The Great Gatsby was written before gay liberation, a time when homosexuality was not only condemned socially, but was actually illegal througout most of the United States. Authors of literary works during this period had to be careful about portraying homosexuality in a way that didn't conform to these prevailing attitudes, yet with Nick Carraway, Fitzgerald took a step outside that box.
The controversial scene takes place at the end of chapter two, where Carraway ends up in McKee' s bedroom after a night of partying with Tom Buchanan and his mistress. McKee leaves his wife behind and Carraway leaves his assigned "date," Catherine, and they go down together in an elevator. Here are the relevant passages.
(p.30) Mr. McKee was a pale, feminine man from the flat below. He had just shaved, for there was a white spot of lather on his cheekbone, and he was most respectful in his greeting to everyone in the room. He informed me that he was in the "artistic game," and I gathered later that he was a photographer and had made the dim enlargement of Mrs. Wilson's mother which hovered like an ectoplasm on the wall. His wife was shrill, languid, handsome and horrible.
...(p.36) Mr. McKee was asleep on a chair with his fists clenched in his lap, like a photograph of a man of action. Taking out my handkerchief I wiped from his cheek the remains of the spot of dried lather that had worried me all the afternoon.
...(pp.37-38) Mr. McKee awoke from his doze and started in a daze toward the door. When he had gone halfway he turned around and stared at the scene--his wife and Catherine scolding and consoling as they stumbled here and there among the crowded furniture with articles of aid, and the despairing figure on the couch, bleeding fluently, and trying to spread a copy of Town Tattleover the tapestry scenes of Versailles. 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.
"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,...
A) McKee is regarded by Nick as "feminine."
B) Nick is attracted enough to this feminine man to feel comfortable wiping a spot of shaving cream off his face while McKee is asleep.
C) Around ten-thirty McKee gets up to go, leaving his wife behind, and Nick follows him.
D) In the elevator, with his hand touching a phallic symbol, the elevator control handle, McKee invites Nick to lunch "some day."
E) Within minutesNick is standing beside McKee's bed. Whether or not Nick is clothed is unclear but the feminine photographer McKee is between the sheets in his underwear holding a portfolio, presumably of his photographs.
F) Three hours later, Nick is in the station waiting for the four o'clock train.
On the face of it, a connection was made in the elevator with coded language and Nick never made it out of the building until after three o'clock in the morning. Fitzgerald's use of elipses (...) allows readers to fill in those gaps using their imagination.
In rebuttal to the "McKee was soused and Nick was helping him get home safely" argument, there is scant evidence that McKee was heavily intoxicated--no staggering, no vomiting, no slurred word. Indeed, McKee's slurred words come only after he's in bed reading titles from his portfolio, "Brook'n Bridge." And in any event, it doesn't take three hours to see someone safely home when his apartment is on the next floor.
Anyone who has ridden in one of these old elevators knows that it is almost impossible to get near the lever because the operator stands right next to it, typically with his/er hand on the lever. This is the operator's workstation.
(For those who have not seen one, here's a link to some images, only a few of which are familiar to me: https://www.google.com/search?q=elevator+lever&source=lnms&tbm=isch&sa=X...)
Here's my experience: protruding from the wall to one side of the door was a thick polished bronze 10-inch diameter spring-loaded disk with a matching lever extending out 8 inches at 90-degrees. Moving the lever down and right or left would send the elevator up or down. Releasing the lever from either down position would cause it to spring back to the 12-o'clock position. The size and shape of the lever was very similar to an uncircumsized penis.
For anyone other than the operator to have access to the lever, the operator would have to be out of position, which would normally only happen when he/she was opening or closing the door or assisting someone, e.g., with baggage. Otherwise the operator was supposed to at all times protect the lever to avoid accidents. Even when opening the door, the operator's free hand would be on the lever.
A passenger touching the lever would not be a subtle move. It's a big deal. Anyone growing up or living in the city knew it was forbidden; so for McKee to do so likely meant he was intent on being noticed, a daring move unless he was totally snockered. (Which there is no evidence was the case.) Possibly he was sexually aroused by Nick's intimate gesture of wiping the spot of shaving cream off his cheek while he was dozing.
Does it mean Nick was gay? Not necessarily. But it could easily suggest that Fitzgerald wanted us to suspect something was going on without being blatant about it. He was using a minimum of signals to deftly get that across while preserving plausible deniability.
FSF: "Who, me? Write a scene with homosexual content? Why, you're imagining things!"
We must ask ourselves why the author would waste so much ink on a nebulous scene that means nothing unless it did in fact mean <i><u>something</u></i>. He could have ended the chapter with Nick leaving the party and started the next chapter the following day or week or whatever. Why follow him four or five hours into the elevator, into McKee's apartment and then onto a bench at the train station?
Like Wolfsheim's human tooth cuff links, the scene serves no purpose other than urban setting or character development. Perhaps he wanted to give Nick a bit more depth, tweak our curiosity about our otherwise bland narrator.
