Unlikely Acts of Heroism in The Great Gatsby
F. Scott Fitzgerald uses a range of techniques in The Great Gatsby to explore the idea that it is often the most unlikely people who display acts of heroism. Many of the characters in the novel show stereotypical characteristics, but act contrary to what is expected. The contrasting characters of Tom Buchanan and Jay Gatsby convey the nature of a hero and suggest that a hero may come from an unlikely source. Additionally, Fitzgerald displays that Gatsby’s true character is far different from the way in which others see him through his use of Nick Caraway as the narrator. Through Nick, we see Gatsby’s transformation into a tragic hero when his love for Daisy ends in the destruction of his dream.
The contrast made by Fitzgerald between Tom and Gatsby’s personalities convey to the reader that it is often the most unlikely characters who display heroic traits of courage and nobility. Fitzgerald introduces Tom to the reader as ‘sturdy’ and ‘always leaning aggressively forward’ with a ‘great pack of muscle … capable of enormous leverage’ (12). Gatsby, on other hand, is initially introduced vaguely to the reader as an ostentatious newly rich ‘bootlegger’ (60), with gossip that he once ‘killed a man’ (60). This causes the reader to sense something mysterious and sinister about him. He is an enigma, a trait which may more readily be attributed to a villain. Furthermore, Tom lives in East Egg, is immensely wealthy and has upper-class roots. By contrast, Gatsby is from West Egg and has earnt his money through criminal activity. This, in combination with his desire for Tom’s wife Daisy, suggests that Gatsby is more of a villain than a hero.
Regardless, it is Gatsby who is eventually portrayed as the heroic figure and Tom as the opposite. The reader soon becomes aware that Tom is anything but a hero, with his actions showing neither bravery or nobility, but rather cowardice and cruelty. He is racist, sexist, arrogant and hypocritical, cheats on Daisy and punches his mistress, Myrtle Wilson. As the novel progresses, Gatsby proves to be the hero, protecting Daisy’s reputation by accepting responsibility for Myrtle’s death. He shows bravery and nobility, jeopardizing his own life for his love. Therefore, the contrast of these characters demonstrates the nature of a hero and conveys that a heroic act can often come from an unlikely source.
Fitzgerald uses Nick and his personal commentary on the events as the narrator to demonstrate that Gatsby is not who he may appear to be, and that his love for Daisy results in a heroic act that ultimately ends in tragedy. Throughout the novel, Nick observes and evaluates Gatsby’s character, influencing the way in which the reader views him. Initially, Nick states that Gatsby represents ‘everything for which I have unaffected scorn’ (page 8). He describes Gatsby as a distant, flamboyant character, observing him looking off into the darkness ‘like Kant at his church steeple, for half an hour’ (page 88). However, as Nick becomes more involved with Gatsby himself, he soon develops an understanding of Gatsby’s love for Daisy, appreciating his dream, arriving at a romanticised portrayal of Gatsby that enables the reader to look past his many flaws. The reader then comes to see that Gatsby is really a lovesick, naïve character whose love for Daisy is so strong that he re-invents himself and his life just to have a chance with her. Despite this, Gatsby’s devotion to her eventually becomes his tragic flaw, leading him to make poor decisions, such as his asinine, yet noble, act of taking responsibility for Myrtle’s death to protect his love. This heroic act ultimately leads to his death, Daisy’s betrayal and the destruction of his dream. By the end of the novel, Nick respects Gatsby and finds himself ‘on Gatsby’s side’ (156). Therefore, regardless of Nick’s initial impressions of Gatsby, the reader is left respecting Gatsby and viewing him as a hero.
Fitzgerald explores the idea that it is often the most unlikely people who perform acts of heroism using a range of techniques, including by conveying a contrast between the central characters and by developing Gatsby’s character through Nick’s eyes. The novel keeps readers alert to unexpected characteristics and provides exceptional insight on the notion of heroism.
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