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Alternative Identities In The Great Gatsby English Literature Essay

James Gatz in The Great Gatsby and Almásy in The English Patient are similar in that they both created alternate identities for the denial of their ethnicity, the pursuit of love, and to remain in the past somehow; they are different in the ways they created their identities, the specific personas they inhabited, the reasons they created these personas in the first place, and the depth to which they created these personas. For Gatz, it was an issue of wanting to become something more than he was for personal gain and then to win back the love of his life. For Almásy it was a matter of survival for both himself as a spy and for the rescue of Katharine. As both of these characters began exploring the world with their new identities, the intricacies of these identities multiplied and both Almásy and Gatsby became less and less like themselves and more and more like their new identities. Both Gatz and Almásy made their new selves to expand within their societies and then fortified their identities to obtain and preserve love. For Gatz, this meant chasing after a future that was really a dead past and for Almásy it meant keeping the love of his life in his memories until the end of his days.

To examine the different guises that James Gatz and Almásy created, it is important to look at the people these men were before they created their new identities and the events which made them do so. As Nick pointed out, James Gatz was a poor boy who had big dreams: “I suppose he’d had the name ready for a long time, even then. His parents were shiftless and unsuccessful farm people---” (Fitzgerald, 98). When Dan Cody showed up, James Gatz decided that it was time to leave his old life behind and become Jay Gatsby rather than what he was: “He had changed [his name] at the age of seventeen and at the specific moment that witnessed the beginning of his career---when he saw Dan Cody’s yacht drop anchor over the most insidious flat on Lake Superior” (Fitzgerald, 98). Almásy on the other hand, began the character of the English Patient as a professional method of helping Germans cross the deserts of Egypt without being detected by the British: “He knew all about the desert. He knew all about dialects…In 1941 he became a guide for spies, taking them across the desert into Cairo” (Ondaatje, 163). These are how both ruses began but as the men progressed with their characters; certain events led them to evolve into a new meaning. For Gatsby, his encounter with Daisy and the way they were ripped apart is what led him to solidify his hoax called Jay Gatsby; the partier, the generous, and the wealthy. For Almásy, the terrible accident with Katharine, his desire to help her and her unfortunate demise are what caused Almásy to solidify the English Patient as his new being. There were many factors leading up to these dramatic events which made the men desire to change themselves and these major landmarks are only what finalized their transformations so that they could expand. One of the major differences in their successes was that Almásy’s identity was much more substantial because it had to be to fool the British government. When Caravaggio is talking to Hana, some of the detail of Almásy’s identity is revealed: “‘…what about all those flower beds in Gloucestershire?’ ‘Precisely. It’s all a perfect background…’” (Ondaatje, 163). This is just one of the examples of specific references to Almásy’s total reconstruction whereas Gatsby mostly just hides behind a cloud of ambiguity.

At the start, before their supposed loves of their lives, James Gatz and Almásy created alternate identities because the times in which they lived did not allow them to navigate their surroundings both socially and legally. Almásy was an explorer before the war but during the war he aided German soldiers in crossing the desert. He used a perfect English accent to attain anonymity and nonchalance. As Caravaggio explains Almásy’s origins, he is trying to warn Hana that the English Patient is anything but English: “There was a Hungarian named Almásy, who worked for the Germans during the war…In the 1930’s he had been one of the great desert explorers…Also, he can get away with sounding English. Almásy went to school in England. In Cairo he was referred to as the English spy” (Ondaatje, 163-165). After Katharine’s unfortunate accident and his own plane crash while attempting to recover Katharine’s body, Almásy became the final product of what would be known as the “English Patient” in order to receive care and survive as long as possible in order to reflect on his past. As Caravaggio tries to point out to Hana: “A twenty-year-old who throws herself out of the world to love a ghost!...If you take in someone else’s poison---thinking you can cure them by sharing it---you will instead store it within you (Ondaatje, 45). If Almásy had not taken on a guise, he would have either been denied care or simply killed on the spot for being an aid to the Germans. Instead, Almásy assumed this persona to review and share what he could about his lost life before he passed. James Gatz on the other hand, became Jay Gatsby to hide the fact that he was Jewish in ethnicity. The passage when Nick meets Wolfsheim indicated that Gatsby was comfortable with this Jewish man while Nick (a representative of common beliefs of the time) was not: “’Mr. Carraway, this is my friend Mr. Wolfsheim.’ A small, flat-nosed Jew raised his large head…” (Fitzgerald, 69). This would not have been the case in the 1920’s unless Gatsby himself was Jewish. The ambiguous erasure of the obscene word from Gatsby’s step also alludes to the fact that Gatsby was not a plain Caucasian male: “On the white steps an obscene word, scrawled by some boy with a piece of brick” (Fitzgerald, 180). This brick color staining on the pure white steps suggests that Gatsby is not “pure white”. The reason Gatsby would want to cover this up is that he would not be able to be friends with individuals in public, would not be able to be a shrewd business man (be it legal or illegal), and would certainly not end up with Daisy. People such as Tom Buchanan are meant to represent the general populace’s ideas on mixed races, including Jewish people. As Tom stated in the novel: “’It’s up to us, who are the dominant race, to watch out or these other races will have control of things’” (Ftzgerald, 13). So, whereas Almásy created his trick for survival and reminiscing on an old love, Gatsby created a persona to become wealthy and chase after his lost love in the hopes of bringing her back.

