The Search for Identity in Contemporary Literature Essay

The question of identity has been a question to plague mankind for as long as humankind’s collective memory serves.  While things seem to have been relatively straightforward in ancient days, one suspects perhaps this was the result of a single set of voices writing, the dominant male class, rather than the actual truth.  This only became apparent in relatively recent times as people of different genders and races began expressing their viewpoints in educated writing, questioning the status quo and age-old assumptions regarding who they are and what they represent.  As more and more minorities and women began adding their voices to the literary realm, ideas regarding identity became more confused and ill-defined as it became realized that who we are is often the result of how we interact with others.  To understand how this realization of the sociological imagination was expressed, it is helpful to analyze how a master author of the period, F. Scott Fitzgerald, portrayed these ideas in his novel The Great Gatsby.  

Sociological imagination is the way in which we stratify ourselves within our society and in how we develop our own identity.  By linking our own personal experience with the collective understanding of what that represents, we are able to classify ourselves as well as others within specific social groups.  It is upon this understanding that we form and understand our own identity.  Three aspects of the sociological imagination include class, race and gender.  Class is based upon a variety of factors including profession, income levels and educational attainment.  People with a great deal of education are often identified as holding higher level professional positions and higher rates of pay than less educated individuals.  While class is often considered quite flexible, race and gender remain difficult to change.  Race is determined based on physical characteristics, but can also be influenced by ethnic concerns.  Generally, ethnicity is considered to refer to a person’s national origin, language, religion, dietary practices or common historical heritage.  Although race is inherited through the genes, ethnicity is the result of socialization from one generation to the next.  Gender is a learned identification with a particular biological sex – male or female – while sexuality refers to the way in which people organize their world based on sexual identity.  All of these things are used to help shape and compare ourselves with the people around us so that we can determine just what kind of person we are. 

In The Great Gatsby, Jay Gatsby has set his sights on winning back the only girl he ever felt he loved.  Because Daisy is already married to Tom when Gatsby returns from the war and because she has always been a child of privilege, Gatsby reasons that the best way to win her back is to be rich and to have flashier things than those of her husband.  Toward that end, Gatsby gets involved in the illegal bootlegging business during the 1920s prohibition period, he buys a huge mansion that affords him a view of Daisy’s house from the back and he throws lavish parties in an effort to try to lure Daisy across the water into his world.  His plan seems to be succeeding as he visits with her several times and she seems to be returning some of his affections, but when she’s forced to make a choice between Tom and Gatsby, Daisy chooses Tom for his old money and connections.  The reader understands all this from the beginning thanks to the observations of the narrator, Nick.  Following an accident when Daisy kills Tom’s girlfriend while driving Gatsby’s car, Gatsby proves his inability to handle the emergency while Tom takes charge and whisks Daisy away to a safe place.  Meanwhile, Gatsby’s inability to see the truth contributes to his own tragic death at the hands of the dead woman’s grief-stricken husband.  “He had come a long way to this blue lawn, and his dream must have seemed so close that he could hardly fail to grasp it.  He did not know that it was already behind him, somewhere back in that vast obscurity beyond the city, where the dark fields of the republic rolled on under the night” (182).  Throughout the story, the allegory of the old rich rising in triumph over the new is consistently reinforced as Tom and Daisy escape on vacation while Gatsby floats dead in his pool. 

The entire story is related through the seemingly uninvolved character Nick, but his relationships with the various characters make it necessary to question his ‘neutral’ stance.  Nick seems to come from the somewhat ‘middle’ class as he never had the money of Daisy’s family but he was never so desperate as Gatsby’s.  This helps to establish the idea that he is a neutral party.  Nick’s relationship to Gatsby is forged primarily because he lives next door to Gatsby’s large mansion and is pulled in with the large, lavish parties Gatsby throws every weekend.  Nick’s first real impression of this neighbor is as Gatsby strolls across his back lawn to stare longingly at the green light at the end of Daisy’s dock, a symbol for him of the promise and dream of America.  This quiet, reflective glimpse of the man is then shattered by the loud parties he threw each weekend, in which “the bar is in full swing, and floating rounds of cocktails permeate the garden outside, until the air is alive with chatter and laughter” (41).  However, through his growing friendship with the man, Nick learns of Gatsby’s impoverished past, the way in which he went about redefining himself and the motivations behind that reshaping.  This increases his opinion of the man as someone who has accomplished a great deal and deserves respect.  Although Nick is able to see the fallacy behind Gatsby’s consuming drive to win Daisy back for himself, he recognizes that Gatsby is truly great in his stunning feat of remaking himself in the image of material success.

