A Comparison of Hubris in Catcher in the Rye, Scarlet Letter, and Great Gatsby

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Hubris in the Protagonists of Catcher in the Rye, Scarlet Letter, and Great Gatsby

 
  Aristotle praised Sophocles' King Oedipus as the definitive Greek tragedy; however, he could not have surmised the influence of Oedipus' tragic pride on modern day literature and philosophy. Hubris, the only true crime, has had a threefold influence: it is a reason for downfall as well as a characteristic of criminal motivation; it is manifested in the diverse protagonists of Salinger, Fitzgerald, and Hawthorne; and it is forgiven only by repentance for wrongdoing and the complete surrender of pride.

 

The erroneous idea that pride is only a predominant characteristic of crime, rather than a crime itself, would put tragic hero Oedipus on the same level as serial killer Charles Manson: while both are guilty of committing heinous acts, Oedipus relinquishes his pride and, ironically suffering under his own proclamation of exile, does penance for his crimes, whereas Manson shows no remorse for his vile and disturbing bloodletting. Oedipus' ultimate repentance is proof that he realizes his hubris and understands his mistakes, as irreparable as they may be.

 

All human filthiness in one crime compounded!

Unspeakable acts-I speak no more of them.

Hide me at once, for God's love, hide me away...

Touch me, and have no fear. On no man else

But on me alone is the scourge of my punishment. (64)

 

Had Oedipus sought to blame another for his crimes, or denied his own responsibility for his actions, he would have been no nobler than a common criminal; Oedipus is redeemed by his strength of character.

 

The hamartia of hubris lives on 2500 years after Aristotle lauded King Oedipus as the quintessential Greek tragedy; pride has evolved into an integral characteristic of the majority of literary characters from J.D. Salinger's angry, disillusioned Holden Caulfield to F. Scott Fitzgerald's idealistic Jay Gatsby to Nathaniel Hawthorne's tortured Reverend Dimmesdale.

 

Holden's pride in his sarcastic perception of the world around him perpetuates his cynicism and frustration with life, making him unrealistic and incapable of finding happiness. He believes himself omniscient, and that other "people never notice anything" (Salinger 9). Oedipus' belief in his own infallibility makes him equally unrealistic; soon after Oedipus' sins are revealed, the chorus of Elders conveys a Holden-esque message of discontent:

 

All generations of mortal man add up to nothing!

Show me the man whose happiness was anything more than illusion

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Followed by disillusion. (59)

 

Both Holden and Oedipus are self-absorbed, and each is isolated by his own erroneous perception of the situation around him. Until their respective situations force Holden and Oedipus to overcome their pride and accept reality, they are incapable of realizing the errors of their perceptions.

 

Jay Gatsby, F. Scott Fitzgerald's impractical and self-absorbed millionaire, is unrealistic and foolishly proud because he believes his affluence will easily buy him the love of Daisy Buchanan. His entire "Jay Gatsby" persona is built upon the assumption that he can maintain the playboy facade without consequences. His frequent bouts of fear and insecurity derive from his pride, and his persona and wealth are useless once his affair with Daisy ends.

 

...He wanted to recover something, some idea of himself perhaps, that had gone into loving Daisy. His life had been confused and disordered since then, but if he could once return to a certain starting place and go over it all slowly, he could find out what that thing was.... (Fitzgerald 111)

 

Gatsby is incapable of relinquishing his belief that Daisy's love will cure all of the problems that have plagued him; his pride prevents him from realizing that his dream, seemingly "so close that he could hardly fail to grasp it" (182), cannot be accomplished.

 

Nathaniel Hawthorne's Reverend Dimmesdale is an entirely different manifestation of hubris: he takes pride in torturing and loathing himself. Dimmesdale believes that the only way he will truly be forgiven is through public castigation and exile, just as Oedipus believes that the only punishment suitable for himself is a self-inflicted blinding and a life which Òage, nor sickness, nor any common accident can end" (Sophocles 66). Dimmesdale cannot abandon his self-flagellating behavior because his hubris keeps him from coming to terms with his guilt; until his death, he is incapable of repentance because he believes, with dark pride, that his sin is unforgivable.

 

Teiresias' statement "all men fall into sin. But sinning, he is not for ever lost... who can make amends and has not set his face against repentance" (153) is further proof that the truest form of any crime is the criminal's prideful belief in his own infallibility. A predecessor of the Christian doctrine of forgiveness via penitence, Teiresias' sage advice is pivotal to Creon, although the king of Thebes does not realize it. Ironically, Creon learns of his errors from the same prophet who foresaw Oedipus' downfall, and he has the same reaction to the seer as Oedipus: disbelief and scorn. Only when the chorus of elders reinforces the prophesy does Creon realize that he has committed a grave transgression against Antigone: "My mind is made; 'twas I that imprisoned her, and I will set her free. Now I believe it is by the laws of heaven that man must live" (156). Although he loses his wife, son and niece because of his pride and lust for power, Creon's chorus-aided epiphany and his ensuing attempt to right his wrong against Antigone serve as his repentance.

 

"He is not for ever lost, hapless and helpless, who can make amends and has not set his face against repentance." (153) Teiresias' judicious advice throughout Oedipus and Antigone is more than just prophesy, it is an astute analysis of the driving force behind the crimes of Oedipus and Creon: pride. Both works illustrate hubris and repentance, concepts inherent to Greek tragedy, and further prove that pride is more that just a simple character trait: it is a complex crime essential to both downfall and redemption.

 

Works Cited

Fitzgerald, F. Scott. The Great Gatsby. London: Penguin Books, 1990.

Hawthorne, Nathaniel. The Scarlet Letter: Ed. Ross C. Murfin. New York, New York: Bedford Books of St. Martins P., (1991): 54.

Salinger, J.D. The Catcher in the Rye. Boston, Massachusettes: Little, Brown and Company, 1951. 1-277.

Sophocles. Oedipus the King. Trans. Robert Fagles. The Bedford Introduction to Literature. 4th ed. Ed. Michael Meyer. Boston: St. Martins, 1996. 1120-1161.


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