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F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Jay Gatsby is an utterly American character: deviant and romantic idealist; tenacious yet sensitive; ostentatious yet nostalgic. At his core is a transcendental yearning, and for this reason as a character he never quite comes into focus. To the “Great” Gatsby, Daisy is a vision of an ideal, one tied up thoroughly with the past, and to that end, Gatsby is a victim of his own creation. In light of Gatsby’s lonely demise, the question remains whether The Great Gatsby is ultimately a critique of Gatsby, or of his dream.
To consider such a question, it is helpful to adopt a perspective that treats human nature with almost biblical sensibility, to analyze by locating aspects of reality and human nature that cause us to see them both differently. This is what Tolstoy offers the reader. Pierre Bezukhov of War and Peace appears to embody the sort of vitality that Gatsby lacks. Though Pierre meanders somewhat aimlessly amongst half-hearted pursuits for nearly half the novel, once he finds an image to fill the void in his soul, he is raised to a higher spiritual plain. If we regard two essential moments in these novels – one each in War and Peace and The Great Gatsby – we find their protagonists launched to higher spiritual plains by the force of a cosmic yearning fulfilled. Careful examination — of what is at stake for each character, and in what ways achieving their dreams placates their internal longing – will serve to illuminate the significantly divergent fates for Pierre and Gatsby.
It is only after having ‘known’ him for over half of the novel that we first hear the story of Jay Gatsby’s birth: out of the ashes of his far less glamorous former self. James Gatz was a rather unexceptional character of rural, middle-class origins. But Jay Gatsby is a prodigious example of self-creation, not only for his unlikely ascent into the upper rungs of society – we are invited to forget his rather adulterous methodology – but for the effort he exerts to generate an identity in accordance with his mind’s eye. Fitzgerald characterizes Gatsby, in his moment of self-begetting, as “a son of God,” immaculately conceived, founder of his own image, omnipotent in his ability to fashion himself after his own imagination. Indeed James Gatz gives birth to his idea of himself; “Jay Gatsby, of West Egg, Long Island, sprang from his Platonic conception of himself.” With a sublime power of generation, James Gatz imbues ideological aspirations with earthly existence, and so Gatsby is born. He models himself according to a perfect, unchanging ideal. That Platonic ideals are ultimately inaccessible to those who walk in the world of sensation and instability escapes Gatsby’s “instinct toward his future glory.”
In fashioning himself according to his own Platonic idea, Gatsby makes the same mistake as the prisoners of Plato’s cave: chained to the earth, they take to be real what is in fact only an illusion, a shadow of images their eyes cannot perceive. Platonic ideals become imperfect in their journey towards earthly terms, in which all things are unstable, ever-changing, and subject to time and death. So it is with Gatsby’s desire to fashion himself after an ideal, revealing the hubris of trying to embody a perfect being. He is indeed only a shadow of an ideological conception, less than the perfect, eternal, unchanging image he seeks to generate. This is made clearest in the moment when Gatsby recalls his first kiss with his beloved Daisy, when his fantasy is ruined as soon as it comes true. Pretend as he might – indeed, as he does for the duration of the novel – Gatsby cannot live as a self-made creation. He is a victim to his past, just as we all are. And though he finds a place for himself in 1920’s America’s upper class, he is its prey, too: chewed up, spit out, and cast aside with little ceremony.
