Linking Sonnets from the Portuguese to the Great Gatsby

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at Gatsby and Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s Sonnets explore the role of human aspirations and the quest to establish or maintain an identity against vastly different social contexts and in markedly different literary forms. While The Great Gatsby (TGG) develops an ironic, shifting but ultimately pessimistic if not cynical viewpoint on the nature of human aspirations and our likelihood of maintaining an individual identity against the range of social pressures, Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s Sonnets present a more idealistic and optimistic assessment of the role aspirations and identity can play in our lives if we approach them with courage and sincerity.

Fitzgerald explores aspirations and identity chiefly through the central figure of Jay Gatsby. Gatsby himself is an elusive and problematic figure we are made to view through a series of lenses, above all through the admiring but cynical and world-weary gaze of Nick Carroway. Gatsby’s aspiration to win Daisy and achieve the perfect life, abolishing five years of life and reclaiming the Daisy he fell in love with as a young officer, is a bold plan Nick can’t help but admire. From his opening “Gatsby turned out all right in the end” to his closing words spoken to Gatsby across the sweep of his lawn, “They’re a rotten crowd . . .You’re worth the whole damn bunch put together”, Nick makes it clear that to him Gatsby is special, the shining star, out there above the rest because of his “extraordinary gift for hope”, a self-made man “who had come a long way to this blue lawn”, to be so close to his “dream”. While Nick would settle for a pragmatic affair with the careless new-age woman Jordan Baker or where others like Tom Buchanan cynically use people, leaving a trail of damage behind them, Gatsby holds out for his dream and all he has done was aimed step by step at achieving that dream. Fitzgerald crafts for us a deeply ambivalent figure – a gangster, a crook, the man who purchases a huge mansion and throws extravagant parties that he does not attend himself, a man who shapes his own image from clothes and cars to accent and language, yet who maintains an almost boundless innocence, willing to believe that Daisy has only to say “I never loved you” to Tom for all to be right. When Nick comments “You can’t repeat the past” and Gatsby says “incredulously”, “Why of course you can!” we gain a sense of his overweening belief in the power of his endeavours. What is especially tragic is that Gatsby has selected as the object of all his passion a confused young woman whose “artificial world was redolent of orchids and pleasant, cheerful snobbery”. When EBB and TGG are read together what stands out immediately is how artificial the people in TGG are (except for Nick who is too cynical to risk unreserved unqualified love) compared to the sincerity and openness of EBB.

Gatsby’s aspirations and identity are deeply flawed – Fitzgerald hints throughout – both because they are built on a spoilt rich girl who lacks the daring needed to give substance to Gatsby’s dream and, more importantly, because they suffer from “the vast, vulgar and meretricious beauty” dreamed up by a deeply-corrupted, money and appearances-obsessed society. Gatsby’s logic is ‘Daisy rejected me because I lacked money, very well I will make money, it doesn’t matter how and then, dazzled by my wealth and all wealth creates, she will fall into my arms’. Fitzgerald uses the bizarre image of Daisy weeping into the shirts (“I’ve never seen such beautiful shirts”) to capture the warped values of US 1920’s society. Likewise in the subplot involving Myrtle Wilson, Myrtle rejects her husband since he couldn’t buy the suit he was married in and seems drawn to Tom first of all by his clothing. Her affair itself is betrayed by the diamond-studded dog-collar she leaves lying about in the garage. The vacuous edge of all the main characters – Daisy, Tom, Myrtle, Daisy, even Gatsby – is captured in their lack of any vocabulary to talk...
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