Gender Power Dymanics Traced in Two Novels


Throughout The Rise of Silas Lapham and The Great Gatsby we have strong themes regarding gender both the way the male and female is depicted in these two novels. Woman morph drastically while men continue in this hunt for success, greatness, and status. The curious thing to remember is that these novels are brought to us at different times so the way women are portrayed is drastically different in the two novels. In The Rise of Silas Lapham, the ideal woman is what is desirable at the current times. To stay and tend the house and the child, to not really have a thought of your own, these are traits of the “Ideal Woman”. Irene Lapham has mastered the traits and even cleans up the house when stressed, solidifying her role as “ideal” along with her behavior and most important the way her mind appears to work through interactions with Tom Corey and the nonchalant way she acts but really she is in this dreamy fairy tale in her mind over silly things such a a newspaper that was not actually sent to her. She behaves irrationally and this shows the woman of the 19th century quite clearly.
However, we have an exception in Penelope Lapham who gives a glimpse of the New Woman, found to be better traced later in The Great Gatsby. She is not understood nor accepted at this time in literature by other characters or the world as we know it. She is strongly the opposite of her sister because she displays her views clearly. She reads and articulates her position on things in a witty manner that is found quite charming similar to or even better in some instances than the ladies of The Great Gatsby. She is strong and sticks to her guns, something I value and appreciate. I see a lot of Pen in myself and it makes me smile knowing that a character has the ability to drastically change the course of a novel, without drastically changing who she is. Penelope is ahead of her time, a trailblazer. So this New Woman, who is she and what does she do compared to the Ideal woman of the 19th century?
Well, Daisy Buchanan and Jordan Baker are two new women. They have opinions about everything under the sun. They do not have to stay in the house and raise children, as women in Silas Lapham were expected to do. In fact, a nurse takes care of Daisy’s daughter, and the women are free to come and go as they please. Scandalous! Jordan is not married and it is not made a big deal in the book at all. It is almost surreal the amount of power they have over their own destiny compared with those woman in Silas Lapham who seem doomed to a fate worse than death- a life without freedom. One curious similarity is that in the upper crust for example the Lapham sisters and Jordan and Daisy sit around doing nothing. They still aren’t accepted to be productive and have a job and contribute which is ironic. The men still hold much of the power although that changes a bit in The Great Gatsby.
It is found that one cannot discuss gender especially the male gender without comparing class as well. Silas Lapham and Jay Gatsby both curiously come from new money. Silas works very hard to build his paint company up from nothing but does not hide his past. Silas is not an actor or performer because he has no desire to hide things and wants to be someone just become a man of status. Although he has the money, more in fact then the Coreys do, he does not have that status nor does he know how to behave in order to reach that status. Old clothes and gaudy paintings are among the items purchased by Silas and his family. Gatsby however, has it figured out down to the tiniest detail. The irony is that Silas has a wife and two children to help him but since they do not know how to act or perform in this upper crust it all eventually collapses. It collapses for Mr. Gatsby as well but for different reasons…
Gatsby is a master of the act or performance of a man of status. Sure, people have all sorts of opinions of him but that is true of the Laphams as well. The Coreys have a questionable opinion of them as well. Back on Gatsby, there is this magnificent house he owns where lavish parties are thrown and people who do not even get a invitation come to bask in the glory that is these parties, experiences where you yourself can put on a performance. His library is real, although never used it is created in such a way that everybody notices, this Gatsby is a man of class. He wears pink suits and drives extremely flashy cars. He pulls it off in a way that Silas Lapham never could. The secret, he has been performing since he was a child, almost preparing for this moment. He has been preparing for being everyone except his real self for so long that it is felt that his real self is lost in translation somehow. Silas was a poor country boy who with a little luck and a lot of elbow grease became rich. He does not act, but rules through shady business practices and a rival paint company that destroy him. So, what can be said about the male race? Well, they are in a constant hunt to be ahead to attain status. The goal is to be somebody but more important to have others believe that you are somebody of value to society. Gatsby achieves that, but the goal behind his performance never comes into fruition. As a man in either novel, you must present a good example for those around and provide for your family. Perhaps Gatsby’s ultimate performance was not one single person really knew him 100%, not even his own father. If he had stopped this delusion he could have lived a happier life and attained a wife and children. He just had to want what he couldn’t have. That was his downfall. In terms of gender, the men in these two novels are extremely opinionated and headstrong. It is the downfall of Silas and Gatsby to be so stubborn. The man must however, protect his nestegg. That is what they tried in vain to do.