I have problems with the word self sufficiency in the following passage from the first chapter of The Great Gatsby. I was told that it meant "arrogance" or "conceit"; some others say it means "self-confidence"; others that it means "independence". Kathleen Parkinson, in her book Critical Studies: The Great Gatsby, Penguin, sees in it a sort of "strategy of detachment" which "creates an effective contrast with Daisy's bright and passionate mouth and the inner excitement she conveys". She precises that "Jordan's composure and self sufficiency express her determined 'absence of all desire': she has her sexuality well under control and will not give way to impulse". So can we translate "self sufficiency", here, by "detachment", "self-control" or "independence"?
"Almost any exhibition of complete self sufficiency draws a stunned tribute from me."
In trying to figure out the use of "self- sufficiency," perhaps, it might be good to examine some of the preceding lines that describe Jordan Baker in this sequence. As Nick enters the room, he notes what he sees out of Jordan, whom he has never seen before until that moment:
She was extended full length at her end of the divan, completely motionless, and with her chin raised a little, as if she were balancing something on it which was quite likely to fall. If she saw me out of the corner of her eyes she gave no hint of it — indeed, I was almost surprised into murmuring an apology for having disturbed her by coming in.
The last portion of this passage might help us understand Jordan's "self sufficiency." Jordan has this air about her which causes her to tower over others. She is able to exude such confidence that it puts others into a position where they feel the need to bend to her will, to capitulate to her presence. It is for this reason that she "gave no hint" of seeing Nick enter and caused him to consider "murmuring an apology" simply by entering the room in which she lived.
After Daisy's "paralyzed with happiness" comment, Nick goes back to describing Jordan. It is here in which the "self- sufficiency" comment enters into play:
At any rate, Miss Baker’s lips fluttered, she nodded at me almost imperceptibly, and then quickly tipped her head back again — the object she was balancing had obviously tottered a little and given her something of a fright. Again a sort of apology arose to my lips. Almost any exhibition of complete self sufficiency draws a stunned tribute from me.
A couple of things jump out here. The first is that Nick continues describing Jordan as demonstrating such an air of confidence that suffocates everyone out of the room and into submission. Notice the very tense of the last sentence. It is almost as if Nick is saying that he never meets women who have as much confidence or independence, self- sufficiency, as Jordan. This causes him to demonstrate a "stunned tribute" because it is so rare for him to see a woman display such confidence. He use of the present tense in "draws" might be a statement of how he views women who display such independence. In using the present tense, Nick might be suggesting that Jordan's self- confidence and independence are fundamentally different than anything he has seen. This might not be arrogance as much as it is a praising of her independence and sense of self- confidence in being "self- sufficient," not needing the validation of anyone else, and being in total control.
With this, we come back to our original point. Jordan is described as someone who has amazing amounts of independence and confidence in how she is initially described. It seems as if Nick is taken in with Jordan when he first meets her. Therefore, it does not seem as likely that when he uses "self- sufficiency," he means it as a description of her arrogance. Certainly, she does demonstrate arrogance and Nick identifies this as a part of her characterization later on in the text. Yet, he does not seem to be indicating that this is who she is during that initial meeting. The detachment is there, but it is a detachment that might separate her from everyone else and certainly, from the other women that Nick has known in his life. The issue of independence and control over others as part of Jordan's identity is something that Nick identifies in his intial description.
self-sufficiency1.able to supply one's own or its own needs without external assistance: The nation grows enough grain to be self-sufficient.
2.having extreme confidence in one's own resources, powers, etc.: He was self-sufficient, and always reminded you of it. (Random House Dictionary)