The analysis of the books The Great Gatsby and The Stranger will be presented under the concurrent theme of tragic hero, or absurd hero. The two main characters from each novel will be discussed in this paper; Gatsby and Meursault. With the premise of Camus’ work focusing on the philosophy of the absurd and the notions of Fitzgerald’s doomed romanticism, this paper will coordinate the similarities between these two protagonists.
The character of Jay Gatsby is one of the most fascinating of those in American literature. His persona is one of a self-created socialite – his money came from criminal exploits, and his motivation was the love of a single woman, “Gatsby turned out all right at the end; it is what preyed on Gatsby, what foul dust floated in the wake of his dreams that temporarily closed out my interest in the abortive sorrows and short-winded elations of men.” (Fitzgerald 8). Gatsby is shown throughout the novel as, though dedicated to a seemingly noble pursuit, a man who would stop at no ends to achieve his goal. Yet, his character is seen as sympathetic by the reader. Through his illegal exploits, his dealings with organized crime, and his profiting from the sale of stolen securities, the reader sees Gatsby as a hero – partly because of the narrator, Nick Calloway. This hero worship is not uncommon in a coming of age novel. Although Nick’s initial look at Gatsby is of a hero, since Gatsby seemingly has all the necessary attributes which Nick himself desires such as wealth and fame, Nick begins to realize as the novel unfolds that Gatsby wealth is criminal, that his intentions for riches was stemming from a desire to obtain the attention of Daisy, which in some point of view may come off as desperate but Nick, up until the end of the novel, continues to perceive Gatsby as a hero, since Nick himself is blinded with hope, and hero worship. It is within Gatsby’s character to be overly pleasing to the people whom surrounding him, because of his lack of confidence. This fact alludes to his inner pallor of doom and reiterates the thesis of this paper and the tragic hero.
Why specifically Gatsby is a tragic hero may be seen in his forfeiting nature; he is able by leaps and bounds to adhere to the tiniest instigation of love uttered by Daisy, and yet, reserves no part of himself for his own selfish nature. It is in this all abiding sacrifice that the ridiculous situation which Gatsby has created is known to the reader, and it is through this solo definition that the character of Gatsby and Meursault may be equated. Gatsby’s sense of romanticism, love, and unselfish rituals lend him to the reader, and through Nick’s perception toward the end of the novel, as a rather puny protagonist with no hope of change, and in fact, no desire to change.
Though Gatsby has failings as a moral human, he has dedicated himself, throughout the novel, to a noble pursuit – the love of Daisy Buchanan. Although love is supposed to be a nobel pursuit it is shown through Meursault and Mary and through Gatsby and Daisy, that the relationship of love is in fact a false pretense; the love which so adamantly adorns the countelss novels in libraries does not in fact exist in either of these two novels especially in regards to these two relationships. Love is not the premise for these four; rather it is their conscious failings as human beings in their in-capacity to love which unites the theme of this paper to Fitzgerald and Camus. The absurdity of these situations is that either person is merely pretending their feelings, their thereby their actions and declarations of love. This is supported by Daisy’s eventual rejection of Gatsby due to money issues, and Mary’s inability to conquer the apathy of Meursault’s constant state of mind.
Though his relationship with Daisy is based on a lie – that he was well born, rather than poor – Gatsby immediately is granted a literary reprieve as he leaves to fight in World War I. During his time at war, Daisy marries Tom Buchanan, a terribly unsympathetic character. It is through his struggle to regain the heart of Daisy Buchanan that Gatsby is found by the Nick Calloway, the narrator. Through Nick’s perception of events the reader is lead through a myriad of events from sporting to parties and the reader is fine tuned to intimate conversations and the unraveling of Gatsby because of his desire and love for Daisy. Even without love, Gatsby continue to hopes against the odds as the cliché is quoted. His desire for Daisy leads him to compromise his moral judgment and to lead a life in which he believes Daisy would want to be a part, not a life in which he is happy, “There must have been moments even that afternoon when Daisy tumbled short of his dreams — no through her own fault but because of the colossal vitality of his illusion. It had gone beyond her, beyond everything. He had thrown himself into it with a creative passion…” (Fitzgerald 92). Although it may also be said that Gatsby desires to be in constant pursuit of his conquest and to never actually obtain that for which he longs, but instead hopes in denial of reality because this is the tragedy of the delusional romantic. Although Gatsby is involved in an illusion of love, Meursault is merely in a state of illusion of reality. Meursault believes in no one around him as reality, or at least does not believe in any of the normal behaviors of humans such as love, and thereby his love affair is a farce to him since his belief is not involved in its existence. Gatsby does not see Daisy as she is, but how he wants her to be, and in this subjective light of love, Gatsby accomplishes great feats indeed but his empire of lust and money rests upon shaky foundation. Nick encounters Gatsby at the height of his empire, and Nick sees the crumbling of the empire as well. It is hope that allows Gatsby to believe that his accomplishments will win Daisy’s heart, and when this hope is retracted, and his actions are unredeemable, hope falls, and Gatsby’s delusions fall a little bit as well. This is the tragedy of Gatsby but it is his own choice as a downfall. Gatsby and Meursault are similar characters because they are both in control of their experience in a situation. While Gatsby may be the romantic of the two, their romances are similar because they are both consciously choosing whom they love (or in Meursault’s case, whom he might love). It is in this act of choice, this main definer of either character that the similarities become to accrue.
