Effective texts contain recognisable narrative tropes that facilitate new understandings of our world and ourselves. This is evident in William Shakespeare’s play, Othello, and F. Scott Fitzgerald’s novel, The Great Gatsby which both portray new understandings of the tragic hero narrative trope.
A tragic hero is a character who begins of a noble status or of great virtue. Though this character is pre-eminently great, he or she is not perfect and has a significant character flaw or hamartia. This tragic flaw is what leads to the hero’s eventual downfall or demise. These characteristics are evident in the characters of both Othello, and Jay Gatsby.
In Shakespeare’s play, Othello, it is evident from the onset that Othello is a noble man and has an elevated social status. This is predominantly achieved through Othello’s consistently eloquent and poetic speech. In Act 1, Scene 3, after being accused of using spells and magic to win over Desdemona, Othello compliments the judges in a calm and controlled manner by responding, ‘most potent, grave, and reverend signors’. His manner and the employment of long vowel sounds used in that line, provides a heightened sense of authority, in addition he speaks in iambic pentameter (a type of verse used in Shakespearian plays that has 10 syllables on each line) which helps to convey how eloquent and articulate he is.
Similarly, Jay Gatsby is also depicted as a character of elevated social status in the early chapters of The Great Gatsby. The narrator, Nick Carraway, converses with a Gatsby-hosted party guest (later revealed as Gatsby) that he has far more substance than the other party guests, asking Nick about his life and seeming interested in someone other than himself. In fact, Nick remarks through a hyperbole that Gatsby possesses ‘a quality of eternal reassurance… that you may come across only four or five times in life.’ He even personifies Gatsby’s smile, by saying that it ‘believed in you as you would like to believe in yourself’. The understanding projected through Gatsby’s smile, and his obvious wealth shown through his lavish parties, reveals Gatsby as the perfect gentleman.
However, despite the early impression of Othello and Gatsby, both have submerged flaws that eventually lead to their tragic demise.
Othello’s tragic flaw is his overwhelming jealousy, and his vulnerability to manipulation. Throughout the play, Othello becomes a powerless victim to the manipulation of Iago and allows his growing suspicions and jealousy to control him. His jealousy is prompted in Act 3, Scene 3 when, having seen Cassio speaking to Desdemona, Iago tells Othello ‘O, beware, my lord, of jealousy; /It is the green-eyed monster, which doth mock/The meat it feeds on’. In saying this, Iago insinuates Desdemona is cheating on Othello and so begins Othello’s downward spiral of jealousy. Shakespeare metaphorically compares jealousy to a monster and uses the traits of a monster, such as “destructive”, “frightening”, and “powerful”, to foreshadow what is to come regarding Othello being controlled by his raging jealousy.
Othello’s jealousy is also conveyed in the same scene where Othello delivers his soliloquy, where he thinks aloud, “Haply, for I am black/ And have not those soft parts of conversation… She’s gone.” This soliloquy expresses Othello’s inner belief that he has lost Desdemona, possibly due to his race and because his speech is not as sophisticated as others, in particular, Cassio. This demonstrates how Othello has been blinded by his suspicions of Desdemona and his envy of Cassio, as he can no longer recognise the ability he has with words and assumes the worst of Desdemona without any significant proof.
Jay Gatsby also has a tragic flaw, in the form of his unrelenting pursuit for an unobtainable goal. He has dedicated his life to chasing ‘the American Dream’ and Daisy; the woman who he thinks befits and completes this dream. Nick informs the reader via his narration that “Gatsby believed in the green light, the orgiastic future that year by year recedes before us”. This green light is an extended metaphor throughout the novel and is representative of everything Gatsby hopes to achieve, including Daisy’s house on the other side of the bay, signalled by a green light on the horizon. Despite Gatsby’s attempts to win Daisy over, the light remains far away in the distance, showing that Gatsby could never truly grasp what he was searching for. This message is reiterated when Nick explains that Gatsby “had committed himself to following the Holy Grail”. This biblical allusion further develops the idea that Gatsby was chasing a dream and a woman that he could never truly reach in his hopeless pursuit.
Eventually both characters experience a tragic downfall due to these significant flaws. Signs of Othello’s slow deterioration can be seen through his change of speech in Act 3, Scene 3, when he delivers, “If I do prove her haggard/… I’ld whistle her off and let her down the wind”. The bestial imagery within this soliloquy shows the beginning of Othello’s descent into jealousy driven, madness. By comparing his wife to a wild, untrained hawk, it is apparent that his previous, eloquent verse has dissolved and his sanity along with it. This jealousy ultimately claims Othello, and he decides he must take Desdemona’s life. In Act 4, Scene 1 he declares “Ay, let her rot and perish and be damned tonight, for she shall not live.” Soon after, Othello realises Desdemona was in fact innocent and takes his own life, bringing an end to his tragic story.
Gatsby faces a similar fate as Othello, as his pursuit for his dream leaves him blinded to the reality of what is truly occurring. This is evidenced by the symbolism of Daisy’s name. Throughout the novel white is used as a motif for purity and innocence, and yellow is symbolic of corruption. Therefore, the name Daisy represents someone who, on the outside, seems innocent and pure, but is corrupt on the inside. Gatsby fails to see Daisy’s true nature and this misjudgement leads him to endanger himself when, in an effort to prove his worth to Daisy, he takes the blame for Daisy accidentally killing Myrtle. In doing so Gatsby unknowingly sacrificed his own life for someone who probably would not have done the same for him. Eventually he is shot and killed by Myrtle’s mourning husband, marking the completion of Gatsby’s tragic downfall.
Both Othello and The Great Gatsby facilitate new understandings of the dangers of jealousy and dedicating one’s life to a blind pursuit of an unobtainable goal. Through techniques such as rhythm, metaphor, symbolism, and allusion, William Shakespeare and F. Scott Fitzgerald have expressed messages about human nature that have withstood the test of time by remaining relevant to audiences and readers in contemporary society.