"An Elusive Rhythm": 'The Great Gatsby' Reclaims 'Troilus and Criseyde.' (Influence of Chaucer's Poem on F. Scott Fitzgerald's Work)

By Hermansson, Casie | Studies in American Fiction, Spring 1997 | Go to article overview

"An Elusive Rhythm": 'The Great Gatsby' Reclaims 'Troilus and Criseyde.' (Influence of Chaucer's Poem on F. Scott Fitzgerald's Work)


Hermansson, Casie, Studies in American Fiction


The multitudinous intertextual resonances in F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby collectively support both the author's confident prepublication assertion that "This book will be a consciously artistic achievement"(1) and an (unfortunately revisionist) academic portrait of Fitzgerald as a Princeton alumous. Certainly the elusive intertextual rhythms with which the novel is wrought remain largely uncharted, but these allegedly include, among a great many others, relationships with works by Charles Dickens, Emily Bronte, John Keats, Joseph Conrad, and Ford Maddox Ford.(2) With widening chronological disparity it has been argued that the novel is a modern expression of the grail quest,(3) and also that Gatsby is the Phaeton figure of Ovid's Metamorphoses, failing like this mythic forbear to harness his chariot to the sun that Daisy represents.(4)

Until recently, however, the nova's intertextual engagement with poems by Geoffrey Chaucer did not figure in this panoply. Yet a juxtaposed reading of Gatsby and Chaucer's Troilus and Criseyde announces the presence of the latter in Fitzgerald's novel with compelling conjunctions of character, theme, spatial and temporal structure, and a number of strikingly similar "set scenes." These scenes include, for example, the union of the lovers at the house of the intermediary (Pandarus or Nick) during a rainstorm, and the poignant if futile visit to the departed lady's house.(5)

The critical work beginning to pursue this particular elusive rhythm is recent and by no means voluminous, but is becoming more assured with the evidence amassing. Nancy Hoffman first argued the case in her article, "The Great Gatsby: Troilus and Criseyde Revisited?", drawing a number of important correspondences between the two works. F. T. Flahiff removed the need for Hoffman's cautious punctuation in "The Great Gatsby: Scott Fitzgerald's Chaucerian Rag."(6) Essential to Flahiff's argument was the version of the story by fifteenth-century Scottish poet Robert Henryson: the reunion of the two lovers echoes Henryson's "sequel" to Chaucer's poem, The Testament of Cresseid.

Deborah Davis Schlacks departs from this point in American Dream Visions: Chaucer's Surprising Influence on F. Scott Fitzgerald. A1though she does not pursue the Troilus-Gatsby correspondence, noting only the existence of Hoffman's and Flahiff's articles, she argues comprehensively that Fitzgerald found a source of creative renewal in Chaucer's dream vision poems and echoed them in his early works, including Gatsby. Such works are ringing with "the melody of Chaucer's lesser known poems."(7) She also adds to the evidence Hoffman produced to demonstrate that Fitzgerald knew Chaucer's work.(8) This external evidence is perhaps more necessary here than in other cases. Schlacks recognizes that, for many, "Fitzgerald simply seems an unlikely candidate to have been influenced by an author so distant in time and culture from his own." But by the same token, "Fitzgerald ... was better read and better educated than some people have realized" (Schlacks, pp. 1, 6). Since Fitzgerald's knowledge of Chaucer is a certainty, it is more than appropriate to consider the internal evidence that The Great Gatsby continues to provide.

It is demonstrable that the novel shares many points of contact with Chaucer's poem. It is also demonstrable that it shares with Henryson's work the conditions of a sequel to Chaucer's poem.(9) Yet the relationship between the works is not direct but mediated--"In the meantime / In between time"(10)--by the tradition that notably comprises Henryson's The Testament of Cresseid and also Shakespeare's The History of Troilus and Cressida. Beginning promptly with Henryson's poem, this tradition effects a popular degradation of the story and particularly of Criseyde' s reputation, which sees its nadir in Shakespeare's play." While still displaying symptoms of the disease that infected characters and ideals in these two intervening texts (and thereby suffering in any direct comparison of world views between Chaucer's poem and itself), The Great Gatsby makes in fact a rehabilitative return towards a more Chaucerian treatment of the Troilus and Criseyde story.

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