If both Gatsby and Pierre are misfits in the social circles they inhibit, Pierre is more willingly so. Pierre Bezukhov is an outsider to the Russian upper class, his awkward, unpretentious ways overlooked only when the bastard son comes into his father’s substantial inheritance. In both himself and those around him, Pierre senses the transformation that wealth affords him: “Formerly, Pierre had constantly felt…that his remarks, which seemed clever to him while he was preparing them in his imagination, became stupid as soon as he spoke them aloud…Now everything he said came out as charmant.” Welcomed as he is into high society, niceties cannot serve to assuage the turbulence in Pierre’s soul over the insincerity of this world of appearances: this world where “‘the stupidest woman in the world…appears to people as the height of intelligence and finesse,’” and everyone bows down to her. Haunted by evil and falsehood, Pierre is unable to participate in life with actively. In spite of his existential unrest — the unanswered questions and doubts, the want for meaning and inspiration in life — Pierre still has to live. Self-preservation motivates him to subdue these inquiries with sensory pleasures: “It was too frightening to be under the burden of all the insoluble questions of life, and he gave himself to the first amusements that came along, only so as to forget them.” Pierre ascribes an enigmatic quality to the “questions of life.” This amounts to a tacit admission that there is no solution to the most basic question: why should I live? It would seem then that Tolstoy understands Pierre’s anxiety as proceeding not from an inability to produce satisfactory answers, but for lack of a suitable distraction.
Pierre and Gatsby share the label of outsider, and a profound struggle for belonging. Both are of the element in which they find themselves immersed, but also helplessly other. In each narrative, we find a moment when Pierre and Gatsby’s ideas of themselves find fruition in relation to the object of their love. These instances are both instantiated in specific, momentous occasions in the respective novels. Additionally, these profound relationships unite a cosmic yearning with a mortal incarnation of that yearning. After these experiences, these men are, quite simply, never the same. And while both moments afford a reprise from eternal questioning in the form of a mortal love, these men are distinguished by their subsequent relationships with these moments of clarity. Gatsby spends the rest of his life trying to recapture what he felt when the stars aligned above his first kiss with Daisy, while the rest of Pierre’s life is propelled forward by his lasting image of Natasha, which fills the part of him once occupied by uncertainty. In order to discern the relationships Gatsby and Pierre cultivate with these vital revelations, we must first investigate what is revealed in the moments themselves.
Nick Carraway traces Jay Gatsby’s self-creation back to that moment, at the dawn of winter, when Gatsby first kissed Daisy under bustling stars. He calls the language Gatsby uses in recollecting his memory appalling in its “sentimentality” – Gatsby’s words are unbelievable precisely to the degree that they are poetic. Walking together, Daisy and Gatsby come to that immense and pure spot “where there were no trees and the sidewalk was white with moonlight.” Cosmic excitement in the force of the changing seasons echoes the longing Gatsby feels towards his love. There is palpable emotion in the air: “mysterious excitement,” a “stir and bustle among the stars.” Imagery links human yearning with the concerns of nature: cosmic matters seem in sympathy with Gatsby’s emotion, suggesting in turn that there is a natural similarity between the threshold Gatsby longs to cross and the inevitably changing seasons. It is as if the world around him has prepared itself for this moment in Gatsby’s life, and knows and understands his insatiable longing. This anticipation finds expression in Gatsby’s esteem for the powers and forces that have aligned to facilitate his incarnation. In a moment that could not have lasted very long, when Gatsby knows his kiss with Daisy is fast approaching, his soul prepares for a great ascent. Daisy is the substance of his dream, in which forces work to form a ladder that “mounted to a secret place above the trees – he could climb to it…and suck on the pap of life, gulp down the incomparable milk of wonder.” There is no question in Gatsby’s mind that this moment will form the axis of the rest of his life’s ambition. It is clear that when he drinks the elixir of wonder he will be forever and irrevocably changed. But perhaps the great Jay Gatsby does not realize fully the extent to which this morsel of perfection will damage irreparably his penchant for fantasy, ruined as soon as those fantasies become corporeal.
Gatsby hesitates. Lust as he does after Daisy, he longs to draw out the feeling in his soul at the image of her face approaching his. Perhaps he also hesitates in light of the cost of achieving his goal:
He knew that when he kissed the girl, and forever wed his unutterable visions to her perishable breath, his mind would never romp again like the mind of a God. So he waited, listening for a moment longer to the tuning fork that had been struck upon a star. Then he kissed her. At his lips’ touch she blossomed for him like a flower and the incarnation was complete.
