The famous tragedies of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s ‘The Great Gatsby’ and Oscar Wilde’s ‘The Picture of Dorian Gray’ are inseparable with the beauty surrounding their stories. Tragedy is mostly defined here as the downfall of a hero or protagonist. Beauty has several interpretations in these texts, and is often equated with charm and glamour for Gatsby, and youth for Dorian.
Not only is beauty portrayed through the two protagonists, the styles of each writer also possess a compelling vitality of life. However, amongst this aesthetic and glamour, underlies an impending disaster of tragedy. The beauty within these stories is tragic, yet the tragedies of Gatsby and Dorian Gray also have an undeniable beauty to them.
Tragic Beauty in Gatsby’s Character
A beautiful characteristic of Gatsby, and what contributes largely to his charm, is his smile. Nick describes it as “one of those rare smiles with a quality of eternal reassurance” which “understood” and “believed” you. There is perhaps a unique beauty in all things “rare”, and in the precision of Gatsby’s smile through its ability to assure others. Author Kenneth Eble sees his smile as “elusive”, suggesting that the sense of mystery constantly surrounding Gatsby contributes to his beauty and charm.
Though partygoers and wider society in the novel were captivated by his beauty, they never truly understood or cared for Gatsby. His pitiful funeral, to which “nobody came”, reveals a tragic and melancholy element to his charm and the indulgent parties he threw for everyone.
Daisy Buchanan and Gatsby’s American Dream
When Tom Buchanan calls Gatsby “Mr. Nobody from Nowhere”, what is tragic about his insult, is that it is partially true. However, despite Gatsby having a weak family background in wealth and social status, he still possesses an American Dream.
Gatsby’s initial dream, at seventeen, was to live more successfully and glamorously than his “shiftless” parents. After working with millionaire Dan Cody, however, he didn’t receive the wealth he was entitled to. Yet, his fortune reversed completely when he became one of the most successful, wealthy men in society. This was due to his pursuit of his next and final dream: being with Daisy Buchanan.
Gatsby first met Daisy in Louisville as an officer in the army. After a brief romantic relationship, he was forced to leave America due to the war. Before he departed, Gatsby experiences a moment of perfection, in which he kissed Daisy, who responded by “blossom[ing] for him like a flower”, making the “incarnation… complete”. This brief moment led him to build a beautiful, almost perfect image of Daisy in his mind for the next five years. Not only did he maintain a longing for her during this period, Gatsby also exemplified his beautiful, perhaps obsessive, devotion through his consistent efforts to attract Daisy five years later.
Furthermore, Jordan reveals to Nick that “Gatsby bought [his] house so that Daisy would be just across the bay”. Gatsby then “came alive” to Nick as a person, and perhaps to the reader too, “delivered suddenly from the womb of his purposeless splendour”. The emptiness of his wealth is counteracted by Nick’s realisation that Gatsby possesses an intense love and passion for Daisy. For our narrator, Gatsby is more than the glamorous facade society sees of him; his character is now embellished with a realist beauty.
The Tragedy of Gatsby’s Dream
Although there is a beauty in Gatsby’s longing and commitment, tragedy underpins it all. ‘Jay Gatsby’ is in fact a construct, created by his previous self, James Gatz, to fulfill his American Dream. Whatever beauty Gatsby possesses was therefore designed by him, and tragically replaced his previous, true identity.
A significant factor in Gatsby’s downfall is Daisy. There is tragedy in the lavish parties he threw for her, the staggering wealth he gained for her, and his desperate dreams of being with her.
Gatsby threw the most extravagant parties for all to attend, in the hope that Daisy would too. However, they repelled and abhorred her, and even Gatsby himself recognised that she “didn’t have a good time”. She felt offended by the newness and “raw vigor” of West Egg, compared to the more established East Egg where she resided. Daisy and Gatsby are ultimately from different backgrounds, and belong to different worlds. It is, tragically for the protagonist, Tom, with whom her social position is aligned.
Moreover, Daisy is ultimately materialistic, and so does not love Gatsby as a person. When she first explores his house, she is shocked that he owns a yacht, and “began to cry” at seeing Gatsby’s “beautiful shirts”. With her observation of his abundant wealth, comes the realisation that Gatsby could have given her the affluent life she now has as a Buchanan. Fitzgerald highlights that, however much she may regret giving up on Gatsby, she only appreciates his money.
Although Nick no longer views Gatsby as purposeless after discovering his desire for Daisy, his dream is ultimately useless and hopeless. With Daisy’s materialism, and Gatsby’s unreasonable expectations of her, theirs is a doomed romance from the start. Tragedy underlies his beautiful image of her, as Gatsby has not only idealised Daisy, but also sacrificed his own identity for his illusion of her. Though this version of her may be beautiful, this beauty has no meaning as it isn’t real. Fitzgerald highlights how Gatsby is in love with an ideal through his insistence that seeing Daisy again was “a terrible mistake”. She does not meet his impossible expectations, which only fulfills the inevitable sense of tragedy surrounding their relationship.
