The Great Gatsby as Pastoral Elegy
by John H. Kuhnle


In his biography of F. Scott Fitzgerald, Arthur Mizener suggests an important clue to the mode in which The Great Gatsby is written: “though Fitzgerald would be the last to have reasoned it out in such terms, The Great Gatsby becomes a kind of tragic pastoral, with the East exemplifying urban sophistication and culture and corruption, and the Middle West, ’the bored, sprawling, swollen towns beyond the Ohio,’ the simple virtues.” Though to my knowledge no one has carefully examined its relationship to the pastoral tradition, The Great Gatsby is, in many ways, the prose equivalent of a pastoral elegy. Mizener says that Fitzgerald “had committed himself to an adequate and workable form which he never betrayed… Where he learned how to make that pattern is not easy to see. He was never very conscious of his literary debts.” The subject, tone, structure, imagery, theme, and other conventions historically associated with pastoral elegy, however, are used in Gatsby so pervasively that I must finally disagree with Mizener by concluding that Fitzgerald consciously intended the novel to reflect that tradition.

Early in its long history, the pastoral elegy became something more than a simple lament for a dead friend or hero; its formal occasion provided the poet an opportunity to search for a general meaning behind a particular death, to pose universal questions of human significance, and to arrive at a philosophical resolution. Frequently, the elegy also has involved an ironic vision—the contrast between illusion and reality, between what was and what now is, or what was expected and what actually ensued. In his classic study of pastoral poetry and drama, W. W. Greg notes the convention of measuring the deficiencies of contemporary society and culture against the pastoral ideal of a former Golden Age “of simplicity and innocence.” This allegorical characteristic is generally agreed upon by scholars of the pastoral tradition; indeed, Hallet Smith has identified the pastoral setting as especially well suited for social and philosophical reflection: “Far from being escapist, pastoral poetry was the most apt of all kinds for serious humanistic purposes. Because of the central concern with the relative value of wealth, power, riches and the ’contented mind’… [it] lent itself readily to indirect or slightly masked criticism of contemporary affairs.” At first reading, Gatsby may appear to be only Nick Carraway’s account of the career and death of an eccentric gangster, Jay Gatsby. But the novel takes on larger dimensions as it develops and becomes Nick’s elegy for an essentially incorruptible man dying for a dream. Despite that death, however, the novel is not a tragedy. The death itself is neither central nor tragic: we know from the first that “Gatsby turned out all right at the end.” The importance of this death is what the narrator-elegist makes of it in his delineation of a corrupt, murderous society and his search for consolation in the essential, enduring goodness of his dead friend.

Reading The Great Gatsby in the light of the elegiac tradition, one is struck first by the sheer number of elegiac conventions that appear in the novel’s structure, theme, and imagery. Based upon his examination of the classic elegies, Richard P. Adams has listed seventeen conventions of pastoral elegy, all of which appear in either traditional or ironic form in The Great Gatsby. Adams also identifies other elegiac images and thematic devices of slightly less importance: light, representing life, love and the rebirth of nature in the spring; moisture, appearing as mist or cloud and representing death; birds, specifically the nightingale, that like a poet can move men through song and evoke a sense of immortality; and flowers, symbolizing love. These, too, are found in Gatsby.

To Adams’s list I would add the elegist’s traditional treatment of the elegized character as embodying special, even heroic significance—innocence in Adonais, purity in Lycidas, or, in Gatsby’s case, romantic idealism. And, though the formal occasion of elegy traditionally has been the celebration of the noble life and death of an important person, the more subtle theme has concerned the effect of that death upon his survivors.

Seeing The Great Gatsby as pastoral elegy also answers the old question of whether or not it is a tragedy. Elegy has tragic elements, but is in a different literary tradition altogether. It is not a theatrical tradition as tragedy is, but a poetic and monological one. In traditional elegy the emphasis, finally, is not on the hero himself, as in tragedy, but on the interpretation of his death, as in Gatsby.

