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Oedipus Rex, Macbeth, The Great Gatsby
Throughout literary history tragic heroes have managed to deceive everyone but themselves. The tragedy lies in the fact that the they believe they can fool themselves as well as everyone else. Tragic heroes always seem to bring their own downfall upon themselves just when the believe they are invincible. This sense of hubris will bring about the downfall of families, communities and even entire empires. Nowhere in literature is this Hubris more apparent than in Sophocles Oedipus Rex, Shakespeare s Macbeth, and Fitzgerald s The Great Gatsby. These are stories written in very different times, with different social climates and societal expectations, and by authors of very different backgrounds. The one major quality these three tragedies share is that they are all based on the idea of Hubris, in self deception and perception.
There is no tragedy in the expulsion of evil: the tragedy is that this involves the waste of good. (Bradley)
The three characters are not evil people, at least not when they are initially introduced, but are caught in a whirlwind of self-promotion. This windstorm is one that is powered not by weather fronts, but the fronts put up by the tragic heroes to portray themselves as worthy. From this storm of deception, out comes the evil and villainous nature of the reasonably good title characters. This is because even if they were fooling the populace they still doubted their own worthiness, due to the fact they, Oedipus, Macbeth and Gatsby, had not fooled themselves. Their relentless pursuit of perfection corrupted their otherwise good nature. Thus their removal from the position they held was ultimately necessary. It is tragic because they were good, good people and good leaders.
The first confident leader is Oedipus. Oedipus had defeated the sphinx and brought order back to Thebes, why then was he was evil? He was evil because he believed that he could fool himself, to escape his fate at his kingdoms expence. This Hubris was so strong that it allowed Oedipus to believe that he could outsmart the gods. This tragic misconception led to the parade of evil that trampled out any and all good that Oedipus was capable of achieving.
Macbeth was as capable as Oedipus. Macbeth was the greatest military hero in King Duncan s court. He had replaced a traitor and taken the robes of a high level Thane. He was a well respected lord of Scotland. His greatest flaw was that he thought he could fool his way into greater power. Macbeth was a good leader but not one fit for the throne. Macbeth was built up by those whom he fooled as the greatest thing to hit Scotland since plaid. He ascended the throne and the evil nature of his aspirations ascended over his good natured charade. Had Macbeth not deceived his way into power, without self-deception, he was poised to do great things, as the Thane of Cawdor. As it was his evil self deception, or lack thereof, proved to be his downfall.
Jay Gatsby s downfall comes about for completely different reasons. Gatsby had one reason to build his empire, love. There is nothing evil about that justification, in fact it makes him the most innocent, if not the only innocent character in Gatsby , and the only innocent of the three title characters. What then is his evil downfall? Simply it is the over glorification of dreams. He built himself up from nothing for Daisy and her love. The tragedy is that the higher he got the more warped his memory of Daisy and their relationship became. He fooled everyone else into thinking that he was a rich socialite, but never himself. He always knew he was a poor boy living a dream for a dream. A dream that was so far from reality that it is evil. It is tragic that Gatsby wasted the good traits, perseverance and work ethic, he needed to build himself for a one way, if not false love.
Tragedy discerns a principle goodness that coexists with evil. Tragic man is man at his most prideful and independent, man glorying in his humanity. (Sewall)
Oedipus, Macbeth and Gatsby were good men who at he highest points in their life became intertwined in evil. The title characters had all built themselves upstanding reputations and had reached points higher than they had ever been. At this point the self destruction began.
Oedius self-destruction comes at his highest point. Oedipus was a good king, but fooled others into believing that he was invincible. He was fooled by their confidence and dug deeper into a past no one wanted to touch with a ten foot pole. When he learned the truth he realized that indeed he could never deceive himself, even if he could deceive others. Macbeth, like Oedipus, reached selfdestruction at his highest point. Macbeth was Thane of Cawdor, riding high on a military victory and on top of the world. This confidence was a facade he put up to advance himself. He had fooled even King Duncan into believing he was greater than he really was. Then he wanted to be king. He reached for his goal, grabbed it and then fell. He fooled everyone up to that point but when he was king he too realized that he was not all he cracked himself up to be.
