“The Great Gatsby” and “The Crucible” are both considered to be classics of American literature. They both deal with a specific moment in American history, and they both show how groups of people behave in particular ways in particular circumstances. Indeed, it can be argued that both of the works focus on the way in which group delusion has played a role in the way in the shaping of American history and culture. The two works differ, however, in the sense that while one of these group delusions is condemned completely, the other is shown to be a necessary part of what it means for particular individuals to live in America. This paper will demonstrate this by considering key moments from both of the works.
From the opening of “The Great Gatsby” it is made clear the the world of the novel is one which borders between reality and dream. It is also made clear that taking part in this dream is something which many people do so willingly, even though the events are described as if they could not possibly be real. When Fitzgerald writes about Gatsby’s parties he does so in a deliberately and dream like way. For example one reads of how:
“In his [Gatsby’s] blue gardens men and girls came and went like moths among the whisperings and the champagne and the stars. At high tide in the afternoon I watched his guests diving from the tower of his raft or taking the sun on the hot sand of his beach while his two motor-boats slit the waters of the Sound, drawing aquaplanes over cataracts of foam” (Fitzgerald, 2005, p. 26).
The language in this passage is both vivid and surreal, as is Fitzgerald’s use of colour throughout novel in order to distinguish between different and also between different people. The atmosphere of the words are thick and generate the impression that every person is somehow participating in Gatsby’s extravagant dream.
Like Fitzgerald novel, “The Crucible” also focuses on a strong state of dream overtaking its characters. However, in Miller’s case this dream-state is one which is much more directly related to power than to enjoyment. From the first act, and in particular with regard to the interactions between Abigail and Proctor, it is clear that the blurred line between dream and reality can be used to the advantage of particular individuals. At one point, for example, Abigail tells Proctor that: “I know how you clutched my back behind your house and sweated like a stallion whenever I come near! Or did I dream that? It’s she put me out, you cannot pretend it were you. I saw your face when she put me out, and you loved me then and you do now! (Miller, 2000, p. 30).” In this speech, it is clear that rumours of witchcraft in Salem are beginning to interfere with people’s perception of reality and making it difficult to distinguish from dream and reality. At same time, however, it is also clear that these rumours can be exploited by Abigail in order to gain power over Proctor, a man that she desires greatly. As such, the play generates begins to generate as sense of communal illusion, however it does not suggest that this brings general employment, but rather simply an exercise for cynical play of power between different individuals.
There is also a crucial difference in the way that both pieces view the necessity of delusion.. At the end of “The Great Gatsby” Nick is clearly broken hearted and disillusioned, however he equally shows that the kind of illusions that Gatsby perpetuated are crucial for different peoples’ lives and that this applies to classes of people as to individuals. When speaking of Tom and Daisy in the final chapter, Nick states: “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…” (2005, p. 191). The class of people that Tom and Daisy represent are people who can only live through their illusion, and through their carelessness. Likewise, at the end of the novel, Gatsby himself is presented as possessing an inherent nobility because he is able to stand against reality and believe in his own dream. Nick notes that: “Gatsby believed in the green light, the orgastic future that year by year recedes before us. It eluded us then, but that’s no matter—tomorrow we will run faster, stretch out our arms farther…” (p. 193). These make it clear that although Gatsby’s life was based on a lie, and although he also encouraged other people to believe in it, this life was still a noble one and contained something that Nick admires. In this sense, illusion is presented as perhaps being recessionary to life in America.
This can be directly contrasted to the end of “The Crucible.” It is clear in the play’s final act that hysteria has entirely taken over Salem and that many innocent people have died because of it. At no point, however, is this illusion shown to be a good thing, or to possess any kind of nobility, rather it is condemned and shown to be evil. The play ends, indeed with, the attempt to salvage truth from a situation of almost complete delusion. This is the reason why Proctor ends with the statement that he cannot confess to witchcraft. He states that this is because “it is my name! Because I cannot have another in my life! Because I lie and sign myself to lies! Because I am not worth the dust on the feet of them that hang! How may I live without my name? I have given you my soul; leave me my name!” (2000, p. 146). This statement represents Proctor attempting to salvage and to hold on to the truth of his own innocence, even though it means dying.
In this sense, the two climactic scenes can be seen to be competently opposed to each other. While Fitzgerald suggests that truth and beauty may come from dreaming and a refusal to accept reality, Miller suggests that the truth must be held on to at all costs, even if it means dying for it. Ultimately, it is this which divides the works and which explains their varying attitudes towards what it means to be a part of American history.
In conclusion, this paper has argued that both “The Great Gatsby” and “Crucible” engage directly in the history of America and show how this history involves moments of group illusion and delusion. However, whereas the former demonstrates that the illusion can be pleasurable and even contain an important degree of nobility, the latter condemns it and focuses solely on a redeeming moment of truth that may come if one refuses to lie even in the face of death. It is this difference in the way that they both relate to the act of lying and to the way in which this lying may affect, and even define, a person’s life, that forms the biggest difference between the two works.
- Fitzgerald, F. Scott. (2005). The Great Gatsby. Penguin: London.
- Miller, Arthur. (2000). The Crucible: A Play in Four Acts. Penguin London.