American Identity in Stories “The Great Gatsby” by F. Scott Fitzgerald and ‘The Snows of Kilimanjaro’ by Ernest Hemingway
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“The Great Gatsby” by F. Scott Fitzgerald and ‘The Snows of Kilimanjaro’ by Ernest Hemingway are both excellent literary works that express artistic choices in the modern world. Fitzgerald’s story centers on the wealthy eccentric Jay Gatsby as told by Nick Carraway, a Midwesterner who lives on Long Island but works in Manhattan. Gatsby’s enormous mansion is adjacent to Nick’s modest home, and Nick becomes curious about his neighbor after being invited to one of his grand parties.
Hemingway’s story is about a writer named Harry, who has accomplished very little regarding his writing, instead choosing to live his entire life supported by a series of wealthy wives. He is on his deathbed, dying of a gangrene leg in a safari of Africa and reflects on both his experiences and his failures to write about them. Both Hemingway and Fitzgerald use the modernist technique, stream of consciousness, with the protagonist’s thoughts and feelings being presented in a continuous flow. This is thoroughly expressed in each story with both Nick and Harry stepping back in thought when expressing and reacting to critical events they must face.
In both stories, Nick and Harry are forced to make choices regarding their art, which in turn changes their progressions and resolutions. In “The Great Gatsby”, Nick is the narrator of the story leaving his reliability unquestioned by the reader. He tells us that he reserves all his judgments therefore the reader is led to believe what he is saying and where he is coming from. Being an outsider peeking into the world of the 1920s, Nick serves as the lens through which he looks through and helps the reader see characters for who they are. In ‘The Snows of Kilimanjaro’, Harry is presented with multiple flashbacks and contemplates all the writing he had one day hoped to do about the many experiences he has accumulated in his life but realizes nothing more will be accomplished.
Modernist themes are present throughout “The Great Gatsby” and ‘The Snows of Kilimanjaro’, which serve the value and meaning of the choices Nick and Harry are forced to make. In Gatsby, Nick is forced to face many conflictions while being wrapped up in the short-lived life of deluded luxury. One central confliction throughout is the Decline of the American Dream in the 1920’s. The original American Dream of happiness and individualism was disintegrating into an emotional need of prosperity and wealth. Social and moral values were declining quickly, and the American Dream was dying and transforming into something revolting. An example of this is Nick’s comment in chapter 9, “I see now that this has been a story of the West, after all Tom and Gatsby, Daisy and Jordan and I, were all Westerners, and perhaps we possessed some deficiency in common which made us subtly unadaptable to Eastern life” (Fitzgerald 125).
This observation suggests an American identity that is determined by birthplace, and that within the American identity there are smaller, inescapable points of identification. For those in the story not born into money, the American identity seems to be about striving to end up with more wealth and status. But in terms of the portrayal of old money, particularly Daisy, Tom, and Jordan, the story presents a taste of American society that is essentially aristocratic, you have to be born into it. The story also portrays a fractured American identity, with different lives possible based on how much money you are born with. Another theme is the hollowness of the upper class. Fitzgerald uses “The Great Gatsby” to show the luxurious life of the upper class. A contrast between the newly rich millionaires and the old aristocracy of rich families is shown. The people belonging to the upper class are so content with using money to buy happiness that they are not aware when they hurt others. This was a common aspect in the 1920’s. Each of the central characters represents aspects of the modern world. Daisy represents the lack of a universal plan or God, Tom represents racism and injustice, Myrtle functions as social class division and poverty, and Gatsby represents the corruptness of the American Dream.
Hemingway contrasts Fitzgerald, who expresses different modernist themes in Kilimanjaro. One is the theme of facing death with courage and ‘grace under pressure’, Hemingway’s code of living, is dealt with from the beginning of the story when Harry admits that death is painless. He has lived in fear of death all his life, even been obsessed with it, and now that he is faced with it, he finds he is too tired to fight it and instead accepts it. Still, he wished he had written about the things that had affected his life; the joy of skiing, the emotional upheaval of the first true love, the unquestionable loyalty to an old soldier. He has learned too late that every day counts, and that tomorrow might not come. Every day should be lived to the fullest as if it were your last. Another theme is the glorification of manhood. Hemingway examined strong representations of masculinity. Masculine authority and identity are central concerns in Kilimanjaro. Another theme presented is restoration.
The idea of restoration is explored in the story, as the hero’s awareness achieves a conceptual level at the end of the narrative to equal the spiritual elevation. Harry is described as mutilated, physically as well as creatively. The theme of regret is also examined quite deeply. Harry’s morbid thoughts embody a classic case of taking things for granted. Harry takes his blessings, including his caring wife, his full life, and his writing talent, for granted, and on his deathbed ponders on how he could have appreciated each more. Of course, his main regret is that he has not reached his full potential as a writer because he has chosen to make a living by marrying wealthy women rather than commemorating his many and various life experiences in writing. The progression of his gangrene symbolizes his rotting sense of self-worth. This last regret is made so bitter to Harry because, it is his own fault he has not properly exercised his great talent, ‘He had destroyed his talent by not using it, by betrayals of himself and what he believed in’ (Hemingway 63).
In conclusion, both Nick and Harry are faced with reflection and consequences regarding artistic choices within the modern world. Nick is introduced to the modernist ideas of the Decline of American Dream of the 1920s, the American identity, and the hollowness of the upper class. Nick is suddenly engulfed in all these themes of Gatsby, all of which are foreign to him. Nick is set as an outsider, presenting to the reader as looking into this world of 1920s deluded luxury. Nick objectively learns and tells the reader just how deeply wealth affected how your life would be. From Nicks observations the reader learns that one will never live up to their highest expectations, one can try hard enough but just barely be able to reach for their dreams, and that you can never relive the past-because going in the past never works in the end. On the other hand, in Kilimanjaro, Harry is introduced to the modernist ideas of grace under pressure, glorification of manhood, restoration, and regret.
With each dying flashback Harry’s past is unfolded, with each scene compromised into action, happiness, and his successes as a writer. Contrasting with the vitality that has deserted him. The flashbacks in the story that are being highlighted to the reader are the lost opportunities that Harry never took advantage of for his real potential. However, there is a redemptive quality in the final flashback when rather than thinking about himself, Harry thinks of others. While it is noticeable that by giving away his last morphine pill and by not telling Helen he never loved her, there is a redemptive quality. Harry learns one should help others rather than hurt them, and to be true to oneself.