Passing for White in THE GREAT GATSBY: A Spectroscopic Analysis of Jordan Baker

Passing for White in THE GREAT GATSBY: A Spectroscopic Analysis of Jordan Baker

The Explicator
Volume 76, 2018 – Issue 3
Published online: 2018-11-27
DOI: 10.1080/00144940.2018.1489769

Tom Phillips
New York, New York

“Jordan’s fingers, powdered white over their tan, rested for a moment in mine.”

Early in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, narrator Nick Carraway offers the view that personality is “an unbroken series of successful gestures” (6), an extended performance. Nick’s paramour, the racy golfer Jordan Baker, would certainly agree. She is glamorous and opaque, her “pleasant contemptuous expression” (23) so polished it deflects interpretation and critical analysis. However, a close reading focused on Fitzgerald’s descriptions of Baker indicates she can be seen as central to the novel’s concern with identity. Amid the sexual and racial upheavals of the 1920s, she may be Gatsby’s most successful imposter—a light-skinned, mixed-race person “passing for white.”

Such suspicions were directed at Gatsby himself by Carlyle V. Thompson in a 2000 essay, “Was Gatsby Black?”—an argument quickly dismissed for insufficient textual evidence (Manus). In Jordan’s case evidence runs throughout the text, obscured by her proximity to Gatsby and Daisy, and Fitzgerald’s deceptive style, in which significant detail can “pass” as merely decorative.

Twentieth-century critics typically wrote Baker off as an enigma; Lionel Trilling found her “vaguely guilty, vaguely homosexual” (243). In this century, Maggie Froehlich has taken a closer look. Building on Edward Wasiolek’s case that Nick is a careful homosexual, she concludes that Jordan is one too—that the bond between them is a dissent from sexual norms (Froehlich 83ff; Wasiolek 14-22). This is a reasonable reading; the “hard demands of her Jaunty body” (63) may well go beyond her cool affair with Nick. However, an accumulation of detail marks her also as a person of color, presenting herself as white. In Nella Larsen’s 1929 novel Passing, a lead character describes it as a “frightfully easy thing to do … If one’s the type, all that’s needed is a little nerve” (15). The “type” in this context clearly refers to complexion.

In at least eight passages, Fitzgerald touches on Baker’s complexion; no one else’s skin is mentioned, save one reference to Gatsby as “suntanned” (54). In a novel of “spectroscopic gayety” (49) she occupies an arc of color from yellow…

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