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Ambition Gone Awry Great Expectations And The Great Gatsby

Author : Paul Thomson

Submitted : 2010-07-14 23:12:52    Word Count : 699    Popularity:   28

Tags:   Great Gatsby, Great Expectations, 1920s, Roaring Twenties, education

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People always tell us to aim for the stars, but sadly, having unrealistic expectations is a surefire way to end up disappointed. The problem partly stems from the kind of stories we hear growing up. Ariel gets the prince (as opposed to turning into sea scum), Sherlock Holmes catches the bad guy (as opposed to plummeting off a cliff to his death), and the Beast turns back into a strapping human man (as opposed to having to shave his and Belle’s offspring).

As a result, whenever stories come along that don’t adhere to this convention, we can’t help but take notice. Take, for example, the Charles Dickens classic Great Expectations. The story is about a six-year-old boy, Pip, who, as you might have inferred, has ambitions far beyond what’s reasonable for lowly station in life. Pip grows up alongside Estella, a pint-sized future debutante who’s waaay out of his league and – as a result – irresistible to him.

In his idealism, Pip dreams of rising through the ranks, amassing a private fortune, and returning victorious – Prince-Ali-Ababwa style – too woo his ladyfriend. Remarkably, he actually goes two for three on this front with the help of a convenient, mysterious, oh-so-Dickensian anonymous benefactor. Who happens to be on the wrong side of the law. Although you can’t knock Pip’s partial victory (what with it being upwardly immobile, nineteenth-century Europe and all), his fantastic luck doesn’t count for much in the long run. After all, fortune is no good without the girl – especially if you blow it all on being a man of fashion.

After many years of separation (here be spoilers), Pip finally meets Estella only to discover that a) her first husband (now dead) was an abusive man who left her careworn; b) she has remarried a doctor; and c) she is still officially unavailable. The end. (However, to avoid ruining anyone’s weekend, Dickens also wrote a megahappy alternate ending that goes pretty much like you’d expect. It was, after all, 1861.)

All alternate endings aside, the cautionary tale aspect of Great Expectations was pretty bold for its time. Of course, we’re probably more familiar with the twentieth-century American take on the story known as The Great Gatsby. Written by F. Scott Fitzgerald in 1925 – just four years before the stock market crash heard round the world – it embodies the ideal of the self-made man, exemplifies the fickleness of worldly success, and brings new meaning to the word “fail.”

In lieu of a starry-eyed Pip is Jay Gatz, one of the most ambitious and driven characters in literature. Like Pip, Gatsby doesn’t have money or status. Or common sense enough to fall for someone in his social circle. In order to win the heart of his upper-crusty childhood sweetheart, Daisy, Gatsby sets off to make a name (and some pocket change) for himself. Miraculously enough, he succeeds with the help of – what else? – some other mysterious benefactor; by selling booze illegally during the 1920s, Gatsby quickly lands himself a new name, an alter ego, a mansion, and the best party scene money can buy.

Not to give anything away, but things don’t go quite according to plan for Gatsby, either. Like Estella, Daisy is married to an abusive jerk (this time, alive and kicking – and hitting), which makes her just as unavailable to Gatsby as ever. What’s worse, rather than ditch her husband and run away with her devoted suitor, Daisy rejects Gatsby and – here be more spoilers – lets him take the blame for vehicular manslaughter. Yeah. In that order.

Moral of the stories? The only thing worse than expecting to win someone over with money is expecting the kind of person who’s swayed by money to be worth winning in the first place.

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Shmoop is an online study guide for Great Expectations, Great Gatsby and many more. Its content is written by Ph.D. and Masters students from top universities, like Stanford, Berkeley, Harvard, and Yale who have also taught at the high school and college levels. Teachers and students should feel confident to cite Shmoop.

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