What central theme, or thesis, is common between The Scarlet Letter by Nathanial Hawthorne and The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald?
Although set in vastly different cultures at different eras within American history, a common theme can be established when comparing The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald with The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne. Both novels, for example, examine the dichotomy between reality and appearance as well as the conflict between individual and social values.
In The Scarlet Letter, Hester Prynne and Arthur Dimmesdale love each other. This love holds great personal value for them. However, because their relationship is adulterous, it cannot be tolerated by the Puritan society within which they live. Individual values and desires are submerged by the force of the collective, where no concession is made for individual circumstances or the depth of feeling. This creates considerable anguish for both main characters.
In The Great Gatsby, a similar submerging process occurs. Jay Gatsby and Daisy Buchanan are the main focus points of the novel. Like Dimmesdale, Gatsby desires Daisy above all else. Although adulterous relationships are far more tolerable in this society, thee social values of the time, however, plays no lesser role in submerging the individual. Gatsby, for example, pursues the social status brought about by material wealth in order to gain his prize in the form of Daisy. In this pursuit, however, what is truly important to both him and Daisy as individuals are submerged to such an extent that neither finds fulfilment.
In contrast to Hester and Arthur, Gatsby's and Daisy's love is simply an extension of the psychological and spiritual emptiness created by the elusive ideal of the "American Dream." Their love is as superficial as the dream itself. Any true, deep feeling is well and truly submerged by the social values of the time. Hester and Arthur's love, however, is true. Their society, however, attempts to submerge this love by condemning it in a very public way.
In both novels, individuals suffer as a result of social values. Arthur and Hester are publicly condemned for their true love. Gatsby and Daisy are both approved and admired public figures. They suffer, however, as a result of being seduced by ultimately empty social values that regard material possession above all else.
One theme that is conveyed by both novels is that the individual is always at odds with society. We see that, as much as Gatsby tries, he simply cannot achieve the American Dream. While he attempts to live according to society's values, he is unable to reach this dream without engaging in illegal activities to earn his fortune, and this illegality negates his achievement of the dream. Nick is so disgusted by society's values that he leaves New York, believing that his cousin and her husband are "careless people" who simply make messes of people's lives and then retreat back into their money, leaving everyone else to clean up. Likewise, Hester and Dimmesdale both experience conflict with society's values. They break a law and must then pay, albeit in very different ways, for their transgression.
Another theme that is conveyed by both novels is that appearances can be deceptive. Dimmesdale, for instance, is believed to be the most divine person in Boston; his parishioners look up to him and think he can do no wrong. In actuality, he is Hester's co-sinner. Chillingworth's appearance is also quite deceptive initially. The townspeople believe that he is heaven-sent to them to tend to their medical needs as well as their minister's, but he is actually much more interested in finding Hester's co-sinner and then making him suffer. Tom and Daisy's appearance is also deceptive. They seem elegant and happy, but, in reality, they are miserable and cynical.