Elizabeth Barret-Browning’s ‘Sonnets from the Portuguese’ and F. Scott. Fitzgerald’s ‘The Great Gatsby’ both reflect, in abstract style and varying contexts and elements, the experience of idealised love, hope and mortality. The elements employed by Barret-Browning and Fitzgerald, differ in their depictions of these themes through various literary devices, two of which are ‘points of view’ and ‘motifs/symbols’. Barret-Browning’s sonnet sequence illustrates a complex evolution of emotions as the poet moves through sorrow, self doubt, passion, fear, and ultimately profound exhilaration and joy, even in spite of the restlessly lingering thoughts of her own death, whereas, ‘The Great Gatsby’ follows the tale of young Nick Carraway, a seemingly pure man from the West, who decides to journey to New York to make his money in the stocks and bonds market. In New York, he is met with a story of love, lust, adultery and murder; it is a telling of the death of the American Dream, and the downfall of those who attempt to reach its illusory goals.
‘The Great Gatsby’ is a novel that takes place during the roaring twenties, or an era otherwise known as the Jazz Age. A time of prohibition and experimentation, the novel portrays both the chaos and loss of morals that many during that time experienced. In ‘The Great Gatsby’ Fitzgerald opted for a complex structure and a controlled narrative point of view, thus giving the novel a greater air of realism, written in a limited first person perspective, with Nick Carraway serving as the narrator and the only true voice. This deliberate inclusion forces the reader to experience the events in the novel, first hand, in addition to this, Nick is careful not to tell the reader things he himself does not know, this is one of the reasons that the novel is so convincing, Nick seems to be the only rational person, and he is the one relaying the events to us. Although Nick makes a connection with all the major characters throughout the novel, there is no better connection than with that of Gatsby, he becomes Gatsby’s’ confidant and with this is the change in Nick’s emotions, as well as the way he narrates the novel. Nick is fundamentally a listener to and observer of Gatsby and his world before he is a narrator. Before he can tell Gatsby’s story, Nick suspends and enters Gatsby’s world, accepting his terms of discourse. It is precisely by articulating both his faith and his doubt about Gatsby that Nick becomes a model for the reader in addition to being a writer and storyteller. As Gatsby’s mood and character changes throughout the novel so does Nick’s view of him, thus affecting the reader’s perspective. Gatsby’s “radiant and understanding smile” is the sole characteristic about him that allows Nick to fade in and out of his loyalty and love for Gatsby – “There was something gorgeous about him”. Having Nick as the narrator gives a different perspective on what he gathered from the situation. Where Gatsby’s story lacks in storytelling quality “Gatsby’s very phrases were worn so threadbare that they evoked no image” an opportunity is presented to Nick to fill in Gatsby’s emptiness with lyrical prose, his absence with perfect metaphors, and his silence with words for the feelings that Nick imagines his hero must have felt.
With Nick as the narrator we are able to weave through the intricate lives of the characters. The notion of idealised love is presented through the relationship of Gatsby and Daisy, or rather, Gatsby and the idea of Daisy. Gatsby builds an image of Daisy representing happiness and love. The time between his conscription and return perpetuates this mental image. Though Daisy does not measure up to the idealistic image Gatsby has established, he cannot see past the beautiful illusion. This represents the falsehoods of a supposed single “dream” to suit all people, and bring happiness to all who pursue it. Gatsby believes he is seeking happiness and love, but his journey is corrupted by the materialism and amoral lifestyle present in Fitzgerald’s time. Just as the Dutch sailors first set eyes on the “fresh green breast of the new world”, Gatsby sees this spiritual optimism in the green light- a motif in the novel. The death of Myrtle and the concept of mortality is represented through Nick’s use of expressive language, he states “where Myrtle Wilson, her life violently extinguished, knelt in the road and mingled her thick dark blood with the dust”, this expression of life’s tragic end here is complemented by Nicks use of imagery, we are left with the raw image of Myrtle lying on the floor in displaced agony – stark message to readers that life is not perpetual and everlasting. Hope is depicted through Gatsby’s chase of the American Dream, he does not rest until this is finally fulfilled, it never becomes truly realized and he ends up paying the ultimate price of his life for it. Gatsby is blinded by the illusions that stand between him and happiness. Gatsby perceives Daisy to be his happiness, but Daisy is not. Fitzgerald examines the American Dream by autopsy, through the reflective narrator. Though the principles of the idealistic dream still exist, highlighted by Gatsby’s ambition and drive to improve himself, the morality behind the dream has been substituted by money, resulting in decadence, corruption and distinct class divisions between people. Fitzgerald represents the corruption and the demise of the original, idealistic American Dream with the death of both Gatsby and Wilson- two men who make a living, and strive to better themselves with new money. Gatsby however was disillusioned by his belief that money could buy him happiness. They both possess the gift of hope, but the established order crushes them, “he had a romantic readiness…some heightened sensitivity to the promises of life…it was an extraordinary gift of hope”
