Sacrifice, the concept of giving up something valuable as a means of gaining more desirable things or preventing evil, is a fascinating art that has long intrigued humankind. In particular, two American texts have captured the essence of it , The Great Gatsby by F.S. Fitzgerald and the 1999 movie American Beauty directed by Sam Mendes. Both texts closely explore the responsibility of an individuals relationship with his or her society for the sacrifices the individual makes; from the disillusionment of the American Dream to how the characters are affected or destroyed by it.
In the world of Jay Gatsby and Lester Burnham, ideals and values are defined by their society. More specifically, theirs is a consumer-driven society, resulting in false values which place importance on materialism and hedonism, disregarding morality and spirituality. In The Great Gatsby, these values are embodied through the juxtaposition and repetition of West and East. The Mid-West of America and West Egg, where Nick and Gatsby originate and inhabit, represent moral integrity, spirituality and innocence in contrast to the East Coast of America and East Egg, where the Buchanans live, which are full of self-indulgence, material wealth and moral decadence.
The function of the characters is to enhance these values depending on where they come from, Mid-Western Nick for an example is a self-described moral person (I am one of the few honest people that I have ever known) but Tom Buchanan from the East is portrayed as a ruthless, racist womanizer who is careless in using and letting other people clean up the mess [he] had made. Similarly, the opening scene in American Beauty is of a high-angle pan across a picturesque suburb and then a cut to an equally picturesque large house with a neat lawn and beautiful rose beds. This quickly highlights the concept of a social ideal to strive for, as Lester Burnhams house is portrayed as the epitome of American homes with its perfect white walls and bright red door, and it is promptly linked to consumerism through the means of his wife Carolyn, who is a competitive real estate agent she sells this American Dream, leading to the social notion that if you have money, then you can have anything. All these techniques are used to emphasize the major role of society in defining social values and aspirations.
Therefore the individual, in an attempt to gain happiness and fulfillment, will strive for the values that society imposes. They adopt the social ideals and then make sacrifices in order to achieve them. Since the first glimpse of Carolyn cultivating a perfect red rose in American Beauty, it has become the symbol for her. Like the outwardly perfect rose, she is seen as the modern-age successful businesswoman who has it all the perfect family, the perfect house, the perfect job, all reflecting her philosophy of in order to be successful, one must maintain an image of success at all times. However, like these perfect roses, she has no scent thus no soul, and instead she uses the roses as a substitute for genuine emotion and affection. The starkest example is found in the first Burnham dinner scene where the closest thing to warmth comes from the scarlet color of the centerpiece roses as everything else in the frame, Carolyns family included, are cold and sombre due to the predominance of shadows, blue hues and lack of friendly conversation. In this way, she sacrifices real feelings for surface appearances.
This makes her similar to Daisy in The Great Gatsby who, in choosing Tom over Gatsby twice, makes the sacrifice of love for social status and material possession. She endures Toms blatant infidelities to achieve the comfort and respectability that the consumer-driven and superficial society demands and like Carolyn, places emphasis on outwards appearance with her wish that her daughter would be a fool thats the best thing a girl can be in this world, a beautiful little fool. Even Gatsbys sense of ideal is no more or no less than which his society can offer him. Everything about Jay Gatsby is based on what James Gatz believes that society would find attractive as he does not enjoy his own wild parties, which shows that he does this for the sake of a socially accepted image rather than personal taste, that he is the advertisement of a man not the actual man himself. Indeed Gatsby adopts societys false values and he uses other mens desires as his standard of value a reason why he found Daisy so appealing in the first place, many men had already loved Daisy it increased her value in his eyes.
However it must be noted that not all characters are like the aforementioned in their sacrifices, as no matter what the society dictates the ability to choose still lies in the power of the individual. While society may have itsb guidelines of social acceptability, it is up to the individual whether or not to follow the guidelines. Nick, the voice of The Great Gatsby, is initially attracted to the wealth and glamor of the East but upon realizing that it creates a frantic, aimless lifestyle without substance nor spirituality, rejects it in the end. This milestone is marked by Nicks return to the Mid-West, which is symbolic of his rejection of the superficiality, materialism and amoral disposition of the East and his embracement of the traditional, wholesome values of the Mid-West.
