Posted in Short Stories

F. Scott Fitzgerald: Absolution (Deal Me In 2017 – Week 27)

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There once was a priest with cold, watery eyes, who, in the still of the night, wept cold tears.

The above quotation, one of the best first lines I’ve read in a while, begins F. Scott Fitzgerald’s short story “Absolution”. Of the Fitzgerald short stories I’ve read, this one ranks as my favorite and I’m pretty sure it will make it into my Top 10 at the end of this year.


The priest’s perspective frames the story at the beginning and the end. In between, we get the perspective of eleven year-old Rudolph Miller and his father. Rudolph’s father, a devout Catholic, often loses his temper much to the detriment of Rudolph’s physical safety and his fragile psyche.

Much of the story involves Rudolph’s guilt as he lies to his father and to the priest at confession and then takes communion without confessing his “sins”. Fitzgerald’s elegant narration brilliantly captures the snowball effect of Rudolph’s inability to cover up each misdeed with another one culminating in the fear of being poisoned as the priest places the bread on his tongue.

As Rudolph heads for what seems like a breakdown, he finally tells the priest everything – not necessarily in the traditional confessional situation but in simply a one-on-one meeting. While the reader gets a hint at what the priest might be thinking at the beginning of the story, it comes as a surprise, albeit a very legitimate one, that the priest now has a breakdown and instead of giving Rudolph penance or punishment, he tells him to go to an amusement park:

“Well, go to an amusement park.” The priest waved his hand vaguely. “It’s a thing like a fair, only much more glittering. Go to one at night and stand a little way off from it in a dark place – under dark trees. You’ll see a big wheel made of lights turning in the air, and a long slide shooting boats down into the water. A band playing somewhere, and a smell of peanuts – and everything will twinkle. But it won’t remind you of anything, you see. It will all just hang out there in the night like a colored balloon – like a big, yellow lantern on a pole.”

According to Maureen Corrigan in her book So We Read On, this story has been considered a precursor to The Great Gatsby. Some minor details might point to this such as a brief mention that Rudolph is not from a wealthy family and Rudolph’s imagining himself as another person with another name – perhaps the way James Gatz became Jay Gatsby; however, if I had not been aware of this prior to reading the story, I don’t think I would have found much of a connection. The story stands on its own.

But then maybe the priest became the Gatsby character?

I read this story when I selected the Two of Spades (my second wild card in a row) for Week 27 of my Deal Me In 2017 short story project. It’s included in my copy of The Short Stories of F. Scott Fitzgerald. My Deal Me In list can be found here. Deal Me In is hosted by Jay at Bibliophilopolis.




9 thoughts on “F. Scott Fitzgerald: Absolution (Deal Me In 2017 – Week 27)

  1. Sounds like you found a real winner this week for your wild card. (I’ve also drawn two wild cards “almost” in a row recently while I’ve been catching up in my own reading).

    That is indeed a powerful quotation that you cite. Funny that I always used to get the words “absolution” and “ablution” confused. Ablution might acutally fit in better with the watery eyes and tears of the priest, but not the rest of the story. 🙂

    I may have to look up this one for a future read. It also sounds like it would’ve been a good fit for “Catholic” suit in last(?) year’s DMI.

    1. Yes, I read about it in the Corrigan book but then forgot about it when I was putting my list together last year. I’ve pretty much had this story and the Faulkner story from last week pegged as wild card stories since the beginning of the year. I don’t have anything in mind for the other two – yet. Although, Bernard Malamud’s “My Son the Murderer” is another one that I keep forgetting to put on my list (it has an interesting title) Maybe I will have to read it for a wild card.

  2. This really does sound good. I might have to dig it up and read it to see what I think! On the surface, I would assume that the boy is a precursor of Jimmy Gatz, but that’s interesting to think of the priest as being similar to him too!

    1. If I recall correctly, I think Corrigan indicates that Fitzgerald at some point considered the priesthood. I remember she makes a big deal out of the fact that Fitzgerald wasn’t allowed to be buried in a Catholic cemetery. But like I said, this isn’t just a thinly veiled version of “Gatsby”. It stands on its own as a really good story.

      1. I’m betting this is in a collection of FSF’s short stories I got as a gift earlier this year, so now I just have to find time to pull it out and read it!

      2. I got my collection earlier this year. I’m reading Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility right now but after that I thought I might read Tender is the Night. I’m curious what that’s like.

      3. I hunted it up this morning and read it while waiting for the laundry to finish drying (such is the inescapable glamour of my life), and my goodness, what an odd, thought-provoking story. I just read yesterday in Careless People that Fitzgerald did originally write it as a background piece for Gatsby, but when he revised the book, he took that part out, turned it into its own short story, and sold it to a magazine.

        Fascinating stuff.

        I think the only other Fitzgerald novel I’ve read besides Gatsby is This Side of Paridise. I’m kind of trying not to read all of his in a clump so I’ll have things to look forward to for a lot of years.

      4. I read This Side of Paradise sometime right after I was out of college (a while ago) and really liked it. I know I read The Beautiful and The Damned, too but don’t remember much about it.

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