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Death Theme in The Great Gatsby and To the Lighthouse

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Treatment of Death in Any Two Novel

Both Fitzgerald and Woolf deal with death in their novels ‘The Great Gatsby’ and ‘To the Lighthouse.’ The novels present two main characters which die, this being Gatsby from ‘The Great Gatsby’ and Mrs. Ramsay in ‘To the Lighthouse.’ While both characters go out of their way to cater to other people and at the beginning are the most universally liked, the reactions to their deaths are completely different. In ‘The Great Gatsby.’ the death of Gatsby is met with a lack of grief, excluding the narrator Nick, while in ‘To the Lighthouse’ Mrs. Ramsay’s death results in the other character becoming adrift. As well as this, both authors use minor characters to highlight themes within their novels. This is seen with Myrtle Wilson from ‘The Great Gatsby’ and Andrew Ramsay from ‘To the Lighthouse.”

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In The Great Gatsby, when Gatsby dies Nick immediately refers to it as a holocaust, stating that “after we started with Gatsby…the gardener saw Wilson’s body a little way off in the grass, and the holocaust was complete.” Fitzgerald uses the word “holocaust” to suggest that Gatsby’s death was equivalent to a mass destruction. However, on closer analysis it becomes obvious that while, to Nick it felt like a mass destruction, it did not greatly impact anyone else. This is seen clearly at Gatsby’s funeral when “[n]obody came.” This therefore indicates that, while Gatsby seemed to be loved by everyone around him, their love for him was actually superficial as they loved to come to his parties. Now that he was died, he was not important to them anymore. Fitzgerald emphasises the fact that Gatsby’s death did not greatly impact his world as he states that even to Nick Gatsby “was already too far away” when he tried to think about him. The shows that even Nick, the person who described his death as being like a “holocaust” was beginning to forget about him and was not that grief stricken only a little while after his death.

As mentioned before, this reaction could be seen as being fairly ironic as, at the beginning of the novel Fitzgerald suggested that his character Gatsby was universally liked as he catered to others needs and make people feel important. This is most clearly seen when Nick states that Gatsby smiled “understandingly – much more than understandingly” and that his smile was one of those “rare smiles with a quality of eternal reassurance in it.” This not only shows that Gatsby makes Nick feel as if, even after just meeting him, he was important to Gatsby. Fitzgerald develops this warm feeling Gatsby brings to others further by mentioning how he made people feel as if he “believed in you as you would like to believe in yourself, and assured you that it had precisely the impression of you that, at your best, you hoped to convey.”

Similarly, Woolf presents the character of Mrs. Ramsay as having similar qualities, expect to an ever bigger extreme. This is seen when she writes that “[indeed, Mrs. Ramsay] had the whole of the other sex under her protection.” This indicates that Mrs. Ramsay felt as indeed was a care giver to the men in her life and she was successful in being so. The result of this is that she is very much liked by everyone in her life, especially men which is exemplified when Mr. Tansley states that “she made him feel better pleased with himself.” This is significant as Woolf describes Mr. Tansley as being misogynistic so for him to acknowledge that a woman has made him feel good about himself is a big deal.

When Mrs. Ramsay dies in To the Lighthouse, however, it can been that it destroys the flow of everyone’s lives around her. This is especially seen with Mr. Ramsay, exemplified in Time Passes when Woolf writes:

“[Mr. Ramsay, stumbling along a passage one dark morning, stretched his arms out, but Mrs. Ramsay having died rather suddenly the night before, his arms, though stretched out, remained empty.]”

This clearly shows that Mr. Ramsay is completely lost without Mrs. Ramsay as he now has no-one to get sympathy from. What is interesting is that this is the first mention of Mrs. Ramsay’s death and Woolf describers to tell the reader in a subordinate clause as a way of explaining why Mr. Ramsay’s arms were not filled in their usual way. This is different from Fitzgerald who exaggerates and almost romanticises Gatsby’s death to then show the stark contrast in people’s reactions. Instead, Woolf choses to spring the death on the readers to make it all the more arresting and shocking. Thus, this emphasises how destructive her death was to those around her. This is supported when Woolf writes that it was like “the link that usually bound things together had been cut, and they floated up here, down there, off, anyhow,” indicating how lost everyone felt without Mrs. Ramsay’s love and guidance in life. This is because Woolf presents Mrs. Ramsay as a mother figure or guardian to most characters in the novel so without her there structuring their lives and giving them the reassurance and sympathy they need, they feel aimless. As well as this, Woolf decides to refer to Mrs. Ramsay as a “link that usually bound things together” to indicate that Mrs. Ramsay also connected everyone together and without her the characters remaining felt disconnected to the people around them.