Gatsby lingers as long as he can, engaged in the activity of listening to the sublime vibrations of the cosmic universe, before sealing his commitment to a single, time-resistant role. To wed his “unutterable visions” to Daisy’s “perishable breath” is to conjoin Gatsby’s Platonic idea of himself with a particular moment in time – when that self touched earth and Gatsby kissed Daisy. Once this union is sealed it cannot be changed, and Gatsby looses his power of self-creation. Though he has crafted his own Platonic idea, he hereafter becomes trapped in its incarnation, in this single moment in time. That sublime power of generation, that omnipotence in his ability to fashion himself, are casualties of Gatsby’s pastoral yearning. Both in this moment, and in Nick’s final estimation, Gatsby appears obsessed with recovering something about the past. To the extent that he continues forward on the trajectory of his life, Gatsby is also irreparably bound to his past, “borne back ceaselessly” into it. Daisy’s kiss deals a mortal blow to Gatsby’s eagerness to preserve an innocent and still untried world, tethering his lofty ideals mutable flesh. His mind will never again romp around “like the mind of a God” because it has been made corporeal: incarnate, fixed, stuck in his first union with Daisy.
Pierre’s soul climbs to similarly lofty heights in his interaction with Natasha after she has broken off her engagement with Prince Andrei. Pierre is disheartened by Natasha’s outward display of hopelessness, her sense that nothing makes sense. Perhaps because Pierre shares that sense, he comforts Natasha with such a “meek, tender, heart-felt voice” that she weeps tears of gratitude. At first, Pierre surprises even himself with his sudden outburst of emotion, confused at the feelings welling up in his chest. With a tender glance, Natasha leaves feeling consoled for the first time in days. Pierre is at a loss for what to do next:
‘Where to?’ Pierre asked himself. ‘Where can I go now? Not to the club or to pay visits.’ All people seemed so pitiful, so poor in comparison with the feeling of tenderness and love he experienced, in comparison with that softened, grateful glance she had given him at the last moment through her tears.
Having felt such a profound connection of love with Natasha, everything else seems to Pierre impossibly insignificant. Until now he was unaware that his soul could soar to reach a feeling of the sublime. It seemed that there was nothing worthwhile in his mundane surroundings. Now, he can only regard the world around him with pity and poverty of spirit. But in his next gesture, commanding his driver to take him home, Pierre reveals an internal transformation. His “joyfully breathing chest” takes in the new air around him, soaking in a brighter spiritual realm where, even in spite of doubts, life is surely worth living. Rather than find everything base and meaningless in comparison to his soul’s pleasure Pierre employs Natasha’s image to bestow his approach to life with a newfound sense of purpose. The bright comet of 1812 travels across the starry sky above him, echoing his soul’s new heights. The comet, which was supposed to foreshadow destruction, evokes a sense of calm in Pierre, shielding him from the “insulting baseness of everything earthly.” As it is said, having discovered his “why” of life, Pierre is poised to tolerate any “how.” We picture Pierre standing sub specie aeterni, the “huge expanse of starry night” nearer because of the comet’s closeness to earth, the void in his heart filled with his nearness to Natasha.
Careful examination of the language Pierre uses to describe the comet’s journey across the sky demonstrates the motivation he acquires from this sublime feeling. His soul follows the same “parabolic course” as that “bright star.” In awe of this cosmic moment, Pierre’s internal yearning sympathizes with an event that is both of this world and yet rings with a universal energy. It seemed to him that “this star answered fully to what was in his softened and encouraged soul, now blossoming into new life.” In this moment of unity between Pierre’s newly discovered sense of eternal purpose and cosmic greatness, his soul is reborn. It is filled with the image of Natasha, rooted in time by the most fixedly situated historical event of the novel: the great comet of 1812. Even the comet takes notice of Pierre’s internal development:
Having flown with inexpressible speed through immeasurable space on its parabolic course, [the comet] suddenly, like an arrow piercing the earth, seemed to have struck here its once chosen spot in the black sky and stopped, its tail raised energetically, its white light shining and playing among the countless other shimmering stars.
