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Comparing the Great Gatsby and Heart of Darkness

written by: Shelia Odak • edited by: Noreen Gunnell • updated: 2/16/2012

At first glance the novels The Great Gatsby and Heart of Darkness might not seem to hold many similarities, what with their diverse settings and tones. However, the two works share similarities in theme, narration, and characterization.

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    Three important areas for comparison between The Great Gatsby and Heart of Darkness are the symbolism of darkness and light, the representation of women in the novels, and the methods of narration. As you read the books, see what other areas for comparison you can find.

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    Darkness and Light

    Most often, darkness symbolizes ideas such as evil, madness, and depravity, while light represents hope and purity. In both novels, darkness overshadows and even perverts light.

    In Heart of Darkness, Marlow travels into the darkest,uncharted corner of the world and discovers that the force that was touted to bring enlightenment, namely the Europeans, have instead created a horror that is beyond words. In his pursuit of ivory (something that is physically light), the white man has embraced and encouraged the darkest parts of his nature. Rather than enlightenment, what has been fostered is murder, madness, death, and destruction.

    The Great Gatsby’s symbol of light is the physical light that stands on the end of the dock. It represents all that Gatsby has yearned for: his desire to achieve the American dream, and his love for Daisy. However, by the end of the novel, both of these pursuits have become tainted and have crumbled and decayed. In this decay, they resemble the darkness and desolation of the Valley of Ashes, a place of moral and social devastation.

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    The idealization of women is seen in both novels, though it proves to be far more destructive in Fitzgerald’s narrative than in Conrad’s.

    In Heart of Darkness, the novel’s attitude toward women is neatly summed up in two quotes. Regarding his aunt, Marlow states, “It’s queer how out of touch with truth women are. They live in a world of their own . . . ." This is a point of view shared by Kurtz who says regarding women, “We must help them to stay in that beautiful world of their own, lest ours gets worse." Women symbolize decency and purity. It is their potential for representing the goodness in humanity that both men see as being worth saving, especially after having seen the horrors of evil. In this novel, the women are objects onto which the men project their ambitions and dreams. They are unformed and nameless (the aunt, the African mistress, the Intended, the knitting women), and act as vehicles for the desires of the men in their lives.

    The Great Gatsby shares much of this view of women. Gatsby has turned Daisy into the perfect woman and refuses to see beyond the illusion of idealism he has built around her. Because of this, he never sees the woman Daisy has become in the years they have been apart. He will not acknowledge her less attractive traits of selfishness and carelessness. It is his inability to acknowledge the real women, with her amoral qualities, versus the goddess he has created in his mind that leads to his downfall.

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    Narrative Technique

    The narrative technique of both novels is similar. In The Great Gatsby, Nick looks back on the events of the summer he spent in the company of Daisy, Tom and Gatsby. His story is therefore informed by distance and the fact that he has had time to reflect on the events that occurred. The story in Heart of Darkness also has this reflective quality as the narrator shares the story Marlowe told about his trip into the deepest Africa. The biggest difference is in the fact that Nick was a participant in the story he is relating, while Conrad’s narrator is simply relying a tale told to him. This puts the reader at a further distance from Conrad’s story than from Fitzgerald’s.

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    More Points for Comparison

    Other points of comparison between the two works include the characters of Kurtz and Gatsby, the settings of the Valley of Ashes and Africa, and the themes of the pursuit of wealth by the Europeans and by Gatsby.

Study Guide for Heart of Darkness

A study guide for high school level students on Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness.
  1. Role of Women in Heart of Darkness
  2. Guide to Symbolism in "Heart of Darkness"
  3. Comparing the Great Gatsby and Heart of Darkness