James Gatz was nothing near what he cracked himself up to be. Gatsby was a millionaire, he was as close to Daisy as he d ever be, but he too wanted that extra step. Gatsby knew all along that he was not anything near the person he portrayed. This lack of self- confidence in his facade allowed for cracks to become gaps between him and those that he had fooled. He like the rest had never fooled himself and they all, because of that failure, lacked the foundation to fully reach the self set goals for which they strived.
The tragic man is ready to lay down his life, if need be, to secure one thing- his sense of personal dignity. Tragedy is the consequence of a man s total compulsion to evaluate himself justly. (Miller)
Oedipus, Macbeth and Gatsby were all self critical perfectionists, for whom nothing was ever good enough. Their personal dignity lost its strength when there were close, but not on, the next level of power and accomplishment. They had always fooled others into believing that they were good enough at the point at which they were, but they always evaluated themselves as as underachievers who had not accomplished everything of which they were able. This evaluation continued until they reached a point where they felt they had superseded their ability and their deceptive charade began to crumble. They were so highly critical that it was not others who eventually crushed their personal dignity, but their own ideals of success and failure.
Oedipus as a king would have high goals, but at a certain point goals that are to high are tragic. Oedipus was an accomplished king, but his Kingdom was in famine so in order maintain his reputation as a good king he sought to correct this. To him the suffering of his people was a greater blow to his personal dignity and ideals of success than any scandal he could imagine. He sought to fix every problem that arose. This work ethic tragically brought him down. Oedipus brought on the scandal of his father s death and his mother s bed because he was too critical of his job as king. It is not to suggest that his self evaluation was wrong, just that his compulsion over it highlighted the fact that all in all he had never fooled himself into believing that he was an innocent king.
Macbeth never thought he was innocent nor did he overly evaluate his job as king. He evaluated his position as Thane and almost fooled himself into believing that he would be a worthy king. He may have been had he not killed Duncan, after that he neglected the self evaluation of personal dignity because to him there was no dignity left to evaluate. He had gone from a Thane who was thought highly of, to a king that no one liked. There was nothing left in Macbeth’s life left for him to evaluate and brood over till he had reached perfection. At this low point Macbeth died.
Unlike Macbeth, Gatsby dies at the point where he is considered the most dignified person in the novel. Jay Gatsby, out of all of the title of characters of the analyzed tragedies, is the most personally critical. He had to be. He had to rise from the lowest to the highest in the shortest amount of time. Gatsby s death occurs when he finally realizes that he never fooled anyone and was content on a notch lower than perfection. He had settled for a point much higher than he ever should have gotten and had found his niche. He no longer needed to risk life and limb to maintain personal dignity. He had found balance, on the raft in the pool, balance in life. He was no longer a tragic hero just a content protagonist. He was killed by someone who had not settled, partly due to Gatsby s shaking, and could not allow for others to settle. Gatsby dies at his most dignified, trying to fool himself on only one count, that he could escape his past.
No one can escape their past. Attempting that would truly be a tragic venture. Those who do believe that they can escape their past and who they really are, are tragic heroes. The tragedy does not lie in the fact that they unsuccessfully fooled themselves, but because they believed that deception was the only means for promotion. Miller, Bradley and Sewall all worked towards the idea of deception and its effect on good, evil, social standing and personal perception. Oedipus, Macbeth and Gatsby all run into trouble with the idea of perception in general. Their ideas of how they are perceived differ from the way they perceived themselves and how they want to be perceived. It is the basic struggle between perception and reality. What passes one man as reality may for another be a false perception. This works itself to a point where, if someone is attempting to create false perception, it may not always be taken as reality, as is the case in the three tragedies. The point where people start doubting the realities built for them is when the builders fall. The tragedy is the loss of the creativity, the strength, charisma, the positive power the builders possess. The builders though, always want more. As Jack Kerouac eloquently put it in his poem Flies … And wasn t there ever a time when flies didn t seek the sun through forbidden windowpanes. (Kerouac)
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