James Gatz and Almásy were both madly in love and this is a key player in why the men chose to do what they did. While their being in love is a similarity they have, the two men were attempting two different goals with their loves. Gatsby was attempting to draw Daisy back to him by creating this eloquent and vital fiction that would intrigue her and make her fall in love with him again: “Almásy begins his alternate identity by attempting to rescue his lover from a terrible fate. Almásy literally throws his nationality and ethnicity away when he tries to save Katharine but remarks that he should have also thrown away his name: “I didn’t give them the right name. I gave them mine. I said she was my wife. I said Katharine. Her husband was dead. I said she was badly injured, in a cave in the Gilf Kebir…” (Ondaatje, 250). When this does not work and he later has his accident when trying to retrieve Katharine, he adopts the English Patient persona again in an attempt to hold on to at least the memories of his beloved one for a little while longer. Both Almásy and Gatsby created their fake identities before their love affairs had any influence on them. However, both characters suffered traumatic events involving their loved ones which led them to permanently adopt these counterfeit appeals. For both Gatz and Almásy, the personas they created were ways to hold onto, or so they thought, their ideals and feelings for their loved ones that would have otherwise faded away with time.

More so than being in love, being stuck in the past is what ultimately lead both Almásy and Gatz to go so far as to erase their previous existences and become something else. James Gatz fell in love with Daisy before he went to war and had forever cemented that romanticized view of her into his head. As time went by, Daisy moved on, if not emotionally, socially, and Gatsby was stuck thinking of her as his Daisy; the one he left behind. It was because of this separation that Jay Gatsby suddenly became a wealthy, party-hungry, generous, and mysterious individual. As stated in the book, it was all a show in hopes that Daisy might have wandered into one of his parties and their spark might have been reunited: “He talked a lot about the past, and I gathered that he wanted to recover something, some idea of himself perhaps, that had gone into loving daisy” (Fitzgerald, 110). This leads the reader to believe that, while James Gatz was interested in leaving behind his ethnicity for a more palatable place in society, the true Jay Gatsby only emerged because he was trying to win back a girl he loved; he was trying to take back a past that he didn’t know was already gone and dead. As Nick said at the end of the novel: “Gatsby believed in the green light, the orgastic future that year by year recedes before us. It eluded us then, but that’s no matter---to-morrow we will run faster, stretch out our arms farther…” (Fitzgerald, 180). Although Almásy‘s predicament involved the love of his life and remaining in the past, it was very different from Gatsby’s experience. After his accident and Katharine’s death, all Almásy had left of his past was his memories of Katharine. This is why the English Patient only wants to live in the past. Caravaggio notes this when he dopes up the English Patient: “This man he believes to be Almásy has used him and the morphine to return to his own world, for his own sadness” (Ondaatje, 251). Almásy was not attempting to win back anybody or win over Hana in the novel, he is simply delaying the inevitable so that he can reminisce on his love affair before he dies and loses Katharine forever. Also unlike Gatsby, Almásy is disgusted with the circumstances of how he lost his lover. It was also because of war, just as Gatsby lost Daisy because of war, but Almásy lost Katharine not because he was sent to duty but because he was not British and was arrested for spy activity. It was directly, as he sees it, Almásy‘s nationality’s fault. This is why Almásy is so disgusted with nationality and hides behind the “English Patient”: “Kip and I are both international bastards---born in one place and choosing to live elsewhere. Fighting to get back to or get way from our homelands all our lives” (Ondaatje, 176).

Other than the smaller details aforementioned, James Gatz and Almásy differed mostly because of how their personas affected them in the end. Almásy is a living survivor because of his persona but has lost the love of his life because of his nationality. His “English Patient” ruse was meant to save Katharine and later only ends up saving himself. Gatz’s “Jay Gatsby” is what ended up having him killed. Had Gatz not created such a flamboyant character and not gone after a past that was already out of his reach, he would not have been killed. In the end, Almásy’s guise had a purpose; to save Katharine. When that failed, it had another purpose; stay alive as long as possible to remember Katharine and share stories. Gatz’s identity started out as a means for a poor Jewish boy to expand his horizons but, after he met Daisy, turned into; get Daisy back as fast as possible. While Almásy knew his limitations and knew he was dying, he also knew, at that point, the best thing to do would be to die in anonymity: “He himself would have been happier to die in a cave, with its privacy…” (Ondaatje, 170). Gatz did not realize how far out of reach Daisy was, and when he was disillusioned of her perfection, his world had already crumbled; he just didn’t know it yet. This is revealed when Nick directly tells Gatsby that you can’t repeat the past and Gatsby responds: “’Can’t repeat the past?’ he cried incredulously. ‘Why of course you can!’” (Fitzgerald, 110).

While both characters created alternate identities for very similar and yet very different reasons, there was one major difference in Gatz’s and Almásy’s inherent personalities that made all the difference. The difference between the two characters is that Gatz didn’t know when to stop and also that he did not build the background that was necessary to build a new life. He became this fictitious character so completely that he did not know how to continue without it. Almásy only used the English Patient as a means to keep in touch with what he used to have and what he longed to have once more. The only real differences between these men’s personas is that Gatz used his to hide who he was and try and regain something he had lost. Almásy used his to protect himself from execution and then later to keep in touch with what he used to be. It’s not that Almásy was chasing after a past he once had, he was preserving the past that he had lost but wanted to remember forever; he knew it could not be attained again. Since Daisy was not deceased, the thought never occurred to Gatz that he could not have the past he once had. This is inevitably what destroyed Gatz and that is why Almásy and Gatz are both similar and different in the means by which they created alternate identities.


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