Saturday, July 6, 2013

Back to the Classics: Comparative Analysis of Social Criticism in The Great Gatsby and The Awakening

Welcome back to your sporadic dose of literary geekiness.

Today I lovingly compare and contrast social criticism found in F. Scott Fitzgerald's
The Great Gatsby and Kate Chopin's The Awakening, two very different and yet very similar texts.

I'll refrain from posting this anywhere else since it isn't an actual review—closer to one of my lit essays for class, actually—but enjoy regardless!

Both The Great Gatsby and The Awakening are classic examples of acute social criticism of their respective American time periods—the former, of the socioeconomics of the Roaring Twenties in the Long Island region, and the latter, of the repression of women around the time of Queen Victoria's rule in the southeast. Both texts possess similar features, including tragic endings and unique portrayals of death, but in their story lines, each literary motives shines a different light. The two also differ in technique; whereas F. Scott Fitzgerald's diction and style is what best reflects his setting and criticism of the upper class, Kate Chopin demonstrates strength in her characterization—particularly of Edna Pontellier, and in comparing her to other women of her society—in order to emphasize her main social criticism of gender inequality.


I will begin with the endings, because both story endings are highly tragic and highly impactful for the understanding and analysis of each novel. The similarity between them is, of course, death of the main characters; both shocking plot twists change the directions in which each plot routed before, although in different manners and for different purposes. In The Great Gatsby, the deaths of Jay, Mr. Wilson, and Myrtle Wilson all serve to relay how the upperclass will always get their way—how money is power, and money is everything, including the right to live. This lingering after-note, while not unforeseen, is almost a 180º-turn from where the plot was headed previously: towards redemption, the pursuit of true, soul-searing love, and the American Dream. Similarly in The Awakening, Edna's suicide, while predicted, is completely shocking and disruptive for the linear flow of the novel. Before, readers were led into being absorbed into Edna's figurative and literal awakening—her sexual and spiritual freedom and escape from the suffocating cage that was society. However, that same restraint is what pushes her into killing herself; the tragic irony is that by being freed, she must sacrifice her life, which in and of itself, supports the notion that such release from society's tight clutches is wholly improper, and in the in the end, devastatingly impossible. This can be compared to the sudden inversion of The Great Gatsby's plot, as well; the death of Gatsby—as well as the failure to properly honor him as a martyr upon his passing—that strikes the entire "American Dream" motivation down completely, parallels the transposition of The Awakening's plot.

More specifically, death is portrayed in two different ways and for two different reasons within these books. Though brief and only prominent in the closing chapters of each book, death as a theme plays a significant role in both novels. In The Great Gatsby, the deaths of Gatsby and the Wilsons represents the injustice of the American socioeconomic class system. The lack of responsibility on the Buchanans' parts when Daisy commits vehicular manslaughter emphasizes the utter absence of morality within the upper class during the 1920s. Fitzgerald, having directly experienced and fallen victim to this ludicrous—and more critically, lethal—social hierarchy himself, describes this helpless frustration through the dishonorable death of Jay Gatsby. Death is viewed as the result of Daisy and Tom's very aware but very evasive escape from blame of Myrtle Wilson's hit-and-run—the kind of reckless behavior only possessed by the rich elite of the Roaring Twenties, as they were the only ones in society who could afford to do so. More than anything, death is an "accident," a sad but mere misfortune upon any outsider—any non-elite nouveau riche or West Egger as Jay Gatsby was—who happens to get in the way. However, in The Awakening, death is portrayed in a different manner. Death, as previously explained is freedom, the only way out of Edna's social oppression and gender expectations. Unlike Gatsby's careless death that was practically disregarded—shrugged off, because "well, as long as it isn't us!"—Edna's is carefully considered and entirely deliberate. While in general, suicide is thought of as the most dishonorable way to die, Edna's death is an exception because of her intentions and her final realization that she will never, ever escape society. She can escape her suffocating husband, Leoncé—and she did—but she has other outside expectations to fulfill, such as her role as a mother and, if she carries out her desire to be with Robert, her continual role as an oppressed housewife. Once Edna realizes that escaping Leoncé is a futile effort, as it would just be running straight into Robert—her lover's—equally possessive and restrictive arms, she decides there would be no other purpose for her in the exact same degrading position as a woman; and so she drowns herself. However, her act is not all selfish; she considers her sons, the biggest factor still grounding her to society's unspoken legislations. Making her death seem like an accident (as she pretends just to go for a swim, with clear intentions of "returning") saves her sons from the downfall in reputation that a known suicide or the controversy surrounding a mother who runs off with another man, would bring. Because she saves her sons' lives from being destroyed, Edna adheres to the social norm in a certain respect which, in turn, makes Chopin's criticism of female oppression during the Victorian era even louder and certainly stronger.
The socioeconomic and feminist views in The Great Gatsby and The Awakening respectively are supported through both authors' utilizations of a table-turning ending (in terms of thematic direction) and portrayals of death. Both authors successfully examine and eventually bring to light, the deep flaws of their respective societies, as well as the tragedies that result from them, and unless altered, always will.