The Great Gatsby: the Romantic Quest

  1. Introduction to The Great Gatsby by Francis Scott Fitzgerald: from the Lost Prairies to the Realist Jungle
  2. The Great Gatsby: characters and characterization
  3. The Great Gatsby: the Romantic Quest
  4. Structure and Narration in The Great Gatsby
  5. The ordering of events in The Great Gatsby
  6. The Great Gatsby: an American novel

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 of proving to the world and possibly to himself that he is mighty. 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 into 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.

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 potential by relying on the force of his intuition.

Transcendentalism praises self-reliance, that is to say, a liberation from habits, conformism and traditions to create one’s true self.

Gatsby’s platonic vision in a time-bound world

The reference to Plato in “Platonic conception of himself” (p.105) must be understood as an assertion of the power of idealism. In Plato’s philosophy, the World of Ideas is eternal and constitutes the only everlasting Truth.

For Plato, time belongs to the World of the Senses, which he dismisses as being spurious, a mere delusion. So right from the start, Jay Gatsby intuitively feels that he belongs to a higher plane of reality, that he is one of the Elected Few and as such is a son of God and must look after his Father’s business (p.105), by which it must be understood that he has a high mission to carry out and that it is a part of some divine scheme.

Self-naming… for the eternity!

The choice of a new patronymic and first name may be seen as an attempt to reach beyond time limitations. While James (Jimmy) as a Christian name is plain, common and garden, Jay is already evocative of the bird song that is to be heard throughout the novel.

The warbling of the bird is of course reminiscent of Keats’ nightingale. In the romantic ode, the bird song stands for permanence in a world in which everything is doomed to destruction: “Thou wast not born for death, immortal Bird!”.

Gatsby has been substituted for Gatz because Gatz is a reminder of the German ascendency of Jay’s parents and may imply historical determinism (the fact of being conditioned by one’s ethnic origins).

Admittedly, Gatsby sounds more Anglo-Saxon and suggests that on this new continent, the past should not be a burden and should not hinder man’s initiative.

James’ Franklinesque time schedule

The central paradox of The Great Gatsby is that it constantly juxtaposes an ideal vision from which time has been excluded to direct references to the movement of “real time”.

The most obvious allusion to time occurs in Chapter IX when Mr Gatz, after his son’s death, shows Nick Carraway the schedule printed of the fly-leaf of an old copy of Hopalong Cassidy, a cheap Western novel. As a boy, James Gatz endeavoured to emulate Benjamin Franklin’s good resolutions as a sure way to attain success.

For Franklin, ambition meant nothing less than finding the means to arrive at moral Perfection. This could only be done through hard work and therefore one’s lifestyle had to be carefully planned to grant each and every activity its allotted time.

Benjamin Franklin embodies the rational ambition of rising in the world through both industry and acumen. In his autobiography (1784), which dates back to the Enlightenment Age, Franklin demonstrates how through reason time could be mastered to suit man’s purposes.

The irony of The Great Gatsby is that James’s early resolutions are soon defeated by a world in which time has gone mad, where “time is out of joint” (Hamlet).

In the Jazz Age, in the twenties, all goes fast, much too fast, hence the many hints at the automobile. After all, Jay Gatsby makes a fortune in the space of three years but he renounces Franklin’s Christian values of honesty and probity.

It can be argued that, unlike Benjamin Franklin who used time to implement his undertakings, Gatsby is used by time; that he is outstripped by time. The countdown at the end when Wilson is on his way to carry out his murderous act of revenge shows that ultimately real time (clock time) triumphs and shatters Gatsby’s dream of freezing one single instant of eternity.

Courtly love

In Keats’s poetry, the search for ideality often involves the love for a woman of unsurpassed beauty who may turn out to be malevolent: La Belle Dame sans Merci. In Keats’s poetry, this lovely feminine creature offers the gallant knight the possibility to draw closer to the Idealised World.

Romantic adoration

The Romantic adoration of women probably receives its most profound expression in the medieval literature of Courtly Love (Amour Courtois).

In the Arthurian legends, the knight’s worship of the Lady makes him more gallant and more dauntless. Courtly love is founded upon an ideal relationship that is never consummated. The beloved Lady is chaste or already married and therefore not available. Often knights through their exclusive passion for a woman are seeking something higher, some kind of spiritual ideal. They also participate in the Crusades to be granted the opportunity to see the Holy Grail.

The Holy Grail was the cup which Christ held at the Last Supper, the cup in which Joseph of Arimathea collected Christ’s blood at the crucifixion. The cup was used to symbolize perfection so that only the pure knights, those who had not indulged in illicit, adulterous intercourse with their beloved Lady, were able to attain the correct vision of the Grail.

In Arthurian legends, Lancelot is blinded by the light of the Grail while the pure Galahad can see the light. Fitzgerald introduces the Grail motif in The Great Gatsby. Nick likens Gatsby’s pursuit of Daisy to the Grail Quest:

He had intended, probably, to take what he could and go – but now he found that he had committed himself to the following of a Grail.

(155, VIII)

As happens in the case of the knights with their paramours, Gatsby’s dream of Daisy far exceeds Daisy’s human dimensions, it proves to be much larger than Daisy’s too human character:

There must have been moments even that afternoon when Daisy tumbled short of his dreams.

(102-103, very end of chapter V).

Gatsby’s dream, however, unlike the knights’ aspiration is not purely spiritual. In Fitzgerald’s novel materialism in the guise of the power of money is instrumental in achieving a spiritual purpose.

Gatsby unites two opposed sets of values: the pursuit of earthly happiness, profligacy, hedonism, ostentatious luxury and the pursuit of ideals.

