(Author's note: thanks for stopping by! The prompt for this essay was (and I paraphrase), "Was Fitzgerald influenced by the poem Ode on a Grecian Urn by John Keats (1820) when he wrote The Great Gatsby? How?" It's due on Monday. I'd love any feedback you're willing to give on whatever part you're willing to read - I know it's long. Mainly I'm trying to figure out how to shorten the intro, and any advice would be greatly appreciated. Have fun reading, and thank you! ~not Ross)
A Very Real Debate on Idealism
"Daddy, Daddy, let's play pretend!" What small child has not screeched these words as she runs towards her father with two stuffed dogs under each arm? Playing pretend, using the imagination, is an integral part of growing up. However, opinions differ when it comes to playing pretend as a grown-up. Throughout the nineteenth century and into the early twentieth, writers and poets such as John Keats used their imaginations to paint vivid images of the wonderful world they saw around them. Keats wrote an especially idealized poem titled Ode on a Grecian Urn in 1820, a short couple of verses that describe the painting on a pot in England. It tells the story of a man chasing after his bride-to-be. The poem is full of idealized situations and eventually concludes that idealism is the best thing since sliced bread, and the only thing we can rely on in life. But in 1914, World War One exploded into the ugliest war Earth had ever seen, and by the time it fizzled out, the romanticism of the nineteenth century was long, long gone. Writers transitioned into more realistic, cynical views of the world. One such writer was F. Scott Fitzgerald, who in 1925 wrote a book called The Great Gatsby. His book directly criticizes the older ways of thinking and the idealism of his forefathers by following the story of a chronically idealistic, though admittedly likeable, character who is eventually shot in the head by his own far-fetched desires for his life. It seems that Fitzgerald was directly influenced by Keats, although he did disagree with the overarching message of the poem because, even though idealism can sometimes bring good results, it does more harm than good and is ultimately not a viable way to live life.
Keats gives us a glowing report when it comes to idealism and imagination, playing pretend. "Heard melodies are sweet, but those unheard / Are sweeter" he says (Keats 11-12). In other words, our thoughts and imaginings are much superior to the world around us. "Therefore, ye soft pipes, play on" (11) – go on! Imagine away! As a romantic poet, Keats will use any excuse to glorify his idealistic view of the world, and in flowing, flowery language at that. Like any great mind, Fitzgerald is open to both sides of this argument, and he does seem to agree that such absolute idealism like Gatsby's does have its benefits. Jay Gatsby has it in his head that Daisy is exactly the same person as she was before World War One, before she married Tom Buchanan, before she had a child. While he is a bit misguided, his devotion to this ideal-Daisy of his imagination manifests itself in unquenchable loyalty. After returning from the war and going on a long sailing expedition with a drunkard, Gatsby hunted Daisy down and bought a house across the bay from hers so that he might "happen" to run into her (Fitzgerald 78). He is so loyal to her that, when he lets her drive his car and she accidentally runs over and kills a woman, he takes the blame for it to protect her. "But of course I'll say I was [driving]" (143), he says, so matter-of-factly, as if another option hardly even existed. This final, great act of loyalty eventually led to Gatsby's murder. He was killed at Daisy's expense. The Bible tells us that "greater love hath no man than this, that he lay down his life for his friends" (John 15:13). The loyalty and love that spring from Gatsby's idealized picture of Daisy are admirable and noble. Gatsby's neighbor and good friend Nick realizes this. He tells Gatsby, "They're a rotten crowd. You're worth the whole damn bunch of them put together" (Fitzgerald 154). Gatsby is of better character than any of the characters in Ftizgerald's story because he is so devoted to his ideal – the rest of them flit from one fancy to another, then leave again when they get bored. Tom even flits from woman to woman. Not Gatsby, though. His devotion is worth more than that. So, perhaps idealism does have its upside.
