Sunday, September 8, 2013

An Analysis of Jay Gatsby and Quentin Compson’s Obsession with the Past in The Great Gatsby and The Sound and the Fury

Ciao dears!,

        I hope some of you are interested in academic type writing,as well as short stories, poems, and other forms of writing, like I am.  If not, stay tuned for more fashion, baking, cooking, and whatever other things I will be posting about.  Hope you all had a great first week of September.  I can’t wait for Fall!!  Anyway, this is another paper I wrote for my Junior Seminar for English Literature in college.  Enjoy and comment please.Smile 

An Analysis of Jay Gatsby and Quentin Compson’s Obsession with the Past in The Great Gatsby and The Sound and the Fury

        Time has often been a very important concept discussed and analyzed in literature. The way one deals with time can reveal a lot about one’s mind and thoughts. When dissatisfied with their lives, people often tend to obsess over or try to recreate a time in their past in which they were more content. Two twentieth century novels that deal with this topic are F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby and William Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury. Two characters in these novels, Fitzgerald’s Jay Gatsby, and Faulkner’s Quentin Compson, seem to be particularly fixated on the past and trying to reclaim it. In both these novels, the concept of time and an obsession with the past play a very important role for these characters, which psychoanalytic criticism suggests may be due to their repression of psychological pain, dissatisfaction with themselves, and longing for a happier time. This type of criticism can reveal much about these characters, their minds, and the reasons why they desire the past.

        The Great Gatsby tells the tale of a group of mostly wealthy people living in upper class New York during the 1920s. Most of the story centers on a man named Jay Gatsby who spends much of his life trying to acquire wealth and become a part of the upper class in order to win back the affection of his lost love, Daisy Buchanan. A large amount of time is spent describing and reflecting on events of the past such as Gatsby’s former life, how he fell in love with Daisy, and the pasts of various other characters. Gatsby is most obsessed with the past, in particular his past relationship with Daisy. He spends a great deal of his life obsessing over Daisy, whom he seems to idolize and builds her image up in his mind to be an unrealistically “perfect” woman, while in reality she is far from perfect. He tries relentlessly to reclaim a happiness he recalls having with Daisy a few years prior, even though daisy is already married to the wealthy and aristocratic Tom Buchanan.

        Gatsby goes to a somewhat ridiculous amount of trouble, all in an attempt to obtain this one moment from his past. He spends years earning money through illegal activities, buys a mansion across from Daisy’s home, and throws countless parties, all in the hope that she would one day notice him and come back to him. He tries for years to obtain the happiness he found once in the past, but in the end, he finds it is not possible. He dies in the process of trying to recapture the past. Is it possible to relive the past? This novel seems to be telling the reader it is not and it seems to be a waste of one’s life trying to do so. Nick analyzes Gatsby’s obsession with the past when he states: “He talked a lot about the past, and I gathered that he wanted to recover something, some idea of himself perhaps, that had gone into loving Daisy. His life had been confused and disordered since then, but if he could once return to a certain starting place and go over it all slowly, he could find out what that thing was” (Fitzgerald 110). Nick seems to think that Daisy represents a time of order in Gatsby’s life, to which he was desperate to return.

        It seems that Gatsby tries to repress the psychological pain he felt when Daisy decided not to wait for him and left him for Tom Buchanan. He also appears to repress his identity and the life into which he was born before he became “Jay Gatsby.” Lastly, he also seems to be repressing his own disappointment with himself, the man he truly is beneath the persona he created for himself. It seems as though Gatsby tries to overcome his dissatisfaction with himself, with where he came from, and with the life and social status he was born into, by hanging onto Daisy, who was the perfect image of wealth and upper class. He seems to focus solely on getting back the attention of this woman with whom he was once in love (Sutton, 165). All of his hopes and dreams are symbolized in her, but unfortunately for him, she cannot live up to this ideal he creates. Gatsby tries to win her affection by creating and becoming an entirely different person and when that does not work, all that he has worked for is irrelevant to him.

        When Daisy, Tom and Gatsby get into an argument about whom Daisy loves towards the end of the novel, Gatsby expects her to have been waiting for him and not have ever loved Tom. Gatsby seems to be crushed when Daisy tells him “I love you now-isn’t that enough? I can’t help what’s past” (Fitzgerald 132). She tells them that she loved them both when she says “I did love him once-but I loved you too” (132). The fact that Daisy, the one thing Gatsby had focused on for so long, loved another man seems to crush him, especially when Tom speaks about his relationship with Daisy. The narrator states that Tom’s words “seemed to bite physically into Gatsby” (132). Without the dream and hope of being with Daisy, Gatsby seems to have lost his will to live. He had put his whole life into that one dream and to have is destroyed was more than he could handle. Gatsby symbolizes the American dream of wealth, happiness, and success in the 1920s. His eventual inability to obtain what he desired and his death reflects Fitzgerald’s view that the dream had become corrupted and ruined by excess and greed.

