Saturday, August 24, 2013

Week Two: The Great Gatsby, a Literary Work

What are the key components of a literary work?  Is there a standard way to distinguish the good from the bad?  Much of what society declares “literature” is solely opinion-based; either people enjoy the writing or they don’t.  I think most can agree that classics such as The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald are important pieces of literature even if they’re not considered “favorites”.  I believe that to be classified as a literary work, a novel needs to serve some purpose that is represented strongly throughout.  The Great Gatsby is often referred to as “the great American novel”, a title that lends itself to an eventual purpose. 

Fitzgerald has set up what is supposed to be the great American Dream in his story of Jay Gatsby, a man who created himself by overcoming poverty, gaining wealth and popularity, and fighting for romance.  The narrator even describes his personality as “gorgeous” (Fitzgerald 4) and claims his smile is a “rare [smile] with a quality of eternal reassurance in it” (Fitzgerald 36).  What's strange about him, then, is his reserve.  He himself is never ostentatious; he hangs back during parties and often goes unseen.  He's the complete opposite of most of the characters who thrive on attention.  I suppose in a way he's using his house and money to get the attention, which is what his peers do (but in a more upfront manner).  It's the mystery of this man that makes the novel both compelling and confusing.  

Another part of this concept is the difference between determination and greed.  The Great Gatsby is an excellent example of how money is both necessary for and detrimental to life.  “[Tom and Daisy] were careless people…-they smashed up things and creatures and then retreated back into their money or their vast carelessness…and let other people clean up the mess they had made.”  They are supposed to be living the American dream, rolling in their fortunes, but the fact is they are miserable.  Their love lives are tangled in a web and their greed constantly leads to excess drama.  So is Gatsby different, and if so what makes him different?  It seems his determination is centered around Daisy, so as readers, we could argue that flaunting his fortune is purely for love.  He wanted to impress her and seemingly “revalued everything in his house according to the measure of response it drew from her well-loved eyes” (Fitzgerald 65).  It was Daisy’s beautiful and expensive home that “increased her value in his eyes” (Fitzgerald 105).  Of course, expense increased the value of everything in everyone’s eyes.  The narrator even searched for the cause of Daisy’s voice and eventually discovered it was “full of money” (Fitzgerald 85).  This brings to light one reason why The Great Gatsby is a literary work: it perfectly illustrates the Roaring Twenties.

Fitzgerald’s depiction of the Jazz Age is very solid throughout the novel.  It’s all about music, dancing, parties, romance, cars, and most importantly: money.  He creates images that so strongly reflect the time period that you feel a part of it.  The imagery in the party scenes allows you to hear the band, taste the wine, and see the beauty.  But above all, the interesting and rather twisted part of this novel is despite all the riches and luxury, the characters are rather pathetic.  Although Fitzgerald leaves most of their deeper personalities to interpretation, most of what he chooses to tell us is not pleasant.  This overpowering conflict of desire and misery drives the story behind the wheel of a Rolls Royce, which may be a symbol of luxury but certainly not one of happiness.

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Week One: The Wizard of Oz versus The Hunger Games

L. Frank Baum’s The Wonderful Wizard of Oz has much in common with Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games, primarily in the form of government power abuse.  As Katniss faces the Capital’s bloodthirsty rule in order to gain the necessary victory for returning home, Dorothy must face an assumedly powerful wizard to achieve a similar escape.  The idea of the “dictator”, as well as social class separation, is strongly present throughout each literary work.

Both stories begin by introducing the heroine in unpleasant living conditions; Katniss resides in the poor outskirts of Panem while Dorothy’s house is stationed in a grey flatland.  When the girl on fire is taken to the Capital and when the girl from Kansas finds herself over the rainbow, they finally discover new worlds beyond their wildest fantasies.  Despite how “rich and luscious” these places are, with “the queerest people [they’ve] ever seen”, the two brave females become pieces in the governments’ games, soon understanding that appearance and fortune can often mean survival.

The importance of appearance and stereotype, in fact, is a presiding theme in both works.  In Baum’s story, the Land of Oz is split into several territories, all of which are color-coated and are home to conformity-abiding residents.  Everyone is so obsessed with labeling that the victims begin to develop low self-esteem.  The Scarecrow believes he is a fool because his straw head makes him so.  The Tin Woodsman believes he is heartless because there is no physical organ to yield kindness.  The truth is, however, that the characters do exactly the opposite of what they believe themselves capable.  The Scarecrow frequently uses logic to reason through difficult circumstances and the Tin Woodsman is the most caring and sensitive of them all.    It appears that Baum emphasizes the importance of being oneself rather than relying on physical attributes and labels to get the job done.

Collins takes a very similar approach in her display of District 12.  Panem has classified District 12 as the weak and unprepared district, and this mocking has most likely cost previous tributes a solid losing-streak.  Katniss is secure enough to harness her strong personality and disregard the judgments.  To her, the ridicule is worthless.  She recognizes her hate of President Snow and his reign; this is all she needs to achieve victory. 

This is proof, then, that a man is only as powerful as he can convince those around him.  Once society’s fear is undermined, the people gain a new sense of power that, when standing together, can overthrow the man they once thought undefeatable.  With this in mind, Katniss and Dorothy were able to find their way home because they understood the truth: the Capital depended on a victor to maintain its reputation and Oz was just an old man hiding behind a curtain. 

There are many other similarities between the two works.  The scene from the film adaptation of The Wizard of Oz in which Dorothy and her friends receive a “make-over” in the Emerald City mirrors the scene in which The Hunger Games’ tributes are beautified for the cameras.  Effie Trinket even has something in common with the flying monkeys: both are “good” characters that do bad things because of an evil dominating power.   In the grand scheme of things, however, materialism and economic status are two strong themes in both literary pieces.  These themes, in fact, are for the most part found in all fairytales; princesses are “beautiful”, witches are “bad and ugly”, and royalty is “the most powerful”.  I think one strong element in Baum’s The Wonderful Wizard of Oz can be found in all fairytales, however: the hero or heroine challenges or deviates from the norm.  In all such tales, the main character may embark on a quest, stand up to a villain, or run away with a secret love in order to make a change that he or she sees fit.  If there were no challenge of authority or presentation of conflict, life would continue just as it always had and the fairytale would be very dull indeed.  Because of this idea, works such as The Wonderful Wizard of Oz and The Hunger Games fall under the category of the “American Fairytale”, a genre that will never die.

One assumption that is present in these works, along with several other works I'm sure, is that the onset of each story presents a bold "transformation".  That is to say, the main character is the first to challenge authority or create the plot twist.  How do we know that prior tributes didn't attempt to overthrow the capital?  How do we know that the people of Oz never second guessed the wizard?  Often times, novels come from the main character's point of view and thus, we only know what he or she knows.  The past can many times hide behind a curtain of viewpoint.
Another assumption is that collective "groups" in stories all have the same opinion.  Does everyone in District 12 have the exact same ideas regarding the Capital?  Do all the Munchkins fear the Wicked Witch?  As readers, we sometimes classify characters into a definite "group" and stick with it.

Position as a Reader
As a reader, I already have my list of "favorite novels", and books that vary from that general stereotype I often regard as "inferior".  I enjoy comedy, as well as stories that deal with real-life struggles and relatable instances.  Fantasy novels, for example, are not my cup of tea.  I think that as I reader, I am incredibly bias towards my own preferences and sometimes isolate myself in my own comfort zone.  Perhaps this is because I consider reading a "leisure activity", and writing that forces me to pour hours of effort into deciphering hidden meanings or deep theories does not lend itself to leisure.