What are common themes in The Great Gatsby and My Antonia?
One central theme that The Great Gatsby and My Ántonia explore is the theme of American identity. Various characters in both novels make the conscious decision to try and reshape themselves so they can be considered “proper” Americans. Some of the characters succeed, some only succeed at first, and others are not able to succeed at all.
The Great Gatsby sets up an ideal of “proper” American identity and then works to unmask it. Most of the leading male characters, like narrator Nick Carraway or Tom Buchanan, have similar backgrounds. They come from wealthy families, attend Ivy League schools, and are decorated in athletics and military service. Jay Gatsby, who is in love with Tom’s wife, the socialite Daisy Buchanan, believes he must remake himself in this “proper” American image to have a chance of winning her for himself. He covers up his bootlegger past, changes his name from Gatz (which would have negative connotations among the "proper" set because it sounds non-English/Germanic) to the more acceptable “Gatsby.” He also does his best to ingratiate himself with New York’s elite by throwing elaborate parties.
Fitzgerald’s book shows the hollowness of this “proper” American identity by laying bare the weaknesses of the characters. For example, Tom Buchanan is a terrible racist and Daisy does not appear to have a lot of substance. She is willing to let Gatsby take the fall for the automobile accident that killed Tom’s lover Myrtle. Finally, we learn that, while Nick put on a funeral for the dead Gatsby, very few of his “proper American” associates and former guests attended.
My Ántonia deals with the theme of American identity in a more straightforward manner since many of the central characters are immigrants. We see how some immigrant families, like the Harlings, are presented as stable and successful. They have been able to remake themselves to suit the rough frontier. Other characters, like the titular Ántonia Shimerda and fellow “town girl” Tiny Soderball, are able to overcome a lot of struggles and obstacles to find different kinds of success in the new America. However, My Ántonia also has characters like Mr. Shimerda, Ántonia’s father, who commits suicide because he cannot cope with the experience of a new country.
While the narrator of My Ántonia, Jim Burden, is not an immigrant like the Shimerdas or Harlings are, he does come to Nebraska from the more settled state of Virginia. We see how his friendship with Ántonia, his education in both Nebraska and Massachusetts, and his successful career representing a railroad in the West all reflect the new possibilities and locations for American identity during the age of frontier expansion.
A central theme of both novels is the longing for a past that cannot be recovered. Gatsby's great dream and driving ambition is to go back five years to the moment he and Daisy were first in love, before World War I and Daisy's marriage to Tom separated them, to start over as if none of that happened. Gatsby goes into denial when Nick tells him you can't stop time: Gatsby wants to believe he can, through his will and colossal desire, do exactly that. This destroys him.
Jim and Antonia in My Antonia also long for a past that can never return. Jim looks back to his childhood on the Nebraska prairie, and Antonia looks back to her life in Bohemia before their Nebraska existence led her father to commit suicide. Jim's desire to come to terms with the past sends him back to Nebraska. Like Gatsby, his memories of the past are nostalgic and heavily influenced by emotion. Yet, unlike Gatsby, Jim is able to come to a realistic relationship with what went before and thus to reconcile the past with the present instead of trying to recreate it as if no time has intervened.
There primary theme that is common between both novels is the characters' drive for the American Dream and the somewhat bittersweet results they get when they "achieve" hat dream.
In The Great Gatsby the American Dream is exemplified by Jay Gatsby, who has (by all appearances) risen from having nothing to having everything - wealth, respect, and position. He chose to pursue wealth, however, because he knew Daisy would never want a poor man. This causes us to question whether the American Dream really brings us true happiness.
In My Antonia we see the American Dream through the eyes of immigrants. Antonia and her family work very hard to come to America, and then work very hard once they are here. They view America as a land of opportunities, including money, land, jobs, and marriage prospects. However, the toll their new life takes on them also makes the reader question just how much the American Dream is worth.