Sangria in the Sangreal: The Great Gatsby as Grail Quest

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Authors: D. G. Kehl and Allene Cooper
Editor: Janet Witalec
Date: 2003
Publisher: Gale
Document Type: Critical essay
Length: 6,264 words

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[(essay date 1993) In the following essay, Kehl and Cooper explore F. Scott Fitzgerald's fascination with Arthurian myths, focusing on his use of the Grail legend in The Great Gatsby in particular.]

Near the end of Fitzgerald's This Side of Paradise, Amory Blaine, returning to Princeton after his disillusioning sojourn in Atlantic City, concludes that he knows one thing: "If living isn't a seeking for the grail it may be a damned amusing game" (278). For Fitzgerald, by the time he wrote The Great Gatsby five years later, living had become both a quest for the grail and "a damned amusing game," with emphasis sometimes on the quest and sometimes on the game. It took Fitzgerald another eleven years and a "crack-up" to verbalize the paradox: "The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function" (The Crack Up 69). Jay Gatsby "found that he had committed himself to the following of a grail" (149). The grail, personified in Daisy Buchanan, is paradoxically beautiful and romantic but also, like the cut-glass bowl in Fitzgerald's 1920 story with that title, hard, empty, and, at least for Nick, "easy to see through" (Flappers and Philosophers 97).

Fitzgerald's interest in the quest tale has been noted. For example, James E. Miller has discussed This Side of Paradise as a "quest book" (16-22), and Edwin M. Moseley has commented on Gatsby as "a prose 'Waste Land'" with Nick as "modern quester" (31). Several other studies have made passing references to the grail motif in Gatsby, perhaps the most pertinent being K. G. Probert's limited discussion in "Nick Carraway and the Romance of Art." Probert, however, failing to grasp Fitzgerald's paradox, faults both Gatsby and Nick, the former for transforming "highminded romance impulses into mere gangsterism" and the latter for voyeuristically "distort[ing] the story of Gatsby in order to affirm his own unrealistic and childish nostalgia" (204, 206). Fitzgerald's early and lasting fascination with the Arthurian romance, perhaps surpassed among modern American writers only by that of John Steinbeck, is little recognized, nor has the ambivalent function of the grail quest in The Great Gatsby been examined.

"Did you ever read The Passing of Arthur?" Josephine asks Mr. Bailey in Fitzgerald's "A Snobbish Story" (The Basil and Josephine Stories, 253). The reference to Idylls of the King, in which Tennyson first included the Grail story in 1869, is perhaps the best clue to Fitzgerald's source of the Grail Quest story. Of the many versions composed between the 8th and early 20th centuries, those most familiar include Chrétien de Troyes's story of Perceval in Li Contes del Grail (1160-1185), Malory's The Tale of the Sankgreal (1460-1470), and Wolfram von Eschenbach's Parzival (1200-1207). Other possible sources include those versions made available by the resurgence of interest in medieval lore in the 19th century that prompted Tennyson and Wagner to write their works on the Grail (Loomis 3).

It is unlikely...

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Gale Document Number: GALE|H1420054015