However, as Ftizgerald would be quick to point out, idealism like Gatsby's can get very dangerous very quickly. Gatsby's vision of Daisy comes from the relationship they used to have; it comes from his past. As the plot progresses, it becomes apparent that his main goal is to return to that late-summer relationship of five years ago, regardless of everything that has transpired between then and now – not the least of which being a world war. He is trying to relive the past, and although we would generally argue that chasing the past is as ignorant as it is impossible, Gatsby is very ready and willing to retort, "Can't repeat the past? Why of course you can!" (Fitzgerald 110). However, his quest for the past hinders him from living and appreciating the present. One could say that he is, in fact, the urn from Keats's poem, that "Sylvan historian, who canst thus express / A flowery tale more sweetly than our rhyme" (Keats 3-4). The story painted on the urn is of a man chasing after an especially slippery woman (which sounds familiar, does it not?). But on the urn, the man has not quite caught the woman yet. The painting is frozen in time, and this poor man will never be able to catch and marry his love. "When old age shall this generation waste / Thou shalt remain," Keats says of the urn (46-47). The same can be said of Gatsby. Gatsby and the urn will forever be living the same story, never remodeling the tale, never letting the story change with the world around them. But Keats reminds us, "Yet, do not grieve / She cannot fade… For ever wilt thou love, and she be fair!" (18-20). He puts a positive spin on this dismal situation by patting us on the back and saying, "At least she will always be pretty, and he will always be purely in love!" Fitzgerald, on the other hand, flatly denies this bright outlook regarding idealism. Gatsby will always tell and try to live only one story, and it is, in the end, his undoing. He expects too much by wanting Daisy to be exactly the same as she was. Instead of adapting to the new situation and realizing that his former love is, in fact, married, Gatsby pushes the issue and eventually ends up getting shot and killed. If he had let his idealistic dream of Daisy rest and accepted his new situation, perhaps he would still be alive. Idealism is not, as Keats may like to think, all fun and games and happy puppies prancing in a field.
Most importantly, though, Fitzgerald uses the tragic story of Jay Gatsby's life to demonstrate that idealism is not a feasible way to live life. This directly contradicts John Keats, who goes so far as to say that idealism is the best way there is. One of the strongest, most hotly debated lines in Keats's poem shows the urn itself saying to the reader, "Beauty is truth, truth beauty" (Keats 49). In this case, it seems to be that the "beauty" to which the urn refers is the reader's own imagination. The whole poem is spent describing in detail the painting on the urn. Keats rockets off into another world as he narrates the story of these people: the "mad pursuit" (9) of the "fair youth" (15) after his "still unravish'd bride" (1), and the "all breathing human passion" (28) that he has for her. It is as if he closed his eyes and pictured a green meadow, a wedding, a story. Then he steps back, out of his imagination back into the real world just long enough to hear the urn say, "Beauty is truth, truth beauty – that is all / Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know" (49-50). In other words, whatever is going on in our imagination is truth, the only thing that matters. Keats furthers this claim by stating, "Heard melodies are sweet, but those unheard / Are sweeter" (11-12). Whatever our idealism thinks is real, must be real, because our idealism will always be better than reality. Fitzgerald flatly denies this stance, saying instead that we should be satisfied with the reality around us, because that is all that will ever be. On one particularly hot summer day, Daisy suggests that everyone head into the city to distract themselves from the heat. Unfortunately, this ends in a heated confrontation between Gatsby and Tom over Daisy, the woman they both love. Gatsby, feverish with the desire for his pre-war, idealized Daisy, insists that Daisy publicly admit that she never loved Tom, that she only loved Gatsby even through the years of marriage. "You want too much!" Daisy exclaims at his request (132). "I love you now – isn't that enough? I can't help what's past" (132). But in Gatsby's eyes, it is not enough. Nothing short of Daisy abandoning every aspect of her life and returning to her eighteen-year-old self is enough. And that, though Gatsby is doomed never to realize it, is impossible. Gatsby's idealism will never be real, and his stubbornness is the obstacle that stands between himself and the woman he loves. Fitzgerald is demonstrating that even though the "unheard melodies" of our imaginations are sweeter, there is no point is chasing them when the "heard melodies" are already within reach. Gatsby could have taken Daisy for his own, but he wanted too much; he dreamed too much. It was impossible to live his life with the burden of his own unattainable ideals weighing upon his shoulders.
Looking closely at both The Great Gatsby and Ode on a Grecian Urn, it is hard to say that they are not connected. The contrasting themes seem to indicate that Fitzgerald wrote his famous book as a rebuttal to the flowery, idealistic imagery that romantic poets, particularly John Keats, published in the decades before World War One. The war wrecked dreams across the world, and a painful sense of reality settled over everything, including all the writers who had for so long been painting the world in shades of pink and happiness. And although Fitzgerald is willing to admit that Keats has a point when it comes to the good things that idealism brings, he also points out what Keats did not: idealism is ultimately hurtful and destructive. Ultimately, we need to pull our heads out of the clouds of our non-existent, ideal world and focus on the real world, focus on what really matters. As Fitzgerald might say if he lived today, "I'm keepin' it real."