Analysis of the Significance of the Past in The Great Gatsby and A Streetcar Named Desire
In this essay, I will discuss and analyse the significance of the past in 1920s novel The Great Gatsby, written by F. Scott Fitzgerald. I will also discuss the past of A Streetcar Named Desire A play written in 1947 by Playwright Tennessee Williams. Moreover, I will discuss how the past foreshadows and more accurately forebodes events in both works.
I will also discuss the past in a racial context between both texts. Finally, I will overview the techniques used to display the significance of the past with these two texts.
The significance of the past is vital in The Great Gatsby’s narrative. The essay question; which is also the last words of the novel ends with the noun ‘past’. The significance of this leaves the reader to think about the past. Additionally, the end of a novel, sometimes called a dénouement is where all the loose ends are tied and everything is resolved. In this novel, it is not as clear. Instead we think back to the past, the origins of Gatsby and how he came to be. It can also be implied a declaration of striding forward and not looking back in fear.
The past is also significant in reinforcing that the American dream is not really attainable regardless of your background. Gatsby is a charming new money bootlegger trying to fit in with the elite. He constantly uses the phrase ‘old sport’ when addressing Nick, this suggests he is trying to fit in with the ‘old money’ crowd. The constant repetition of this phrase exposes Gatsby’s desperate façade.
Chapters early on such as chapter 5 can predict Gatsby’s deadly fate. Being described as looking ‘pale as death’ and ‘drowned in a pool of water’ can reinforce Gatsby’s inevitable fate of being shot by George Wilson as he drowns in his pool. In the next chapter, the past is used to highlight irony. Upon telling Nick telling Gatsby he cannot repeat the past he facetiously responds:
‘Can’t repeat the past? He cried incredulously. ‘Why of course you can!’ (p.106).
This declarative response is clearly (and sadly) not true for the rest of the novel. Moreover, it reinforces Gatsby’s hamartia, his pride. The adverb ‘incredulously’ highlights how flippant Gatsby is with the brute realities of the blunt but realistic views of the old money class. Furthermore, this puts emphasis on the American Dream not being achievable for everyone. No matter how hard you work, if you are not born into the ascribed status of old money you will not reach it. And if you try you will fail. Gatsby has dedicated much of his life to recapture this golden, dreamlike past with Daisy which never happens. Daisy and Gatsby meet as early as chapter 5 which foreshadows that they will not be together at the end since they have meet very early on.
The significance of the past in A Streetcar Named Desire is crucial to the plot. Our central character, Blanche leaves her past to live with Stella and her husband Stanley Kowalski. Blanche Dubois is described as a ‘Southern Belle’ in the 20th century, she is a fading relic of a bygone era. Her moth-like image and her past American values of manners, refinement and high culture display her behaviour of a woman living in the past. This is even further contrasted by her aged fashion sense which contrasts the present gritty reality of New Orleans. Furthermore, her all-white attire is a common trope for degenerate characters showcased in Williams other works. This forebodes the tragic demise of Blanche Dubois.
Another way Williams cleverly presents the significance of the past is through Blanche’s monologues. One of the most significant ones is her monologue about Allan Grey, her ex-lover. In scene six Blanche recounts this.[She crosses to the window and sits on the sill, looking out. She pours herself another drink.] (scene 6)
These paralinguistics depict Blanche as some sort of dated princess. As she sits on the sill she looks out of the window like a damsel in distress. There is almost a sense of bathos as she pours herself yet another drink before she reminisces on this traumatizing flashback. This highlights the dichotomy between fantasy and reality, the princess and the alcoholic. Mitch is Blanche’s closest thing to a ‘knight in shining armor’. And because of her distressing past this could be the key to escape a life of poverty and hardship.
In another monologue, it can be seen as revealing character traits and characteristics. Stanley’s actions are described as animalistic as he ‘grunts’ and ‘growls’ throughout the play. In Blanche’s ‘He’s an animal’ monologue she doesn’t hold back. Blanche condemns him describing him as a savage she bellows:
BLANCHE: …and there he is-Stanley Kowalski-survivor of the stone age! Bearing the raw meat home from the kill in the jungle!
