The texts which I have studied in my comparative course are “The Great Gatsby” (G.G.) written by F. Scott Fitzgerald. “Casablanca” (C.B.) directed by Micheal Curtiz and “Translations” (T.) written by Brian Friel. The cultural context of all three texts impacts on how and why the people behave the way they do. In this essay I will examine the elements which I thought had the most significant impact on the characters which contributed to their behaviour throughout the narratives.
The first aspect I will examine is the setting of all texts – how it impacts on the way in which the main characters act and the consequences it has on their behaviour. G.G. is set in the “Roaring Twenties” in America. Fitzgerald set G.G. in an altered version of Long Island and Manhattan where Great and Manhasset Neck became East and West Egg and the large landfill site at Flushing is renamed the ‘valley of ashes`. This glamorous decade of the 1920’s was one of great cultural, artistic and social developments.
WWI had ended in 1918 and left people disillusioned. This generation that fought and survived were ‘the lost generation`. At this time, America seemed to throw itself headlong into a decade of madcap behaviour and materialism. This era, also known as ‘The Jazz Age` was improvised and wild, jazz broke the rules of music just as ‘The Jazz Age` thumbed its nose at the rules of the past. Now, the ‘American Dream` became prominent and the idea of America being a land of opportunity was challenged and people came to believe that a determined and able individual could achieve anything, regardless of their social background. This was a pursuit of wealth. G.G., unlike the other two texts is set in a time where although having just came out of war, no other country imposed on America’s freedom, which I think led to freer morals and loser behaviour among the people (for example, the widespread infidelity).
Unlike G.G., C.B is set in Morocco’s real costal city of Casablanca under Vichy French rule (a puppet administration for the Germans) during the early days of WWII. At this time, people from all over the world, especially Nazi occupied Europe, came to Casablanca. Some trying to escape and others, scam artists trying to get rich. It is described as a “torturous refugee trail” to reach Casablanca where they “wait” for passport visas (letters of transit) to escape. The social setting of C.B. is presented to us as we see a globe revolving slowly at the beginning of the film. An authoritative male voice gives us the time setting for the film.
The main action of the film covers three days in the life of Rick Blaine, an American who has fled from Paris as the Nazis occupied it. He has set up a café in CB as he tried to forget his past and a disastrous love affair. “Rick’s Café Americano” is the most popular hang out, a place where shady dealings and gambling take place. T. differs from both texts as it celebrates the day-to-day and the wit and humour the mundane. Unlike G.G. and CB, T is not remotely glamorized. However, T and CB are alike in the sense that both texts contain people who strive to gain their countries independence.
The setting of the play T. is a small rural Irish speaking community in the fictional townland of Baile Beag in County Donegal. The year is 1833 and Ireland is under British Rule and part of the British Empire. It is a community of tenant farmers and fishermen where inhabitants eke out a living from the land by growing potatoes by fishing or by rearing livestock. The local people worry about the possibility of potato blight, unlike the people in CB and GG who are hungry for achieving money through business and corrupt practices. The people of Baile Beag are dependent on the land, this is poignant considering the play is set not long before the Great Famine. There are very few employment opportunities in the area and people are shabbily dressed, whereas in both alternative texts the main characters have a demure fashion sense and look to be rich.
However, like CB the people are eager to flee their county in T. Emigration is among the options available to those who want to better their situation. The British army arrives in Baile Beag to conduct a survey of the area in order to make a new map and the soldiers are required to anglicise the place names as they go along. The changing of the ancient place names will have a ruinous destructive effect on the culture of the area. The new English names are both meaningless and empty. Another aspect which I feel is a central factor in all three texts is the role of both men and women and how each sex act towards each other. The three narratives reflect similar values in relation to males being the dominating sex and often in a negative context. They are commonly the bread winners and superior to women. In GG, Tom Buchannan is very negatively portrayed. He is powerful and aggressive.