Other than his all-time favorite, John Keats, some of Fitzgerald’s favorite poets in the years between The Beautiful and Damned and The Great Gatsby appear to have been Milton and Shelley, each of whom wrote a celebrated pastoral elegy. While I do not maintain that Fitzgerald knew the history of pastoral elegy in the way that a graduate student of English literature must, he exercised an astonishing ability to absorb and put to his own use the characteristics of the models he read. Thus, Fitzgerald need not have read the following description by William Empson in order to have written exactly this sort of pastoral in Gatsby:

The realistic sort of pastoral… gives a natural expression for a sense of social injustice. So far as the person described is outside society because too poor for its benefits he is independent, as the artist claims to be, and can be a critic of society; so far as he is forced by this into crime he is the judge of the society that judges him. This is a source of irony both against him and against the society, and if he is a sympathetic criminal he can be made to suggest both Christ as the scapegoat (so involving Christian charity) and the sacrificial tragic hero, who was normally above society rather than below it, which is a further source of irony.

With this general introduction in mind, let us observe in particular cases, as no critic to my knowledge has yet done, the ways in which The Great Gatsby realizes not only Empson’s definition of one kind of pastoral, but also Adams’s characteristics of pastoral elegy in general. For simplicity’s sake, I have subsumed the elegiac characteristics mentioned by both of these critics under four general headings—form, pastoralism, biography, and resolution.

Form

Nick’s opening words address the reader as an acquaintance, perhaps a friend. Announcing his subject in the initial paragraphs of the first chapter by referring to the “end” of Gatsby and effectively publishing the fact of his death as required by the tradition, Nick arouses the reader’s interest about “what preyed on Gatsby, what foul dust floated in the wake of his dreams” (p. 3) and begins to tell why and how Gatsby died. The dynamic quality of this narration reflects the standard elegiac convention of a dramatic framework, as well as the effect on Nick’s life of his experience in the East, leading to the novel’s ultimate emphasis on life rather than death.

Nick’s role is that of the questioning survivor, the elegist of tradition, who, through the subject’s death, is forced to confront the meaning of his own life. Between the story’s outset, when Nick comes East to learn the bond business in the summer of 1922, and the novel’s close more than two years later, Nick changes considerably. His life takes new directions and forms a faint but real harmony with Gatsby’s death. Nick’s own story does not end with Gatsby’s death; rather, its significance has begun with the death and continues throughout his retrospective interpretation of his experience in the East. He had gone there with that “familiar conviction that life was beginning over again with the summer” (p. 5) and returned the following autumn wanting “the world to be in uniform and at a sort of moral attention forever” (p. 2), desiring “no more riotous excursions with privileged glimpses into the human heart” (p. 2), which had produced memories “that temporarily closed … [his] interest in the abortive sorrows and short-winded elations of men” (p. 3). It has taken Nick almost a year to reexamine fully the meaning of his summer in the East and begin to come to terms with it, and the novel is the record of his interpretation and evaluation of the experiences that have changed his life.

Pastoralism

In his survey of the tradition of pastoral literature, Professor Greg notes a “constant element… the recognition of a contrast, implicit or expressed, between pastoral life and some more complex type of civilization.” He goes on to suggest that “as the result of this contrast there arises an idea which comes perhaps as near being universal in pastoral as any—the idea, namely, of the ’golden age.’” Furthermore, he explains the basis of the metaphorical implications of the genre: “It would be an interesting task to trace how far this contrast is the source of the various subsidiary types [of pastoral literature]—of the ideal where it breeds desire for a return to simplicity, of the realistic where the humor of it touches the imagination, and of the allegorical where it suggests satire on the corruption of an artificial civilization.

Golden Age imagery, archaic terms of shepherding, and assumptions of uninterrupted harmony between man and nature all accompany the pastoral scenery in traditional elegy, but Fitzgerald turns the convention into a highly expressive irony. It would seem that America—often considered the second Garden of Eden, man’s promised final earthly utopia—could easily and naturally be treated in pastoral terms. But in Fitzgerald’s view the Eastern garden has been defiled, with New York City and Long Island representing the quintessence of modern America; and when examined closely, many of these Eastern pastoral scenes turn out to be fraudulent stage sets constructed to indulge the desires of the wealthy. Exaggerated country mansions with patterned gardens and expansive lawns adjoin one another in a melange of contrasting old-world architectural styles in obvious contrast to the simple Middle West “where dwellings are still called through decades by a family’s name” (p. 212). Gatsby’s mansion, for instance, “was a colossal affair by any standard—it was a factual imitation of some Hotel de Ville in Normandy, with a tower on one side, spanking new under a thin beard of raw ivy, and a marble swimming pool, and more than forty acres of lawn and garden” (p. 6). The Buchanan’s house was a “red-and-white Georgian Colonial mansion, overlooking the bay” with a lawn that “started at the beach and ran toward the front door for a quarter of a mile, jumping over sun-dials and brick walls and burning gardens” (p. 8), and its front vista includes “a sunken Italian garden, a half acre of deep, pungent roses, and a snub-nosed motor-boat that bumped the tide offshore” (p. 9).

