Do both Halvard Solness in Henrik Ibsen’s The Master Builder, and Jay Gatsby in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, destroy themselves in pursuit of their dreams? Clearly, they do, and while their dreams are quite different, they pursue them to ultimately tragic ends. Solness and Gatsby are alike in this critical way. Both Solness and Gatsby are men of considerable material success.
Gatsby occupies a mansion in West Egg, New York, a magnificent copy of a French hotel de ville (Great Gatsby 5), from which he pursues a career as a Tremalchio (Great Gatsby 113), opening his house weekly for ostentatious parties open to anyone caring to wander in. (Great Gatsby 39-56). Solness is the master builder, a man at the peak of his powers, able to lord himself over others, although trying frantically to hold on to his position. (Beyer. 171; Master Builder 272 (“New. Not the sort of old-fashioned rubbish I generally build.
”) But Solness has acquired that position by destroying almost everything else that has been of any value, in essence, by killing any dreams he had. Because of his desire to become a master builder, he has lost his wife’s children, her capacity through raising children to “build” them into fine people, his willingness to build churches, and his faith. (Beyer, 171-74, Clurman 174-75) By his actions, he has reduced his wife to “a tomb. ” (Clurman 175) Even as master home builder he feels that what he is doing is hollow and pointless.
“Building homes for human beings–is not worth a brass farthing, Hilde. ” (Master Builder 342) Into his life comes Hilda Wangel, whom he had met and inspired ten years earlier when she was merely a child. She calls him to retrieve the dreams that he then held. She challenges him to overcome his guilt over the many things that he has done by which he has made himself into a financial success but a remarkably small, cramped, and limited person, and in a physical way to overcome his fear of heights. In the end, at her urging, he tries to break free from his
confined life. He climbs to the top of the tower on a new house he has had built, trying to master his dread of heights in an effort to repeat the wreathing ceremony which was where he first met Hilda ten years early, at the construction of the last church he ever built. (Beyer 171-74). Solness has lived much of his life tormented by what he did to gain his first major project. He wanted a fire to occur at the home his wife had inherited from her parents, an ugly, barn-like structure, so that he could build in the land.
The fire came, but afterwards his wife grew sick, and her fever spread to her infant twins, killing them. (Master Builder 313 (“the fire was the making of me as a builder. ” ) 314, 319-21) Wracked by guilt, he now feels old, on the edge of losing his powers, and he is haunted by what he has done and by what he has failed to do. Possessed of a sickly and fragile conscience, he regrets the limited nature of his life. (Clurman 171-72; Bentley 31) Solness is afraid of youth. Though arguably at the peak of his powers, he fears that younger people, such as his subordinate Ragnar will overtake him.
( Clurman 174) In accepting Hilde’s challenge, Solness tries to break out of the pettiness in which he has lived and to return to something that he had idealized in his youth. (Bentley 30) To do this, he challenges his own fear of heights, insisting on climbing to the top of the new house he has just finished, to drape a wreath over the highest spire. (Forester 10) He overcomes his fears, and atop the house, he appears momentarily to be arguing with someone else who is there. (Master Builder 354 (“He is disputing with someone.
”)) This is apparently his attempt to come to some final reconciliation with God, whom he had renounced ten years earlier in his climbing of the last church he built. (Master Builder 349) In climbing the tower to try to put the wreath over the uppermost spire, Solness is undertakes the great risk that he will be overcome by his dizziness and fear of heights. Nevertheless, he feels that he must do this, futile as it might be, to revive the dreams that he once had. (Gilman 110-111) While his wife and friends tremble at his recklessness, Hilde sees it as the fulfillment of his destiny.
(Master Builder 353-54) When he plunges head-first into a quarry, smashing in his skull, she claims him, “My . . . my master builder. ” (Master Builder 354) This is not wild cruelty. When she saw him ten years earlier, placing the wreath on the church spire, he inspired her. She has lived on that inspiration, and wants him to return to that glorious moment when he so moved her, rather than living with the defeats he has borne. (Beyer 175-76) Unlike Solness, Jay Gatsby is not called back to a dream in order to pursue a youthful woman.
Nor did he destroy his dream in order to achieve his fabulous wealth. Rather, his dream of obtaining the woman he adores has driven him to obtain wealth as a necessary means to pursuing the woman. Gatsby believed that as a young lieutenant stationed at a camp outside Louisville, he had found his ultimate prize in the person of Daisy Fay, the socialite who was seeing several young officers each day. (Great Gatsby 148-50) He believed he lost her because of the army, the war, and the lack of the resources with which to compete with the likes of Tom Buchanan.
Now, just a few years later, free from the Army and free from poverty, he wants to retake his one great and compelling dream. Gatsby is chasing Daisy as the ultimate symbol of success, and while it is a philistine success (Fussell 34), he yearns for it with his whole being. Part of what Gatsby seeks is a wistful longing for a dream that may never have been real. (Stern 105; Great Gatsby 182) There is a naive idealism in Gatsby, the “heightened sensitivity to the promises of life” (Great Gatsby 2; Gross & Gross 164) that Gatsby inspired in the narrator Nick Carroway.
