Gatsby & Kane: Tragic American Twins

These names together may sound like a vaudeville comedy team or partners in a law firm, but of course are fictional counterparts. The title characters of Citizen Kane and The Great Gatsby, these two great American works of art of the twentieth century, have a lot in common. Both works, from different angles and in different ways, examine dark corners of the American Dream. Both characters are searching for something: either something lost, or something imagined, never had, that money, in the end, cannot purchase.


Each man starts from humble beginnings, only to come into great wealth. Kane, with the Colorado Lode, a gold mine that by chance is discovered on the Kane property when he's a child. His fortune becomes his by happenstance, pure luck, be it good or bad. With Gatsby, he comes by it in suspicious and no doubt criminal fashion. Neither has earned their fortune by good, old-fashioned hard work. Kane tries to do the best he can with what fell in his lap, out of guilt, perhaps, to justify the oodles of money he's inherited; while Gatsby's riches buy him nothing real, all empty and unsatisfying. These men, in straining to recapture something from earlier in life (while on the surface achieving much), end up falling miserably short from what they desire most.

Both men are trying to recover something lost in or from the most important women in their lives. In Kane's case, he's lost his mother's love. Mrs. Kane's actions are never explained entirely, and are somewhat cryptic, but it's clear at least that their newfound fortune in part has caused the separation. He uses his money at first ostensibly for noble purposes, to do good for others, but then later to buy people's love, a fool's errand. In the case of Gatsby, he's trying to gain the attention of, and win back his first love: one Daisy Buchanan. Remembering their earlier time together through an idealistic and gauzy lens, no matter how hard he tries, and even after he's reconnected to the now-married Daisy, he's doomed to failure, and worse. Daisy has moved on, or could never live up to Gatsby's romanticized an glorified vision of her. She's either corrupted, or was never deserving of his love in the first place.

Money or possessions are not enough for Kane to replace his mother's love or his lost childhood; it can not fill the void. And the women he marries are poor replacements, either because of love gone sour and/or Kane's misplaced priorities. For Gatsby, his wealth is but a tool to attract and recapture Daisy. He may not feel guilty about how he's acquired his fortune, but his quest is tainted by dirty money, and with it, he can never buy into the life in a way he or others view as legitimate.

These men are ambitious and achieve much, but come up short in their ultimate goals. It's up to the viewer/reader to decide whether it's because they're damaged, misguided, compromised or corrupted, or some combination thereof. It seems the respective creators intended their works to be read as indictments of capitalism, but one wonders how either man would have fared having come about their money in more deserved or legitimate ways. Regardless, it's clear at least there are potential dangers in life when it comes to matters material. One may find disaster in not reaching that which they strive for, or perhaps the real danger comes when they're reached after all.


A word on the creators

Though they share much thematically, the style and tone of these respective works is markedly different. Kane is loud, energetic, boisterous, masculine and herky-jerky. Gatsby is rich, poetic, lyrical and intricate and refined. These traits say more about the creators than they do necessarily about their fictional characters. In the conception, writing, direction and finally, performance, Orson Welles embodies Charles Foster Kane. In many ways, Kane bears more resemblance to Welles himself than to William Randolph Hearst. Though now infamously known to be patterned after Hearst, Welles had a lot to do with shaping the character of Kane, and had Mercury Theater pal John Houseman babysit initial scriptwriter Herman J. Mankiewicz during the first drafts, both of whom had good knowledge of Welles's personality. F. Scott Fitzgerald's Gatsby also is semi-autobiographical, with many of Gatsby's attitudes, longings and choices mirroring those of his creator.

If you've not read or seen these masterpieces, you owe it to yourself to give them a try, and if you have, they're both worth repeated looks, as the depth of meaning and superb execution become even more apparent.

A Special Thanks: to friend and writer Alex Grecian, who first suggested to me the connection between these two characters and works.