Ultimately, Gatsby successfully achieved wealth and attracted the woman he desired. Yet, although this seemed to have brought Daisy physically closer to him, part of the tragedy lies in how she remains far from him in spirit and emotion.
One of the most significant aspects of their tragedy also lies in how Daisy ultimately caused his death. Though Gatsby’s tragedy is partly self-inflicted, there is a conclusivity in how the woman he devoted the past five years to, led him to his end. However, perhaps this was the most suitable, and the most tragic death for Gatsby, as it is only fitting that Daisy continued influencing his life until the very last moment. Fitzgerald almost creates the idea that he died for love, but it is more suitable to say Gatsby died because of his love, establishing a tragic beauty in his story.
Tragic Beauty in Dorian Gray’s Character
A Dream-like Appearance and Personality
Wilde places much more emphasis on beauty in Dorian’s appearance, than Fitzgerald does on Gatsby, whose beauty partly lies in his elusiveness. Wilde thus provides a clearer and more detailed description of his protagonist.
Dorians’s tragedy perhaps began when he gained “an awareness of himself and his beauty”, as Sarah Kofman describes. When he didn’t recognise his allure, he could not have felt distressed about losing it. Lord Henry’s ‘enlightenment’ of him is therefore the beginning of the tragedy. When he first meets Dorian, he describes his “finely curved scarlet lips, his frank blue eyes, his crisp gold hair”. The abundance of colour here highlights the vitality in Dorian’s physicality, suggesting a powerful, youthful beauty in him at the start of the novel. For Dorian, or rather, for the characters of the novel and society of the era, beauty depended on youth. Lord Henry notes his “rose-red youth and… rose-white boyhood”, often using “youth” and “beauty” interchangeably. His stress on the temporality of youth, is what leads the protagonist to fear losing it. Wilde perhaps suggests that the purity of “boyhood” was a prominent factor in beauty during the Victorian era.
Similar to Gatsby’s smile, there was “something in [Dorian’s] face that made one trust him at once”. Both Wilde and Fitzgerald’s protagonists therefore have a certain charm about them, though they differ in their characters. Dorian begins with a “simple and beautiful nature”, and doesn’t acknowledge or appreciate his beauty. He then becomes obsessed with youth, causing the “hideous corruption of his soul”. There is an irony and tragedy in this idea that Dorian’s desire to remain beautiful is what corrupts him. Wilde also affixes a tragic beauty to his character development – his change is perhaps beautiful as it is sadly realistic for some Victorian men. In comparison, Fitzgerald’s protagonist lets himself fall into a beautiful, false ideal, rather than descending into soul-destroying corruption. However, in a way, the beauty in Dorian’s life was real, whereas Gatsby’s was not. Both are arguably just as tragic.
Dorian Gray’s Portrait
The portrait of Dorian which Basil Hallward painted is a prominent symbol and mirror of his soul.
When Dorian first sees the painting, the “sense of his own beauty came on him like a revelation”. At this early moment in the novel, the portrait is an embodiment of his beauty. However, Wilde does not maintain his dream-like captivation for long, as Dorian then remembers Lord Henry’s “warning of [the] brevity” of youth. His thoughts spiral into despair, leading him to make the wish to trade his soul for eternal beauty. Though Basil’s painting was praised as the “finest portrait”, its degradation was possibly foreshadowed as soon as Dorian set eyes on it, and began to mourn its beauty. We can even say that this gothic tragedy began as soon as the painting was brought to life.
Along with Dorian’s soul, the portrait’s beauty deteriorates from then onwards. From “cruelty in the mouth” to the “hideousness of age”, his corruption does not stop there. The final point of no return for Wilde’s tragic hero is his murder of Basil, his friend and admirer, after which the painting produces a “loathsome red dew” of blood. The amount of beauty within Dorian and the portrait initially, is the amount of horror and hideousness in both towards the end of the novel. Dorian’s tragic misconception that maintaining a youthful appearance is worth sacrificing everything, is similar to Gatsby’s futile devotion to Daisy. Both protagonists’ desires are the root of their tragedies, with beauty intertwined in each.
Beauty and Tragedy in Language: Fitzgerald’s Writing Style
Fitzgerald’s language in this novel is notably indulgent and opulent, reflecting the carnivalesque ambience of the Jazz Age. Along with images of wealth, he includes many natural images to convey a softer beauty.
Natural imagery is used to portray Gatsby’s house, which has the “frothy odor of hawthorn and plum blossoms”. Fitzgerald provides a full sensory description, equating the mansion’s beautiful colours and odours to those of nature, suggesting that it is saturated with magic and colour. There is an overwhelming sense of opulent beauty and wealth in these descriptions. Along with the use of nature, they establish a notion of uncontrollable and unquantifiable wealth.
Fitzgerald employs an otherworldly effect through Gatsby’s Roaring Twenties parties. When Nick walks with Jordan through the garden, he remarks how a “tray of cocktails floated at [them] through the twilight”. The imagery of “floated” indicates an ethereal beauty and illusion of magic. However, the lack of physicality in this image foreshadows that this beauty, bought by Gatsby’s wealth, won’t last.
