Comparing the Great Gatsby and American Beauty
Set in the summer of the Roaring Twenties, The Great Gatsby follows the hedonistic and destructive lifestyles of the upper social classes of post-war America. This novel, written by F Scott Fitzgerald in the same time period, criticizes the shallowness of the actions of this outlandish generation and their eventual disillusionment with their society.
American Beauty, the 1999 film directed by Sam Mendes and written by Alan ball, uses the setting of contemporary middle-class suburban America to examine the differences between the inner and outer realities of a “typical” American Beauty are obvious in connection between Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby and Mendes’ American Beauty are obvious in the themes, plots and the actions of the characters. The values and beliefs evident in the texts- which are portrayed through the characters –critically reflect those of the author, Fitzgerald and Mendes’, as well as the period of time that each was created.
The contrasts and connections between the Great Gatsby and American Beauty become most evident in their themes. These themes are used to accentuate particular aspects of each story and to communicate significant underlying values in the stories. The American Dream represents the promise of freedom, prosperity and success and is embedded into the national identity of all American people, including the characters in “The Great Gatsby” and “American Beauty”.
The pursuit of equal opportunity for every man, unhampered by socially constructed barriers or his financial situation, is what the values of the American people were founded upon. The corruption of this dream is characterized by the pure ideals of Gatsby in The Great Gatsby and also, to some extent, Lester Burnham in American Beauty. Gatsby’s true romantic pursuits and his idealism – which epitomizes the true American Dream – are crushed by the irresponsibly low morals of his contemporaries; Lester Burnham is first shown to us leading the unfulfilling reality of the twenty-first century American Dream.
Although Lester is living a version of the American Dream, his life has become centered on the materialistic preconceptions of his society and his wife. The American Dream incorporates freedom and happiness, both of which exist purely as myths in American Beauty. Each character in American Beauty builds up and appearance whether it is one of success (Carolyn), sexuality (Angela) or happiness (Lester). The pursuit of happiness is underscored as a major part of the American Dream through its inclusion in the Declaration of Independence and is incorporated into the texts by both authors.
Fitzgerald uses The Great Gatsby to show that for upper classes of the “Roaring Twenties”, the pursuit of happiness centered solely on the possession of material goods. Daisy and Myrtle tells Tom to buy her a dog because “They’re nice to have- a dog” (pg. 29) and Daisy’s marriage is one of appearances that shows that she values material possessions (Tom) over passion (Gatsby). The same idea that happiness stems from material possession is exhibited by Carolyn Burnham in American Beauty. Carolyn represents the belief that happiness stems from her appearance and how she is perceived by others.
These “successes” that Carolyn uses to create her image of happiness involve material accumulation –house, car, successful career and even a “perfect” family. The couch scene in which Carolyn sacrifices her relationship with Lester and yells “This is not just a couch! ” epitomizes the emptiness of Carolyn’s perception of happiness and the American Dream. This empty promise of a happy and fulfilled life drives Lester to rebel from his caged existence and he begins to build himself a new reality in which he has freedom without responsibility.
In ridding himself of his forced responsibilities, Lester is ultimately striving to recreate his youth –a time in which he believes he knew true happiness. In seeking his previous happiness, Lester ignores the norms of “respectable society” and begins to attend to his true desires. This belief in the ability to recreate a happier past is mirrored in The Great Gatsby by Gatsby himself and his “ferocious indifference to the drums of his destiny” (pg. 96) as he struggles to recreate he and Daisy’s relationship “just as though it were five years ago” (p. 06)
Though Gatsby’s dream stays true to the values of the American Dream, Gatsby is ultimately discarded and thrown aside by his society and is therefore returned to “ashes” of what remains of the American Dream. The colossal dream that Gatsby builds up and holds onto eventually becomes his downfall and is the most prominent illustration of the failure of the American Dream in The Great Gatsby. Although it is the repercussions of their deceptive fantasies that Gatsby and Lester fall victim to, it was their continued search for love that leads them to these.
Love is the principal value in The Great Gatsby and is illustrated best by the contrast of Gatsby’s idealized romantic love for Daisy with Daisy’s “love” for wealth and status, a love which is common to the majority of their irresponsible society. F Scott Fitzgerald emphasizes Gatsby’s “romantic readiness” through this contrast as well as Gatsby’s fall from grace that results in him becoming lost in “the colossal vitality of his illusions” (pg. 92). Daisy characterizes the power of a love of money in the Great Gatsby and is used by Fitzgerald in condemning Gatsby’s hedonistic society as well as his own.
However it is the absence of love –rather than the presence- that is most prominent in American Beauty. This absence is most obvious during the scenes in which the entire Burnham families are present. The importance of outward appearances overshadows the inner emotions of the characters and the image portrayed throughout the film is of people who have forgotten how to love each other. The one exception to this denial of love and true identity is Ricky Fitts; Ricky’s ability to see true character and inner beauty allows him to love Jane and even his controlling father.