Gatsby’s worship of Daisy is not only spiritual either. It is more than suggested that Gatsby’s love did have a physical, carnal basis:

So he made the most of his time. He took what he could get, ravenously and unscrupulously – eventually he took Daisy one still October night…


The words ravenously and unscrupulously are unambiguous. Not only did Gatsby make love to Daisy but he also took her and treated her as an object to gratify his lust.

Thus the Gatsby-Daisy relationship is not just a matter of disincarnate worship, in a way, it contains the seeds of its destruction from its early beginnings.

Recapturing the past

Daisy is related to the hero’s past, to something he believes he once had and which reality took away from him. Daisy belongs to the “fantastic” reveries of Gatsby’s youth.

This nostalgia for an idealized past, for a lost innocence, for a vanished rapturous moment is a characteristic feature of romanticism too. Yet, recapturing the past may imply destroying the present. Gatsby naively believes that the past can be repeated: “Can’t repeat the past?”, he cried incredulously; “Why of course you can!” (117, VI).

His error is to disregard the fact that Daisy is not the fay (fairy, Morgan the Fay) he mistook her for, but a plain woman fully immersed in the present, and what’s more a mother with duties to fulfil.

This is a fact that Gatsby finds hard to believe because it somehow breaks up his idealistic vision:

Afterward, he kept looking at the child with surprise. I don’t think he had ever really believed in its existence once ever before.

(123, VII)

Romantic vision and artistic treatment

In Gatsby, romanticism can be confined neither to the main protagonist’s dominant feature nor to the treatment of a love story, it is also a way of writing which testifies to a novelist’s vision.

Thus romanticism means a peculiar way of perceiving the real world. It could be said that the romantic artist mentally recomposes what he sees. Coleridge’s definition of the “secondary imagination” may help us understand the romantic perception of the outside reality:

It [perception] dissolves, diffuses, dissipates, in order to re-create; or where this process is rendered impossible, yet still at all events it struggles to idealize and to unify.

Coleridge, Biographia Literaria, ch. 13

In Gatsby, the romantic vision predominates till it is shattered by the reality principle through the episode of the hit-and-run crash. Then, in the last part which reads like an epilogue, there is a return to a romantic sense of nostalgia.

The imaginative experience of reality

The Romantic writer aims at a comprehensive, imaginative apprehension of reality. To a large extent, sensations are intermingled causing colours to be smelled or sounds to be tasted, this poetic device is called synaesthesia.

This is what happens during Gatsby’s party when “the orchestra… played yellow cocktail music” (46, III). Nick is being subjected almost to psychedelic effects. He does not perceive things separately; the contours of objects become blurred and he is carried along in a sort of hallucinatory state.

For instance, the guests are not seen as individuals but their presence is felt like the toss of an ocean. Marine metaphors are applied to the revellers: “the sea-change of faces” or “swirl and eddies of people” (46; 47). Gatsby’s party is like a wave that momentarily engulfs pleasure-seekers.

Ephemerality and fragility

In Gatsby, there is the idea that to obtain beauty is, in a way, to lose it. In his autobiographical first novel, The Beautiful and the Damned, Fitzgerald wrote of his hero: “It was always the becoming he dreamed of, never the being”.

Significantly enough, at the moment when Gatsby sees Daisy again after five years, his illusion is broken. When Daisy has become accessible, she is not Daisy any longer. At the moment that was supposed to offer the greatest ecstasy, all that Gatsby can feel is the loss of his vision: “Daisy put her arm through his abruptly, but he seemed absorbed in what he had just said”; Possibly it had occurred to him that “the colossal significance of that light [green light] had now vanished for ever” (100, V).

Daisy can only exist for Gatsby as long as he cannot have her; it is the ecstasy of longing that feeds the romantic dream.

Precisely one of the dominant themes of Gatsby is the fragility of vision. Gatsby’s glittering parties last the space of one summer and several allusions to death are interspersed. The reader may infer that the season of rejoicing will be over at any moment.

For instance, during their drive to New York, Nick and Gatsby pass a funeral procession (75, IV). Death is at the core of the dream. For Fitzgerald as for Keats, it is as though the moment of highest intensity no longer belonged to life:

Now more than ever seems it rich to die,
to cease upon the midnight with no pain…

At the instant when Death is approaching Gatsby’s dream is “behind him”; it is already in the past with all the dreams and aspirations of the immigrants who once landed on a new continent. So Gatsby’s dream becomes a historical recapitulation of lost dreams.

The last romantic notion conveyed by Fitzgerald’s novel is a temporal symbiosis uniting past and future. By pursuing his single vision of an orgiastic future, Gatsby is taken back into his past and in the end, his past becomes one with the collective history of the pioneers, men with big dreams.

Hence the last lines of Gatsby express a romantic fusion of time past and time to come: “So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past”.


Fitzgerald joins together two antithetic concepts: materialism and romanticism showing that his hero’s romantic dream can be partly realized thanks to money. Fitzgerald also creates a fictitious character who sacrifices everything for his one unique pursuit.

Yet, the romantic idealist that Fitzgerald creates is also capable of the worst compromises with the real. He does not hesitate one instant to make deals with people from the underworld: crooks and bootleggers.

Gatsby’s private odyssey also repeats on an individual scale the collective adventure of a whole nation. This nation, whose innocent dream of a fairer world has been perverted by greed, strives with each succeeding generation to capture something of the force of the colossal illusion of its first pioneers. In this idealization of a mythic past which triggers off a quest for an illusory nature lies the novel’s pervasive sense of romanticism.

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