Similarly, Daisy’s ethereal portrayal possesses an underlying tragic element. The reader first meets her wearing a “rippling and fluttering” dress. Fitzgerald’s fairy-like portrayal of her beauty also has a fragility, adding an underlying melancholy element to it. The image of her face being “sad and lovely” directly illustrates the tragic beauty Daisy possesses, emphasising the idea that beauty and wealth may not bring happiness.
The romance and elements of magic in Fitzgerald’s language are lost as the novel progresses. Especially towards the end of the story, beauty is replaced with corrupt, vulgar imagery through Myrtle’s death. Nick narrates how her “mouth was wide open and ripped at the corners”, illustrating a crude image of horror which is emphasised by the harsh, plosive sound of “ripped”. There is a stark contrast between the glamorous beauty of the previously in the text, and the vulgar descriptions by the end.
Beauty and Tragedy in Language: Wilde’s Writing Style
Like Fitzgerald, Wilde also employs natural and romantic imagery to convey beauty. At the beginning of the novel, he writes, “the little clouds that, like ravelled skeins of glossy white silk, were drifting across the hollowed turquoise of the summer sky.” This simile, combining nature and opulence through images of “sky” and “silk”, is strikingly similar to Fitzgerald’s language. Both writers create beauty via detail and colour in their language, often generating a mesmerising, dream-like effect.
Moreover, at times, Wilde’s language holds a romantic element. When Sybil Vane stepped on stage to perform for Dorian and his friends, she had a “faint blush, like the shadow of a rose in a mirror of silver.” At first glance, the images of “faint blush” and “rose” depict a delicate and tender beauty. However, the image of “shadow” adds an ominous layer to Sybil’s romantic portrayal. As Dorian experiences disillusionment in life, Wilde’s language begins to express tragic and foreboding elements.
After Dorian’s beautiful image of Sybil is shattered, the “colours faded wearily out of things.” There is a kind of laborious, resigned beauty in the description of “faded wearily”. Through this personification, Wilde simultaneously gives life to his language, and demonstrates a lack of vitality. His use of personification becomes more unpleasant and degraded as the novel progresses. After Dorian kills Basil, the “woodwork creaked and seemed to cry out as if in pain”. Whatever amount of beauty was previously conveyed through Wilde’s personification, is now replaced by the pain and suffering often seen in Victorian gothic novels. Through the shift from opulent images of nature to more painful, mournful portrayals, Wilde and Fitzgerald gradually reveal the tragedy that lies amongst the beauty of their stories and language.
In conclusion, Dorian Gray’s tragedy lies mostly in the corruption of his beauty. For Gatsby, it is the disillusionment of his beautiful dream. Tragic beauty can perhaps therefore be defined as beauty that will not last or is doomed to end. Its lack of permanence is what makes people desperate to maintain it, though it is also what makes beauty so valued.
Although Gatsby’s love for Daisy is unrealistic and based on an untrue version of her, there is a beauty in his dedication to her, and in his desperate longing for a pure, fairy-like woman who loves him. Yet, ultimately, perhaps the story of Gatsby isn’t beautiful – all his actions were due to his obsession with an illusion. Therefore, any beauty present wasn’t real, including within himself, as ‘Jay Gatsby’ was also a construct. However, writer James Phelan describes the novel as “one that asks us both to respond sympathetically to Gatsby… and to judge many of his actions”. Hence, Fitzgerald perhaps wanted readers to recognise the beauty and value of Gatsby as a character, whilst acknowledging the tragic futility of his efforts. He may be warning us against devoting ourselves to a false, nonexistent beauty, to prevent tragedies like Gatsby’s.
For Wilde, Tian Zi-juan believes that “only youth can hold beauty”. This idea effectively combines beauty and tragedy, as the physical youth Dorian yearns for will eventually be lost. He once possessed youth and beauty, yet, due to external and internal influences, lost both in appearance and soul. As the passing of time is inevitable, the true tragedy in Wilde’s gothic story is perhaps the corruption of Dorian’s soul, and not his loss of physical beauty. Wilde seems to criticise Victorian era’s obsession with youth, and the duplicitous lives many men were living.
Though ‘beauty’ cannot encompass the entirety of these two stories, they no doubt leave an echo of beauty in the reader’s mind. Gatsby and Dorian’s tragedies are alluring and wistful, heart wrenching, but also perhaps anticipated.
Eble, K. (1964) ‘The Craft of Revision: The Great Gatsby’, American Literature, 36(3), pp.315-326.
Kofman, S. (1999) ‘The Imposture of Beauty: The Uncanniness of Oscar Wilde’s Picture of Dorian Gray’, in Deutscher, P. and Oliver, K. (ed.) Enigmas. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, pp.25-48.
Phelan, J. (2013) ‘The Great Gatsby (1925): Character Narration, Temporal Order, and Tragedy’, in Phelan, J. (ed.) Reading the American Novel 1920-2010. Chichester: John Wiley & Sons Ltd, p.62. doi: https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1002/9781118512876.ch3
Tian, Z. (2016) ‘Pursuing Beauty in Utopia: A Defence of The Picture of Dorian Gray’, Overseas English, (1), pp.177-178.