We see Tom’s belligerent personality when he is physically abusive to Myrtle by breaking her nose with his open hand. Myrtle and Tom are both married to other people, but have an affair together. Tom is self absorbed and selfish, he does not give his wife Daisy a second thought when being unfaithful. This theme of negatively portraying men is also prominent in CB, Rick is selfish “I don’t stick my neck out for anyone”. In CB, Rick is shown not to respect Yvonne. He sends her on her way with a bar man who works for him because he thinks she is “too drunk”, Ugarte responds to this action, “you cannot throw women around like that, some day they may be scarce”. In all three texts alike, men fight for the love of a woman, which is illustrated in a macho sense. In GG Tom and Jay fight for Daisy’s love., in CB Rick and Laslo fight for Ilsa’s love and in T George and Manus fight for Marie’s love. Aspiration and optimism is a common factor across the three texts.
Daisy aspires to make it work with Tom, Ilsa wants to work her relationship with Laslo out and Marie will rekindle her love “when George returns”. All three women live in hope for a better tomorrow. The role of women is a common feature in each the texts. In all three women have no independence; they rely on the men to provide for them. They do not work and are all seen as weak. They are all dominated by men and accept this fact. In GG, Daisy is rich and lives a luxurious lifestyle. Daisy is a lazy character, “She made an effort to rise” when Nick entered the room but was “paralysed with happiness”. Daisy states, “I’ve been lying on that sofa for as long as I can remember” and says “We ought to plan something” to Jordan. However, she is presented as being unhappy “she cried and cried”, she describes her own daughter is seen as being a “beautiful little fool”. Daisy also engages in an affair with Jay Gatsby, the culture causes Daisy to behave in this immoral manner.
In CB, women rely on men to make a life for them and free them from the confinement of Casablanca. They are portrayed as being vulnerable. Ilsa relies on the men, Rick or Lazlo to get her the letters of transit. The women in CB conform to the traditional roles In T. again, women have no independence, they depend solely on men to work and provide for them. Sarah succeeds in overcoming speech difficulty, but is then worse at the end of the play. She is presented as being weak and shy. She has a “waif-like” appearance. In my opinion, Sarah symbolizes the suggested fragility and vulnerability of women. But, Marie on the other hand is a strong character. She is a hard worker “look at the blisters” and makes an outspoken decision not to marry Manus, solely as a means of survival.
Similarly in all three texts, we capture a soft and loving side to the women; Ilsa loves both Rick and Lazlo. But these loves are very different. Daisy loves her daughter tenderly and Marie falls in love with George. Although the three texts are alike in a sense, there is a great variation in the types of women we encounter across the three texts. In GG Myrtle is a feisty character, she stands up for herself to Tom “I’ll say whatever I like” but is dominated by him, the man whom she is having an affair with. He breaks her nose and she carries on meeting with him. Myrtle’s feisty independence has only a contradiction on itself however, as she only moves from ones mans dominance to another. She is under the control of her husband who has to provide for her. Jordan also has an incurable dishonesty; I don’t think she comes across as a nice character but I do not blame the characters for engaging in such dishonesty but only the culture in which they live.
Another aspect of the cultural context which I feel contributes to how and why the people in the texts behave the way the do is religion. In the world of the three texts, religion is not an integral part of everyday life. It is not significant in their lives. Interestingly, in GG a dominant symbol within this novel is the billboard eyes of Dr. T.J. Eckleburg. The eyes symbolize the loss of spiritual values in America. The billboard was erected to promote the business of an optometrist in Queensborough – the eyes symbolize the growing commercialism of America – life in America is all about making money, a lot of money as evidenced by the wealth of people like Tom Buchanan – a man’s success is measured in terms of how much money he is worth, not on what kind of person he may be morally.
The billboard, like the spiritual values of America, is neglected – “But his eyes, dimmed a little by many paintless days, under sun and rain, brood on over the solemn dumping ground.” The old-fashioned values of America, which Nick Carraway returns to reconnect with in the mid-West are completely absent from the East, God seems to have abandoned America, leaving only Dr. T.J. Eckleburg behind to stare down with his empty eyes on people who have abandoned their spiritual values in the quest to achieve material wealth. In “CB“, religion is irrelevant in their lives. They have no time for religion. We see one reference to religion throughout this film which was when Ilsa said to Rick a heartfelt “Bless you”, however this still does not suggest a religion had a major role in the text. The lack of religion, I think is due to the diverse multi-cultural society. CB is a temporary destination for people fleeing.
