One of the most significant ties that bonds these two books together is the gradual deconstruction and exposure of an ideal, or institution, that takes place in each book. For Fitzgerald’s book the ideal under attack is the capitalist ‘American dream’ of the self made man. In Heart of Darkness, the issue Conrad deals with is colonialism. Both novels essentially dethrone their ideal through: an explanation of what exactly the ideal is with the narrators view attached, the presentation of characters that represent products of the ideal, and the final betrayal of the ideal against the believer.
In The Great Gatsby we don’ t learn about the true identity of Jay Gatsby until halfway through the book (chapter 6). As a result we do not find out what he is really searching for, when we symbolically see him arms outstretched towards a green light, until this point. In Heart of Darkness on the other hand, it’s made clear from the start what exactly at the heart of the story. The result of this is to make Fitzgerald’s a more subtle satire. The novel can be read as essentially a tragic love story, and indeed it is left to the reader to discover what exactly the ideal represents to Gatsby.
The most useful passage to look at, as said before, comes in the discovery of Gatsby’s true identity (chapter 6). James Gatz was originally the son of “unsuccessful farm people”. However, from an early age he was blessed “extravagant ambition” and before he ever met daisy one could see that he didn’t feel right in his current economic and social position. Such was his desire for wealth, that James invented an alternate persona that “sprang from the Platonic conception of himself. ”
Nick in this statement is suggesting that Gatz has modelled himself on an idealised version: Jay Gatsby, the man he envisions himself to be in his ondest dreams. This ideal of himself in fact becomes so important to him that; to protect it, he is willing to damage his actual circumstances. We can see evidence for this when Gatsby leaves college, because he finds his work as a janitor degrading, despite the fact that a university education would dramatically improve his social standing. The opportunity to achieve his dreams eventually arose in the form of his future mentor Dan Cody a “product of the Nevada silver fields”, and someone who represented “all the beauty and glamour in the world”.
Gatsby’s desire to have what Dan Cody embodied was only exacerbated, not created, by two further factors. Firstly his being cheated out of the inheritance Cody left him, and secondly the betrayal of his first love, Daisy, for another man who crucially, was her social equal and the choice of her parents. Nick in the Great Gatsby is much less opinionated that Marlow. The downfalls of pursuing the American Dream are only implied by the actions of the characters, and the demise of Gatsby. Nick very rarely makes a negative comment.
For example the most he ever manages to say about Daisy’s shameful admiration of wealth, is that her voice is “full of money”, and even this is Gatsby’s original observation. In Heart of Darkness however, Marlow’s view of colonialism is clear from the start. As he begins his story, the first things that he says are about a time when even England was “one of the dark places of the earth”. However he goes on to describe the Roman colonists as “conquerors” and their activity in England as mere “violence and aggravated murder on a great scale”.
He eventually sums up the whole institution as: “conquest of the earth… the taking it away from those who have a different complexion or slightly flatter noses than ourselves”. This attitude is compounded later in the opening sections when the institution of colonialism is described as a “flabby, pretending weak-eyed devil”. Even the administrative nightmare of the first station and the decaying machinery that takes over the land is presented as the results of the corrupting effect of colonial ideals. Individual characters are used in each book to demonstrate the moral failures of each ideal.
One particular flaw that is shown in both books if that of elitism, and contempt for those of a lower social status. In Heart of Darkness the class divide created is between the white colonisers and the black natives, whilst in The Great Gatsby the divide is between those with money and those without. In both situations the main character bridges the confines of his. Gatsby has come from lowly roots and now aspires to become part of the wealthy elite, whilst Kurtz gains the trust and wins the respect of the natives.
He is even said to “lose himself amongst the people”. Evidence for this elitism that the authors are trying to highlight can be seen Heart of Darkness through characters such as the accountant. Surprisingly Marlow has a great deal of respect for this “amazing… miracle”. His immaculate appearance in such harsh conditions, “his starched collars and get-up shirt-fronts were achievements of character” in Marlow’s opinion. However the author deliberately turns the tables on what it is to be civilised and savage, through the accountants attitudes.
The fact that the “savages” get in the way of his clerical work, the fact that the loss of human life amounts to no more than something to “distract [his] attention” is appalling to the reader, and we end up seeing the accountant (not the native) as the real savage. In The Great Gatsby, characters such as Tom Buchanan demonstrate the same traits. Tom preaches racist dogma at dinner parties: “if we don’t look out the white race will be utterly submerged”. We see the same attitude in his dealings with George Wilson.
Tom speaks to him in a totally superior manner, and plays cruel games flaunting his business in front of George. What is more, he feels totally at ease with conducting an affair with George’s wife, this adds to the image of tom that believes the lower classes exist for his benefit. This promiscuous aspect to Tom’s character leads onto another central flaw that is highlighted in The Great Gatsby, but not in Heart of Darkness, which is careless hedonism and indulgence. The wealthy in Fitzgerald’s book seem interested only in “being rich together”, and what this entails is mere indulgence as demonstrated by Tom’s affair.