This part of the monologue is a lexical echo to earlier events in the play in scene one. Stanley enters with a raw bloody package, this reinforces Blanche’s view of him being this ‘savage’. The concept of Stanley being from the ‘stone age’ reintroduces the past, it is also an insult to Stanley indirectly saying he is stupid and has a prehistoric behavior and manners. The monologue also includes a lexical field of wildlife: jungle, ape, animal, creature. This semantic field of jungle life has parallels in scene 10. Infamously known as “The Rape Scene” charged with dramatic action and danger within the Kowalski household. Within this scene the blue piano music, which is heard by everyone, increases in volume. The blue piano music is a motif of New Orleans reality. This harrowing scene changes Blanche forever, the heightened volume of the blue piano music highlights the brutal reality of how Stanley has been plotting against Blanche from the beginning. Further into the scene the blue piano music decreases and jungle voices increase in volume:[The ((blue piano’ goes softly. She turns confusedly and makes a faint gesture. The inhuman jungle voices rise up. He takes a step toward her, biting his tongue which protrudes between his lips.]
This implies Stanley’s animalistic nature is being amplified and he has completely overpowered Blanche. The adjective ‘faint’ accurately describes Blanche’s weakness. Whereas Stanley takes a step-in power as his tongue ‘protrudes’ between his lips. It displays that not only has he heavily anticipated this, but his animalistic behavior has taken over entirely. It is almost as if we are not in the real world anymore, we are in Stanley’s world, his domain, he is in full control, in all his glory albeit provocative. Tennessee Williams invokes plastic theatre here as well. Plastic theatre is the use of props, noises and stage directions to convey a blatant parallel with the characters state of mind on stage. With this technique, he blurs reality with fantasy, two key themes of the play. The role of this technique introduces aforementioned themes, adds to the drama in the atmosphere and drives the plot to its climax.
‘In A Streetcar Named Desire Williams synthesizes depth characterization, typical of drama that strives to be an illusion of reality, with symbolic theatrics, which imply an acceptance of the stage as artifice. In short, realism and theatricalism, often viewed as stage rivals, complement each other in this play.’ (p.385)
Thus, the use of reality and fantasy being merged creates an intense effect of conflict between Blanche and Stanley.
Another way Williams presents the significance of the past is through music. At significant points of the play Blanche hears polka music. This jarring piece of music is first heard in scene one where Blanche is asked by Stanley about her Husband. As a result of this Blanche responds:
BLANCHE: The boy-the boy died. [She sinks back down] I’m afraid I’m-going to be sick I [Her head falls on her arms.]
The opening scene ends. This Blanche’s reaction to this question suggests she has a triggering past with her ex-husband. It also reveals that she is not ready to discuss what happened to him. It may also insinuate that Blanche feels very guilty about what happened to him. As Stanley asks her what happened to him we are told Blanche hears the varsouviana polka music. Blanche is the only character who can hear this music which suggests her trauma and sense of insanity creeping in on our troubled protagonist.
Another significant moment on Blanche’s past is in scene 5. In this scene, a young man who delivers newspapers is seduced by Blanche. This scene foreshadows why Blanche got fired as a teacher. William’s makes the audience understand that at this point Blanche is a lost cause. She says this young man makes ‘her mouth water’ in the 1940s it was illicit for a woman to lust after a man; let alone a younger man. Blanche breaking these rules forebodes her demise. The young man draws strong parallels to Blanche’s ex-husband who committed suicide after being caught in bed with another man.
A fairly obvious similarity between both texts is that both protagonists mask a façade. This is common even in real life when people want to hide their pasts. As said prior, Blanche’s personality and appearance is past it’s time. In a literal sense, she always wants to hide from the light, literally hiding her true self in the shadows. From when Blanche meets Stella for the first time in New Orleans she says:
BLANCHE: turn that over-light off! Turn that off! I won’t be looked at in this merciless glare!
Blanche mainly hides from lights as they reveal her age, she hides from them to prevent characters, specifically Mitch from seeing the reality of a fading beauty. Moreover, lights are a symbol of the harsh reality of Blanche’s past. Lights being dimmed may also represent Blanche’s purpose and dignity being reduced. And in the darkness, all that is left is the shadows of a haunted woman guilty of the actions of her past.
For Gatsby, Jay Gatsby is a quasi-alter-ego, his real name being James Gatz.
Another significance of the past is setting, we learn early on in the play that Blanche left the dreamy Belle Reve to stay with Stella in the gritty New Orleans. Williams uses the naturalistic and gritty setting of the south to explore elements of the rising tensions in a post war America alongside social change.
We can further analyze how these settings play a part to the story. Belle Reve is French which translates to ‘Beautiful Dream’. She leaves this dreamlike home to New Orleans where she sees for herself a stark difference in the brute realities of grimy New Orleans.