These pastoral scenes, however, are not natural to the Eastern garden. A more typical scene in this industrialized society involves a working-class community: “… a valley of ashes—a fantastic farm where ashes grow like wheat into ridges and hills and grotesque gardens; where ashes take the forms of houses and chimneys and rising smoke and, finally, with a transcendent effort, of ash-gray men, who move dimly and already crumbling through the powdery air” (p. 27).

This valley of ashes, the waste heap of the city, is presided over by the abandoned sign of an oculist named Dr. T. J. Ecklebujg. An advertisement for a physician who treated abnormalities and diseases of the eye, the sign is especially appropriate because too few persons are aware of their distorted vision. Wilson, for instance, the bereaved husband of Tom Buchanan’s dead mistress, sees the sign as God’s brooding presence, only to be corrected by a friend, “That’s an advertisement” (p. 192). And Nick has returned to the Middle West after Gatsby’s death because “the East was … distorted beyond my eyes’ power of correction” (p. 213).

The falsity of this Eastern “pastoralism” is emphasized throughout Gatsby. Two of the novel’s major settings, East Egg and West Egg, bound “the most domesticated body of salt water in the Western hemisphere, the great wet barnyard of Long Island Sound” (pp. 5-6). In New York City natural and urban elements commingle in confusion in Nick’s sensitive perceptions: “We drove over to Fifth Avenue, warm and soft, almost pastoral, on the summer Sunday afternoon. I wouldn’t have been surprised to see a great flock of white sheep turn the corner” (p. 23). Moreover, a New York gambler friend of Gatsby’s is named Wolfshiem (“wolf’s home” in German), an appropriate name in this pastoral context for one who preys upon the unsuspecting community. The former owner of Gatsby’s mansion, it was rumored, had offered to pay his neighbors’ property taxes if they would thatch their cottage roof with straw, while Tom Buchanan brags of reversing the normal order in making “a stable out of a garage” (p. 142).

The convention of Nature’s sympathetic mourning is also satisfied. Nature, appropriately for a pastoral elegy, is alive throughout the novel and often personified. Nick’s narrative opens with “sunshine and … great bursts of leaves growing on the trees” (p. 5). Returning from his first dinner with the Buchanans, Nick sits in his yard and observes the evening: “The wind had blown off, leaving a loud, bright night, with wings beating in the trees and a persistent organ sound as the full bellows of the earth blew the frogs full of life” (p. 25). Likewise, after one of Gatsby’s Saturday night social extravaganzas, “On Sunday morning … the world and its mistress returned to Gatsby’s house and twinkled hilariously on his lawn” (p. 73). Then, echoing Adams’s comment on the association of moisture and death, Gatsby dies in the water of his swimming pool; Nature changes her sunshine to dark skies, and Gatsby is buried amidst the pathetic fallacy of “a thick drizzle.”

Similarly, the convention of placing flowers on the bier is recalled by a consistent, subtle pattern of mourning wreaths and floral surrogates appearing in six of the novel’s nine chapters. Facetiously assuring Daisy that Chicago misses her presence, Nick says, “ ’The whole town is desolate. All the cars have the left rear wheel painted black as a mourning wreath’ “ (p. 12). On a list of things to do, Myrtle Wilson includes finding “a wreath with a black silk bow for mother’s grave” (p. 44). Nick recalls when he and Gatsby drove into New York “A dead man passed us in a hearse heaped with blooms” (p. 82), and Gatsby’s house is sold by the original owner’s children “with the black wreath still on the door” (p. 107). Then, at Gatsby’s death in his swimming pool, the water’s surface bears “a cluster of leaves” (p. 195), and at Gatsby’s funeral, Nick remembers “Daisy hadn’t sent … a flower” (p. 210). Parenthetically, the association of flowers and love noted by Adams as a minor part of the pastoral tradition is apparent in the name of Daisy and that of Tom’s mistress Myrtle, also the name of a common wild flower and a Greek symbol of fertility. Nick, additionally, is affectionately referred to by Daisy as “a rose, an absolute rose” (p. 18), a highly bred aristocratic flower with an historical association with  romantic love.  In  the important passage describing his choosing Daisy’s love over his ambitions, Gatsby kisses her, and “At his lips’ touch she blossomed for him like a flower” (p. 134). Then Nick speculates that just before Gatsby dies he may have realized that Daisy had abandoned him again, and, if so, he must have “shivered as he found what a grotesque thing a rose is” (p. 194).

