The treatment of themes by composers is influenced by their personal, social and historical background. By comparing the differing attitudes of composers toward the same issues one can see how their view is affected by their context. This is evident in exploring the perspectives on love and hope presented in selected sonnets from Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s (BB) nineteenth century collection Aurora Leigh and Other Poems, with F. Scott Fitzgerald’s 1926 American novel, The Great Gatsby.
Victorian England emphasised the importance of marriage, with or without love. Women were also portrayed as the objects of affection as opposed to being passionate beings themselves. BB subverted these expectations, refusing to marry not only until she was deeply loved, but until she also shared this profound love. In post-war America, also known as the Jazz Age, there was a strong rejection of the spiritual and moral principles of the past, with an increased emphasis on the value of each individual’s materialistic and opportunistic desires.
Fitzgerald presents the character of Jay Gatsby who seeks a similar experience to that of BB, however in his quest to obtain Daisy he becomes tainted by the immorality of his world. Love can only be fully consummated when it remains uncorrupted; The Great Gatsby depicts this as hopeless aspiration in the modern world. Thus through comparing BB and Fitzgerald’s treatment of love and hope, one can see how their contexts and personal values affect their perspectives. The interconnectedness of love and spirituality and the level of importance placed upon them is an integral theme in both texts.
This is introduced in BB’s first sonnet, with the words “Not Death, but Love” indicating the strong relationship between the two. For her, death means transcending to Heaven, the ultimate fulfilment, thus her confusion of this with love demonstrates the intensity of her feelings toward Robert. In contrast, The Great Gatsby can be seen to show the reverse, “not Love, but Death”. Fitzgerald’s work presents his perspective that in a world devoid of spirituality and morality, the death and corruption of values is almost inevitable.
Despite the emphasis on materialism and corrupted principles in the Jazz Age and the Victorian era’s encouragement of women as passive receivers of love, both Gatsby and BB determinedly pursue profound love. However when Gatsby kissed Daisy he “forever wed his unutterable visions to her perishable breath, his mind would never romp again like the mind of God. ” This quote reiterates the idea that what could be seen as a partial consummation of love was in fact the death of Gatsby’s potential to be fulfilled – he would forever, hopelessly chase “the green light”.
Gatsby’s pursuit of Daisy led him to descend into the criminal activity of the post-war world in order to be “worthy” of her love, reflecting the quote directly preceding the novel: “Then wear a gold hat if that will move her; if you can bounce high, bounce for her too, til she cry, ‘Lover, gold-hatted, high-bouncing lover, I must have you! ’” (Parke D’Invilliers). Daisy’s initial rejection of the poor Gatsby is contrasted with her later exclamation of “I have never seen such beautiful shirts! indicating that now that he is rich, they may consummate their love. The idea of factors affecting love, of love being a commodity, is explicitly rejected by BB in Sonnet 14, “If thou must love me let it be for nought, except for love’s sake only”, going on to describe the necessity for unconditional love. Thus through examining the texts together one can see that whilst BB is able to experience a deeply transcendental, spiritual love, the characters of The Great Gatsby have no hope of achieving this as their “love” is influenced and tainted by other factors.
The texts show that when a different level of value is placed on fulfilment, one is only able to be satisfied to the bounds of this self-imposed limit. Transitory and incomplete love is a key theme of The Great Gatsby, as shown by the many affairs and short relationships described in the novel “I let it blow away quietly”, “I loved him… but I loved you too! ” – the characters are searching for a satisfying and profound love, but their efforts are inhibited by their abandonment of strong moral grounding.
BB explains that this is because only unconditional love may last, “But love me for love’s sake, that evermore thou may’st love on, through love’s eternity”. The use of silver imagery throughout the sequence to describe love, “silver answer rang ‘Not Death but Love’” and the “silver iterance” of “love me, love me, love me”, indicates that it is extremely precious and almost perfect. However, gold imagery is reserved for Heaven, which is the ultimate fulfilment, as shown by her description of the angels as a “golden orb of perfect song”.
Hence the final line of the sonnet sequence “I shall but love thee better after death” reflects that only in Heaven could their love be even more profound. This is in direct contrast to Fitzgerald’s characters who are seen as being willing to settle for less than true love. This is shown by the quote at the start of the novel “gold-hatted… lover I must have you! ”, where the woman is shown to fall in love with this golden hat as opposed to the person themself, meaning that she could only obtain the level of fulfilment provided by satisfying materialistic desires.
Nick’s interactions with Jordan also explore this contrast in valuing love, as he describes her “golden shoulder” but later, only “half in love with her… turned away”. The use of “golden” to describe this incomplete and rejected love indicates that this is the best that Nick, a product of this modern world, can hope to achieve. In the spiritual wasteland that Fitzgerald depicts the Jazz Age to be, a lack of morally “correct” values has led to the corruption of love, so that transitory love and the satisfaction of materialistic desires are the closest that characters can come to being contented.
Thus by comparing the emphasis placed on love and spirituality in both texts, one can see their importance in allowing a person to achieve a sense of fulfilment. Elizabeth Barrett Browning and F. Scott Fitzgerald present polarised views of love and hope. This is because BB found the potential within herself for love and fulfilment, whilst Fitzgerald was experiencing the decadence of the 1920s, resulting in the overwhelming sense of hopelessness depicted in The Great Gatsby. This is emphasised by the corruption and demise of Gatsby, the only character who truly aspired to achieve the transcendental love described by BB.
Through comparing the texts together, one can see how BB was able to obtain fulfilment as she clung to her personal values, however Fitzgerald’s characters could not as they descended into the immorality that the author perceived to be the downfall of his society. Thus through comparing the personal, social and historical contexts of Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s sonnets and F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, one can see how their portrayals of love and hope are influenced by their backgrounds