A critical chapter in this that explores this is chapter two, when Tom takes Nick, Myrtle and a couple called the McKee’s to a New York apartment. In this chapter we see Myrlte’s shallow worship of material possessions. The apartment is “crowded to the doors” she blatantly is more concerned with showing off her wealth than keeping the apartment practical. Myrlte also changes her dress and 2with the influence of the dress her personality had also undergone a change”. This remark seems to emphasise the superficiality of these people, only truly shallow people are what they wear.
The chapter explores a world that has collapsed into decadence, a society in decay. The only rationale that Myrtle gives for her affair with Tom is, “You can’t live forever”. Jay Gatsby’s almost obscenely lavish parities also demonstrate the conspicuous consumption that Fitzgerald is trying to expose. The cars that feature in the story act as symbols of irresponsible behaviour, whilst also representing (still being novelty items in the 1920’s) luxury. Jordan’s reaction to a near-crash sums up the whole atmosphere: “They’ll keep out of my way… it takes two to make an accident”.
An aspect that conversely appears more in Heart of Darkness than Fitzgerald’s novel is greed. This is because all the characters in The Great Gatsby already have tremendous wealth, whilst in Heart of Darkness the sole objective of the enterprise they are carrying out is to gain more. The predatory greed that can be see in characters like the General Manager, points to the theme of instilled savagery. We see this savagery most clearly when the Manager and his uncle are discussing what to do about Kurtzs’ unfair advantage in the accumulation of ivory.
With the lack of civilised law in the jungle they resort to a more vigilante existence and resolve that “We will not be free from unfair competition until one of these fellows is hanged for an example”. It is greed that drives this decision, and that seems to have a metamorphic effect on the Europeans. Marlow observes the uncle “extend his short flipper of an arm for a gesture… that seemed to beckon with a dishonouring flourish before the sunlit face of the land a treacherous appeal to… the hidden evil, to the profound darkness of its heart”.
This is one of the few instances where a white man in ‘animalised’ the properties of the land here, make it a living entity that can corrupt the souls of men. Thus we have seen that both books at their centre have an ideal at stake, and we have seen how exactly the authors believe these ideal have corrupted men. However what brings this message home, and communicates it to us on a deeper level, is the final betrayal that occurs at the end of each storey. This is the point at which each hollow dream fails its believer at the most crucial time. Gatsby’s death comes about as a result of a car-accident that kills Myrtle.
Wilson is convinced that it is her lover that killed her and in a murderous rage goes to Tom Buchanan’s house to acquire the driver’s identity. Tom lies and tells him it was Gatsby. Thus Gatsby’s demise is brought about by a man who would never accept him for what he was, and yet represented all he wanted to be. After his death we see how all of Gatsby’s wealth and hospitality, his enormous circle of acquaintances suddenly evaporates. Many like Tom and Daisy have simply skipped town, whilst others like Meyer Wolsheim and Klipspringer flatly refuse to attend the funeral.
The Betrayal in Heart of Darkness comes from the Manager who despite his assurances that he has “done all we could for him”, does not convince the reader that it had been desired, Kurtz’s life may have been saved. Indeed his main concern about Kurtz’s illness is that “trade will suffer” whilst the district is closed. Back in Europe after Kurtz’s death, like Gatsby, the only interest he recives is from greedy officials who seek to gain his vital knowledge of the Congo. Just as in the jungle, “the incalculable loss” to science is preached, and used to mask the real intentions of personal gain.
A major theme that the reader takes away from each book, is the transformation of a once admirable ideal. In Heart of Darkness this is explicitly referred to when he says: “what redeems it is the idea only. An idea at the back of it… ” This redeeming ‘idea’ is referring to the noble benefits that colonialism can bring such as democracy and progress to poor countries. However we are also told that the redeeming part of colonialism relies on “an unselfish belief in the idea”, and it is crucially the fact that the fickle nature of mankind makes it impossible for men to be unselfish, that corrupts the ideal.
Kurtz stands alone as a figure that is represented without any concern for material gain. His existence is extremely simple, despite all the ivory he has recovered, and if money and fame were important to him he would have left for England long ago. Thus Conrad demonstrates a clear view of what the ideal was at its roots, and the events that followed show the reader what it has become. Similarly in Gatsby’s story we see how the ideals on which America was founded have metamorphosed into something quite different.
However, without the blatant exposition of the ideal that exists at the beginning of Conrad’s novel, we only see the wider context at the end. Indeed the very last line is key: “So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past”. Specifically this line is referring to Gatsby’s lifelong quest to transcend his past that is ultimately shown to be futile. However Nick at the end of the book also mentions the “old island” that met the first settlers. By doing this he is linking Gatsby’s fate to America as a whole.
Fitzgerald is telling us that America (like colonialism) was founded on ideas of progress and equality. The America envisioned by its founders was a land made for visionary dreamers like Gatsby to thrive in. instead, people like Tom and Daisy Buchanan have recreated the faults and excess of the European Aristocracy in the new world. For all his wealth and greatness Gatsby could not become part of their world. Fitzgerald’s America is emphatically not a place where anything is possible: just as America failed to transcend its European origins, Gatsby too cannot overcome the circumstances of his upbringing.