In American Beauty, Lesters encounter and resultant obsession with Angela makes him realize the emptiness of his life and he remembers the things he wants again, I feel like Ive been in a coma for about twenty years, and Im just waking up. He then sacrifices and rejects social expectations for his own happiness as he sees the illusion of the American Dream and how his family has lost their way in attempting to follow it. One of the ways Lester tries to capture the remembered joy of his youth is through the purchase of a sports car, a 1970 Pontiac Firebird. The car that I always wanted and now I have it. I rule! The Firebird is a symbol of his rebellion against suburban expectations and also one of power at the beginning of the film, Carolyn drives Lester everywhere, conveying his lack of drive, but with the Firebird, he drives himself to places he is in control of his own life once more. This echoes the power that all individuals have in making their own choices in life.
Yet the choices that an individual makes reflect the relationship between him or her and their society. How the individual perceives the nature of their society is displayed in their choice of sacrifice, and it is also synonymous with the amount of control left in themselves that is not handed over to society. Carolyn, who is the embodiment of American materialism, has literally sold her soul for it, that is given up all her power and individuality to social expectations. She sacrifices morality and principle for success, and is preoccupied with maintaining this image of success with her expensive house and immaculate rose garden. Indeed, in the midst of an intimate moment with Lester, she stops it because of her fear of spilling beer on a four thousand dollar sofa upholstered in Italian silk which shows the extent to which she esteems materialism and societys values over her own desires. In contrast, her daughter Jane is able to see what is truly important and rejects the society she lives in, as evident in her choice of unattractive clothes which are predominantly black the color of teenage rebellion.
Hence she sacrifices the values of her family for her own values and she maintains her uniqueness and inner beauty. This is seen first dinner scene where Janes face in lit up by the candles whilst her parents faces are in the shadows. The light implies a halo around Jane and makes her a spiritually more worthy character than her parents, a beauty that the boy-next-door Ricky does not miss. In the The Great Gatsby, Gatsby unwittingly entraps himself to an endless pattern of imitation for he has allowed society to take over him, stripping him bare of individuality apart from his dream. Therefore, because he finds social acceptance so vital in winning the approval of Daisy, he sacrifices anything undesirable which is everything about poor Jimmy Gatz. He turns himself into the wealthy Jay Gatsby, a Platonic conception of himself and in fabricating his personal history and constructing an ideal image out of magazines, Gatsby loses his real self.
While his dream may be pure and redeemable, he bases it on social superficial values and materialism which means that when the dream is destroyed and he fails to attain Daisy, he is already spiritually dead for all his superficiality becomes insignificant and pointless. In the final moments of his life, Nick envisions Gatsby realizing the hollowness of his life, his lack of true self, having lost along the path to his dream, a new world, material without being real, where poor ghosts, breathing dreams like air. The word choice of ghosts is significant for that is what Gatsby really has become, for he is simply an actor with no true body or identity of his own, having lived his life according to societys values not his own. Therefore the relationship between an individual and society is an important determent in the extent of sacrifices they make.
In the end, it is the relationship between the individual and his or her society which is ultimately responsible for the sacrifices he or she makes. Separately, the society and individual make up only two influences, and are not the actual causes of the sacrifice the society defines values and dreams, of which the individual has the choice to try and strive for. Rather it is the complex dynamics between the two that triggers the sacrifice. Individuals who adhere to and revere social standards will make the greatest sacrifices to achieve socially orientated goals.
If the goals are unworthy or false, the individual may however lose themselves spiritually along the way. But individuals who rebel against society and oppose social values will consider those goals as undeserving and their sacrifices for it will be little to none. Indeed, these individuals will sacrifice social expectations for personal happiness and values instead. Through the characters in The Great Gatsby and American Beauty, Sam Mendes and F.S. Fitzgerald seem to imply that this latter way is better and yields more fruitful results.
Commager, Henry Steele. The American Mind: An Interpretation of American Thought and Character Since the 1880s. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1950.
The Great Gatsby. New York: Scribners, 1925; New York: Cambridge UP, 1991. Novel.