Though as individuals we are all unique, the strifes and encounters all humans undergo are similar. Classic literature interprets situations that are applicable to a majority people by applying various stylistic elements to same overall notion. From "The Crucible" set in the late 17th century Puritan society to "The Great Gatsby" in the New York City’s party scene in the roaring 20s, each piece incorporates elements from the particular era to illuminate various journeys one can take to solve this moral plight. Literary texts are literary because they challenge and expound upon a moral dilemma that humanity faces eternally, such as the struggle between individuality and conformity in a community.
Literary texts often focus on a certain feature to illustrate an underlying moral dilemma; in this case, the time period affects how the issue of conformity versus individuality is presented.
In Arthur Miller’s "The Crucible," Miller uses the Salem Witch Trials to emphasize America’s reaction to McCarthyism in the post-Cold War era. Miller draws a parallel between the ease of accusing scapegoats and not communicating about the real issue at hand in both the colonial and the 1950s through his characters, John Proctor and Abigail Williams, and through their demises (Miller). John Proctor falsely confesses to his wrongdoing and is hung. On the other hand, Abigail Williams stirs up the town and swiftly leaves as she becomes a victim of accusation.
Although both cases are different, John Proctor and Abigail Williams both emphasize the essence of a society in fear as a result of conformity. Proctor shows the perspective of a victim whereas Williams shows the perspective of an aggressor. By showing the parallels between both character’s influences on the Salem Witch Trials, Miller carries over these ideas to the McCarthyism incidents in the 1950s to emphasize a lack of proper media communication with the American population.
Whereas Miller focuses on the effect of the social scapegoating, in "The Great Gatsby," Fitzgerald memorializes the 1920s era of wealth and enjoyment by following the lives of both elite and middle-class Americans in New York City. He compares the lifestyles of Jay Gatsby, a Midwesterner that works his way up to high-class society and the socialite lifestyles of Tom and Daisy Buchanan to show the difference between the regular and wealthy Americans.
In fact, towards the end of the novel, it is revealed posthumously that Gatsby is not as rich or well-liked as he seemed as Fitzgerald emphasizes the loneliness at Gatsby’s funeral through a lack of guests. None of the rich friends he seemed to have really mattered in the end at his funeral.
Through this, Fitzgerald attempted to show that wealth is not the end all be all for Americans in the 1920s who were mainly focused on accumulating wealth through credit and showing off through materialistic goods (Fitzgerald). Therefore, Fitzgerald shows how conformity to attaining wealth should not be the goal of middle-class Americans.
Both "The Crucible" and "The Great Gatsby" illustrate the main tenets of each time period; in the 1950s it was mass hysteria and in the 1920s it was quick accumulation of wealth. The time period in both pieces affects how the conflict between individuality and conformity is presented, which shows two different scenarios of the same problem.
In the case of the conflict of individuality and conformity, the community sets social standards of acceptance and success which affects one’s behavior in society. "The Crucible" is centered around a heavily religious, Puritan society in Salem, Massachusetts. For this community, the definition of success consisted of having a large family, a bountiful farm, and regular devotion and sacrifice to God. On the other hand, the definition of success in "The Great Gatsby" was solely based on wealth, status and connection to “Old Money” as well as the ability to exude wealth (Fitzgerald).
Despite having different definitions of success, the community affects the protagonist’s identity in both settings.
Although he committed adultery, Proctor still values his righteousness and wants to be respected in the community. He cannot openly reveal his sin because he will be required to conform to his society’s punishment; yet, as an honest person, he must accept his sin without shame.
While being forced to confess his sin of adultery, Proctor states, “Because it is my name! Because I cannot have another in my life! Because I lie and sign myself to lies! Because I am not worth the dust on the feet of them that hang! How may I live without my name? I have given you my soul; leave me my name!" Proctor reveals his perception of himself; his outward image represents his individual perception of himself. Without his reputation, Proctor is neither accepted by the community nor himself.
Similarly, Jay Gatsby transforms his identity to assimilate into the elite New York society. Once a young boy of farmers from the Midwest named James Gatz, Gatsby discards his childhood and his individuality to become the orphaned millionaire Jay Gatsby, the face of New Money. On one hand, Proctor and Gatsby face the challenge of accepting their identity according to their community while they also have the choice to become pursue their individuality by creating a new identity.
Both protagonists choose to follow their individual beliefs about their identity to portray themselves in a more ideal light.
Proctor chooses to uphold his sense of truth, one where witches are the bane of society and adultery is a minor infraction. Gatsby chooses to fulfill his vision of individuality by chasing his dreams of wealth and love. By showing the journeys of how both characters encounter the dilemma of individuality and conformity, these literary texts teach the reader an alternate experience that can shape their own journeys with this moral dilemma.
Classic literature is timeless because it deliberates the experiences all people may encounter at some point in their lives. By exploring the various crossroads of a particular moral dilemma, literary texts urge readers to introspect by empathizing with the characters and conflict of a story. As a result, one can utilize the experiences of others from the text to advise their own decisions in the real world: in the case of "The Crucible" and "The Great Gatsby," whether to seek gratification from within or from the community.