To Pierre, this comet’s odyssey is his own. Having searched vast distances, “traveled through immeasurable space,” it lands in this one moment, poised in the dark sky. In its stillness, the contented comet shines brightly and with an energetic spirit. That the comet has traveled a “parabolic” course evokes a metaphor for Pierre’s internal journey, and draws attention to the alignment that is taking place as disparate events – “countless other stars” – are brought into balance. This is a moment of renewal, when Pierre conceives of a hope that encourages his soul and propels him forward in the course of his life, and when that feeling is incarnated in the comet’s “chosen spot in the black sky.”
Juxtaposition of these two moments of incarnation — when an image of cosmic yearning finds flesh in a feeling of love that elevates the soul — might seem to suggest that Jay Gatsby and Pierre Bezukhov will go on to make similar choices, and meet similar ends. In fact, Gatsby and Pierre carry out quite opposite reactions to these somewhat perfect moments. For the rest of his life, Gatsby is obsessed with recovering the moment when his dreams became reality, when, consummated by Daisy’s kiss, his idyllic self-created image for a moment touched the earth. He is chained to this moment, fighting to recover “some idea of himself that” that was lost once his lips touched hers. Pierre’s journey moves in precisely the opposite direction, propelled forward in time and life by a memory of perfect alignment in his soul. Natasha’s face becomes the totem of this memory: Pierre “was not as horrified as he used to be…not because she answered the questions that presented themselves to him, but because her image immediately transferred him to a brighter realm of spiritual activity…” He has only to close his eyes and reach up with one hand to recover her image and shake off any present burden with an eternal comfort.
How are we to understand these opposing trajectories: the one propelled to an elevated future, the other “borne back ceaselessly into the past”? The crux of the discrepancy is located within what it means to have a gift for life, that very basic reason or motivation for continuing to put one foot in front of the other. In order to truly possess that gift, one must have access to a constant source of strength. This is the case with Pierre, whose image of Natasha is always with him, traveling close to his heart. Tragically, Gatsby’s raison d’être is lost along with his ability to remake himself. Attempting to will reality in accordance with his own image is like trying to bring fantasy to life. With slavish devotion to his imagined identity, Gatsby succeeds in achieving a solitary moment when his fantasy is realized, but even he anticipates the devastating consequences. Once consummated in a terrestrial act, Gatsby’s fantasy is tainted, ruined – no longer the same. He cannot recover that basic motivation to live, for all of his efforts and plans towards grandeur only serve to lead him farther away from that part of himself that was lost when he kissed Daisy.
Given the various purposes of these two passages in their respective novels, perhaps the most important function of juxtaposing them is to illustrate both destructive and instructive powers of memory and fantasy. Our fantasies are only so because they are not materially true, because there is something corruptive about uncertain human existence subject to the relentless tug of time from which the realm of imagination is protected. What ultimately secures an eternal reprise from doubt is the ability to experience a timeless feeling that gives one the sense that life, in all its base drudgery, is worth living. No earthly occurrence can interfere with this feeling because once the soul has been elevated beyond terrestrial matters, the heart carries a talisman as its reminder. Memory proves to us every day the existence of a reality not temporally present, where one can become either trapped or liberated. It is, after all, in relationship to a moment preserved by memory that Gatsby becomes eternally trapped, and Pierre discovers a reason to live in the present.
Fitzgerald, F. Scott. The Great Gatsby. New York: Scribner Paperback Fiction, 1925.
Tolstoy, Leo. War and Peace. Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky, trans. New York: Vintage Classics, a Division of Random House, Inc., 2007.
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