldn’t keep my eyes off of him.” [2]  Despite the fact that Tom physically abuses her (cue the dramatically overacted, but memorable scene from the movie when Tom hits her after she repeatedly shouts Daisy’s name), Myrtle still sees him as the husband that she deserves. Poor George Wilson seems to really love Myrtle, while Tom treats her merely as an object of desire.

Photo by Christine Matthews, September 5, 2004. Wikimedia Commons

With George, she will never escape her dirty, impoverished, working-class existence. With Tom, Myrtle has access to luxury goods and high-status items that she feels reflect her proper place in society. To facilitate the affair, Tom rents an apartment for Myrtle, which she overfills with tapestried furniture depicting scenes of Versailles and gossip magazines. When in the apartment, Myrtle also changes in to an expensive cream-colored chiffon dress. When asked about her clothing change, she replies “Its just a crazy old thing. I just slip it on sometimes when I don’t care what I look like.” [3] Clearly, Myrtle equates the her social standing with the visible display of the goods she can acquire through her relationship with Tom.

In Thorstein Veblen’s The Theory of the Leisure Class, he describes this need to show off to peers as part of the characteristics of the leisure class and conspicuous consumption. He says that in order to gain and hold the esteem of others, it is not sufficient to merely have the wealth and power. The wealth or power held needs to be put into evidence, or seen, for esteem to be awarded for possessing these things. [4]Myrtle invites friends to the apartment to show off her luxury goods, constantly talks of acquiring more things, and even says that she has to make a list so she won’t forget all the things that she wants to buy. When asked about the dress, she gives the classic “This old thing?” response, saying she wears it when she doesn’t care what she looks like.

Did Myrtle really value the wealth that Tom could give her over the love she may have once had for George? If you’ve read The Great Gatsby, this theme also comes up when it is revealed that although Daisy loved Gatsby in their youth, she did not marry him because of his lack of money. Also, why did Myrtle seem to think she was entitled to a wealthier husband, and that she had been tricked by George? She seemed to believe that she deserved more than George was capable of offering. We never get the answer to these questions, as Myrtle is struck and killed by Daisy, driving Gatsby’s yellow Rolls Royce, when she runs out in the street thinking that she has seen Tom with another woman.

So, in making the choice of love or money, Myrtle Wilson chose money, which didn’t work out so well for her.

 

 

 

 

 

 

[1] F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby (New York, NY: Scribner, 1925), 19.

[2] F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby (New York, NY: Scribner, 1925), 16.

[3] F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby (New York, NY: Scribner, 1925), 19.

[4] 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.

9 thoughts on “Myrtle Wilson: For Love or Money

  1. The Great Gatsby clearly illustrates the fact that choosing money over love does not always lead to profitable consequences. And yet, I find it rather odd that although this theme is brought up through multiple characters in this novel and in a number of other pieces of literature throughout history, we as Americans seem to still be polarized on the subject. People who claim to marry or date for love are said to be living in the clouds and out of touch with reality, while people who marry for wealth are gold diggers! Is there a happy medium?

    1. I mean, I guess the medium would be marrying someone rich that you also love? I have been wondering if this dichotomy springs from the idea of women choosing who to marry more in modern times, giving the idea that a woman who marries above her “station” is only doing so for money, but if she falls in love with someone below her station , she is considered foolish.

  2. Love over money? Unfortunately, history doesn’t often tell the greatest love stories. While Myrtle is a poor representation of women overall, her situation is the most interesting in the book. As a women who has unfulfilled expectations in her marriage, she looks elsewhere to achieve what she wants. Her husband loves her dearly, but that isn’t what she is looking for. If those are someone’s needs in a relationship, why is she faulted? While her characterization is extreme ( over emotional portrayals of women are so annoying), why isn’t she allowed to want social status in her life and do everything she can to achieve it? Women at the time couldn’t climb the ladder ( like the Great Gatsby did), so she built her own ladder and climbed on up.

