Kenneth Burke’s Pentad and Gatsby

As I was describing different approaches to Gatsby in the introductory part of the module I wrote a section called “People and Places” using the Burkean Pentad.  My goal was to introduce just enough Burke to be of use without confusing.  Apparently, I failed.  Several people told me that this was too confusing for 11th graders.  I thought I would post it here to see what others thought.

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In A Grammar of Motives critic Kenneth Burke describes a five-term system for analyzing the motivation of characters that he calls the “pentad.”

  • Act—What was done? “What took place in thought or deed?”
  • Scene—Where and when was it done? (Place, Context, Background, Situation)
  • Agent—Who did it? (What person or kind of person, what co-agents or counter-agents)
  • Agency—By what means or with what instruments was it done?
  • Purpose—Why was it done?

Burke combines these terms into what he calls “ratios.” We often think that when people do something, they do it either because of their inherent nature (agent-act) or because of their purpose (purpose-act). However, in this novel, where someone comes from, especially if they come from the east or the west, or if they come from a poor neighborhood or a rich one, makes a big difference in how other people see them. Burke would call this a scene-agent ratio. In this ratio, the “scene,” which can be a place, a culture, or a historical moment, forms the nature and character of the “agent,” the person who acts. It is also possible for the scene in which the act takes place to motivate the act. In this novel, the action moves from East Egg to West Egg, and from East Egg to New York, passing through “the Valley of Ashes.” In each place, different kinds of action occur. Burke would call this a scene-act ratio. The place motivates the kind of act.

As you read, note where characters come from and how people feel about them. For example, at one point, Tom Buchanan calls Gatsby “Mr. Nobody from Nowhere” (130). That is the scene-agent ratio. For Tom, that is the ultimate insult. Also note what kinds of things people do in different locations and circumstances. For example, people behave differently in Gatsby’s party house than they do elsewhere. That is the scene-act ratio.

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