        Based on certain character traits he possesses, his words, and his actions throughout the novel, Gatsby seems to be somewhat of a narcissist. He rather pretentiously thinks he has the ability to recapture and relive the past. This idea is demonstrated when Nick tells him he cannot repeat the past and Gatsby replies: “Why of course you can!” (Fitzgerald, 110). He is obsessed with becoming his idea of perfection and creates a false persona for himself. He overestimates his ability to recreate what he once had and also seems to think he is entitled to whatever he wants including Daisy, even though she is already married. He has no problem or moral issue at all with taking her away from her husband just because it is what he wants.

        Gatsby hopes and dreams to relive his past with Daisy in the future is symbolized in the green light on Daisy’s dock that can be seen from Gatsby’s home. He is often found staring or even reaching towards this light, which shows how his strong desire has taken over his life, becoming the only thing he cares about. His money, mansion, parties, social status, and everything else about him seems to all be tied to his one dream or obsession of his past with Daisy and the man he pretends to be in order to win her love. Nothing else seems to matter to him without her. Fitzgerald’s novel, particularly in the story of Gatsby, seems to imply that the past, which people tend to romanticize, can never be relived or revived, however hard one may try to make it happen. In his essay, scholar, Jeffry Steinbrink, explains this fascination with the past and the inability to forget it when he claims “Moments of happiness or triumph from the past can neither be recaptured nor repeated, and for that reason seldom can they be forgotten” (158).

        Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury, describes the life of the Compsons, a southern family of former aristocrats who are dealing with the destruction of their family and its once noble reputation. The concept of time is very significant to this novel, a bit more so than in the Great Gatsby. Different characters in the novel seem to react to and think about time in a different way. The three Compson brothers each represent a different idea or aspect of time. Benjy, a mentally challenged man, lacks a sense or understanding of time, while his oldest brother, Quentin, seems to be obsessed with the concept of time, its passing, and especially the past. In contrast, the third brother, Jason, always seems to be focused on the present and near future, with no regard for the past. Faulkner often uses the images of clocks and watches to signify the importance of time in the novel, particularly with Quentin.

        Using psychoanalytic theory to examine Quentin’s obsession with his sister, it seems that Sigmund Freud’s Oedipus complex could apply to him. Freud’s Oedipus complex is basically the idea that a son desires to be with his mother, and is also jealous of or aggressive towards his father. It is a feeling usually repressed in childhood, although it occasionally appears later in life if an individual does not progress to what Freud called the genital phase, the final stage of psychosexual development (Felluga). Even though Caddy is not technically his mother, she does serve as more of a mother figure to him than his actual mother does. Perhaps due to a lack of love or attention from Mrs. Compson and Caddy’s strong role in his life, Quentin develops what most would generally be considered inappropriate strong and romantic feelings for his sister. He seems to see her as a happy part of his childhood or past that he wants to hold on to and try to relive. There is often discussion of incest in the book regarding Quentin and Caddy, though it never actually occurs. In one instance, Quentin remembers Caddy carrying roses at her wedding a few months before when he muses: “Roses. Not virgins like dogwood, milkweed. I said I have committed incest, Father I said. Roses” (Faulkner 77). In this quote, he tells his father that he had committed incest with Caddy, although he really had not. He also thinks about Caddy’s husband, Dalton, and how he told his father that he, not Dalton was Caddy’s child’s father, just to avoid the thought of Caddy not being a virgin. He becomes very angry at the thought and smashes his watch, symbolizing his frustration at the passing of time furthering him from his past.

        Similarly to Jay Gatsby, Quentin also seems to be repressing psychological pain caused by the fact that he cannot be with Caddy or relive the past. He is also troubled by the fact that Caddy is not a virgin anymore and has a child. That child would be a constant reminder of the passage of time for Quentin, which would upset him because he tends to want to remember and relive the past and not think about the future. Also similarly to Gatsby, Quentin longs for the past due to his dissatisfaction with himself and his family, who were once noble but seem to have fallen from that position. Quentin is disappointed in himself as well because of the fact that he has failed to “become the head of the family who will continue the Compson line and preserve the tradition which is central to the Southern experience” (Brown, 544). Quentin is greatly concerned with traditional Southern values and one’s honor, which is also why Caddy’s loss of her virginity before marriage bothers him.

