Jay Gatsby and Hamlet are both characters involved in deception. For each of them, illusion and reality should be associated with what the character projects or presents to the other characters in the story.
Gatsby and Hamlet both purposely act a part, creating an identity that serves a specific objective. This similarity is the strongest connection between the two characters.
The actual purpose of each character’s deception can be described as being opposite in that one character’s act is meant to convince others that he is weak and the other is meant to create an image of potency and strength.
- Hamlet masks his strength by playing the part of the insane fool.
- Gatsby creates an illusion so that others will believe he is powerful and cultured.
Gatsby and Hamlet are both concerned with illusion, but from different ends of the spectrum. Gatsby's great tragedy, as well as his claim to grandeur, according to Nick, is his belief that he can turn his dream into a reality. He thinks he can turn the clock back five years, to the moment he and Daisy fell in love, and that he can win her back and erase the past. This is an illusion, as Nick tries to tell Gatsby, but Gatsby will have none of it. He throws his whole soul into his dream.
Hamlet, on the other hand, attempts to cut through the illusions spun around him by a corrupt, sycophantic Danish court. Rather than live in illusion, he tries to ascertain the reality of his situation: did his uncle really murder his father or is the ghost an illusion sent by the devil to tempt him into murdering his uncle? Is anyone around him telling the truth?
Both characters are alike in creating their own illusions to forward their goals. Gatsby pretends to be the wealthy Oxford-educated gentleman, while Hamlet pretends to insanity. Both share the tendency to be less than convincing in their roles, Gatsby, in part, because he wears pink suits and says "old sport," Hamlet because he reveals method in his madness.
What an interesting take on the usual "appearance vs. reality" theme. When you use the words "illusion vs. reality," it makes me think of something completely different: relationships. What is most interesting is to compare the Gatsby/Daisy relationship with the Hamlet/Ophelia relationship.
Any "real" relationship with Daisy is an illusion for Gatsby. Why? The reality is that he is "New Rich" and lives in West Egg while Daisy is "Old Rich" and lives in East Egg. The two (the Old Rich and the New Rich) don't mix. Period. Daisy and Gatsby try for it, but fail. We can list the details to death here, but the reality is that Daisy goes right back to Tom: yet another bit of the Old Rich. That is where she belongs.
I thought of Gatsby's wonder when he first picked out the green light at the end of Daisy's dock. He had come a long way to this lawn and his dream must have seemed so close that he could hardly fail to grasp it. He did not know that it was already behind him.
Similarly, any "real" relationship with Ophelia is an illusion for Hamlet. Why? Because Hamlet becomes obsessed with, what I would call, "thinking too much" in regards to avenging his father's death. At the beginning of the play (similar to the beginning of the novel) a relationship between the two looks possible, but not so. Further, just as Daisy goes right back to Tom, Ophelia goes right back to "the other side" as well, ... and some say she is in league with Claudius and Gertrude in spying on Hamlet. Hamlet reacts badly. Ophelia reacts badly. Ophelia kills herself.
Another interesting and ironic similarity is that both Gatsby and Hamlet die, ... and they are killed by a character who is not the real villain of the story. Gatsby being shot with a gun compares quite nicely to Hamlet being scratched with a poison sword. Both of them die imminently and as a result.