The two great masterpieces The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald and An American Tragedy by Theodore Dreiser came out in 1925. In both the novels we see the tragedy of death of the central protagonists Jay Gatsby (in The Great Gatsby) and Clyde Griffiths (in An American Tragedy). The death of these heroes arouses a range of questions in regard to the measure of their sinning in life. Hence we tend to attempt a comparative view and assess who was a greater sinner.
Jay Gatsby was killed in his swimming-pool by Wilson whose wife Myrtle was killed in the car accident caused by Daisy, who was driving Gatsby's car: Gatsby's murder, thus, was retaliation that was instantly instigated and sparked by Tom, Daisy's husband and Myrtle's lover. We also recall that Tom had such a vengeful grievance against Gatsby because he (Gatsby) had still been chasing after Daisy. No doubt the rivalry in love (for Daisy) was the root cause - the rivalry between Tom and Gatsby. There was no litigation and legal fight in Gatsby's case. The thing ended through Gatsby's death and burial.
But in Clyde Griffiths' case there was a prolonged litigation in the last event of which he was electrocuted. For, Clyde killed his love Roberta Alden, whom he impregnated despite her earnest protests. He killed Roberta for Sondra, who had wealth added to beauty for which Clyde had so desperately been craving. This is also a case of rivalry in love -- love for Roberta vs. love for Sondra. Knowing full well that she would never be able to win Clyde as he belonged to higher class Roberta vehemently opposed Clyde's advances. She knew that Clyde was the nephew of Samuel Griffiths, the owner of the collar industry in wealthiest man in Lycurgus. And she was only a humble needle-worker there hailing from a humble rural area in Fonda.
So, at Clyde's wild advances she begged at his feet: "I can't, Clyde, I can't. I would if I could but I can't. It wouldn't be right. I would if I could make myself, but I can't." Clyde showed all wildernesses in his love for Roberta like an unstoppable cyclonic storm. But his wild passion for Roberta worked only for a brief time; he desperately fell in love with Sondra, the daughter of wealthy elite, whose opulent money and physical glamour maddened him. Clyde decided to murder Roberta because of two reasons: Roberta's constant pressure on him to marry her and secondly, winning Sondra on the way of which Roberta stood an obstacle. Clyde's death, thus, entangled both moral and religious questions added to the legal question. Clyde was arrested, tried through meticulous legal procedures so that there was no chance of any legal lapses. In addition, he was provided spiritual guidance under a priest Father Duncan McMillan appointed by the prison authority and engaged by Clyde's mother, who had been so seriously concerned about his spiritual salvation. We also know that Mrs. Elvira Griffiths, Clyde's mother (a street preacher) blindly believed that her son, whom she believed to be truthful, was innocent since Clyde never confessed his sin although she insistently interrogated.
In the case of Gatsby's death we see that the human hand acted the other name of which is natural justice or quasi-poetic justice; whereas Clyde's death was the fruit of human justice operated through statutory law. This is, in this context relevant to consider the question of their love for their girls namely Daisy (for Gatsby) and Roberta or Sondra (for Clyde Griffiths), because it was the force of love that operated as the fundamental agent in both the cases. In addition, of course there was another essential factor -- money working as a catalyst.
Both Gatsby and Clyde suffered tragic death: one for almost no sin whereas the other for obvious criminal action. Let us consider Gatsby's case first. We know that Gatsby was whole-heartedly devoted to Daisy who was his past love as she was married to Tom Buchanan. Gatsby failed to win her before her marriage only because Gatsby lacked money that built the social rank. He worshipped her all the way as though she was so indispensible for him. His enormous palace the Rack-Rent, the hydroplane, the spacious lawn, all the grandiose set-ups and furnishings that he built up by bootlegging, was all to win Daisy and "repeat his past" thereby. He made himself a hero from the zero. Of course he followed bootlegging for money and that was an illegal way, an anti-social and anti-state action. There was "the Prohibition" an anti-bootlegging state law; still Gatsby was not objected or accused. Rather he was garlanded and lauded by the society at large. That (violation of the "Prohibition Act") was the only sin (rather offence) Gatsby committed to which the society and also the state culture afforded tacit approval. We know that there were innumerable celebrities who thronged at Gatsby's party and be thanked by themselves. Bootlegging was the only immoral (or illegal) act that Gatsby committed. He could not be accused of any other moral (or legal) irregularity. He was decent as a lover diametrically opposite to Clyde Griffiths. For, Clyde killed Roberta Alden just for Sondra, the magnetic girl whose money and beauty was his sole target. His cool-headed scheme for killing Roberta was his most fundamental sin that he executed so meticulously. Clyde was declared a sinner in the eye of God as well as in the eye of law. That is why Elvira Griffiths, Clyde's mother, in the last event, failed to convince Governor Waltham to grant mercy for Clyde's life.
It was however a tragedy that Daisy killed Myrtle only by an accident and Wilson (her husband) was instigated by Tom, who was Myrtle's secret lover. So Wilson's killing of Gatsby was only an act of revenge that was primarily motivated and triggered by Tom. In this novel Gatsby has been presented as an ideal lover: his drive for money was not for his personal pleasure; money was only the social tool (for him) for winning his love Daisy whom Gatsby was still able to keep captivated by mysterious fascination.
(The second installment of the article would be appeared in the next issue)
The writer is a Professor, Department of English, Daffodil International University, Dhaka