        Many have often considered the character of Quentin to be a schizophrenic based on the psychotic nature of his narration. Quentin often seems to be somewhat detached from reality and appears to display a split between his thoughts and feelings (Bockting). He does not seem to be a very emotionally stable person either, which is evident in the fact that he eventually ends his life when he cannot deal with his struggles anymore.

        Just as Gatsby symbolizes the American dream of the 1920s, Quentin symbolizes, possibly to himself, the ideal Southern gentlemen with proper values and morals. He seems to long for a time in the past when these things were more valued and does not want to accept that his father, Caddy, and most people are not as concerned about it as he is. He views Caddy’s pregnancy as ruining what is left of the family’s honor. His irrational solution to the problem is to ask Caddy to commit suicide with him, which he thinks would salvage the family’s honor and name, but she refuses. He then suggests that he could claim that the baby is his, which in his mind somehow makes it less shameful to the family. Quentin is obsessed with his sister and seems to have repressed sexual feelings towards her as he becomes very jealous and angry at any man with whom she becomes close. He feels as though he has failed Caddy. Similarly, he also failed a young Italian girl with whom he became close for a while. He called the girl “sister” and tried to help and protect her, but was unsuccessful, furthering his disappointment in himself.

        Both Gatsby and Quentin are eventually destroyed by their obsessions in a sense. Both characters do not seem to be able to deal with the fact that they can never relive the past or obtain their obsessions, and end up losing or ending their lives in the process of trying to do so. Quentin appears to wish to stop the passage of time and the only way he feels he can do that is through suicide. Feeling as though he will never be able to live with the facts that Caddy is no longer pure and that no one shares his traditional values and morals any longer, he takes his life by throwing himself into a river. Gatsby is also killed by his obsession in a sense. Gatsby is shot by Wilson, a man who believes that Gatsby killed his wife by running her over with a car. If it were not for his obsession with Daisy he would not have come into contact with Wilson and would not have been killed. Although at the time he was murdered, Gatsby was crushed by the fact that Daisy had chose her husband over him. Even after she did, he still waited all night watching across the dock, hoping she would change her mind, and still refusing to give up on his dream as long as possible. Without the dream of obtaining Daisy, he seems to feel lost as though his entire world is gone. This situation is similar to the way Quentin seems to feel about Caddy and losing her to her husband and child.

        Can one really relive the past? Based on these novels and the struggles of these characters, the answer seems to be a definite no. Jay Gatsby and Quentin Compson’s dream to relive the past in the present and future is impossible, as they both unfortunately and tragically learn. Their fixation and idealization of the past and women they desire from their pasts eventually lead to their demise. Based on a psychoanalytic criticism of these novels and characters, it appears that Gatsby and Quentin are consumed by the past due to their repression of psychological pain, a deep dissatisfaction with themselves and their families, and a desire for a happier time in life. They also both seem have certain psychological issues that contribute to their obsession and their eventual downfall.

Works Cited

Bockting, Ineke. "The Impossible World of the "Schizophrenic": William Faulkner’s Quentin Compson." Style 24.3 (1990): n. pag. Academic Search Premier. Web. 16 Dec. 2011.

Brown, May Cameron. "The Language of Chaos: Quentin Compson in The Sound and the Fury." American Literature 51.4 (1980): 544-553. Academic Search Premier. Web. 16 Dec. 2011.

Faulkner, William. The Sound and the Fury. The corrected text ed. New York: Vintage Books, 1984. Print.

Felluga, Dino. "Definition: Oedipus Complex." College of Liberal Arts : Purdue University. N.p., n.d. Web. 16 Dec. 2011. <>.

Fitzgerald, F. Scott. The Great Gatsby. New York: Scribner, 1925. Print.

Steinbrinck, Jeffrey. "'Boats Against the Current': Mortality and the Myth of Renewal in THE GREAT GATSBY. ." Twentieth Century Literature 26.2 (1980): 157-170. Academic Search Premier. Web. 16 Dec. 2011.

Sutton, Brian. "Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby and Babylon Revisited." Explicator 65.3 (2007): 164-167. Academic Search Premier. Web. 16 Dec. 2011.


                                                                                    ♥♥Xoxo Gabriella

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