Transforming Oneself in the Great Essay

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  • Subject: Literature
  • Type: Essay
  • Paper: #29215025

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My appearance was always good and my ability to play on the piano, especially ragtime, which was then at the height of its vogue, made me a welcome guest."(Johnson, 139) Nevertheless, this only increases his feeling that he does not belong to his own race, and his sense that everything is a bitter irony. As the hero passes as a white man, he is forced many times to listen to unjust commentaries that are made against the black race and he realizes that he himself is ironically a disproof of these unfavorable remarks and an evidence that blackness does not render a man 'unfit': "The anomaly of my social position often appealed strongly to my sense of humor. I frequently smiled inwardly at some remark not altogether complimentary to people of color; and more than once I felt like declaiming, 'I am a colored man. Do I not disprove the theory that one drop of Negro blood renders a man unfit?'"(Johnson, 140)

Another impasse occurs when the hero wants to get married to a white woman and hesitates in telling his wife-to-be the truth about his racial origin. Eventually he does tell her and they get married, but his insecurity continues as he keeps questioning her feelings for him and whether she looks upon him as a 'colored man' whenever she detects a bad quality in him or a failure: "The few years of our married life were supremely happy, and, perhaps she was even happier than I; for after our marriage, in spite of all the wealth of her love which she lavished upon me, there came a new dread to haunt me, a dread which I cannot explain and which was unfounded, but one that never left me. I was in constant fear that she would discover in me some shortcoming which she would unconsciously attribute to my blood rather than to a failing of human nature."(Johnson, 149)

The conclusion of the book is thus that the hero's passing as a white man results only in frustration and loss of identity. While he becomes a successful and accomplished man, he realizes that he has pursued only a selfish ideal and has achieved nothing more than a personal status. Therefore, he has not succeeded in 'uplifting the race', because he has not gained recognition as a black man, but as a white one: "And it is this that all of that small but gallant band of colored men who are publicly fighting the cause of their race have behind them. Even those who oppose them know that these men have the eternal principles of right on their side, and they will be victors even though they should go down in defeat. Beside them I feel small and selfish. I am an ordinarily successful white man who has made a little money. They are men who are making history and a race. I, too, might have taken part in a work so glorious."(Johnson, 154) the hero awakens thus to the sense that what he has done was actually to sacrifice his own identity and his birthright, in favor of a few petty financial achievements, what he calls a 'mess of pottage': "...When I sometimes open a little box in which I still keep my fast yellowing manuscripts, the only tangible remnants of a vanished dream, a dead ambition, a sacrificed talent, I cannot repress the thought, that, after all, I have chosen the lesser part, that I have sold my birthright for a mess of pottage."(Johnson, 154) Thus, as critic Gayle Wald observes in his book Crossing the Line: Racial Passing in the Twentieth Century U.S. Literature and Culture, Johnson's Autobiography is an essential text for the theme of racial passing precisely because it gives a very realist description of the main character's failure to achieve racial self-assertion: "The Autobiography is frequently cited as a 'prototypical' modernist passing novel -- as the 'classic' twentieth-century text against which all are judged -- and yet as a work that centers on the failure of the nameless protagonist to live up to the standards of racial self-assertion associated with the heroic tradition, it also diverges from the narrative of racial 'homecoming' that more typically signifies the successful resolution of the passing plot."(Wald, 35-36) as Wald emphasizes, the hero fails to bring his own identity to a sense of closure and fulfillment, and he remains and unstable and frustrated subject throughout the book, who chose to renounce his own race in favor of a personal, minor achievement: "Rather than fulfill the ex-colored man's desire for closure, the autobiographical enterprise, usually associated with the narrative production of a stable self, accentuates the instability of the ex-colored man's "I" through the circularity of his narration."(Wald, 36) Thus, in Johnson's Autobiography, the transformation of the self and the attempt to pass as someone else results in a sense of ultimate failure and bitter frustration.

In Fitzgerald's Great Gatsby, the main theme is slightly different but the identity problem is treated in a very similar way. Thus, the subjective narrative told from the point-of-view of Nick Carraway focuses on the peculiar and outlandish figure of the rich and famous Jay Gatsby. In the beginning of the novel, Jay Gatsby is depicted as an extravagant, idealist, rich man who seems to be the perfect embodiment of the American Dream. He throws enormous, generous parties, to which people come without an invitation and seems altogether to be the figure of the Western ideal. Nick Carraway's first impression of him is very significant, as he, as well as all the others who know him, are convinced, in spite of the mystery behind Gatsby's origin, that he must come from a rich family and must have an extraordinary story: "I knew I had discovered a man of fine breeding after I talked with him an hour. I said to myself: 'There's the kind of man you'd like to take home and introduce to your mother and sister.'"(Fitzgerald, 73) Thus, in Fitzgerald's novel, the character that passes for a different person is seen from the outside and therefore we have a full view of the way in which he is perceived by the others. Also, unlike the unnamed hero of Johnson's Autobiography, Gatsby is an idealist who creates his false identity out of an artistic inclination almost, rather than the ambition to be rich and famous. There is a social crossing of line in this case, as Gatsby transforms himself into the American Dream. The symbolism of the East and West egg-shaped parts of the island where the action of the novel takes place is also very significant: the author renders a description of what he sees as the corruption of the West, of the American Dream, under the influence of the East. Gatsby is, in this context, the symbol of the American Dream and of idealism while Tom Buchanan is the symbol of the surging tendency towards materialism and corruption. Gatsby's passing is thus very complex, as he is much more than a social parvenu, he actually tries to build the Western ideal. As the hero in Johnson's book though, he eventually fails, and his loss symbolizes the victory of materialism and corruption over idealism in American identity. Thus, the transformation of Fitzgerald's character from Jimmy Gatz into Jay Gatsby is very different from that of the main character in Johnson's Autobiography. Gatsby has a "Platonic conception of himself," an undaunted idealism and a vivacious imagination that transform his vision of the world. He therefore believes in the false identity that he constructs for himself more than in his actual one that his imagination cannot accept in the first place: "I suppose he'd had the name ready for a long time, even then. His parents were shiftless and unsuccessful farm people - his imagination had never really accepted them as his parents at all. The truth was that Jay Gatsby of West Egg, Long Island, sprang from his Platonic conception of himself. He was a son of God...and he must be about His Father's business, the service of a vast, vulgar, and meretricious beauty. So he invented...Jay Gatsby...and to this conception he was faithful to the end."(Fitzgerald, 99) by contrast with the hero of the autobiography, Gatsby transforms himself to fit his own ideal conception of the world, and not only to achieve a different status in society. As Fitzgerald repeatedly suggests, Gatsby's metamorphosis is justified by the hero's need to believe in the 'unreality of reality', in the possibility of achieving the impossible and in realizing the American Dream: "Each night he added to the pattern of his fancies until drowsiness closed down upon some vivid scene with an oblivious embrace. For a while these reveries provided an outlet for his imagination; they were a satisfactory hint of the unreality of reality, a promise that the rock of the world was founded securely on a fairy's wing."(Fitzgerald, 101) Gatsby's passing for someone else is thus done through a…

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