The Victorians followed the Romantics in believing in the connection with the sequence of regeneration, renewal and recycle. Barret-Browning’s sonnets offer Victorian ideals of marriage being the ‘proper’ way to reaffirm love. Whilst Barret-Browning’s newfound love provides the impetus behind the Sonnet sequence it also, for the Victorian reader, epitomises the appropriate poetry for women to write, because, it showed a woman in her best role – loving and expressing sentiments of love. The poet speaker is the subject (subjecting) and the result is an intellectual exploration of love and the examination of the illusion of a love connection, which is not permanent, eternal and unconditional. The poet attempts to look past all that and essentially generates universal themes about humanity through the use of language and symbology. Barret-Browning successfully revived the form of the Italian sonnet developed by Petrarch in the 14th century and also expands traditional conventions of such a form to include feminine variation that was yet unseen. Barret-Browning’s precise application of this rigid long established masculine structure allows her innovative feminine deviations to emerge. Usually the speaker of the sonnet is a male, praising a silent, or absent female object of worship, here, however, the female object is in fact the speaker of the poem and a participator rather than an observer. She is not ‘golden’ or ‘lovely’ but instead dark, ill, and close to death. Throughout the sonnet sequence love is portrayed as continually changing the person or people experiencing it, almost as if it were a kind of remedy and therapy.
“I love thee to the depth and breadth and height My soul can reach, when feeling out of sight For the ends of Being and ideal Grace.” – Sonnet LXIII. The language of this abstract image portrays love to be unconfinable. This is emphasized by “when feeling out of sight” as the image of the love is portrayed as being further that can actually be seen which accentuates the boundless image of love. The poetic voices’ “soul” adds to the this image as a soul is not an object which can be contained within the body as it knows no bounds, and so the portrayal of love can be viewed as eternal. This image also depicts the magnitude of love as the language of “depth and breadth and height” shows how vast the love the poetic voice feels. The structure is a vital tool to the poet when portraying love and relationships in the poem. The poem itself is written in iambic pentameter and it is this structural point that enforces “depth” and “breadth” and “height” to be verbally stressed. This enforces the idea of the endless boundaries and the magnitude of love and relationships within this poem. The accentuation of these words highlights them within the line making them key words and stand apart from it. Another structural point is the use enjambment; this can highlight many aspects of love and relationships, which are trying to be conveyed. The enjambments of the lines add to the portrayal of love knowing no limits at both enjambments. The lack of punctuation also serves a structural purpose “ I love thee to the depth and breadth and height” and reiterates the boundless image of love, as the punctuation cannot disrupt the line and so is elongated. Sonnet XIII puts forward the question of “can language represent the experience or is it just an echo of experience?” The sonnet begins with an indignant refusal to put into words the value of love, then changes into an inability, in being able to comprehend the human experience of love. The poem uses traditional feminine stereotypes to express the value of love. Her ‘woman love’ being a symbol of the soft feminine curve Victorian women were expected to fit into.
Complementing the author’s element of point of view, both authors use symbology and motifs to express the ideas of idealised love, hope and mortality. There are three main motifs and symbols used in ‘The Great Gatsby’, they are, the Green Light at the end of Daisy’s dock, the Valley of ashes, and the eyes of Dr. T.J. Eckleburg. The Valley of Ashes is a physical desert – one that is a direct representation of the notion of futility or no hope, it symbolises the spiritual desolation, that a society based on money creates. The Valley of Ashes exists as the illustration of the lower-class society as well as the loss of morals and disgrace of humanity; it represents the modern world – a grotesque hell created by modernity. “Terrible place, isn’t it,’ said Tom, exchanging a frown with Doctor Eckleburg.”
