What is a theme shared between The Scarlet Letter and The Great Gatsby? 

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mwestwood eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Two American novels, The Scarlet Letter and The Great Gatsby are reflective of their authors' concern for the excess of the historical period in which they are set, excess so puissant that it permeates the character of those who people that era, thus generating a veritable culture with values that have become corrupted.

The Puritanical culture of Hawthorne's narrative has become perverted in its excessive religiosity. Indeed, the opening chapters convey this excessive fervor for adherence to Puritan law as Chapter I opens with the descriptions of the austere Puritans standing outside the "ponderous iron-work" of the first prison-house built in America. Then, in Chapter II the sanctimonious and sadistic goodwives pass their own judgments upon Hester Prynne  as one declares that the church members should have the "handling of such malfactresses as Hester Prynne" and another adds,

The magistrates are God-fearing gentlemen, but merciful overmuch,—that is a truth..... At the very least, they should have put the brand of a hot iron on Hester Prynne's forehead. Madame Hester would have winced at that, I warrant me.

After the excessive gesture of placing scarlet letter of ignominy upon Hester, the Puritan community marginalizes Hester on the edge of town and alienates her from others by not allowing her to interact with them.

Personifying the corruption of values in this Puritanical society is the character of Roger Chillingworth, who in his self-righteous revenge claims the very soul of the man who has wronged him by entering into an adulterous relationship with his wife: "He will be mine." In his judgment of Dimmesdale, then, Chillingworth dedicates himself to violating the secrets of Dimmesdale's heart, an area that belongs only to God. So perverse is he in his intentions that Chillingworth turns himself into "a fiend."

Similar in its corrupting excessiveness is the Jazz Age of Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby. But, in contrast to the Puritans of The Scarlet Letter, the excess of characters is non-religious and amoral; it is the excess of hedonism spurred by wealth and materialism.  In their devotion to pleasure, Tom and Daisy Buchanan conduct marital affairs and kill a woman; in their devotion to the acquisition of wealth, the likes of Meyer Wolfscheim and Dan Cody engage in criminal activity, as does Jay Gatsby, who perversely perceives materialism as the path to the green light of reunion with his idealized memory of Daisy.

Thus, in devotion to excess, the personages of both novels effect their own demises as they do not consider the effects their actions will produce. For, the characters of Chillingworth and the self-deceiving Dimmesdale, much like Gatsby, who perceives himself as a demi-god ( "the son of God") as he is convinced that he can repeat the past and that the end result justifies his hypocrisy, bring about their own ends. Likewise, Nick Carraway finds himself contaminated by the amoral and lives of those with whom he has been associated; furthermore, the "morally blind" and excessive behavior of Daisy and Tom Buchanan leaves them responsible for Gatsby's death as they are 

careless people....they smashed up things and creatures and then retreat... into their money or their vast carelessness or whatever...kept them together, and let other people clean up the mess they had made....

In the end of each novel, a main character seeks a moral center from  excess: Nick in the Mid-West; Hester in the New England village.



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The Scarlet Letter

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