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A Beautiful Disaster: The Paradoxes of

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1 A Beautiful Disaster: The Paradoxes of
Self-Deception and Freedom within The Great Gatsby and American Beauty

2 In exposing the artificiality of the American dream, F
In exposing the artificiality of the American dream, F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby and Alan Ball's American Beauty are archetypal representations of man's disillusionment concerning the desirability of success as it is defined within American society. This sense of disillusionment is inherent to the philosophy of existentialism, which decrees that man alone is the measure of all things, condemned to freedom. When regarding these works under the lens of existentialism, it quickly becomes evident that both the novel and the film are comprised almost exclusively of self-deceptive characters. Existentialist philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre regarded such self-deception (i.e., bad faith) as an attempt by man to retreat from commitment in the face of his inescapable responsibility to all men and to the progression of the human species (“L'Existentialisme” 30). Within each publication, this flight from authenticity is epitomized by the thwarted selfhoods portrayed by the narrators of both works: Nick Carraway (The Great Gatsby) and Lester Burnham (American Beauty).

3 As a result of their equivalently cynical views regarding what it means to be successful in America, Nick and Lester commodify themselves, becoming both figurative and literal products of their “culturally deterministic system[s]” (i.e., a society that breeds both its thesis and antithesis, thereby “confining and defining” all of the possible desires its occupants may possess) (Smith 1). In viewing themselves as objects possessed by their society rather than free individuals whose existence precedes their essence (Sartre, “L'Existentialisme” 28), both characters relinquish their belief in their ability to liberate themselves from their culture and thus transition from authentic beings into apathetic, self- defeating spectators. Unlike Nick, however, Lester eventually seeks to escape this commodification by rebelling against the values of the American dream and his own bad faith, subsequently exposing two critical questions underlying both works: 1) can man achieve freedom from the snares of an artificial society by living an authentic life, and 2) if this is not the case, what does recognition of existential inwardness actually offer mankind?

4 By examining the life of Nick Carraway (and, by extension, the life of Jay Gatsby) for the way in which he exemplifies the characteristics of self-deception, and by analyzing the attempt and aftermath of Lester Burnham's endeavor to rediscover his authentic self, one is simultaneously made aware of the limitations of individual authenticity in an artificial society – and thus the appeal of self-deception – and the truth of man's greatest achievement in freeing himself from bad faith: a clear vision of that which is concurrently beautiful and grotesque.

5 Nick Carraway Constant but muted presence within the novel's foreground Denies existential inwardness Interactions with others Fascination with Gatsby Inward monolgue (unreliable narrator)

6 Nick Carraway Interactions with others Dependency on relatives
“I'm incline to reserve all judgments, a habit that has opened up many curious natures to me and also made me the victim of not a few veteran bores” (Fitzgerald 1) Interactions with others Dependency on relatives Bond business Society at large

7 Nick Carraway Inner monologue Evidence of unreliability as a narrator
“Though I was curious to see her, I had no desire to meet her – but I did” (Fitzgerald 24) Inner monologue Evidence of unreliability as a narrator Divide between inner voice and outward actions Meeting Tom's mistress, Myrtle Outings with Gatsby

8 Nick Carraway Jay Gatsby Foil character for Carraway
“If personality is an unbroken series of successful gestures, then there was something glorious about [Gatsby], some heightened sensitivity to the promises of life it was an extraordinary gift for hope, a romantic readiness such as I have never found in any other person and which it is likely I shall never find again” (Fitzgerald 2) Jay Gatsby Foil character for Carraway Stands for everything Nick tries to avoid/repress Nick's opposing descriptions of Gatsby

9 Nick Carraway Returning from combat Betrayal of the American Dream
“When I came back from the East last autumn I felt I wanted the world to be in uniform and at a sort of moral attention forever. I wanted no more excursions with privileged glimpses into the human heart” (Fitzgerald 2) Returning from combat Betrayal of the American Dream “Simultaneously enchanted and repelled by the variety of life” around him (Ornstein 139) Sartre's “quietism of despair”

10 Nick Carraway Camus's ultimatum: suicide or recovery
“. . . I was reminded of something – an elusive rhythm, a fragment of lost words, that I had heard somewhere long ago. For a moment a phrase tried to take shape in my mouth and my lips parted like a dumb man's But they made no sound, and what I had almost remembered was incommunicable forever” (Fitzgerald 111) Camus's ultimatum: suicide or recovery Carraway's dilemma and Gatsby's role Nick's metaphorical suicide (inauthenticity) Gatsby's choice/death (authenticity)

11 Nick Carraway A life unexamined
“Life is much more successful looked at through a single window” (Fitzgerald 4) A life unexamined Spectator, not participant, of the world Extreme inner isolation/loneliness Barren inner-self requires substantial outer stimuli Nick's “realization that the protective enchantment of the romantic ideal lies in its remoteness from actuality” (Ornstein 140)

12 Nick Carraway Gatsby's death/moment of lucidity
“[Gatsby] must have looked up at an unfamiliar sky through frightening leaves and shivered as he found what a grotesque thing a rose is and how raw the sunlight was upon the scarcely created grass” (Fitzgerald 162) Gatsby's death/moment of lucidity Seeking authenticity in the face of an artificial culture “Gatsby is great, because his dream, however naïve, gaudy, and unattainable, is one of the grand illusions of the race which keep men from becoming too old or too wise or too cynical of their human limitations” (Ornstein 143).