The eyes of Dr. T. J. Eckleburg serve as an omniscient God in the dying society Fitzgerald seeks to depict. His huge and unblinking celestial eyes add the presence of something higher that constantly watches and looks down upon the valley. The icon of Dr T. J. Eckleburg, being a figure of American success, conveys commercial values and the loss of spirituality as he represents an inverted God who “sees all”. Amidst the materialistic values of the wealthy, Gatsby is isolated, ironically outcast from the upper classes, as suggested by Nick’s dejected tone at Gatsby’s funeral, “but it was no use – nobody came”, revealing the shallowness of the affluent in the 1920’s and emphasising the delusion of honest relationships and despondency that surrounds Gatsby. The only sign of hope to resist such structures of capitalism is T.J. Eckleburg, the eyes that watch over the Valley of Ashes.
These God-like eyes watch over the land, showing that even though the working class may not have the same comforts that the elite enjoy, they will always have the comfort of ‘God’. However the eyes are described as “huge, flat, empty eyes”, “they look out of no face…as they brood on over the solemn dumping ground.” they symbolise a dead God staring blindly out at the moral decay of humanity and the meaningless garbage that societies lives had become. Each character evades the consequences of his/her actions and hides from moral values which religion demands, but the eyes are immune to social class or beauty and focus entirely on the harsh reality of one’s actions. Eckleburg is also used as a symbol of mortality, throughout the novel Fitzgerald suggests that symbols only have meaning because characters fill them with meaning. The connection between the eyes of Doctor T. J. Eckleburg and God exists only in George Wilson’s grief-stricken mind; Wilson later points to this saying, ‘God sees everything’ before going on his murderous rampage. The lack of solid meaning contributes to the disturbing nature of the image. And so, the eyes also come to represent the meaninglessness of the world and the uncertainty of people.
The green light, being the most apparent physical metaphor represents hope, it is a multi-faceted symbol that represents Gatsby’s hope and longing for Daisy and the extent he was willing to go to in order to recreate the past. As Nick comments at the conclusion of the text, “Gatsby believed in the green light, the orgastic future that year by year recedes before us. It eluded us then, but that’s no matter – tomorrow we will run faster, stretch our arms out farther…” Here Fitzgerald extends the symbol of the green light to the audience and invites them to continue to hope and dream against the odds.
Barret-Browning’s use of motifs and metaphors throughout the sonnet sequence demonstrate the notions of mortality and hope by invoking stark and verdant imagery. Sonnet I depicts a despondent speaker, lying in darkness, grieving for the past, when suddenly a mysterious shape enters the room overtaking her. By now, well prepared to meet her end, she receives an unusual surprise. Barret-Browning has here personified death. The imagery of seizure, power and conflict invoke a sense of mortality and fragility. The poem is a stepping stone for the progression of emotion. It expresses depression and sadness felt most of her life, as well as illness and isolation.
Sonnet XXII expresses mortality in terms of the more physical end of the spectrum. Here the poet suggests that love need not be bound on earth, that love is associated with stillness rather than activeness. The poem asks why strive for heaven when it can be achieved here on earth. Darkness and death appear to always be a part of her life – giving into death/darkness is giving into the unknown. Sonnet XXXII states that a heart which is quick to love must also be quick to hate. When the poet looks upon herself in this poem she wonders if she is worthy of love? The poet casts herself as a musical instrument and relays that she is no more than an out of tune worn viol and that a good singer (the male entity) would be wroth to try and play. The symbol of the viol is used to illustrate the idea of hope. That perhaps the instrument might be restored. The male is cast as the musician with his ‘master hands’ while the woman is cast as the ‘instrument defaced’ deferring back to traditional Victorian values. The very last word, doat once again presents an element of doubt “maybe this is too quick and foolish?”
Sonnet LXIII includes geometrical symbolism, the first couplet is used to convey ever expanding love ‘as far as the soul can reach’ when in the spiritual realm. The poet now understands that there isn’t anything special or glamorous about the business of love, it is unheroic and unromantic. Love has this everyday existence that reaches for the sun and stars but also ‘everyday’s most quiet need’. The reader is now of the understanding that grief and melancholy is of the past, yet she will put the same emotional intensity into love that she had previously put into her old griefs, thus ending the sonnet sequence.
In the end ‘The Great Gatsby’ and ‘Sonnets from the Portuguese’ both great love stories – one of consequence and another of timelessness – written in different times in which literary/societal norms were defied by the authors, they serve as calamitous admonitions and manifestations of our own desires for idealised love, hope and mortality. The portrayal of these themes by Barret-Browning and Fitzgerald are both embodied through symbolism/motifs and the point of view of the speaker, which in turn create tantamount ideas of idealised love, hope and mortality.