At the same time, while Carroway tells Gatsby, “You’re worth the whole damn bunch put together” (Great Gatsby 154), he carefully points out that this is the only compliment he ever paid to the man, whom he still disliked profoundly. (Great Gatsby 154, 2 (“Gatsby, who represented everything for which I have an unaffected scorn. ”)). Gatsby stands as a marvel of contradictions. On the one hand, he pursues Daisy with the faith of the true believer. He values and revalues things through her eyes, bestowing on her a romantic’s adoration of an ideal that is not quite real, and indeed, as it becomes real, it loses its significance.
(Great Gatsby 92, 94) At the same time, he is willing to use whatever means are necessary to gain the means with which to court Daisy, dealing with Meyer Wolfshiem, the man who fixed the World Series (Great Gatsby 69-74, 114, 134) bootlegging (Great Gatsby 109, 134) and trading in illicit bonds. (Great Gatsby 95, 167) From the outset, Gatsby’s dream is doomed because he fails to realize that in the end, Daisy Buchanan will be so fundamentally careless.
As the narrator says, “They were careless people, Tom and Daisy—they smashed up things and creatures and then retreated back into their money or their vast carelessness, or whatever it was that kept them together, and let other people clean up the mess they had made. ” (Great Gatsby 180-81) Gatsby accurately sums her up: “‘Her voice is full of money,’ he said suddenly. //That was it. I’d never understood before. It was full of money — that was the inexhaustible charm that rose and fell in it, the jingle of it, the cymbals’ song of it. . . . high in a white palace the king’s daughter, the golden girl. . .
” (Great Gatsby 120) But Gatsby fails to realize that money, and critically the comprehensive security that it represents are essentially all that drive Daisy. While she will gladly come over to spend her afternoons with Gatsby (Great Gatsby 114), and while she will curse Tom Buchanan for the thoughtless trysts he has with any convenient hotel chambermaid (Great Gatsby 78), in the end, she will cling to him rather than risk going away with Gatsby. Eventually, she drives Gatsby’s great yellow car into Myrtle Wilson, races away into the night (Great Gatsby 144-45), and then assumes a stony silence when Gatsby is condemned for the murder.
When George Wilson, wild with rage and grief, comes to her house, she allows her husband to point him to Gatsby’s house (Great Gatsby 180), where Wilson kills first Gatsby and then himself, completing the holocaust. (Great Gatsby 162-63) Gatsby believes, with an unalterable faith, that by showing Daisy the towering wealth he has accumulated, if by questionable and never quite clarified means (Fitzgerald’s letter to Maxwell Perkins), he can take her back to the world as it was when they first met.
He has a hard time grasping such basic matters as that Daisy has had a child by Tom (Great Gatsby p. 117), and cannot understand that in the end, she will stay with this incredibly wealthy if insensitive brute, because of the stability he offers. In the end, the great tragedy of Jay Gatsby is that he believed so fervently that if he could establish himself with the wealth that he had lacked when he first met Daisy as a young army lieutenant, his passion for her would be enough to pry her away from anyone who lacked the passion and purity of purpose that he drove him on.
Daisy never put the value on this purity of purpose that Gatsby had. Thus, both of these men are destroyed by their dreams. Yet dreaming is a great human capacity, and it seems that as long as there are people, they will dream, and in dreaming, risk their destruction. SOURCES USED: Bentley, Eric. “Ibsen: Pro and Con. ” Theatre Arts. 34:39-43 (July 1950), reprinted in Henrik Ibsen. Harold Bloom, ed. (Philadelphia, Pennsylvania: Chelsea House Publishers, 1999). Beyer, Edvard. Ibsen: The Man and His Work.
(New York, New York: Taplinger Publishing Co. 1978) Clurman, Harold. Ibsen (New York, New York: MacMillan Publishing Co. , 1977). Fitzgerald, F. Scott, Letter to Maxwell Perkins (Dec. 20, 1924) The Letters of F. Scott Fitzgerald. (New York, New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1963), pp. 172-73, ), reprinted in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby. Harold Bloom, ed. (Broomail, Pennsylvania: Chelsea House Publishers, 1996). Fitzgerald, F. Scott. The Great Gatsby. (New York, New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1925). Forester, E.
M. “Ibsen the Romantic. ” reprinted in Henrik Ibsen. Harold Bloom, ed. (Philadelphia, Pennsylvania: Chelsea House Publishers, 1999). Fussell, Edwin S. “Fitzgerald’s Brave New World. ” ELH. 19:296-97 (Dec. 1952), reprinted in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby. Harold Bloom, ed. (Broomail, Pennsylvania: Chelsea House Publishers, 1996). Gilman, Richard. “Ibsen and the Making of Modern Drama. ” The Making of Modern Drama. reprinted in Henrik Ibsen. Harold Bloom, ed. (Philadelphia, Pennsylvania: Chelsea House Publishers, 1999).