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The Literary City

By Kenneth George


“And when spring comes to the City people notice one another in the road; notice the strangers…” offers Toni Morrison in Jazz, which is, at its core, a love letter to the City. Precisely what city Morrison’s City is does not matter; rather, the feelings of the City are of importance: they are cathartic and wild; sophisticated and decadent; they are oxymoronic, terrifying and ecstatic. Morrison’s City is one of many examples of the literary City, a motif that is seen across cultures, time periods, and genres. This essay aims to identify why the literary City is so commonly written about and what it reveals about our society.

Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest truly has two settings: the Town and the Country. The Town is, of course, in reference to London: this bustling heart of the Industrial Revolution with its smoke, its fashion, its freedom. Compared to the Town, the Country seems bleak, confining, and straitlaced. In fact, it is only in the Town that the two protagonists, John and Algernon, may live freely, partying and enjoying life. In the Country, they must adhere to the oppressive provincial regimes of the Puritanical Miss Prism and the doting Lady Bracknell.

The Wildean illustration of the literary City provides several insights on the construction of this motif. One may contribute Wilde’s perspective on his life: his queerness could have made the City more appealing, where underground spaces accepted homosexuality. While this may be true, it is more important to look at the literary exigence for this depiction. Wilde provides an illustration of the developing city, during the Industrial and Technological Revolutions at the turn of the twentieth century, when the City was becoming the epitome of modern perspectives on urbanism.

With this image of a developing city in mind, the depiction of urban life provided in Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby should be next analyzed. This narrative focuses on the decadence of the American aristocracy in the 1920s, just twenty years following the setting of The Importance of Being Earnest. Fitzgerald provides a different view: focusing purely on the City, the reader is provided with an image of the American Dream, a fully developed city, hooting and hollering and full of money and life, with a flamboyant aristocracy who gets through life with libations and parties. Nonetheless, Fitzgerald’s City is somewhat oppressive, it feels suffocating: Gatsby’s longing and Daisy’s dissatisfaction are evidence of this. Thus, Fitzgerald’s depiction of the City is very indistinct: it refuses to deify or demonize the City.

Sylvia Plath was not wishy-washing in her depiction of the City; she was, as always, set in her ideals. In The Bell Jar, the City is never an escape, it is always pressuring and suffocating. When Esther looks out at the lights of the City from her tub, she is not filled with joy; she is depressed, lonely. Never does she feel more lonely than when she is downing a glass of ice-cold vodka with a stranger. Conversely, when she is away from the City, at the end of the book, isolated and institutionalized, she begins to feel whole again. This implies that the Country is truly what should be deified, not the City, a perspective that is an affront compared to those of Morrison and Wilde.

With these four examples, it is evident that the literary City is extremely nuanced, which is part of the reason it is so often represented. Another reason is the longing for freedom, as the City is often painted as a new world filled with varying perspectives and opportunities, both economic and social. Additionally, authors may either want to promote or deconstruct the fetishization of cities that is fostered through Capitalism and commodification: cities are the ultimate economic opportunity, therefore they are deified.

Ultimately, the depiction of the literary city is dependent on the author and the time period. This can be seen in the difference between Langston Hughes’ deification of 1920’s Harlem and Fitzgerald’s depiction of the oppression of 1920’s Long Island. No matter what, though, the depiction of the literary City is due to the subconscious desire for freedom that is visible in all people. Those who deify the City do so because it is an intermediate to freedom; the opposite is true for the critics of the City. This makes it so clear it requires no more than a few words: the depiction of the literary City is just as complex and rich as the City itself.


Please note that the thoughts and sentiments expressed in this article are not necessarily indicative of those held by The Playful Porpoise or their employees. This is an original thread with individual ideas. Additionally, the author is always open to discourse; you may contact him at

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