Flaws are the one thing that everybody has in common and the one thing that everybody tries to hide. Heroes are the larger than life characters that are stunning examples of strength, intelligence, beauty, and above all else perfect . They effortlessly save the world from evil and get the girl, but for a select group of heroes, extraordinary characteristics beget profound flaws. The tragedy of the tragic hero is that he brings about his fall through his choices and actions. Much like actual people, these fictional characters must face their flawed selves that lead them down a tragic path . In doing this, the characters become more real and thus more relatable to the reader. William Shakespeare’s Othello and F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby contain two of literature’s most tragic heroes, Othello and Jay Gatsby; while their tragedies differ in many ways, they are comparable in one important regard: their fatal flaws.
Othello and Gatsby’s march towards damnation follow parallel yet contrasting paths. Both men are outsiders within their respective societies. Othello, although a well-respected general in the Venetian army, is still a Moor and therefore different from the other characters.. When the marriage between Othello and Desdemona comes to light, it is Brabantio who laments that “with some mixtures powerful o’er the blood / Or with some dram conjured to this effect / He wrought upon her” (Shakespeare, I.III.104-6) feelings of love and devotion that she could not possibly possess for him . Desdemona is a beautiful Venetian maiden who – much to the dissatisfaction of her father – fell in love and proceeded to secretly marry somebody who was outside her cultural sphere. Othello’s “free and noble nature contains within it the one fatal flaw that can destroy [him]—jealousy.” (Holderness 4) This vulnerability does not stem from his love of Desdemona but his own insecurities, but it is because of his affections for Desdemona and Iago’s manipulations that the spark of jealousy ignites . Gatsby, on the other hand, comes from a poor family and works his way up the social ladder to a wealthy society man. However, he will never fully integrate with the upper class circles since he is considered “new money” and they see themselves as a part of an established institution in American society, a place with no room for the new. This is demonstrated when Gatsby sets up residence for the summer in “West Egg, the—well, the less fashionable of the two” neighborhoods that the wealthy elite take up residence in for the summer.(Fitzgerald 5). East Egg sits across the lake from West Egg and is made up of “old money” elites. Like Othello, Gatsby sought after a woman who is just out of his reach, but unlike Othello Gatsby failed in attaining his love. Daisy is the object of Gatsby’s obsessions and ultimately the essence of his own weakness. His fixation with her leads him to believe that “the course of history is decided by the sheer effort of human will” (DiBattista 28) and he can simply will his past romance into the present by sheer determination and affluence . Daisy is swayed by the glitz and glamour of Gatsby’s tawdry lifestyle, thus starting a tumultuous yet meaningless affair that leads Gatsby to his untimely end.
Othello’s jealousy and Gatsby’s naïvety toward the women they love is what eventually brings about their respective tragedies. Othello “is loved by his lady, valued by the state, [and] admired by the Venetian nobility,” (Holderness 4) thus, by all outward appearances, Othello is a man of strength and impunity, yet so easily machinated by Iago into a jealous rage over Desdemona’s fictitious affair with Cassio, Othello’s lieutenant. Iago manages to tap into Othello’s deep-seated insecurities about himself, allowing Iago to manipulate Othello into doing what he wants. Othello feels that because he is “black, / And have not those soft parts of conversation / That chambers have, or for I am declined / Into the vale of years,” (Shakespeare III.III.265-68) he does not have what it takes to please Desdemona . These insecurities are his Achilles heel which Iago uses to his advantage. Othello’s jealousy clouds his judgement and causes him to punish Desdemona for her fabricated sin. Iago feeds off the chaos created by Othello’s covetous fit and even mocks him by facetiously warning “O beware, my lord, of jealousy: / It is the green-eyed monster which doth mock / The meat it feeds on” (III.III.167-69). Due to Iago’s exploitation of Othello’s vulnerabilities, the latter takes his own life rather than face the shame of his actions. Unlike Othello, Gatsby’s weakness comes from his vain need to be incorporated in the upper classes of American society and his insatiable desire to win Daisy over by reaching that status . Gatsby is a self-made man with a toxic combination of blind ambition and gullibility, which characterizes him as a shallow, jealous person with questionable motivations. He built an entire business empire from nothing, complete with a glittering facade. Everything Gatsby did was to impress a girl just out of his reach. The green light at the end of Daisy’s dock acts as a symbol to Gatsby, embodying “the profound naïveté of [his] sense of future, while simultaneously suggesting the historicity of his hope,” (Bewley 237-38). Gatsby spends his nights longing for the green light. The light represents everything he would never truly have: established wealth, a seat at the table of upper class society, the respect of his peers, and Daisy. In many ways the green light is to Gatsby as the green monster’s to Othello. Although Gatsby was not outwardly jealous of Daisy as Othello was of Cassio, but he did long for everything Daisy had. Daisy was never even in his ballpark, to her he was just a fun flirtation that she would soon bore of and move on from. To Daisy Gatsby was worth less than he dirt on her shoes.
While Gatsby dies alone and Othello will lay forever with his beloved Desdemona, both men were cut down by the flaws, Othello’s uncontrolled jealousy and Gatsby’s shallowness, found within themselves. Tragic heroes give insight into the human condition by exaggerating imperfections. By giving the hero a fatal flaw the reader is faced with a hyperbolic version of themselves, helping them to empathize with the hero. We all know a person whose jealousy gets them into trouble or somebody who values material possessions over the people in their life. We may not know people that have these flaws to the extent of Othello and Gatsby, but their stories serve as a warning. Great literature serves as a funhouse mirror for society at the time and the fatal flaws that authors choose to give their characters are often an over exaggerated reflection of how they view society.
Bewley, Marius. “Scott Fitzgerald’s Criticism of America.” The Sewanee Review, vol. 62, no. 2, 1954, pp. 223–246. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/27538346.
DiBattista, Maria. “The Aesthetic of Forbearance: Fitzgerald’s ‘Tender Is the Night.’” NOVEL: A Forum on Fiction, vol. 11, no. 1, 1977, pp. 26–39. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/1344884.
Fitzgerald, F. Scott. The Great Gatsby. Scribner, 2004.
Holderness, Graham. “Are Shakespeare’s Tragic Heroes ‘Fatally Flawed’? Discuss.” Critical Survey, vol. 1, no. 1, 1989, pp. 53–62. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/41556463.
Shakespeare, William. Othello. Cambridge University Press, 2012.