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Crazy, crazy Tom and Daisy.

February 18, 2008, 2:43 pm

Okay, the NYT article on a “bizarre literary reading” of The Great Gatsby gives me an opportunity to air my own pet and possibly bizarre reading thereof. I’ve asked around and nobody seems to think it’s either been done or is entirely non-credible. I now throw myself on the mercy of the Internets, asking “Isn’t Tom Buchanan afraid that Daisy has black ancestry?”

I think he is. People act funny at first when I say this because Mia Farrow played Daisy and Mia Farrow is blonde. And isn’t Daisy blonde? No, she’s not: when she gets caught in the rain, “A damp streak of hair lay like a dash of blue paint across her cheek,” and when we read in flashback about Gatsby and Daisy, we hear that “he kissed her dark shining hair.”1

We know that Tom is surprisingly tangled up in the subject of racism—which is to say, it’s surprising that he’s been researching it: “the fact that he ‘had some woman in New York’ was really less surprising than that he had been depressed by a book.” What book? Tom:

“Have you read ‘The Rise of the Coloured Empires’ by this man Goddard?”
“Why, no,” I answered, rather surprised by his tone.
“Well, it’s a fine book, and everybody ought to read it. The idea is if we don’t look out the white race will be—will be utterly submerged.”

Which is to say, he’s been reading this book, and others like it. Because he’s worried, that the wrong kind of people will be—will be getting in where they don’t belong, on top of the white man. Tom again:

“This idea is that we’re Nordics. I am, and you are and you are and—” After an infinitesimal hesitation he included Daisy with a slight nod and she winked at me again.

Oh, that hesitation, before including Daisy. I think it signifies. And so does that wink. The wink that mocks. Because Daisy knows and understands. And so does Jordan, who refers to their mutual youth [correction thanks to jms] It happens again when Daisy talks about growing up with Jordan Baker in “Louisville. Our white girlhood was passed together there. Our beautiful white—” and she stops, because Tom interrupts her. Because he understands, and will have no joking about whiteness. It’s serious business. And there’s some reason to question Daisy’s inclusion in it. It makes Daisy and Jordan laugh. But it makes him nervous.

I don’t see how you can read that any other way. I’m sure someone has already written this up. Please tell me who.


1Also, yes, Daisy says their daughter, “Pammy,” has “old yellowy hair” and that “She’s got my hair[.]” I say a few things about that. (1) Daisy’s a less-reliable narrator than Nick, and if Nick says Daisy has dark hair—black hair, in fact, like blue paint—then I believe Nick; (2) “old yellowy” isn’t exactly “blonde,” more like a mix between lighter and darker hair and the hair could be “my hair” in that way of maternal claiming and denial; (3) it could be “my hair” for texture and curl, rather than color.

UPDATED to add and of course I know there are blonde people with black ancestry; I’m only relating how the conversation usually goes.

UPDATED FURTHER in response to comments, to add as per comment below:

Okay, just to clarify this a bit, this is about Tom and Daisy Buchanan’s version of this story.

What do we know? We know Tom has been reading racist literature, and we know that this comes as a surprise to Nick. So we’re presumably meant to wonder why he’s been reading up on the threat to the white man—we’re to assume he wasn’t previously absorbed in anti-anarchist literature, let’s say; that this is something new to Tom owing to something that happened to Tom.

What was it that happened to Tom? For my money, it could be one or a combination of a couple of things:

1. Maybe he knows that Daisy had a fling that worried him about her purity. This is not specifically attested in the text, but it’s plausible, given various imputations about Daisy’s character, including her own:

“You see I think everything’s terrible anyhow,” she went on in a convinced way. “Everybody thinks so—the most advanced people. And I KNOW.
“I’ve been everywhere and seen everything and done everything.”
Her eyes flashed around her in a defiant way, rather like Tom’s, and she laughed with thrilling scorn. “Sophisticated—God, I’m sophisticated!”

That “rather like Tom’s” signifies, too—she has it in her to view modern life as a threat to everything good and pure, just as he does.

2. Their daughter troubles him. Not just her appearance, though LB’s quite right to point that out; it could be worrying him. But the fact of her, and what she represents, if Daisy has in fact “done everything.”

Now, these concerns predate Gatsby’s re-entry to their lives, and they shape how he’ll be received by them both—she’ll see him first as a chance to return to her pre-sophisticated life and later as a version of the modern threat; Tom will see him as a version of the modern threat from the get-go.

On balance, it’s possible Daisy represents to Tom merely the conduit through which the modern threat could pass to Tom, but I think it’s at least equally likely, given Jordan’s smart remarks about their “white girlhood” and Tom’s meaningful hesitation about even identifying Daisy as white that there’s some concern on this score.

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