His estate is the setting of grandiose displays of wealth, however, as large parties and extravagant spending is evident from the beginning. This setting creates a sense of “hedonism [which] is reflected in his house, wild parties, clothing, roadster, and particularly in his blatant wooing of another man’s wife”. (Pearson 642) Thus, Gatsby’s choice is clear, and he knowingly accepts the consequences of his actions although he may not be entirely prepared to pay up on this account. Just as Meursault knows it is wrong to kill someone, his apathy puts him in a state that does not allow the doctrines of society or any moral contingencies to preclude his desire, if it is indeed desire. Thus, the absurd situations which these two protagonists are divined to be involved are at once designed through not a twist of fate, but knowingly sought after in the pursuit of what Gatsby thought to be love and not avarice and what Meursault believed to be just another experience in the blankness of the universe.
The reasoning behind Gatsby’s ascent into the world of wealth and social status is done for love, just as Meursault’s descent is through apathy; thus although the characters may have similarities they differ on this point, Gatsby has desire while Meursault is without that luxury which defines humanity. Gatsby’s pursuit of wealth is seen as a necessary evil, rather than an evil pursuit. The redemption of Gatsby is complete, in the end of the novel, as Tom Buchanan has him killed. The struggle for the heart of his dear love is then unfulfilled, and made even more tragic – cementing, in the mind of the reader, that Jay Gatsby is a martyr to love, rather than a common criminal.
As a character, Camus presents Meursault as disinterested in the choices he makes (which has been defined as the point of contest between these two characters). There is only a small stress before Meursault’s beheading and even that flicker of hope to be a free man is quickly squelched when Meursault comes to the conclusion that the world is a place of indifference and thus he is freed from the stress of blame or guilt, as Camus writes, “…for the first time, in that night alive with signs and stars, I opened myself to the gentle indifference of the world” (122). For Gatsby however, he is a character that could not accept such an indifference even after being shattered by love. Gatsby’s will always love Daisy, because he cannot help but hope, but Meursault is a man of apathetic means, and he cannot hope, and thus, although both characters have been made to become similar as absurd heroes, they cannot be considered to be similar in the area of faith.
In Meursault’s decisions there is little room for follow-through. In this definition of existentialism, Meursault fails to be decisive, which is one of Gatsby’s stronger points, since he amassed a fortune in the hopes of gaining Daisy’s attention. The choices Meursault makes, though made with free will, have neither forethought, nor afterthought, and are simply hanging in the air as it were, with no attachment made with the person who committed them; but this does not mean he is a selfish man, and herein is the ultimate similarity between Meursault and Gatsby, they are both unselfish, although Gatsby is unselfish because of love, Meursault is unselfish because of his lack of defining a self. Meusault’s decisions are simple; eating, sex, living calming without interference. He is dead-end not only in his career, but in his love. To sum up, Meursault does not exhibit much of the definitions that existentialism require, but chiefly he belongs, as Camus’ character, in the absurd and it is here that decisions do not matter simply because the world itself is indifferent, and this is the lesson Gatsby must learn through difficulty.
Camus, Albert. (1954). The Stranger. Trans. Stuart Gilbert. Vintage Books, New York.
Fitzgerald, F. Scott. The Great Gatsby. Schribner Press. New York. 1999.
Tanner, Bernard. “The Gospel of Gatsby”. The English Journal. Vol. 54, No. 6. Sept. 1965. p. 467-474.
Pearson, Roger L. “Gatsby: False Prophet of the American Dream”. The English Journal. Vol. 59, No. 5. p. 638-642+645. May 1970