Recalling  George  Norlin’s comment,  “the distinguishing characteristic of the pastoral elegy is that its subject masquerades as a herdsman moving among rustic scenes,” the reader may see Nick, a bond salesman from the Middle West, as an appropriate elegiac narrator. By his own reference, he is the modern equivalent of the simple herdsman: “I had just left a country of wide lawns and friendly trees” (p. 4); “ ’You make me feel uncivilized, Daisy,’ I confessed… ’Can’t you talk about crops or something?’ “ (p. 15); and one Sunday afternoon Nick half expects to see a flock of sheep on Fifth Avenue. In other references, too numerous to mention here, Nick shows a special sensitivity to nature and natural phenomena through his many references to gardens, lawns, sky, sun, trees, grass, fruit, flowers, and outdoor temperature.

The seasonal setting of Gatsby, too, has implications in terms of the pastoral tradition. Whereas most such elegies are set in spring to form ironic counterpoint with the fact of the subject’s death, Gatsby’s death occurs as summer fades into autumn, perhaps emphasizing the decline of America’s natural fecundity. Yet, despite this conjunction of Gatsby’s death and the seasonal ungreening, the dominant images at the novel’s end are of spring—the “fresh green breast of the new world” (p. 217), “the green light” (p. 218), and “the orgastic future” (p. 218)—all of which underscore Nick’s honorific characterization of how Gatsby’s life “turned out,” thus making the final mood spring-like and consonant with that of the pastoral consolation.

Biography

As in many novels, but also consistent with the generic tradition of elegy, an outline of Gatsby’s life appears in the novel, surfacing in fragments as Nick gleans bits of information from Daisy, Jordan, Mr. Gatz, and Gatsby himself. These fragments are scattered throughout the novel and appear in the non-chronological order in which Nick learns them, including his reconstruction of the events leading up to and surrounding Gatsby’s death. An account of Gatsby’s dying speech is even provided, as Nick speculates “he must have felt… He must have looked up …” (p. 194), together with telling details and patterns that underscore the mythical qualities of Gatsby’s life and are congruent with Empson’s description of “realistic” pastoral. Born in obscurity, reared by a surrogate parent, divided by love and duty—"His Father’s business"—vaulted to short-lived prominence and a premature death in what Nick calculates to be his thirty-third year, Gatsby is imaged by Fitzgerald as cloaked with irony and the tawdry accoutrements of twentieth-century infamy, extending to the pathetic imagery of a scapegoat Christ figure carrying his death bier to the place of his murder:

Gatsby shouldered the [air] mattress and started for the pool. Once he stopped and shifted it a little, and the chauffeur asked him if he needed help, but he shook his head and in a moment disappeared among the yellowing trees. (pp. 193-194)

A standard device in early elegies is the repetition of a stylized phrase wherein the speaker reproaches the supposed friends and protectors (most often supernatural beings) of the dead subject for their absence when help was needed most. Whereas the phrase “Where were ye, Nymphs?” does not appear in its most artificial and stylized form, the question clearly is echoed in Nick’s repeated references to the abandonment of Gatsby by his minions and his lover, Daisy. While Gatsby stands protective vigil through the night outside her house, the evening of the automobile accident, Daisy does not come out and makes no signal, leaving Gatsby standing “watching over nothing” (p. 175). Later, when Gatsby waits for a telephone call that both literally and figuratively could have saved his life, “No telephone message arrived” (p. 194).