When Jane agrees to leave with Ricky, Angela yells to Jane “at least I’m not ugly” to which Ricky responds that Angela is ugly; “ugly and boring and ordinary”. This confrontation with Angela shows Ricky’s ability to perceive true inner beauty, thus explaining his love of Jane and her true “beauty”. Angela’s obsession with appearance and her appearance and her sexuality exemplifies present-day society’s fixation with superficial beauty in outward appearance.
The complete superficially of Angela and her ideas of love and beauty is a stark contrast to Ricky Fitts’ gift to see the inner beauty of things; such as a plastic bag caught in the wind. Thus Angela and Ricky are used in American Beauty to represent alternative values with regard to society’s perception of true beauty. Mendes’ portrayal of love throughout the film stresses not only its importance in our lives but also its miraculous ability to spring unexpectedly into our lives.
As Lester rediscovers his love at the conclusion of the film, he not only revives his love for his family, but also falls in love with his life and what it is to be alive. Lester finds, only in death, that it is not only the love you receive but also the love you give which unlocks true freedom and although this freedom may come with responsibility, these are responsibilities that he is willing to undertake. The realization that grips Lester at the conclusion of the film springs from his ability to see beauty in everything, something that Ricky has known throughout the film.
The love and freedom Lester finds, as well as the “incorruptible” dream of love that Gatsby so desperately seeks, underlines the importance of these as themes in American Beauty and The Great Gatsby and emphasizes the value that the authors of each place on the importance of love. Also significant in both American Beauty and The Great Gatsby is the use of a narrative to reflect upon the events and the actions of the characters. Nick’s observations and reflections of his encounters with Gatsby and the other characters illustrate not only his own values but also those of Fitzgerald.
These critisms of the society and their values are most prominent in Fitzgerald and Nick’s condemnation of the actions of Daisy and Tom, following the death of Gatsby and Daisy’s abandonment of him in favour of Tom’s wealth and security, when Nick says “They were careless people, Tom and Daisy –they smashed up things and creatures and then retreated back into their money or vast carelessness, or whatever it was that kept them together, and let other people clean up the mess they had made” (pg. 170) .
Fitzgerald saw the irresponsibility of his contemporaries as careless and destructive and in The Great Gatsby blames this for the moral corruption that is threaded through the society. Similarly, Lester condemns his society’s preoccupation with appearance and materialism over true reality and love. Lester reflects on the months leading up to his death and the unfolding of his search for freedom without responsibility. However, his narration is not the sole narrative method in American beauty as we also see events from the eyes of other characters’ point of view during scenes in which Lester does not appear.
Mendes uses Lester’s narration to thread together the events as they unfold while offering a less critical narration than that in The Great Gatsby. Both The Great Gatsby and American Beauty conclude with the realizations of the narrators that our dreams can sometimes be about the wrong things in life and that we should just let ourselves be drawn through life like boats in a current. The use of various techniques in American Beauty and The Great Gatsby effectively accentuates the importance of various themes and ideas. For example, Fitzgerald uses colours as motifs throughout the text to more subtly underline the importance of some issues.
The bleakness of the lives of the people who were thrown aside and the emptiness of their shattered dreams are highlighted as Fitzgerald depicts them as grey and surrounded by dust and ask. The use of dust and ashes is seen in the Valley of the Ashes (the area between West Egg and New York of poor social standing and low wealth) as well as helping Fitzgerald in foreshadowing significant events in the book by referring to the presence of dust and ashes. Nick comments on this as he visits Gatsby prior to Gatsby’s death at the hands of George Wilson: “There was an inexplicable amount of dust everywhere” (pg. 140).
Fitzgerald’s use of colour also shows through in the use of the Green Light (symbolic of daisy and her purity in Gatsby’s eyes). American Beauty is aslo pervaded with colour as motifs; however, the use of red throughout the film is the most visually evident and significant in terms of symbolism. Alan Ball, the screen writer, incorporated this red motif into every strong emotion and used it as a symbol of control and power in the film and used it to depict life, vitality, love, passion and sex as well as anger, danger, death, rage and lust. However it is through the red rose –American Beauty- that the colour red appears most prominently.
These red rose ultimately symbolizes beauty in love, life and death. Though set in different societies and periods in time, The Great Gatsby and American Beauty are strongly connected through their examinations of similar themes, plot and technique. Fitzgerald and Mendes incorporate their views into the texts whilst criticizing the actions and values of their societies. Through this characterization of their values, the authors stress the importance of true love and happiness over money and material possession. “It’s hard to stay when there’s so much beauty in the world”
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