  3. My heart most went out to George Wilson in this story – he is the only one who I felt loved completely, openly and without restriction. He was true to himself and seemed to give absolutely everything he had to try to make their life the best that he could. I in no way feel sorry for Myrtle – she was completely selfish and did everything she could to use everyone she had access to in her life. The same goes for Tom and Daisy. They all seemed to just be worried about their own “needs” and wants and never stopped to think about anyone else. I was most impressed with them as characters when they were surprisingly honest and straight-forward with each other in the hotel room – that was one of the only times in the story that they became more than merely characterizations of annoying and selfish children to me.

  4. Ours is not a history based on couplings of romantic love. This is a relatively new phenomenon in our society. Strong economic and strategic matches have always been the reality of marriage, not love. We tend to forget that part of our past as it is so much more fun to be a “romantic,” but the reality is that history tells a different story.

  5. Is there a difference between Myrtle and Daisy? Not really.
    The only difference I see is their economic background. Similar to Myrtle, Daisy was quick to marvel over Gatsby’s material possessions (upon their reunion). In fact, I’m convinced that Daisy was willing to leave Tom because she believed that Gatsby was better off. Daisy seemed to want Gatsby because of his economic power. Let’s not forget that Daisy gawked over Gatsby’s home, and she almost lost her mind when Gatsby displayed his wardrobe. In response to viewing Gatsby’s shirt collection she “began to cry stormily,” and she comments: “It makes me sad because I’ve never seen such–such beautiful shirts before.” (93-94)

    To me, Myrtle used the resources available to her to get what she wanted. Daisy did the same thing. The only difference was the tool they used to obtain what they wanted. (In Daisy’s case, she used her looks and that darn voice of hers.)

  6. To take the cynical view of the situation (shocking, I know), is there a difference between choosing someone for love or choosing them for money? Both provide personal affirmation: love from one’s partner, money from society. I mean, is not love the greatest greed of all, demanding all of a person for oneself and no other? To quote Comissar Danilov from “Enemy at the Gates,”

    “I’ve been such a fool, Vassili. Man will always be a man. There is no new man. We tried so hard to create a society that was equal, where there’d be nothing to envy your neighbour. But there’s always something to envy. A smile, a friendship, something you don’t have and want to appropriate. In this world, even a Soviet one, there will always be rich and poor. Rich in gifts, poor in gifts. Rich in love, poor in love.”

    Who better than a communist to comment on the nature of greed and envy?

  7. In light of the Luhrman movie, I offer this:

    Thank you for not posting a Duesenberg as Gatsby’s car; however, you’ve chosen the Rolls-Royce Phantom rather than Gatsby’s (likely) 1922 Rolls-Royce Springfield Silver Ghost, which matters not at all except that this particular car would still have been right-hand drive, thus partially explaining why Daisy (though textual evidence might suggest Gatsby at the wheel), confused and upset after the confrontation at the Plaza, would first swerve to miss Myrtle, swerve again to miss the NYC-bound car, and then over-correct, only to hit and kill Myrtle.

    Ironically, Myrtie’s death reveals her as the only truly honest person among the lot: She knows what she wants, she knows what she needs, and she takes action to get it. Her attempt to escape the Valley of Ashes, however misguided, requires that she pursue these goals to the very end. … not at all unlike Gatsby. But while Myrtle moves actively toward her future death, Gatsby dies in the pool before ‘the phone call that never comes,’ passively awaiting his.

    NIck’s notice of Myrtle’s sensuality, along with Tom’s choice of Myrtle as his mistress, signals Myrtle as the one person who, however crass, however poor, both Nick and Tom, from their radically different-though-similar philosophies, can envision as the personification of their sublimated desire for grounded reality. Myrtle may well be a radical feminist, but that matters less than knowing she must achieve her goals within society’s label of her as a chippy. That her honesty does not result in her survival, while Daisy’s and Tom’s cruel money-cushioned carelessness allows them to thoughtlessly dismiss their complicity in the death of another, suggests the deep irony of Fitzgerald’s novel: The rich run free… of every constraint except an internal morality– which, if they do not already have it, they cannot acquire.

    Has Nick?

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