Nick’s relationship with Daisy is slightly more strained, perhaps because he is expected to know this person to whom he is related, but also because he recognizes the vast emptiness that exists within her.  He admits, upon his first visit over to Daisy’s home, that he does not really know her all that well and his impressions, as they are recorded within the novel, are those of a stranger looking in.  Nick sees Daisy’s home and life as a white, unchanging thing, full of meaningless talk and even less meaningful action that tends to make him slightly ill.  He presents her reaction to having Gatsby in her home alongside her husband as a careless, spiteful action: “Gatsby stood in the center of the crimson carpet and gazed around with fascinated eyes.  Daisy watched him and laughed, her sweet, exciting laugh; a tiny gust of powder rose from her bosom into the air” (118).  This carelessness applied equally to her daughter, to whom she only speaks occasionally and often speaks of as an object or possession rather than a human being.  “They were careless people, Tom and Daisy – they smashed up things and creatures and then retreated back into their money or their vast carelessness, or whatever it was that kept them together, and let other people clean up the mess they had made” (180-181).  Finally, in the end, when Daisy strikes and kills Myrtle on the way home from New York later that evening, she expects Gatsby to take the blame and allows her husband to whisk her off to someplace far away and safe from any investigating eyes.

Despite Nick’s supposed objective perspective on these two individuals, however, he remains a very subjective person.  He sees Gatsby for the tremendous force he is as well as the fatal flaw that leads to his eventual death, but he also sees Daisy and her social group as a snobbish empty careless group of people who have no idea how to comport themselves in the real world.  His impressions are those of an outsider, but also those of an insider, as he warns us at the beginning of the book that he is accustomed to being among the upper-class citizens within his Midwestern home.  He admits this failing in himself before he even introduces Gatsby or Daisy: “After boasting this way of my tolerance, I come to the admission that it has a limit.  Conduct may be founded on the hard rock or the wet marshes, but after a certain point I don’t care what it’s founded on” (2).  Nick indicates within and around this statement that there is a certain base level of acceptable conduct in life and it’s one that has been overstepped by everyone he’s about to discuss with the exception of Gatsby alone.  “If personality is an unbroken series of successful gestures, then there was something gorgeous about him, some heightened sensitivity to the promises of life” (2).  This statement would seem to include the idea that there is also something missing in Nick’s behavior throughout the novel as well.

When Daisy first appears in the novel, she does so in a flowing white dress, such that the reader sees a clean slate, a blank canvas and a picture of innocence that largely typifies her entire character.  Nick Calloway, the story’s narrator, gives a hint as to how such a blank slate might not be a great thing as he describes the first glimpse of Daisy to be had: “They were both in white, and their dresses were rippling and fluttering as if they had just been blown back in after a short flight around the house … the caught wind died out about the room, and the curtain and the rugs and the two young women ballooned slowly to the floor” (8).  By equating Daisy and her friend with the curtains and rugs, Nick indicates that neither of them has a personality or presence of their own, but are instead merely the reflection of the beholder’s thoughts.  The fact that they are clad in white further emphasizes this idea as neither one expresses color nor individuality.  The inclusion of the effect of the wind blowing about the house and its effect upon the women’s dresses gives the reader a further impression that both of these women are little more than birds, ethereal creatures having little to do with everyday life but rather just existing from day to day in whatever form or shape the wind cares to impart.  Yet Daisy is seen as the perfect example of the American high society ideal.  She has the family background that provides her with “old money” connections and a husband with enough wealth of his own to bring down a string of polo ponies.  “It was hard to realize that a man in my own generation was wealthy enough to do that” (6).  She has all the right friends and the personality, charm and decadent style to make her welcome in any social gathering.  “Her voice is full of money” (120), the pursuit of which was becoming even more closely associated with the American dream.  However, her changeable nature, always shifting with the most prevalent, loudest voice, reveals the lack of substance in her character.

Throughout the story, the relentless pursuit of an identity that seems to be constantly slipping away comprises the underlying driving force of the action.  Gatsby continues to seek a new identity for himself that is other than the poor, uneducated man he was before leaving for war.  In attempting to define himself through exterior elements, Gatsby is never able to bring his internal identity into line with his exterior persona and thus fails to understand many of the elements of the ‘old rich’ society that he wishes to be associated with.  Because of this failure of understanding, Gatsby is not able to achieve the sense of identity he wants – both alienating himself from his true identity in his desire for something different and cutting himself off from the new identity because of an inability to fully understand the dynamics involved.  Daisy is never able to fully form an identity because she is never forced to confront the consequences of her actions – nothing she does ever really matters.  Yet this entire world is presented by Nick, who himself has his own cynicism and biases regarding what he witnesses.  Nick’s disillusionment with material success reflects Fitzgerald’s disappointment in America in the 1920s and this disillusionment becomes a necessary component within his characterizations of Gatsby, Daisy, and Nick.

Works Cited

  1. Fitzgerald, F. Scott.  The Great Gatsby.  New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1925.