In the Grail Quest of Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby Jay Gatsby is the Grail Knight, but Daisy Faye Buchannan is not the Holy Grail. The novel reveals that Gatsby pursues something even more strenuously than her, and is the restoration of the past. This is the Grail, the desire to turn back the clock and stop time. Fitzgerald sets temporal reference throughout the book, such as noting the sun-dials at the Buchannan mansion (11), which mark the progression of time, or how Nick writes the names of Gatsby’s guests on time-table (65). Even the end of the novel reminds us of the universal appeal to live one’s life against the flow by reaching back into the past (189).
Nick’s Tea Party
At the age of seventeen, James Gatz reinvents himself into Jay Gatsby. Fitzgerald writes that it is this platonic conception to which Gatsby would stay faithful (104). This is the first level of his past Gatsby wishes to restore, a time when he sails the world with Dan Cody. But Cody dies, and time goes on.
His heart is always in a turbulent riot (105). It is this riot that he wishes to quiet. The closest he has even come to peace is when he first kisses Daisy Faye. Just before he kisses her, he realizes that once he had kissed her, then his mind would no longer romp like the mind of God (117). Gatsby is not primarily interested in having a romantic relationship with Daisy, but in going back to a time of brief contentment and internal comfort.
Gatsby’s initial grand gesture to restore this past is moving to West Egg and throwing all of his summer parties. He hopes Daisy might one evening stroll back into his life. Secondarily, Gatsby uses these gatherings to see who knows her. He finds out Jordan Baker knows her and that his neighbor and Jordan’s friend Nick is her cousin.
Through Jordan, Gatsby asks Nick to invite Daisy to a tea party and Gatsby can just happen by and initiate a grand reunion. A few minutes before the appointed time, Gatsby is afraid Daisy will not show up. He even looks at his watch and claims that he does not have all day to wait for her (90), even though he was waited almost five years! Still, the more that time passes, the harder it is to recover the past, or so it seems to Gatsby.
Soon after Gatsby sees Daisy he accidentally knocks Nick’s clock off the mantle (91). This shows his desire to stop the clock, so to speak. But what Nick notes and what Gatsby fails to notice is that the clock did not break, and time goes on. When Gatsby feels as if the tea party is not going well, he dashes from the room and Nick follows. Nick scolds him for acting like a little boy (93). Also, Nick says later that Gatsby started to wind down like an overwound clock (97). Both of these demonstrate that Gatsby is regressing, both by becoming a child again in wanting to go back into the past, and by wanting to stop time in this past and keep his life in arrested state. Further, Gatsby wishes to win back Daisy by taking her to see his wealth in his mansion. Nick says early in the book that Gatsby’s mansion looks like the Hotel de Ville in Normandy (9). Even his new wealth is kept in a place that looks old, a house with an inherent vision of the past.
The Last Waltz
The last party thrown by Gatsby is attended by Nick, Jordan, and the Buchannans. This event is essential in understanding Gatsby’s view of the past. Nick realizes that Gatsby wants Daisy to admit to Tom that she never loved him. In that confession she could obliterate the past three years of marriage, then Gatsby could marry Daisy back in Louisville in her parents’s home just as if it were five years ago (116).
After Nick figures this out, he warns Gatsby that he cannot repeat the past, but Gatsby insists that he can (116). Gatsby’s fixation with restoring the past is the Grail he has been pursuing in an attempt to cure his troubled heart, restore his seventeen-year-old platonic conception of self, and try to keep his life the way it was when he first kissed Daisy.
After insisting that he can repeat the past, Gatsby looks around him wildly, as if the past were lurking in the shadow of his house and just out of reach (116-117). While Gatsby feels one can repeat the past, he seems to know deep down how difficult it is. He then says that he’ll fix everything just the way it was before (117). Notice Nick’s commentary that follows: “He talked a lot about the past and I gathered that he wanted to recover something, some idea of himself perhaps, that had gone into loving Daisy. His life had been confused and disordered since then, but if he could once return to a certain starting place and go over it all slowly, he could find out what that thing was.” (116-117, emp. mine – na). The very next paragraph tells of Gatsby and Daisy’s first kiss and all of the weight that Gatsby attaches to it (117).
Look at how much is in these few lines. Gatsby is obsessed with restoring the past because in so doing he wishes to recover some idea about himself. In so doing he can return to a certain starting place, which for Gatsby is when he was seventeen and became Jay Gatsby. It is this notion of who had changed himself into that he put into loving Daisy. His Grail is to go back and become once again that person he was while at FortWalker, a newly forged man who figured out how to cure the trouble in his heart. Interestingly, before he kisses Daisy he presumes that by kissing Daisy his mind would never romp, but it never says that it worked. Possibly it didn’t and that might be why Gatsby is so enamored with the past because he wants a second chance at peace.
An interesting foil to Gatsby and his view of the past is Daisy. At this party she is afraid that some authentically radiant young girl might blot out the past five years of Gatsby’s devotion to her with one fresh glance (115). While the past is a good thing for Gatsby, it’s a bad thing for Daisy. She had known since the dinner party in late June that Gatsby was Nick’s neighbor, and yet she never sought him out. It is not until the tea party and she learns of Gatsby’s wealth that she is interested in him romantically again. That is because she loves money, not Gatsby. To Daisy, her past with Gatsby is not one she wishes to restore because it is a past with a poor Gatsby.
I will continue with more about the past as Gatsby’s Holy Grail next week.
Here are other articles regarding The Great Gatsby:
- “The Reliability Of Nick Carraway: Part One – The Naysaying Narrator” (10.9.12)
- “The Reliability Of Nick Carraway: Part Two – The Drive To Lunch” (10.11.12)
- “Why The Great Gatsby Is The Best American Novel” (6.21.12)
- “What Made Daisy Faye Buchanan & Jay Gatsby So Attractive And Attracted To Each Other?” (8.28.12)
- “Who Shot Jay Gatsby?” (3.4.13)