The Great Gatsby As A Grail Quest: Part Six – Identifying Further The Grail

This material is available in my book, The Gatsby Reader. It is available on Amazon and Kindle.

gatsby reader

Read the Introduction

Read Part One

Read Part Two

Read Part Three

Read Part Four

Read Part Five

I enjoy sports, and when the playoffs and championship games are on, then I try to watch as many of those as I can. But there is one thing I do not like about them. Inevitably, when a team wins a championship the announcer says something stupid like this team has finally obtained that elusive Holy Grail. The Grail is not the prize at the end of a contest, nor is it the reward after a long journey, and it certainly isn’t finally getting something you really want but hadn’t been able to.

The Holy Grail is the apex of spiritual ascendancy and enlightenment. Obtaining the Grail is the only that can heal the moral corruption of the waste land. That is why Daisy Faye Buchannan is not the Grail in The Great Gatsby, even though Jay Gatsby is the Grail Knight. That would greatly cheapen the Grail to compare it to her. For Gatsby, the Grail is repeating the past, and in particular, to go back to a time before Daisy knew Tom so that he could marry her. At The Plaza The big showdown takes place in a room at the Plaza Hotel on one of the hottest days of that summer of ’22. Earlier at lunch back at the Buchannans Tom had just learned of his wife’s affair with Gatsby. The heat of the day mirrors the heat of the tension in the room. Gatsby tries to get Daisy to tell Tom that she never loved him (139). Notice, this is not just a  declaration of whom she loves now, but whom she has loved and not loved all along. Gatsby should have paid attention to Daisy’s meaning when she referred to everyone’s becoming older. When the music from the wedding below came up to the room, Daisy says that they should all dance, and the reason they don’t is because they are getting old (135). She lets Gatsby knows that time marches on and no one can do anything about it. Soon Gatsby insists to Tom that Daisy never loved her because she has been in love with him for the past five years. Finally Gatsby coerces Daisy to corroborate, but she quickly takes it back. She did once love Tom, but she loved Gatsby, too, adding a keen insistence that she cannot help what is past (140). These words seemed to bite into Gatsby physically, which shows that Gatsby is having a hard time wrapping his mind around the fact that he cannot repeat the past. We learn from Nick’s subsequent narrative that Daisy did wait for Gatsby, but eventually she began to move again with the seasons, and this means she started dating other men again (158). This culminates in dating and marrying Tom. Gatsby struggles to understand this and does not seem to be able to internalize it well. He vacillates from saying she never loved him to how she might have just for a minute when they were first married, but she till loved him, too (159-160). His Grail is gone and his reasons for hope have vanished, and still, Gatsby chases this ideal of having Daisy all to himself, and this Daisy never loved Tom, or at least, not as deeply as she did Gatsby. As hard as he tries to hold on, a part of him recognizes that he has lost the freshest and best part of his relationship with Daisy (160-161). The Apartment Party One of the first scenes in the novel is the party at Tom and Myrtle’s apartment. This takes place in the second chapter, which is just before the chapter with Gatsby’s party. Fitzgerald stacks them to draw attention to how they foil each other. Gatsby’s parties are part of his Grail pursuit, an effort to reverse and halt time. The party in the city is a testament to how time marches on. There are many references to the forward progression of time at this party.

  • Nick continually tells us the time of day
  • Myrtle changes her dress a few times
  • Myrtle’s sister, Catherine, had someone last week look at her feet
  • Mr. McKee in the past took a couple of pictures out on Long Island
  • Mrs. McKee attended a party on West Egg a month ago
  • Catherine went to Monte Carlo last year
  • Catherine almost married a Jew some time in the past
  • Myrtle talks about marrying George eleven years ago
  • Tom opens a second bottle of whiskey
  • Myrtle tells Nick how she met Tom and that she decides to start an affair with him because “you can’t live forever”

To be clear, everything in the novel is a monument to the progression of time. Even Gatsby’s effort to arrest time is based upon changes in his life as part of the forever moving clock that ticks for us all. It really doesn’t matter how you perceive time, whether it is the constantly forward motion of events within history, or something more fluid that can best be called wibbly-wobbly, timey-wimey, you cannot repeat the past. And still, we try. Gatsby has not tried anything that all of us readers have not wished to do, or possibly like Gatsby, tried and failed. All of us want to go back in time. We all want to go back to a simpler and purer time. The problem is that we desire to go back and live in what we think is a better time but with all of the wisdom of hindsight. This is the real reason we cannot repeat the past. It really doesn’t have anything to do with the immutable laws of the universe as much as from a practical sense of logic that tells us that you cannot relive the same experience. This is a hard lesson to learn, but one too many learn the hard way. It’s because this desire to repeat the past is so universal that so many writers tap into this same vein and write of people with the same agony as Jay Gatsby. Everyone from Shakespeare to Salinger has addressed this sentiment. So in the end, it doesn’t matter if you are Romeo Montague or Holden Caulfield, or for that matter, Jay Gatsby, your mistakes have been written as a cautionary tale for all of your other brothers and sisters within humanity so that we will not follow you into a deep perdition of our own making. So don’t be too hard on our friend Mr. Gatsby. He’s only done what all of us have wanted to do. It seems he just had the nerve to step out and act upon his compulsion, to live out his dream and take steps toward his hope. His simple tragedy reaffirms that you can’t step in the same river twice. Here are other articles regarding The Great Gatsby:


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One response to “The Great Gatsby As A Grail Quest: Part Six – Identifying Further The Grail

  1. Pingback: The Great Gatsby | C.G. Fewston

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