Can the ends ever be said to justify the means? Consider the ways (e.g. literacy techniques, structure, narration, tone, etc.) in which this idea is explored in The Great Gatsby by F. Scott...

Can the ends ever be said to justify the means? Consider the ways (e.g. literacy techniques, structure, narration, tone, etc.) in which this idea is explored in The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald and The Reader by Bernhard Schlink and examine its effect on readers?

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Ashley Kannan eNotes educator| Certified Educator

I think that Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby and Schlink's The Reader both are fairly definitive that the ends do not justify the means.  Both works speak to how individuals must pay their dues and suffer in the name of thinking that they can evade responsibility and agonizing choices. Characters in both novels suffer as a consequence, reflective of how the ends do not justify the means.

In Fitzgerald's world of wealth and privilege, there is no moral restoration, so on face value one might see that the ends would justify the means.  Jordan Baker is amoral and never receives much in way of punishment.  She embraces cheating as a way to get what she covets.  Tom Buchanan commits some of the worst acts to other human beings and does not directly suffer as a result.  Daisy is responsible for running over Gatsby's heart and even other human beings.  In all three of these cases, there is not an immediate note of reconciliation.  However, it becomes clear that through Fitzgerald's narrative tone, there is a harsh judgment about individuals like them in their pursuit of self- interested ends and the means to get there:

They were careless people, Tom and Daisy- they smashed up things and creatures and then retreated back to their money or their vast carelessness, or whatever it was that kept them together, and let other people clean up the mess they had made.

Added to this the ending of the novel which argues that there is an almost existential feel to this reality with "So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past," it is clear that Fitzgerald, as an authorial force, does not let these characters "get away with it."  Their ending might not feature one of retribution or restitution, but they are not praised for their actions. Gatsby represents this.  Even though he is an affable dreamer, he believes that the ends justify the means. He spends his money and efforts to accomplish a particular end:  Acceptance and love from Daisy.  Yet, he comes to realize that the ends do not justify the means, realizing the brutality within "a promise that the rock of the world was founded securely on a fairy's wing."  This "unreality of reality" is another way that Fitzgerald communicates that the ends do not justify the means.

The Reader renders a rather bleak assessment of individuals who embrace the ends no matter the means to get there. In Schlink's world, this usually takes the form of avoiding confronting the truth.  Hanna is unable and unwilling to accept her illiteracy.  She accepts whatever means are in front of her to deny such a reality.  This includes being a Nazi guard and admitting to something she knows she did not do in court:

But could Hanna's shame at being illiterate be sufficient reason for her behavior at the trial or in the camp? To accept exposure as a criminal for fear of being exposed as an illiterate? To commit crimes to avoid the same thing?

Schlink makes it clear that Hanna's belief of ends justifying means is ineffective through her suicide. When she gains the courage to understand the full implications of her actions, she takes her own life. It is presumed that her suicide is a way to accept the sins she has authored, the transgressions she embraced in the belief that the ends does in fact justify the means.  Schlink does not let Michael off the emotional hook, as well.  His silence is a way to avoid emotional connection and a sense of painful courage.  He believes that the ends justifies the means, although it is not entirely clear to him what those ends are.  He suffers for his silence, and must pay the price in terms of the tapes he makes for Hanna, speaking and standing up for her when she is pardoned for release, and confronting victims of his own silence and Hanna's own in the form of restitution.  Michael also must live with the memories of his own silence in the face of an uncertain future.  Schlink constructs Michael's characterization as living proof that the ends do not justify the means.

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The Great Gatsby

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