“In The Great Gatsby Fitzgerald explores the way that the past haunts the present.” Discuss this viewpoint. In the course of your writing, make connections to James Baldwin’s Going To Meet The Man Throughout the Great Gatsby, Fitzgerald explores the notion that the past in some way haunts the present. This can be taken in a very broad sense, from characters fixation on the past, to the importance of heritage in American society. He also explores how America’s founding principles are flawed, mainly the notion of “The American Dream”. Baldwin too delves into these topics in his collection of short stories, Going To Meet The Man, which draw upon the importance of heritage and the effect that past events have upon the present. Fitzgerald constantly refers to the past; the way the Great Gatsby is structured relies heavily upon a constant tension between rediscovery of past events and the cyclic nature of many aspects of the novel. In the great Gatsby, Fitzgerald explores how characters are fixated on the past, no character epitomises this greater than Gatsby himself, his entire empire of extravagant decadence and showmanship was created as a means to attract and impress Daisy, the shallow “trophy (i)” wife of Tom Buchanan, whom he had a relationship with 5 years previous. Gatsby is not the only character to hold on to the past, when Jordan Baker relates the tale of Daisy and Gatsby’s courtship to Nick, she romanticises their affair, describing the minute details like her “shoes from England (ii)” and the “red white and blue banners (iii)”, from this we can infer that Jordan too lusts after the nostalgia of the wartime past.
Fitzgerald poses Gatsby as all consumed by his dream of Daisy, he revaluates his possessions “according to the measure of response it drew from her well-loved eyes” when he shows her around his mansion. However, the reality of her character is much more superficial than Gatsby realises, she is only drawn to him due to his apparent wealth and status, and Gatsby is blinded to this reality due to the extravagant amount of exertion he has poured into obtaining her, and blissfully pursues his affair with her unaware of Daisy’s true nature, suggesting that it is not her as a person that he wants, but what she symbolically represents. As Ian and Michelle McMechan put it “the hollowness of her soul creates a vacuum into which Gatsby is sucked and he is finally destroyed (v)”. Whereas Gatsby has chosen to be trapped in his idyllic past, characters In Baldwin’s Going To Meet The Man are constrained to the after effects of events which they had no control over, this is especially poignant in The Rockpile. Elizabeth has had a child out of wedlock, Johnnie, who now acts as “living unalterable testimony (vi)” to her “days in sin (vi)”. From this past event both Elizabeth and Johnnie will be held in contempt by Gabriel. Themes of violence, or of potential violence, run throughout the story, and although Gabriel never openly beats Johnnie the suggestion of his “dark head near the toe of his father’s heavy shoe (vii)” is subtle enough to imply the unsaid savagery which may be to come. In mid-1960s America, the nation’s out-of-wedlock birth rate began a rapid and relentless climb across all demographic lines, especially in black communities, so stories like that of Johnnie’s would not be un-common amongst poor households. Although the characters in Baldwin’s stories are trapped in their social status, in the Great Gatsby Fitzgerald’s characters are constantly striving to achieve a higher social class.
By falsifying his heritage, Gatsby believes he can attain it. James Gatz’s creation of Jay Gatsby is a significant sign of how he is trying to mask his true heritage as the son of “shiftless and unsuccessful farm people (viii)” and instead replaces it with the “God’s truth (ix)” that he is the “the son of some wealthy people in the Middle West (x)”. However Gatsby’s elaborate chronicle is immediately flawed by what Claire Stocks dubs “The San Francisco Lie (xi)”. Gatsby contradicts himself, saying he is from San Francisco, which lies on the West coast of America, not in the Middle West as he told Nick. In doing so Fitzgerald may have been referencing the idea that matter how hard we try we cannot escape or alter our heritage. When Gatsby makes this elementary blunder he is prohibiting himself from fully embracing “the sort of Jay Gatsby that any 17 year old boy would be likely to invent (xii)” and is reinforcing the restrictions which other characters place upon him. This grasp for lineage is not just limited to The Great Gatsby, it is an American obsession with many claiming that they are Irish or Italian when the only relation they have to this ancestry is many generations back, and may even be falsified. This behaviour can be attributed to America being a relatively new country; it does not have the history or lineage of many European countries, so they clutch to any degree of identification.
