“He Gave Her a String of Pearls Valued at Three Hundred and Fifty Thousand Dollars”: Daisy Buchanan’s Pearls in The Great Gatsby

Despite the negative reviews it has collected, I firmly believe there’s something special in the rendition that Baz Luhrmann has given of The Great Gatsby. The 3D movie is the most recent adaptation of the 1925 novel by Francis Scott Fitzgerald, following the 1974 film by Jack Clayton, starring Robert Redford as Gatsby and Mia Farrow as Daisy Buchanan. Here, the two characters are played by Leonardo Di Caprio and Carey Mulligan: with the help a terrific cast they are able to re-create the charming microcosm that the author knew well – the young, rich and beautiful people living in Long Island and New York in the 1920s. The land of possibilities gives birth to one of its most ambitious sons – Jay Gatsby, whose legendary wealth hides a romantic secret which will eventually take him to the grave.

Many scholars have pointed out that Daisy, the central female character, the materialistic, superficial, selfish and charismatic Southern belle whom Gatsby hopelessly falls in love with, is the fictional version of the author’s wife, Zelda Sayre Fitzgerald, a passionate lover of wealth and money and an unfaithful partner herself. Daisy cannot get rid of her old and unhappy family life and start over with Jay because she can’t give up her privileges and can’t accept the accusations of bootlegging and crime that, at a certain point, start surrounding Gatsby. Tom Buchanan, her unfaithful and rude husband, still represents that “old” wealth which means security, in opposition to Gatsby, who seems to come out of nowhere, the symbol of “new” (and changeable) wealth. The way in which Luhrmann portrays Daisy is incredibly charming and Carey Mulligan is so good at conveying an aura of apparent innocence and good-heartedness. White is the colour usually connected to Daisy, the colour of the wild flower of the same name [1]; for example, in the opening scene of the movie Daisy is not visible to the eyes of Nick Carraway, her cousin: she’s lying on a sofa, hidden by white tulle curtains blown in by the wind.

Dresses in white or in powdery colours are a leit-motif, but what really captures her complexity is her pearl jewellery. This has caught my imagination since I first read the novel and tells a lot about her.

20130508_inq_ewgmirror08-aThe most notable pieces of jewellery made of pearls that she wears in the movie are two stunning hand ornaments, worn with a set of diamond rings and the exquisite Savoy headpiece, made of platinum and diamonds. This is a very important scene, because it’s the first time Tom and Daisy take part into one of the famous parties thrown by Gatsby. She’s literally dripping in diamonds (the real ones on her jewellery and the crystals on her nude pink dress). Gatsby shows off his wealth and Daisy seems to do the same; she’s a trophy wife, after all, but seems to feel comfortable in that role.

the-great-gatsby-carey-mulligan-daisy-3Everyone – Tom included – feels the sensual tension between the characters, who are attracted one another like opposite poles. All through the narration, Daisy embodies two contrasting elements – romantic love (or the memory of it and the effort to revive it) and the American dream, that is money and the unique charm that money can give. It’s not a case that Nick describes her voice as “full of money”, perfectly shown by the complex set of jewellery she wears in this scene.

handThese bracelets, made of platinum, freshwater cultured pearls and round brilliant diamonds, are the result of the collaboration between Tiffany & Co. and Catherine Martin, costume designer and producer of the movie. Diamonds design a daisy motif, thus echoing the name of the protagonist. What is special about these bracelets? They’re certainly a precious show-off of Daisy’s social and economic status, but they’re also eccentric as their wearer, the careless eccentricity that only a large wealth can give. I can see an exotic vibe in them, too: they remind me of haath phools, the traditional web-like hand ornaments worn by Indian brides.

daisyThe other piece of jewellery made of pearls which appears in the film and in the novel is a 350,000 dollar pearl necklace, Tom’s wedding gift to Daisy [2]. This scene, presented with a flashback, is one of my favourites of the movie: one day before the wedding, Daisy receives a letter which shocks her; as a reaction, she throws away the precious gift and wants Jordan Baker (her bridesmaid) to give the pearls back to “whoever they belong to.” She’s changed her mind about the wedding, but at the end she decides to marry Tom. The letter was written by Gatsby, who had finally decided to come back into Daisy’s life after the war. Daisy holds on to it as if it were Gatsby himself or the memory of their love: “She took it into the tub with her and squeezed it up into a wet ball, and only let me leave it in the soap-dish when she saw that it was coming to pieces like snow.” I can’t tell you how poetic the image of the wet letter, coming apart as snow flakes, has always been to me. I think the scene was beautifully done – Daisy breaking the necklace into pieces; the pearls scattered on the ground; Daisy in the tub, Jordan and a maid in the background, busy with threading the pearls again.

