The term quest immediately calls up the fairy tale motif or the German Märchen (Tieck; Grimm). The quest has been studied by Propp in Morphology of the Folktale.
In a tale, the hero attempts to escape from his humble origins to claim a higher ascendency or a royal lineage. James Gatz from North Dakota had never really accepted his parents who were shiftless and unsuccessful farm people : “his imagination had never really accepted them as his parents at all”. James Gatz denies his social as well as biological parentage to aspire to a more glittering and glamorous future. He therefore creates an exalted image of himself : he yearns to become a demi-god (“he was a son of God”). So James Gatz’s quest consists in proving to the world and possibly to himself that he is mighty and powerful. Now this may only be achieved through personal enrichment.
The quest pattern is also closely bound up with the romantic desire to transcend the limitations of the Self. The aim of such a quest is therefore to assert the primacy of the imagination over reason in a materialistic and philistine world. Fitzgerald often recalled his great admiration for the poet Keats and he went as far as to claim that he intended to “write prose on the same lines as Keats’ poetry” (Sheilah Graham, College of One, Harmondsworth, 1969). So even if the novel’s action is steeped in the hedonistic, pleasure-seeking America of the Jazz Age, it is nonetheless imbued with Romantic idealism. In a way, The Great Gatsby may be interpreted as a downright rejection of everything that is earthbound, mundane and devoid of spiritual lift.
“Real time” versus timeless ideality
Time is the real enemy in the Romantic World. Keats, whose influence should never be underestimated, is constantly striving to attain a transitory moment of vision which will defeat time, even if he never loses sight of the chronological succession of events altogether.
Gatsby’s self-creation and transcendentalism
James Gatz refuses the constraints and limitations of his social milieu. He spurns the historical determinism that results from being born in a rather destitute family. By turning down his tie with his biological father, Jay Gatz lays claim to an existence outside history, that is outside time. His first romantic aspiration is to prove he is not in any way bound by the fetters/shackles of time.
In fact, James Gatz will be who he chooses to be, he will be his self-creation, a byronic Romantic rebel who hates anything that excludes the imagination. The emphasis on the power of the imagination probably owes something to the transcendentalists (Ralph Waldo Emerson and David Henri Thoreau). The latter rejected Calvinism and the materialism of society. Emerson and Thoreau asserted their beliefs in the possibility of spiritual communion with nature. They also insisted on each individual’s capacity to fulfil his own potential by relying on the force of his intuition. Transcendentalism praised self-reliance, that is to say a liberation from habits, conformism and traditions in order to create one’s true self.