A literary analysis of Taylor Swift


Emily Smith takes a look at the literary references you may have missed in Taylor Swift’s latest albums

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Image by Netflix, 2020

By Emily Smith

Editor's note: This article contains spoilers

Taylor Swift and Charlotte Brontë. Perhaps two names you never expected to see side by side. Well, with Swift’s brilliant new albums Folklore and Evermore, the two could never be more closely linked.

As well as spending lockdown writing not one, but two albums, it seems Swift has been curled up with a good book. That girl really is more productive than I’ll ever be. Taylor Swift’s latest studio albums Folklore and Evermore are packed with juicy literary references that made my inner literature nerd’s heart sing. So here’s a run down of my favourite literary easter eggs sprinkled throughout these indie and folk inspired masterpieces.

Rebecca, Daphne Du Maurier

First, and possibly my favourite, are the references to Daphne Du Maurier’s Rebecca. In an interview with Paul Mccartney for Rolling Stone, Swift admits reading Du Maurier’s 1938 classic before writing Evermore. Thus I am certain that this is the inspiration behind many tracks. If you haven’t read Rebecca (or watched the 2020 Netflix film) it follows the story of an unnamed protagonist who marries a man who she believes to still be in love with his late wife, Rebecca.

And spoiler alert (don’t say I didn’t warn you) it turns out he was her killer. But the interesting thing is that Rebecca is killed in the exact same way in which the man is killed in Evermore’s, No Body No Crime. The song goes: ‘Good thing my Daddy made me get a boating license when I was fifteen’ and in Rebecca, her body is found years later on a sunken boat.

To further this, track 5 on Evermore, Tolerate it, I believe perfectly encapsulates the relationship between Maxim De Winter and his second wife. The heart wrenching song describes the story of a neglected wife and how draining it is to love someone so apathetic. This is something that is heavily drawn upon in Rebecca. The line: ‘Use my best colours for your portrait’ may even be a reference to a scene in the novel where the protagonist dresses up as a portrait (unknowingly) of Rebecca in an attempt to win  his love.

The Great Gatsby, F. Scott Fitzgerald

Swift has long been known to be a fan of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby. Her 2017 album Reputation is teeming with references such as ‘Feeling so Gatsby for that whole year’ and ‘Once was poison Ivy, now I’m your Daisy’ which are of course references to Fitzergerald’s Jay Gatsby and Daisy Buchanan.

But it is in her latest albums that these allusions to The Great Gatsby are really developed. The song Happiness features the words ‘I hope she’ll be a beautiful fool’ which is a direct quote from The Great Gatsby. These words, spoken by Daisy in the novel, were meant as a blessing for her daughter, wishing her to be ignorant from the world’s troubles. However, Swift aptly twists them into a scathing comment.

Happiness also features references to famous motifs featured in The Great Gatsby, the first of which being the green light: ‘All you want from me now is the green light of forgiveness’ which is of course one of the most iconic motifs in all of literature - the green light that shines at the end of Daisy’s dock, symbolising unattainability and hope. Furthermore, Fitzgerald places particular emphasis on Jay Gatsby’s infamous smile which is described as ‘One of those rare smiles with a quality of eternal reassurance in it, that you may come across four or five times in life.’ This is something which may be referenced in this track: ‘When did your winning smile begin to look like a smirk?’ cementing the suggestion that Swift has most certainly read The Great Gatsby and taken inspiration from its rich prose and symbolism when writing her latest albums.

Jane Eyre, Charlotte Bronte

Shifting the focus to Folklore, immediately upon hearing track 11, Invisible String, I was taken back to my first time experiencing classic literature, Charlotte Bronte’s timeless Jane Eyre.

Brontë’s beautiful motif of the invisible string not only appears in the music videos of Willow and Cardigan but the lyrics ‘And isn’t it just so pretty to think all along there was some invisible string tying you to me?’ feature in Invisible String. This beautiful line is strikingly similar to Rochester’s admittance of love in Jane Eyre: ‘I have a strange feeling with regard to you. As if I had a string somewhere under my left ribs, tightly knotted to a similar string in you.’ Of course we learn the darker side of Rochester’s relationship with Jane (another spoiler incoming) and the song Madwoman immediately following Invisible String is incredibly telling of this.

Rochester’s first wife Bertha, was determined as ‘mad’ and thus imprisoned in the attic, a common motif found in Victorian Literature. However, it is Rochester himself that caused Bertha’s decline. Jean Rhys’ Wide Sargasso Sea (which is a brilliant read if you want to hate Mr Rochester even more) explores the story from Bertha’s side and shows how Rochester imposed this label of ‘mad woman’ onto her. This is demonstrated in Swift’s Mad Woman with the line ‘Every time you call me crazy I get more crazy’ which shows how the gendered, imposed stereotype of the ‘hysterical woman’, and the patriarchy that imposes it, causes this supposed ‘madness’ in women.

This can be true of Taylor Swift herself. Swift has been frequently vilified in the media for being ‘hysterical’ and ‘crazy’, a reputation (no pun intended) which is truly a result of a fundamentally misogynistic society that preys on successful women.

Romantic Poetry

Next up is a beautiful little poetic reference. Taylor Swift and her boyfriend are thought to have spent a lot of time in the Lake District together. It is not surprising therefore, that Folklore’s bonus track is aptly titled The Lakes. The Lake District in the North West of the UK, is the subject of many poems of the Romantic Era, notably by poets such as Samuel Taylor Coleridge and William Wordsworth. The latter which features in the lyrics to the song through a clever play on words: ‘I’ve come too far to watch some name dropping sleaze, tell me what are my words worth?’ It seems apt that Swift would write a song heavily drawing upon the poetic experience: ‘Take me to the Lakes where all the Poets went to die’ when her lyrics resemble the mellifluous nature of the poems themselves.

Honourable Mentions

And finally I can’t write a piece on Swift’s literary allusions without exploring the plethora of miscellaneous references scattered throughout the two albums. One of those is a possible reference to the children’s classic: C.S Lewis’ Alice in Wonderland. This is seen in track twelve of Evermore, Long Story Short with the chorus featuring the phrase ‘I fell from the pedestal right down the rabbit hole’ This of course is suggestive of the rabbit hole in which Alice falls down to Wonderland. Similarly, Cardigan features a reference to another popular children’s book: Peter Pan by J.M Barrie. ‘I knew you tried to change the ending, Peter losing Wendy.’ The popular tale of Peter Pan never wanting to part with his youth and Wendy consequently leaving Neverland adds a particular meaning to a song about love and loss.

So, if like me, you love a good book I wouldn’t wait around in giving Taylor Swift’s latest albums a listen and keeping your ear tuned to the plethora of niche bookish references hidden within!