13 Nick Carraway Nick's foresaken moment of clarity
“Gatsby believed in the green light, the orgastic future that year by year recedes before us. It eluded us then, but that's no matter – tomorrow we will run faster, stretch out our arms farther so we bet on, boats against the current, born back ceaselessly into the past” (Fitzgerald 180) Nick's foresaken moment of clarity Gatsby's death: authenticity overwhelmed by absurdity Nick's ultimate belief in the inability of man to overcome the artificiality of society

14 Lester Burnham Initially reminiscent of Carraway
Dissillusioned and passive spectator of society Symbolically dead Unlike Fitzgerald's narrator, however, Ball's characters actively seek to reclaim authenticity

15 Lester Burnham Camus's “definitive awakening”
“Man is nothing else but what he purposes; he exists only in so far as he realizes himself; he is therefore nothing else but the sum of his actions, nothing else but what his life is” (Sartre, “L'Existentialisme” 36) Camus's “definitive awakening” Lester: views authenticity as something lost between adolescence and adulthood (reminiscent of Gatsby) “It's never to late to get it back” (Ball)

16 Lester Burnham Now and then: Lester's voiceover
“What Lester's [out-of-body] perspective brings to the film is the suggestion of a larger structure of selfhood – a life both in and out of the game” (Smith 2) Now and then: Lester's voiceover Presents divide between Lester's authentic and artificial self Conversing with a dead man Adds complexity to the nature of Lester's death

17 Lester Burnham Road to redemption Social sabatoge Self-sabatoge
“[A] view of life which conceives that where the crowd is, there also is the truth, and that in truth itself there is need of having the crowd on its side” (Kierkegaard 1) Road to redemption Self-sabatoge Unbridgable gap between past and present Social sabatoge Culturally deterministic society Artifical society

18 Lester Burnham The phoniness of life
“See the way the handle on [Carolyn's] pruning shears matches her gardening clogs? That's not an accident” (Ball) The phoniness of life Lester's growing awareness of the artificiality of his family/society Consumerist-entertainment complex “The drive for success, the drive for pleasure, and the drive towards a more perfect arrangement of appearances” (Smith 2)

19 Lester Burnham Desire as freedom?
“Hyper-romanticism of a tabooed attraction becomes a symbol of the culture that nurtures it – a culture of yearning, for which real life is always elsewhere” (Smith 3) Desire as freedom? Lester believes authenticity can be found through a rejection of societal constraints The Fitts vs. The Burnhams “[The] characters are perfect creatures of their social locations. They may hope for something 'more,' but their very concept of 'more' derives from the culture that confines and defines their desires” (Smith 1)

20 Lester Burnham Seeing clearly
“Freedom, although it is not likely to be achieved by intentional effort, nevertheless may occur to us as an experienced quality” (Smith 6) Seeing clearly Lester's realization that he cannot resurrect his past self Concurrent moral development Lester “has not found a way out of his circumstances, but has found a way to own them that makes possible his final moments of joy” (Smith 6)

21 Lester Burnham Lester's moment of lucidity
“I had always heard your entire life flashes in front of your eyes the second before you die. First of all, that one second isn't a second at all; it stretches on forever, like an ocean of time For me, it was lying on my back at Boy Scout camp, watching falling stars. And yellow leaves, from the maple trees, that lined my street. Or my grandmother's hands, and the way her skin seemed like paper. And the first time I saw my cousin Tony's brand new Firebird. And Janie. And Janie. And Carolyn” (Ball) Lester's moment of lucidity Interplay between beautiful and grotesque imagery Authenticity and enlightenment at death

22 Lester Burnham Lester's foil character: Ricky Fitts
“Beauty – the neighbor of death – interrupts or puts an end to the stories we struggle to sustain and speaks from beyond them” (Smith 5) Lester's foil character: Ricky Fitts Ricky as a spectator, similar to Carraway, who hides behind his camera However, Ricky seeks out authenticity via his camera, capturing the beautiful and the grotesque

23 Nick Carraway vs. Lester Burnham
Both characters are initially presented as hollow spectators within their respective societies Nick is propelled toward authenticity via Gatsby, but ultimately chooses to retain his “bad faith” Lester follows Gatsby's example, but succeeds where Gatsby failed by recognizing that he cannot cling to the past

24 Authenticity and Aritificiality
Lester and Gatsby die while Nick lives, but.... Quality over quantity Lester and Gatsby both die with an understanding of the beautiful and the grotesque (i.e., they gain an understanding of true freedom/authenticity) Nick continually rejects this understanding

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