Similarly, the conventional inquiry of friends about the cause of the speaker’s grief is bent to Fitzgerald’s ironic intent as Nick must seek out former friends and acquaintances to try vainly to persuade them to attend Gatsby’s funeral. Daisy and Tom have “gone away early that afternoon, and taken baggage with them” (p. 197) without leaving an address. Gatsby’s former mentor Meyer Wolfshiem writes that he is “tied up in some very important business and cannot get mixed up in this thing now” (p. 199). The single telephone call to Gatsby’s house the day before the funeral comes from Gatsby’s “boarder,” Klipspringer, who asks that his tennis shoes be sent to him. If, as in some early pastoral elegies, this convention is understood to involve inquiries directed to the subject rather than to the elegist, it is satisfied by the extended conversations that Jordan Baker and then Nick have with Gatsby as he explains in detail the cause and history of his lethal passion for Daisy: “He told it to me [his personal history],” Nick says, “at a time of confusion” (p. 122); “He was silent, and I guessed at his unutterable depression” (p. 132); “He talked a lot about the past, and I gathered that he wanted to recover something, some idea of himself perhaps, that had gone into loving Daisy. His life had been confused and disordered since then” (p. 133).

Compounding the growing ironies of circumstance, “Nobody came” to Gatsby’s funeral. In place of the traditional benevolent spirits and mourning shepherds, only “Owl-eyes” and Mr. Gatz— recently arrived from the pastoral Midwest—attend. And, in ironic contrast to the conventional funeral procession Nick and Gatsby had earlier passed on the Queensboro Bridge (“a hearse… followed by two carriages with drawn blinds, and by more cheerful carriages for friends” [p. 82]), the bleak ceremony of Gatsby’s funeral becomes inverted through the burlesque of the conventional procession of important mourners: “… first a motor hearse, horribly black and wet, then Mr. Gatz and the minister and I in the limousine, and a little later four or five servants and the postman from West Egg, in Gatsby’s station wagon, all wet to the skin” (p. 210). The “eulogy” likewise inverts elegiac tradition. Instead of a graveside speech praising Gatsby, the only statement interrupting the sound of rain is the inane “ ’Blessed are the dead that the rain falls on,’ “ to which, as an ironic Echo’s lament, Owl-eyes says,” ’Amen to that’ “ (p. 210). The real eulogy is spoken by Nick in his final conversation with Gatsby: “ ’You’re worth the whole damn bunch put together’ “ (p. 185).

Other elegiac conventions and devices also are fulfilled in varying forms. Echoing the recurrent elegiac allusion to a nightingale and the power of its song to move men, as noted by Adams, Fitzgerald carefully associates Daisy with this traditional symbol of romantic love. During Nick’s first visit to the Buchanan mansion, Daisy playfully identifies a bird on the lawn as a nightingale and says, “ ’He’s singing away—’ Her voice sang: ’It’s romantic, isn’t it, Tom?’ “ (p. 19). She practices this small irony to embarrass her unfaithful husband, but the larger romantic image she projects for Gatsby is equally misleading. Under the stress of her involvement in the fatal automobile accident, Daisy abandons him for the second time, again choosing a hollow marriage wrapped in social status and old money rather than a purely romantic relationship with Gatsby.

Moreover, the traditional elegiac role of goddess as mother or lover is split into two ironic features. Though James Gatz’s father appears at the funeral, the elegist emphasizes other origins for the character Jay Gatsby: “The truth was that Jay Gatsby of West Egg, Long Island, sprang from his Platonic conception of himself. He was a son of God—” (p. 118). Additionally, an almost supernatural romance is supplied in twentieth-century terms. Daisy Buchanan, the ethereal white goddess, fills the all-but-fleshless role of Gatsby’s lover. Daisy, whose maiden surname Fay means “fairy,” is imaged repeatedly as a wealth-enshrined demigoddess—“High in a white palace the king’s daughter, the golden girl …” (p. 144), “Daisy, gleaming like silver, safe and proud above the hot struggles of the poor” (p. 179)—and, in a telling image, Nick reveals Gatsby’s unvoiced belief “that the rock of the world was founded securely on a fairy’s wing” (p. 119). Also, “Daisy” derives from an archaic euphemism for the sun, “day’s eye,” thus invoking the elegiac association of light and love.