Last but not least, pearls connect two apparently opposite characters of the story – Daisy and Myrtle Wilson, Tom’s mistress. In the scene where she’s killed by Gatsby’s yellow car (but Daisy is behind the wheel), we can see her crossing the road in an attempt to stop the car she thinks is Tom’s; she’s wearing a robe and a pearl necklace, a present from her lover. After being hit by the car, her corpse is surrounded by flying pearls, which will soon fall on the ground. Pearls scattered in the air and falling on the ground can be found in the Daisy-in-shock scene I’ve just described: they’re a symbol of what money (Tom’s money, to be precise) can’t buy – happiness. Both Daisy and Myrtle are unhappy with their lives and husbands, but don’t do anything to change their own destiny: Daisy stays in her golden cage, while Myrtle ends her life tragically, thrown away as a broken doll. On the other hand, both of them are very materialistic and really care about their lifestyle, so I would say they’re two slightly different sides of the same coin.

All in all, in the refined and hectic world of The Great Gatsby, pearls have the meaning that superstition gives them: they should never be worn by brides and never be given as a present because they are considered bad luck and bring tears, plenty of which Daisy and Myrtle have in common.

[1] I love how the name and the shape of the diamond ornaments are connected to the protagonist. The Leucanthemum vulgare (the scientific name of the ox-eye daisy, a common wild flower) represents Daisy’s romanticism and the impossible desire of living the past again. It’s a symbol of purity, innocence and common love, qualities that Daisy apparently has in part of the narration. On the other hand, it’s the flower used in the Victorian game “He loves me, he loves me not”: Daisy is the metaphorical flower that Gatsby uses to determine if he’s still the object of her affection.

[2] In my mind, that necklace echoed the milky-white, lavish pearls worn by Milly Theale, the protagonist of The Wings of the Dove by Henry James, at the grand party at Palazzo Leporelli (the fictional Venice palace where she lives).

11 comments

  1. Great review, Super! I saw the movie yesterday night and I appreciated it very much, even if I think that the party scenes are too much similar to those shot in Moulin Rouge. Anyway, despite the fact that I found the movie very impressive the novel on the contrary didn’t thrilled me, I was disappointed by the reading of the book.
    Back to the pearls: why they are often give to brides-to-be if they are linked to a superstition? It’s an enigma to me.

    1. I think those party scenes are a trademark of Luhrmann’s cinematic style (in addition to Moulin Rouge, think of Romeo+Juliet). I found them a bit too redundant, but I enjoyed them anyway because I think they were important to emphasize Gatsby’s attitude towards money and the function of those parties for him.

      I disagree on the novel: I read it when I was at university and it impressed me so much. I still believe it’s a masterpiece of American literature, an incredibly complex tale of lost love and dreams.

      Oh, well: the connection pearls=tears is just a superstition; moreover, pearls are so beautiful that it would be a pity not to give them to brides-to-be, right?😉

  2. Il libro rimane uno dei miei preferiti,letto innumerevoli volte,nonostante questo l’adattamento di Luhrmann non mi ha affatto delusa,la perfezione degli ambienti lo sfarzo e i comportamenti senza freni( compreso il modo di guidare) sono molto…autentici,in piú Leo é il miglior Gatsby si potesse scegliere ora ( anche se forse un po’ troppo vecchio…).
    Le perle é sempre meglio comprarle,mai in dono,io ci credo;).
    A.

  3. perle alle spose sì o no? a Rijeka in Croazia (ad un’ora da Trieste) c’è un santuario con una famosa madonna, che protegge gli innamorati con una difficile situazione e che rischiano di non potersi sposare; così sulla statua della madonna sono accumulate tante e tante collane di perle che le spose, dopo essere riuscite a realizzare il loro “sogno d’amore”, portano alla madonna che le ha aiutate. Per cui, perle sì eccome! in un vecchio film su La Belle Otero, che ho avuto la fortuna di vedere, Caroline Otero mostrava alla bimba di una sua amica una sua ricchissima collana di perle. “Quanto costa la collana?” ha chiesto la bambina. E Caroline, rivolta all’amica, le ha detto: cara ma che educazione stai dando a tua figlia??? e rivolta alla piccola: devi sapere tesoro che una signora LA COLLANA LA SCEGLIE SOLTANTO! ” f.to Ombraserena.

  4. Wonderful, wonderful post! The character of Daisy was also based (some say mainly) on his first love – Genevra King, a very wealthy socialite from Chicago. 👌🏻☺️ …Loving your blog…

      1. You know, this post popped up when I clicked on the message telling me you had followed me (thank you). I didn’t read the date unfortunately, even as I started posting a comment… Sorry! 🙏🏼☺️

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