In stark contrast, in “T” we see an abundance of religious references which show us the extent of their faith. In this society, religion plays an integral part and influences their behaviour. It is a constant feature of their everyday lives and conversation – “God save us” and “The God’s truth”. All the characters have a strong, unflinching catholic faith. Religion is used as a crutch to help people get through the harsh realities of their lives. “Sweet God did the practise crop ever fail in Baile Beag… Never”, this is an emphatic statement. “Never” shows their trust and faith in God it is a solace from their meagre and primitive existence. Religion fortifies them. Religion takes place in baptisms, wakes and funerals. There is a big difference in the prevalence and strength of religion in the three texts. There is another aspect which I feel impacts significantly on how and why the people in the three texts act the way they do, alcohol.
There is a parity across all three texts. Alcohol is used for both celebration and comfort. In GG, alcohol is prohibited. Although it is illegal, it can be seen everywhere throughout the text. People who stayed sober were regarded as “deplorable and boring”. The ban of alcohol (“The Prohibition”) created a thriving underworld designed to satisfy the massive demand for bootleg liquor among rich and poor alike. Alcohol is seen as a source of comfort for Daisy on her wedding day to escape the harsh reality of not having Tom “as drunk as a monkey”. The reckless abuse of alcohol is also something that contributed to the death of Myrtle. “GG” is unlike “CB” where alcohol is seen as a way of socialising in this society. All the action throughout the film takes place in Ricks café where alcohol plays a major role. Similarly to “GG”, we see alcohol being consumed for both celebration and comfort. Ricks toast to Ilsa “Here’s looking at you kid” with champagne is seen as them using alcohol to celebrate their future.
Although we see Rick angry, bitter and so deeply hurt by the return of Ilsa that he drinks heavily. In Ricks time of despair he lashes out at Ilsa as a result of alcohol which is the only time we see the abuse of alcohol. However, in “T” alcohol is used as a sign of celebration whether it religious or social. When Owen returns home he promises his father “You and I are going to get footless drunk”. Hugh is seen to always of has consumed an amount of alcohol and never appears sober. I feel alcohol is a key factor that results in the people of the narratives acting the way they do. The final aspect I will explore which I think influences the varied societies to behave in certain ways is their social status, wealth and poverty.
There is a stark contrast in the event of wealth in all three texts. In “GG” there is an abundance or wealth, opulence and extravagance. The majority of the characters live in an area of over indulgence. We learn that Tom gave Daisy a “string of pearls valued at $3500”. Social snobbery is prevalent for instance, servants. Jay Gatsby hosts lavish parties an there is no expense spared. His ostentatious mansion was bought to only please Daisy to try and woo her. George Wilson is an example of complete contrast to Jay, he lives in extreme poverty. The interior of his garage is described as “un-prosperous and base”
In “CB” we see an obvious affluence in formal dress and gambling but not to the same extent as in “GG”. However, “CB” is similar to “GG” in the sense that wealth grants one power and freedom. Rick’s lucrative business puts him in the position of authority but in my opinion the transit papers appear to be the most valuable currency. “T” is the antithesis to the other two texts. The society is present as primitive and destitute. People are poor peasants who are dispossessed. The annual salary for a teacher is 56 pounds, thus highlights the poverty in contrast to the other two texts. I think there is a strong sense of stagnation in this text. There is a lack of finance reflects in the lack of health care and “infant mortality”.
Maire knows she has to learn English to move forward economically. There are gedge schools where children are educated in comparison to the mansions in the “GG”. Malnourishment is prominent and is due to the lack of proper food. Sarah is described as “waif-like”. Through my study of the comparative texts, I have found that the cultural context of the narratives impacts on how and why the people behave the way they do. It allowed me to establish a greater understanding of the characters themselves and to appreciate the circumstances at a deeper level in the lives of the protagonists.