Other archaic devices, meanwhile, are used in different ways. Gatsby continually uses outmoded words and phrases—“Old Sport” and other verbal reflexes—in attempts to associate himself with a social class not his own. But the most important archaism in the novel is his unflagging belief in the attainability of his dream. Gatsby dreams of finally resecuring the devotion of Daisy and reliving their earlier love. This dream is founded on his belief that given enough time and energy he can achieve any goal he is capable of imagining, a belief often characterized as a distinctively American dream:

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—to-morrow we will run faster, stretch out our arms farther… And one fine morning— (p. 218)

This refusal to accept limitation—on the potential of the future or even reality—Nick sees as a vestige of the original vision of America “that flowered once for Dutch sailors’ eyes” (p. 217), really an updating of the idea of a Golden Age, a cultural anachronism actively lingering on in the more pastoral hinterlands of the Midwest but totally alien to the urban society of the East:

… his dream must have seemed so close that he could hardly fail to grasp it. He did not know that it was already behind him, somewhere back in that vast obscurity beyond the city, where the dark fields of the republic rolled on under the night. (p. 218)

Resolution

The present discussion has indicated only the more obvious relationships of The Great Gatsby to pastoral elegy. The important relationship of a literary work to this tradition, Adams points out, lies in the elegist’s posing and answering questions about life and death. In Gatsby Nick Carraway’s questioning is prompted by the death of Jay Gatsby and answered by his conclusion about its meaning.

As Adams also notes, within the elegiac tradition the formulas of the final consolation have included the fertility cults’ affirmation of faith that the demigod would be resurrected and the daily and seasonal natural cycles thereby continued, the classical and Christian consolations based on a reassurance of personal immortality of sorts, and the romantic version’s assurance of immortality through the individual’s return to organic oneness with nature. Nick’s consolation, however, offers yet another type of affirmation. He holds out no Christian answer of grace or even an existential answer of a self-fulfilling quest, such as offered in “Thyrsis.” Rather, after initial despair and a period of contemplation and adjustment, he prepares his account of the summer’s events and implicitly voices his faith in the worth of the aspiring human spirit and imagination he has come to see Gatsby as representing.

For Nick, the distinctive quality of Gatsby is his “romantic readiness,” his “gift for hope,” which is never defeated. Gatsby’s dream does not fail, according to Nick; the vehicle of his dream fails Gatsby. And it is the capacity for dreams and visions that Nick celebrates. He sees Gatsby as singular in his capacity to dedicate his life to an informing imaginative vision and comes to despise the purposeless drifting of the Buchanans who seek no ideal, only diversion. He admires Gatsby’s freedom of will and power of imagination. Nick has “an unaffected scorn” for all that Gatsby represents, “a vast, vulgar, and meretricious beauty” (p. 118), but the moral density of the Buchanans, the shrill vulgarity of the Wilsons, and the egotistic indifference of Jordan Baker all serve to further distinguish Gatsby’s vision. Referring to the Buchanans and their circle, the last time he sees Gatsby alive, Nick says, “ ’They’re a rotten crowd’ “ (p. 185). Then, in a visit to the mansion after the funeral, Nick comes upon an epitaph-like inscription on the steps of Gatsby’s house—Gatsby’s monument to himself—and erases it, symbolically demonstrating his disagreement with the contem­porary assessment of Gatsby: “On the white steps an obscene word, scrawled by some boy with a piece of brick, stood out clearly in the moonlight, and I erased it, drawing my shoe raspingly along the stone” (p. 217).

Nick’s elegiac resolution is represented in great part by the changed quality that his future life will presumably show. He has come to see himself as a realist, a Midwesterner, and a writer. Aware that severe limitation marks the human condition, he realizes that ideals must be lived for in the face of exceedingly seductive forces, and his final vision is optimistic. Having witnessed the material failure of the romantic quest, and yet inspired by the integrity of a purposeful existence, he elegizes the human capacity to see, to understand, and to return to its source of strength—tradition and the past—for another assault on the conditions of life from a new tack, the imaginative celebration of the human spirit.

The Great Gatsby is not a tragedy; its central feature is not the ’ death of Jay Gatsby. Rather, in form, convention, and theme it is a pastoral elegy emphasizing Nick’s interpretation of the life and death of Gatsby and their effect on the survivors.

University of Maryland

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