In The Great Gatsby Fitzgerald uses Gatsby’s death to symbolise the death of the American Dream. This is because he himself was a symbol of the American Dream as he built himself from the ground up into something massive in a short period of time. Therefore, when he dies, the dream dies with him. Fitzgerald shows this brilliantly through his description of the scene of Gatsby’s death when he describes him dying in a pool with “a thin red circle in the water.” Fitzgerald chooses to have Gatsby die in a pool as water has been a transformative medium through Gatsby’s life. Young James seized control of his destroy by diving into water and boarding Dan Cody’s yacht. However, the vast watery expanse of his youth has symbolically shrunken into a recreational contrivance, a swimming pool. As well as this, it is like he has come full circle, swimming backwards in time and development and returning to the same person he was back then without the riches. This therefore shows that the American Dream has not worked as, as Gatsby lies in his pool, the wealth he made for himself diminishes in worth. Thus, any chance of the old American Dream of surviving is lost.

In To the Lighthouse, Woolf uses Mrs. Ramsay’s death to emphasise the transience of life. While Mrs. Ramsay dies and physically leaves the world, however her legacy continues and lives though the other characters in the novel. This can be seen when Woolf discusses how in the “midst of chaos there was shape; this eternal passing and flowing” which can be seen to be alluding to the fact that despite the emotional turmoil the characters were going through due to physically losing Mrs. Ramsay, she was still alive somehow in their minds. Therefore, Woolf is using Mrs. Ramsay as an example to deal with the idea of the transience of life in term of, yes mortal life can be fleeting, but a legacy can continue.

Both authors use the death of minor characters to highlight themes within their novels. In The Great Gatsby, Fitzgerald uses the death of Myrtle Wilson to once again show the futility of the American Dream as, when she dies he describes her “thick dark blood [mixed] with the dust.” This shows that despite her efforts to climb the social ladder through her affair with Tom, she dies in The Valley of Ashes where she started, symbolising that no one really achieves their goals or at least die trying. As well as this Fitzgerald choses to go into graphic detail about Myrtle’s corpse to once again highlight that her life, despite the frequent glimpses she had, was not glamorous like the Buchanan’s but instead dirty and harsh. This is seen when he writes:

“They saw that her left breast was swinging loose like a flap…[t]he mouth was wide open and ripped at the corners, as though she had choked a little in giving up the tremendous vitality she had stored so long.”

Thus, this shows, much like Gatsby, that in death Myrtle is brought back down to the bottom were she started despite trying to climb to the heights of the wealthy during her life. Fitzgerald chooses to add that her “left great was swinging loose like a flap” as throughout the novel he had associated her to beauty and exoticness so therefore in her death he destroys her sexuality to show that her efforts had been futile.

In To the Lighthouse, Woolf uses the death of Andrew Ramsay to link to the idea of the futility of success. This is seen when she mentions that “when [Mr. Carmichael] had heard of Andrew Ramsay’s death…[he] had “lost all interest in life.”” This shows that, despite the fact that Mr. Carmichael had become famous due to his work, he had no happiness in his life without his friend Andrew Ramsay. Woolf uses this to show that someone can reach heights of success and still be miserable without meaningful emotional connection in their life.

Thus, it can be seen that both Fitzgerald and Woolf deal with death in their novels The Great Gatsby and To the Lighthouse. Both authors choose to have their characters, which are seemingly the most universally liked and the most caring, die. This is seen in the case of Gatsby and Mrs. Ramsay. Where they differ, however, is the reaction the deaths have on the ones around the characters as Gatsby’s death as no affect on anyone whereas Mrs. Ramsay’s is destructive to all those who knew her. As well as this, both authors use these characters and the minor character Myrtle Wilson in The Great Gatsby and Andrew Ramsay in To the Lighthouse to highlight themes in their novel.

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