Gatsby’s heritages, both real and fabricated are muddied by the sporadic nature in which Fitzgerald reveals this information to the reader. In Baldwin’s Previous Conditions, the narrator also expresses his dissent with his heritage; he too, like Gatsby, does not want to accept the constraints that his history has placed upon him. In a similar way to which Gatsby tries to join the “old rich” Sonny Burnet notes that the narrator “is black yet is desperate to fit into the white dominated society of his time and even denounces his own trying to be seen as separate from them. (xiii)” The closing line of the story the emphasizes Burnet’s point, when he tells an older women at a bar he “got no story Ma (xiv)” in doing this it can be interpreted that although his discontent still burns within him he realises that he can never truly abandon his race, or join another, so is finally beginning to come to terms with his ethnicity and heritage. Heritage and the idea of the American dream are deeply intertwined concepts in Fitzgerald’s the Great Gatsby; Gatsby’s dream of Daisy is unattainable due to his heritage, this goes against the principal ideology of the American dream, that anything is attainable if we are willing to work hard and sacrifice for it. To try achieve this dream Gatsby uses shady illegal means to set up his empire, and has several connections to the criminal underworld, in the form of Meyer Wolfshiem and his “cognegtions”.
Gatsby’s death can be interpreted as the death of the American dream, the ideas of the founding fathers, and the end of an era. There is no place for characters like Gatsby and Dan Cody in the modern world; both of their legacies are ended by outside parties rather than by acts of their own volition. At the end of the novel Nick reflects on the events which have occurred, and translates the wound of Gatsby’s death to a much greater, nationalistic trauma: “So we beat on, boats against the current borne back ceaselessly into the past” although this passage sounds bold and heroic, it too like the American dream is a hollow promise, Fitzgerald is showing that no matter how hard we strive for what we want, our own fixation causes our goals to be unattainable, Nick reveals how Gatsby embodies this when he shows Daisy around his house, and she fails to live up to Gatsby’s colossal expectations of her due to the immense importance he has placed upon her.
Nick is not the only literary figure to become disillusioned with the American Dream, in Baldwin’s Previous Conditions, the narrator realises how the American dream is a failed notion, as he ironically utters “god bless the American republic” throughout the story with vehemence, and damns the society in which he lives, as it does not allow him to achieve what he wants, this goes directly against the idea of the American dream. Interestingly it could be interpreted by some that when the declaration of independence was first drawn up by the founding fathers, it did not include the rights of slaves, this may be why there is such inequality amongst black Americans nowadays, as well as in Baldwin’s time; where the racism and segregation were the norm. Baldwin wrote this story before the civil rights movements of the sixties, when there was little hope for black people in America; this lack of opportunity permeates Baldwin’s writing and many of his characters in going to meet the man feel that America is a country of dead dreams, Fitzgerald’s “valley of ashes” can be seen as a physical metaphor of this.
In both the Great Gatsby and Going to meet the man, ways in which the past haunts the present are clearly evident. Fitzgerald focuses upon how characters are tormented by their attachment to the past; Baldwin’s characters haunted by the problems that arise due to their social status or race. Fitzgerald shows how Gatsby is an intrinsically doomed character holding the belief, that he can “re-create the past”, revealing Gatsby as a naïve and afflicted young man. The apathy that Baldwin’s characters show towards their future has them effectively bury their heads in the sand. However, both writers recognise that the American obsession with heritage and lineage creates an elitist society which strangles the nation’s founding principle of an “equal” land of opportunity. This understanding of the failing of America’s founding ideology is a poignant part of both writers’ bodies of work, and is characteristic of modern American literature.
ii. The Great Gatsby page 81
iii. The Great Gatsby page 81
iv. The Great Gatsby page 85
v. Gatsby’s women by Ian and Michelle McMechan
vi. Going to meet the man page 18
vii. Going to meet the man page 21
viii. The Great Gatsby page 105
ix. The Great Gatsby page 71
x.The Great Gatsby page 71
xi.“All men are created equal” by Clare Stocks
xii.The Great Gatsby page 105
xiii.http://voices.yahoo.com/hemingways-hills-like-white-elephants-vs-baldwins-1973943.html xiv.Going to meet the man page 99