Nostalgia is used in literature as a way of referring to a general as well as a specific interest in the past and past events. A writer might choose to create a particular nostalgic character. Meaning someone who is constantly thinking back to the past and is often pining for it. Or, they might choose to imbue their text with nostalgic images, hoping to trigger the reader’s own desire for another time.
An easy way to do this is as a contemporary writer, focus on a happy decade of the past, such as the sixties or seventies, working in references from the time and focuses on what made that period great.
Definition of Nostalgia
Nostalgia is a feature readers might find in literary works that triggers a longing for the past. It might be a feeling the reader gets or an experience a character is having. Nostalgia is not going to work the same for everyone. One reader might feel nothing when hearing about the music, fashion, television, and events of the 1970s, while someone else might be moved to tears, missing a time they loved in their life. It’s possible to create nostalgia for any situation; it doesn’t have to be in the far past. For instance, one might feel it in regard to someone they did last week that they’re never going to experience again.
Examples of Nostalgia in Literature
This beautiful poem that’s often held up as one of the corning achievements of the Romantic movement is also a wonderful source of various literary devices. In the poem, readers can find examples of personification, imagery, movement, and more. One of the lesser-analyzed elements of this poem is the nostalgic final stanza. It reads:
For oft, when on my couch I lie
In vacant or in pensive mood,
They flash upon that inward eye
Which is the bliss of solitude;
And then my heart with pleasure fills,
And dances with the daffodils.
Rather than mourning the fact that the past is the past and one can’t return to it, the speaker in this piece, who many consider to the Wordsworth himself, uses his memories as a source of comfort. He turns to them when he can’t escape back into nature and needs to feel the same way he did when he was with the daffodils.
Explore William Wordsworth’s poetry.
The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald
In Fitzgerald’s masterpiece, one of the main characters, Jay Gatsby, is consumed by feelings of nostalgia. He’s obsessed with trying to reclaim the past and the relationship he used to have with Daisy. He’s unwilling to accept that it’s gone, and his single-mindedness eventually leads to tragedy. The green light is one of the most important nostalgic images in the novel. It represents everything that Gatsby no longer has access to. When speaking about Gatsby, Nick said that he:
[…] wanted to recover something, some idea of himself perhaps that had gone into loving Daisy.
Here, it’s clear that Gatsby is longing for a past relationship but only in part for the relationship itself. He’s also interested in returning to the person he was when he was with Daisy. Here is another important quote:
As I went over to say good-by, I saw that the expression of bewilderment had come back into Gatsby’s face, as though a faint doubt had occurred to him as to the quality of his present happiness. Almost five years! There must have been moments even that afternoon when Daisy tumbled short of his dreams – not through her own fault, but because of the colossal vitality of his illusion.
In these lines, Gatsby is realizing that his image of Daisy that he’s held onto for so many years is not reality. He’s elevated her in his mind to an unattainable level.
Little Dorrit by Charles Dickens
In this less-commonly read novel by Dickens, there is a wonderful passage, spoken by Amy Dorrit, about the past. While she’s consumed by memories of the past, her family seems to have moved on. She says:
For I must now confess to you that I suffer from home-sickness — that I long so ardently and earnestly for home, as sometimes, when no one sees me, to pine for it. My heart is a little lightened when we turn towards it, even for a few miles, and with the knowledge that we are soon to turn away again. So dearly do I love the scene of my poverty and your kindness. O so dearly, O so dearly!
She’s moved by what she sees as happy memories of the past, and she longs to return to them.
Discover Charles Dickens’s poetry.
Why is Nostalgia Important?
Nostalgia has been an important part of literature for centuries. It can be found in all genres and forms and can be focused on everything from the distant to the recent past. As mentioned above, it varies greatly depending on who is reading and how susceptible they are to moving memories. It can be a very powerful literary device, inspiring readers to feel sorrow, love, grief, and happiness all wrapped up into one series of images.
Related Literary Terms
- Flashback: a plot device in a book, film, story, or poem in which the readers learn about the past.
- Foreshadowing: hints a writer gives a reader about what’s going to happen next. It’s a common literary device that’s used every day.
- Imagery: the elements of a story that engage a reader’s senses. These are the important sights, sounds, feelings, and smells.
- Allusion: an indirect reference to, including but not limited to, an idea, event, or person. It is used within both prose and verse writing.
- Frame Story: a narrative within a narrative. It occurs when one character decides to tell another story to the other characters around him/her.
- Inciting Incident: an event that starts the story’s main plot. It is whatever changes the protagonist’s life.
- Watch: Flashback and Foreshadowing in Films
- Read: The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald
- Watch: Why Do We Feel Nostalgia?