Essay: Transforming Oneself in the Great Gatsby

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¶ … Transforming Oneself in the Great Gatsby and the Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man

The publication of the two narratives, Scott Fitzgerald's the Great Gatsby and James Weldon Johnson's an Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man, coincides with a period in the American cultural life in which the search for the 'American Dream' was a very prominent theme. Also, the nineteen twenties constituted the decade in which the Harlem Renaissance or the 'New Negro Renaissance' sprang as a cultural movement in America. As it is well-known, the Harlem Renaissance was an attempt at 'uplifting the black race' through a redefinition of African-American identity and a celebration of the values specific to black culture. These two themes form the core of the novels under investigation- the fulfillment of the 'American Dream' in the Great Gatsby and the uplifting of the black race in the Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man. Nevertheless, as it shall be seen, these themes are not represented as such in the novels, but rather challenged and even reversed. If Johnson's book is as the title itself declares it, an "autobiography," it can be said that Fitzgerald's the Great Gatsby is a biography of Jay Gatsby, constructed by the subjective perspective of Nick Carraway. The question of identity is the central subject of both texts. Thus, the two central characters- the nameless "ex-colored man" in Johnson's Autobiography and Jay Gatsby or Jimmy Gatz by his real name, in Fitzgerald's novel-are both creating or forging false identities for themselves. Therefore, instead of a quest for identity or of the progress of the narrative towards a closure of the self, we have in the two texts an attempt of transforming oneself, of 'passing' as someone else, of constructing a false identity, that leads to the acquisition of a new racial or social status. This attempt to metamorphose the self is accompanied by inevitable problems and difficulties that result in frustration and eventually disillusionment.

Thus, in the Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man the black anonymous hero relinquishes his own racial status after a transforming experience and tries to pass as a white man. The apparent success of his transformation is, in fact, a bitter, sardonic hint at the unprivileged condition of the black race and at the segregation and prejudice that still persisted at the beginning of the twentieth century. The ex-colored man tells the story of his life from his birth in a little town in Georgia, and up to his fulfillment as a wealthy and successful married man who takes care of his own children. His transformation up to this point is punctuated by many problems and frustrations. Initially, the character's first metamorphose takes place when he is only twelve years old and finds out accidentally that he is not in fact a white boy as he had been accustomed to think all his life, but a semi-colored one, having black blood in his veins as well. The event that awakens him to a new sense of identity is very symbolic: while the boy is at school, a teacher comes and asks the white children to stand; the boy raises with together with what he thinks are his race fellows, but he is asked to sit down and rise with the others. He thus realizes he is of a mixed racial origin. The experience already transforms his perception of himself and of the others, as he feels he has 'passed' into the other racial category and he begins to have 'colored thoughts':

have often lived through that hour, that day, that week in which was wrought the miracle of my transition from one world into another; for I did indeed pass into another world. From that time I looked out through other eyes, my thoughts were colored, my words dictated, my actions limited by one dominating, all-pervading idea which constantly increased in force and weight until I finally realized in it a great, tangible fact."(Johnson, 17)

This ritual of passing or transition into another self and into another world is reiterated throughout the novel, as, in the first part of the book, the hero continuously hesitates between a white and a black identity, being favored by his fair complexion and his handsome features. Also, throughout the events from his childhood and up to his adult years, the ex-colored man enjoys significant social success, being easily integrated and benefiting by a great attention on the part of the others as he is a very good musician and a good student. Beyond these masks however, there is the frustration of not having one's own identity fully determined. The fact that the hero 'passes' frequently for a white man is inevitably an indicative that racial identity is constructed at the level of perception, and that it is connected with such factors as the color of the skin and other physical features. The identity of the black race is constructed through the perspective of the white, dominant race, and thus it becomes questionable. The hero's passing as a white man results first of all in what he accurately calls a 'subjective' rather than 'objective' change, that is, he perceives his own self very differently and is constantly conscious of the reactions he gets from the others, sometimes seeing slights and insults where none were intended: "I now think that this change which came into my life was at first more subjective than objective. I do not think my friends at school changed so much toward me as I did toward them. I grew reserved, I might say suspicious. I grew constantly more and more afraid of laying myself open to some injury to my feelings or my pride. I frequently saw or fancied some slight where, I am sure, none was intended."(Johnson, 18) the first consequence of passing for a white man is therefore the frustration of the sense of identity and the uncertainty with regard to one's own status among the other members of society.

In what could be called the second part of the book because of another transforming event in the character's life, the result of this frustration takes concrete shape: after witnessing a terrible mistreatment of a black man, the hero of the Autobiography grows irremediably ashamed of belonging to the black race, and decides to pass as a white man indefinitely and not to admit his true racial origin under any circumstance. Thus, he no longer alternates his position between the black and the white identity but determines to change slightly his appearance and to pass as white man. This time the frustration becomes even more poignant, as the man bitterly realizes he has to forsake his identity and his race, out of shame not of his origin as such, but of the way in which members of the black race could be treated as animals by the whites, who would nevertheless go unpunished for their deeds: "I understood that it was not discouragement, or fear, or search for a larger field of action and opportunity that was driving me out of the Negro race. I knew that it was shame, unbearable shame. Shame at being identified with a people that could with impunity be treated worse than animals. For certainly the law would restrain and punish the malicious burning alive of animals." (Johnson, 135) in forsaking his own race, the nameless character forsakes his own identity and the sense of self, and consequently ends up feeling alienated, as a man without a country. His need to go 'unlabelled' as an inferior creature is satisfied by this passing as a white man, but the frustration remains since he is forced to better his condition under a different identity: "To forsake one's race to better one's condition was no less worthy an action than to forsake one's country for the same purpose. I finally made up my mind that I would neither disclaim the black race nor claim the white race; but that I would change my name, raise a mustache, and let the world take me for what it would; that it was not necessary for me to go about with a label of inferiority pasted across my forehead."(Johnson, 135)

The transformation of the hero and his passing as a white man results in an even more bitter sense of loss of identity, when he realizes that he is constantly playing a joke on himself and on the others as well: "Many a night when I returned to my room after an enjoyable evening, I laughed heartily over what struck me as the capital joke I was playing."(Johnson, 139) He gradually learns how to integrate himself perfectly in a select and high social circle, and does so with ease because of his good appearance and his musical talent that make of him a welcome guest anywhere: "I began to mingle in the social circles of the men with whom I came in contact; and gradually, by a process of elimination, I reached a grade of society of no small… [END OF PREVIEW]

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