Similarly, In The Great Gatsby Fitzgerald uses the dystopian setting of the ‘Valley of Ashes’ to display the corruption and decay of the American Dream. In the penultimate chapter of the novel Wilson recounts a suspected affair to Michaelis. He details how he confronted her and how she was sinning in front of the eyes of God. During this time, it was dawn when he was gazing at the eyes of Doctor T. J. Eckleburg.
‘Wilson’s glazed eyes turned out of the ashheaps, where small grey clouds took on fantastic shapes and scurried here and there in the faint dawn wind… Standing behind him, Michaelis saw with a shock that he was looking at the eyes of Doctor T. J. Eckleburg, which had just emerged, pale and enormous, from the dissolving night’. (p.151-152).
In this extract, we see parallels to the past in chapter 2 with the same aforementioned language used in the valley of ashes. ‘grey clouds, fantastic shapes, ashheaps, scurried’ These bleak descriptions mirror the past showing that nothing has changed, no matter how hard the working class are they can’t truly escape where they came from. He states:
‘But above the grey land and the spasms of bleak dust which drift endlessly over it, you perceive, after a moment, the eyes of Doctor T. J. Eckleburg. The eyes of Doctor T. J. Eckleburg are blue and gigantic—their retinas are one yard high. They look out of no face but, instead, from a pair of enormous yellow spectacles which pass over a nonexistent nose. Evidently some wild wag of an oculist set them there to fatten his practice in the borough of Queens, and then sank down himself into eternal blindness or forgot them and moved away. But his eyes, dimmed a little by many paintless days under sun and rain, brood on over the solemn dumping ground.’ (p.26)
Returning to this dystopian setting and reading the same filthy imagery parallels a cyclical narrative characters such as Myrtle who resided there tries to climb the social ladder but dies as a result of not being of old money.
Furthermore, when Gatsby gets shot he is described as:
‘a thin red circle in the water’ (p.154)
The shape of the circle reinforces the cyclical narrative and his death in water is reminiscent of the past of him looking ‘drowned in a pool of water’ in chapter 5, as much earlier.
Another significance of the past in The Great Gatsby is its racial context. None of the main characters are of colour. It is mentioned by Daisy’s husband Tom who is a xenophobic antagonist. In the opening chapter when our narrator meets Tom Buchanan he tells Nick:
‘Civilisation’s going to pieces’ (p.18)
This little statement can encapsulate the whole novel. Not only does it refer to Toms racist views of thinking other non-white races will ‘overpower’ them but it speaks to Gatsby. More specifically his rise to the top, it almost predicts that no matter how hard Gatsby tries to get in with old money he never will. This is because he was not born into that status. It is also said that Tom says this ‘violently’ and he ‘broke out’ to say it. This further foreshadows his aggressive nature. It is also notable how old money characters such as Tom, Nick, Daisy and Jordan do not suffer any consequences and just move on with their lives. However, characters who are trying to climb up the social ladder such as Gatsby and Myrtle suffer fatal consequences, further displaying the falsehood of the American Dream.
Likewise, A Streetcar Named Desire shares racism in its context of the past. Blanche constantly refers to Stanley as a ‘pollack’ which is a slur to Polish people. Stanley insults his Brazilian friend Pablo by calling him a ‘grease ball’ which is a racial slur to south Americans. Most notably the negro woman and the Mexican woman. They are the only characters who do not have names that encompass their role such as the Doctor, Nurse and Tamale Vendor. This displays that these characters of colour were nothing more than just their race. However, the mix of races and the blue piano music combined create a ‘raffish charm’ with New Orleans, though
In Conclusion, both texts use various techniques to discuss the significance of the past. In The Great Gatsby techniques such as foreshadowing and irony is used effectively. It reinforces certain notions that no matter how hard you try, you cannot change your past, more specifically the lower class cannot enter the aristocratic wealthy upper class and live equally.
Whereas, in A Streetcar Named Desire techniques such as dated costume; Blanche’s southern belle appearance, music to set mood and irony to create tension and suspense.
Both texts use setting which is very significant of the past, one being the dystopian valley of ashes and the latter being New Orleans accompanied with the blue piano music. Lastly, the lack of non-white characters and their minimal roles is both texts significantly depict the opportunity and discrimination of races of colour such as African Americans and Latinos.
Overall, the significance of the past gives context to readers and helps them to understand characters, specifically, why they act the way they do.