[Myrtle] 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.
Nick’s first impression of Myrtle Wilson, recounted in Chapter 2, emphasizes a sense of “vitality” emanating from her physical presence. Despite not being a particularly beautiful woman, Myrtle possesses a liveliness and energy that proves captivating. In contrast with Daisy, who describes herself as “paralyzed,” the first time she sees Nick, and Jordan, who has a “hard” body, Myrtle is irrepressibly alive. Yet Nick’s description of her is hardly flattering, suggesting he finds something vulgar in her inability to disguise her “vitality.” In this sense, Nick’s first impression of Myrtle highlights the significant class difference between her and Tom.
Mrs. Wilson had changed her costume some time before, and was now attired in an elaborate afternoon dress of cream-colored chiffon, which gave out a continual rustle as she swept about the room. With the influence of the dress her personality had also undergone a change. The intense vitality that had been so remarkable in the garage was converted into impressive hauteur.
Although Nick describes Myrtle in terms that mark her as part of the working-class, she clearly possesses some items of expensive clothing (likely purchased by Tom) that indicate her upward mobility. In Chapter 2, Nick recounts how by changing her dress Myrtle transforms from a poor garage owner’s wife to a wealthy man’s mistress. A significant change in behavior accompanies the change in her appearance. What he had previously perceived as a working-class “vitality” Nick now sees as an upper-class “hauteur”—that is, a form of disdainful pride.
“I told that boy about the ice.” Myrtle raised her eyebrows in despair at the shiftlessness of the lower orders. “These people! You have to keep after them all the time.”
The “hauteur” Nick initially detects in Myrtle after she changes into an expensive dress shows itself more fully when she complains about servants in Chapter 2. By this point, Myrtle, Tom, and Nick are at the Buchanans’ apartment in the city. Myrtle seems exasperated with a member of the hospitality service (“that boy”) who has apparently forgotten to bring her ice. The disdainful attitude toward servants is, for Myrtle, an affect, and a clear sign of her desire to act the part of Tom’s social peer.
“I married [George] because I thought he was a gentleman,” she said finally. “I thought he knew something about breeding, but he wasn’t fit to lick my shoe.”
Once Myrtle, Tom, and Nick are away in the city in Chapter 2, Myrtle feels able to speak freely about her disastrous marriage to George Wilson. Here she insists she married the man based on a misunderstanding. Myrtle imagined that George shared her obsession with upward mobility and that he possessed the necessary refinement to improve their lives. Evidently, however, George did not live up to Myrtle’s expectations, and she, imagining herself far superior, claims that “he wasn’t fit to lick [her] shoe.”