Maybe Fitzgerald just wanted to play with us a bit, givning us only enough to tantalize. What we do with what he gave us in this McKee sequence is a matter of personal perception. You can take it one way or not. Maybe he was just toying with us because he's brilliant enough to want to flaunt his talent. Whatever, it was a gutsy literary move for his time .
Nick does seem to prefer men. He didn't like his date at the McKee/Buchanan/Wilson party. He seems almost ambivalent toward Jordan, whom Daisy pushed on him. He describes some women at the party (drunken wives, tipsy air-headed twins, etc.) with near derision, whereas he seems almost infatuated with Gatsby and his extensive wardrobe and admires Tom's physique.
The descriptions of Tom Buchanan and Jay Gatsby glow with admiration, but not so much when describing Daisy Buchanan, Jordan Baker and Myrtle, Tom's mistress.
Daisy: I looked back at my cousin, who began to ask me questions in her low, thrilling voice. It was the kind of voice that the ear follows up and down, as if each speech is an arrangement of notes that will never be played again. Her face was sad and lovely with bright things in it, bright eyes and a bright passionate mouth, but there was an excitement in her voice that men who had cared for her found difficult to forget: a singing compulsion, a whispered “Listen,” a promise that she had done gay, exciting things just a while since and that there were gay, exciting things hovering in the next hour.
So Daisy had a nice voice and a bright passionate mouth.
Jordan: I enjoyed looking at her. She was a slender, small-breasted girl, with an erect carriage, which she accentuated by throwing her body backward at the shoulders like a young cadet. Her gray sun-strained eyes looked back at me with polite reciprocal curiosity out of a wan, charming, disconcerted face.
Nick dates Jordan extensively, but we never hear about how he's turned on by her.
Myrtle: She was in the middle thirties, and faintly stout, but she carried her surplus flesh sensuously as some women can. Her face, above a spotted dress of dark blue crêpe-de-chine, contained no facet or gleam of beauty, but there was an immediately perceptible vitality about her as if the nerves of her body were continually smouldering.
Myrtle's description is equally brief and dry to that of Jordan.
Tom: He had changed since his New Haven years. Now he was a sturdy straw-haired man of thirty with a rather hard mouth and a supercilious manner. Two shining arrogant eyes had established dominance over his face and gave him the appearance of always leaning aggressively forward. Not even the effeminate swank of his riding boots could hide the enormous power of that body—he seemed to fill those glistening boots until he strained the top lacing, and you could see a great pack of muscle shifting when his shoulder moved under his thin coat. It was a body capable of enormous leverage—a cruel body.
Tom's description pulses with sexual energy.
Gatsby: He smiled understandingly—much more than understandingly. It was one of those rare smiles with a quality of eternal reassurance in it, that you might come across four or five times in your life. It faced—or seemed to face—the whole external world for an instant, and then concentrated on you with an irresistible prejudice in your favor. It understood you just as far as you wanted to be understood, believed in you as you would like to believe in yourself, and assured you that it had precisely the impression of you that, at your best, you hoped to convey.
Nick seems swept away by Gatsby.
True, it's a cirumstantial case, but Fitzgerald has put forth little effort to establish Nick as purely a straight male. He went to a party where he maybe could have bonked a pretty girl but ended up in a feminine man's bedroom. Makes you wonder, doesn't it?
I suspect, based on what I've read in his short stories and two of his novels, that Fitzgerald either had homosexual/bisexual tendencies or interests or he wanted to give recognition to that dimension of humanity for the sake of realism, but he wanted to do so without sacrificing sales or risking condemnation. I suspect it was the latter. He was a brilliant man who would have scoffed at pedestrian conventionality and prudishness but not at losing money. Hence he would have tread a fine line.
Hemingway did something similar in Hills Like White Elephants with the tabu topic of abortion. No one can prove Nick was gay. No one can prove Hemingway was promoting abortion. Only the authors know what they were talking about.
Does it really matter? It matters if the author makes it an issue by writing a scene that can be widely interpreted as homoerotic. The reader asks him/erself, "what's he getting at?" There was a point the writer was making or he wouldn't have written the scene.
Given the prevailing attitudes toward homosexuality at the time the book was published, it was a risky thing to do for an author seeking a place in literary history.
It could be that Scott Fitzgerald had an interest in homosexuality as a social phenomenon and felt it added realism to show a bit of sexual ambiguity. In his next novel, Tender is the Night, he has a lengthy passage concerning a young homosexual male from Chile who's come to the lead male, Dr. Diver, a psychiatrist, for treatment of his "abnormality." There's about three pages devoted to this characters' "problem," but it's also a throwaway passage having nothing to do with plot.
Fitzgerald put the seqence in for a reason; so we have to deal with it. I think it added realism and sheds light on the prevailing attitudes toward homosexuality.
Causes Monty Heying Supports