Gatsby And Houdini Essay, Research Paper
Harry Houdini and Jay Gatsby were both famous figures of the Roaring Twenties in America. Both men very much reflected, although in different ways, the wild, risk-taking standards of their times. Houdini was renowned for his incredible escapes and magic tricks. Gatsby, the main character in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, was a playboy and prominent member of Long Island society. Although different in many ways, both of them worked to find happiness in their personal lives. Both men were devoted to feminine characters: Houdini, to his mother and Gatsby, to his beloved Daisy. Neither could ultimately maintain his love. Despite their different personalities and interests, in struggling to find their roles in 1920 s society, both Harry Houdini and Jay Gatsby shared some important similarities.
Harry Houdini lived very modestly and became very interested in spiritual matters. He made his living performing death defying stunts in front of large crowds of people. In his book Ragtime, E.L. Doctorow writes of Houdini: “His life was absurd. He went all over all the world accepting all kinds of bondage and escaping.” (Doctorow, p. 6) Some of the stunts were being lowered into the Detroit River while handcuffed inside a chain casket and being lowered upside down into a water torture chamber. Houdini enjoyed being the center of attention and always wanted to impress people. He was constantly searching for new and better ways to entertain people.
Houdini had a great love for his mother and after she died he became intrigued in trying to contact the dead. “He thought of her at rest in the coffin under the earth. He wept bitterly. He wanted to be next to her He knew what it was to be sealed in the earth but he felt now it was the only place for him. What good was life without his beloved little mother?” (Doctorow, pp.165-66) Houdini loved his mother greatly and looked to her for guidance and when she died he was left wondering what direction his life would take without her help. In fact, Houdini questioned whether life was even worth the trouble to live. Some of his risk taking can be explained by his fascination with defying death.
F. Scott Fitzgerald s character Jay Gatsby, on the other hand, enjoys the best things in life that money can buy. He gives the appearance of being very happy and having his personal life well in order. Unlike Houdini, Gatsby is not interested in spiritual things but is very materialistic. He tells everyone that he inherited his money when he was actually a bootlegger and a crook. He has a dark past. There are rumors that Gatsby was a German spy in World War I and that he had killed a man. Gatsby lies all about his past to everyone he encounters. He claims that he inherited all his money when he actually had nothing to start with and came by his money illegally. “I thought you inherited your money.” “I did, old sport,” he said automatically, “but I lost most of it in the big panic – the panic of the war.” (Fitzgerald, p. 95)
While Houdini made a name for himself exposing phony spiritualist mediums, Gatsby s whole life is a fraud on others. He believes that having a big house and lots of riches will win over the girl he loves and allow him to find happiness in society. Gatsby is very much into appearances: he is extremely handsome, with wonderful manners. He owns a big house which is beautifully furnished. He also gives the appearance of having many friends and hosts many huge parties at his house. During these parties however he is often just alone by himself, not drinking or socializing. Many people at his parties did not even know who he was but were only there for the enjoyment of a good party. “We got up and she explained that we were going to find the host – I had never met him, she said, and it was making me uneasy. The undergraduate nodded in a cynical, melancholy way.” (Fitzgerald, p. 49) Gatsby feels that society is very shallow and that people are very superficial so he distances himself and his feelings from most people.
Although they were very different men, Gatsby and Houdini shared some important qualities on route to achieving their goal of finding their place in 1920 s society. Even though both men are always the center of attention or conversation they have very few real friendships. Actually, both men could be called loners. They both changed their names in hopes of trying to leave their past behind and better fit into American society. Even though he lives for the present, Gatsby s past continues to haunt him. “So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.” (Fitzgerald, p. 189) The “boats” are symbolic of Gatsby s struggle to find himself while caught up in the mainstream , or “current”, of 1920 s values of materialism, high living and big outward impressions. For Houdini, memories of his deceased mother continue to haunt him, and her death creates a big void in his life. While Gatsby is spiritually empty, Houdini undertook a spiritual journey, trying to contact his mother after death.
In addition, each man shares a dream based on love of a woman. For Houdini, he attempted to continue his relationship with his beloved mother throughout eternity. Gatsby s dream is to capture the heart of Daisy and be happy ever after with her. For both men, achieving their love is difficult: Houdini s mother because she is dead and Daisy because she is married to another man. Both romances are doomed to fail.
Gatsby and Houdini both also use illusions in establishing themselves in society. Houdini used tricks and stunts while Gatsby tries to make himself look perfect with all his fine clothes, possessions and parties. In a sense both men were performers. Both characters create an image for themselves that make them appear to be pleased with who they were and what they did. They were both a product of the Roaring 20’s emphasis on outward appearances and big risk taking. They both took risks in their own way. Gatsby moved with a fast, wild drinking crowd and held parties all the time. Houdini, on the other hand, did crazy stunts in which he risked his life.
Ultimately both men died in violent deaths. Houdini was punched in the stomach, at his own request, by a fan which ruptured his spleen. Gatsby is shot and killed by an angry gas station owner whose wife was run over and killed by Gatsby s automobile. For each man his death resulted from his risk taking behavior: Gatsby in the speeding automobile driven by Daisy and Houdini boasting of his rock hard stomach.
Harry Houdini and Jay Gatsby are famous characters of The Roaring Twenties. Houdini was interested in spiritual matters while Gatsby was extremely materialistic. Although both men were very different, in their own ways they very much reflected their times. In struggling to find happiness and love, Gatsby and Houdini shared several important similarities. Both men were essentially loners despite seeking out crowds. Both men tried to escape their pasts. Each shared a dream based upon love of a woman, a love that ultimately failed. Both men used illusions in their interactions with others. Both men suffered violent deaths that resulted from their taking risks. In finding their roles in society, therefore, both Harry Houdini and Jay Gatsby shared some important similarities.