In literature, Desire is often manipulated by writers and poets in order to build their characters and story, as can be seen in Fitzgerald’s ‘The Great Gatsby’ and Donne’s ‘The Flea’. However, much like how the former two pieces use desire to subvert what are commonly seen as more ‘powerful’ themes such as religion, desire itself can be subverted to give strength to the power of love, as can be seen in Shakespeare’s ‘Sonnet 116’.
In ‘The Great Gatsby’, Desire is manipulated by Fitzgerald in order to explain and chronicle the rise and fall of the eponymous Gatsby. In the novel, it is explained that Gatsby and Daisy enjoyed a brief, but intense, relationship prior to his deployment during World War One. During this time, Daisy married the aristocratic Tom Buchanan, breaking Gatsby’s heart. Resolving to win back her affection, Gatsby works with Meyer Wolfshiem to run a bootlegging scheme throughout the American Prohibition, a thirteen-year period where the production, importation and consumption of alcohol were banned by law. Prior to the novel’s beginning, Gatsby has amassed a fortune, and has bought a mansion on West Egg, one of two islands that serve as representations of the ‘Idle Rich’ (old money) and the ‘nouveau riche’ (new money).
The location of Gatsby’s home is significant, as highlighted by Jordan in Chapter 4. It is mentioned that “Gatsby bought that house so that Daisy would be just across the bay.” Gatsby’s desire for Daisy acts as his driving force for his rise up the socio-economic ladder. Said desire is often materialised by Fitzgerald in the form of a ‘green light’ that sits on Daisy’s dock. Gatsby is noted by Nick to gaze whilst ‘trembling’ at the light, whilst also remarking how ‘minute and far away’ it was from them. The light acts as a beacon to Gatsby and a reminder of his desire for Daisy, but also for his desire to return to the past. However, by describing it as ‘Minute’ and ‘Far Away’, Fitzgerald subtly hints that this light – and by extension Daisy, the object of Gatsby’s desires – is unreachable and unobtainable, providing dark foreshadowing to Gatsby’s grisly fate. It is also argued by some critics that the green light could be that of a traffic light, which were introduced between 1910 and 1920, which means that the light could also be a subtle reference to how the chasing of one’s desires often end in tragedy. Myrtle meets her end after being ran over by Daisy, and Gatsby meets his as a direct result of George’s grief and Tom’s interference. Despite Gatsby seeming to be the biggest victim of his desires, it can be argued that desire is a destructive force throughout other relationships in the novel as well, particularly during the love triangle between Tom, Myrtle and George. From her first introduction, Myrtle is objectified by Nick, with the 1st person narrator describing her as a woman whose: “face, above a spotted dress of dark blue crêpe-de-chine, contained no facet or gleam of beauty, but there was an immediately perceptible vitality about her as if the nerves of her body were continually smouldering.”
Although the description is not exactly a positive one, it can be seen that Myrtle is viewed as a desirable woman, if only for her liveliness. Unlike Daisy, who even calls herself ‘paralysed’ due to her cynical view on her relationship with Tom, Myrtle is shown to chase after her dreams, particularly the newfound object of her desires: Tom. Myrtle is shown to believe that Tom is truly in love with her as she is with him, despite the latter not sharing this love, and instead viewing her as just another affair. However, perhaps the most interesting way that Fitzgerald manipulates desire is through the stirring of the third wheel in the relationship: George, Myrtle’s current partner whom she describes as being unfit to “lick her shoe”. In Gatsby, Religion is nigh-non-existent, with only vague references to God in George’s dialogue in chapter 7, where he remarks that “God sees everything” and cannot be fooled. Interestingly, George attempts to use religion in order to get Myrtle to confess to her affair, and to end it, effectively causing her to cease the chase for her desire. However, the exact opposite occurs, with Myrtle attempting to escape George, running into the road and being run down by Daisy. Throughout the novel, Religion is undermined, if not unmentioned entirely, as the characters are all driven by other motives, most notably desire, and proceed down their paths without any intervention from external forces. As such, it can be argued that a cynical viewpoint is adopted by Fitzgerald, and that capitalism and the desire for wealth have usurped religion and hold the same motivative force it once held.
Religion’s insignificance is also explored in Donne’s ‘The Flea’. In the poem, the speaker is attempting to convince his partner to engage in pre-marital sex, widely considered taboo to the conservative contemporary audience from when the poem was published, and to the Catholic Church, a fact made even more ironic when Donne later went on to involve himself in his local churches. The poem consists of three stanzas which generally consists of iambic feet. However, the metre is erratic, even shifting into trochaic feet from lines 16 to 18. The chaos of the poem’s metre could arguably reflect the speaker’s lustful desperation for his partner. Throughout the poem, Donne undermines religion, identifying the flea as their ‘marriage bed and marriage temple’, rendering the significance of marriage, a religious ceremony, a moot event within his eyes. Donne is also extremely hyperbolic in the poem, stating: “Though use make you apt to kill me, let not to that, self-murder added be and sacrilege, three sins in killing three.” Donne’s speaker attempts to convince his partner that she will be committing three sins if she declines his demands for sex: homicide by not having sex with him, suicide – killing herself by not sleeping with him – and sacrilege by killing the flea, essentially defacing their ‘temple’. In the extremely religious and conservative times when the poem was written, sex before marriage was widely tabooed. Yet, Donne disregards this, lowering its significance to that of a flea, undermining romance similar to the graphic ‘worms’ imagery in ‘To his Coy Mistress’ by fellow metaphysical poet Marvell. In ‘The Flea’, the speaker, and arguably Donne by extension, seek to fulfil their desire of sleeping with their partner, and are shown to manipulate contemporary views on religion, in a similar vein to ‘Gatsby’ in order to fulfil this desire.
However, whilst both Fitzgerald and Donne present very cynical views towards desire, Shakespeare seems to disregard it entirely throughout ‘Sonnet 116’. The poem is a traditional Shakespearean Sonnet consisting of three quatrains, followed by a (loose) rhyming couplet. The poem’s speaker attempts to define love, praising its sincerity and longevity. Shakespeare uses nautical imagery in order to present love as a guiding light, calling it an ‘ever-fixed mark.’ Shakespeare is shown to view love as something pure that can guide lost souls, a thought galvanised by the poem’s opening lines: “Let me not to the marriage of true minds admit impediment.” The line carries connotations of a wedding vow, indirectly contrasting the cynical view of romance displayed in Fitzgerald and Donne’s works. Yet curiously, desire is unmentioned and rendered insignificant. Shakespeare’s view on love is simple and genuine, almost to the point of innocence, as can be seen when he declares that love is eternal “even to the edge of doom.” Shakespeare’s belief in genuine love over desire is shown to be unflinching, as shown in the poem’s rhyming couplet: “If this be error and upon me proved, I never writ, nor no man ever loved” Shakespeare belief in love’s longevity and purity directly opposes the cynical, undermining view maintained throughout ‘Gatsby’ and ‘The Flea’. Unlike the previous texts, Shakespeare does not seem to believe that desire overrules ‘true’ love, instead believing that love is eternal once the (wedding) vow has been made.
Curiously, the poem is not addressed to neither the ‘Fair Youth’ nor the ‘Dark Lady’ mentioned throughout Shakespeare’s poetry. So it’s possible that this poem was a more ‘generalised’ piece, in order to convey his honest views on romance over desire. All three writers dabble with desire through their literature. Whilst Fitzgerald and Donne use it as a driving force for their characters actions, Shakespeare downplays it, believing that true love is eternal, regardless of what obstacles may stand in the way.