An Unlikely Narrator in The Great Gatsby
“Whenever you feel like criticizing any one, just remember that all the people in this world haven’t had the advantages that you’ve had.” F. Scott Fitzgerald’s novel “The Great Gatsby,” opens with this piece of advice quoted to Nick, the narrator of the story, by his father. Those words having stuck with him throughout the years, Nick explains that he is unbiased and “inclined to reserve all judgments” (Fitzgerald 1). As a narrator, these traits are crucial for an accurate account of the story, partially due to the fact that several characters throughout the novel contain faults that subject them to bias. However, Nick’s thoughts and actions prove to be contradictory to his self-description, which evokes the question of whether or not his narrative is accurate. Nick’s indecisiveness as well as his shallow and partial nature limits the extent of the reader’s trust, therefore making his narrative unreliable.
In his book, “Fitzgerald and Hemingway: Works and Days,” American literary critic Scott Donaldson, claims that Nick’s “basic contempt for mankind emerges in what he says and thinks as well as in descriptions of others.” Nick’s instinctive inclination to initially judge others’ physical appearances further justifies this notion. For example, Tom is a “sturdy straw-haired man of thirty with a rather hard mouth and a supercilious manner” (7). In addition, Nick notes that the dominance of his “arrogant eyes” gives him the appearance of “always leaning aggressively forward.” The use of such negative connotations allows the reader to conclude that Nick harbors a sense of dislike towards Tom. In addition, Myrtle, Tom’s mistress who resides in the “gray” valley of ashes, is defined by an “immediately perceptible vitality about her as if the nerves of her body were continually shouldering” (25). Myrtle’s sister, Catherine, is a “slender, worldly girl” with a “solid, sticky bob of red hair” whose eyebrows were drawn at a “more rakish angle” than nature permitted. Adding to his countless collection of exterior judgments, Nick characterizes Mr. Wolfsheim as a “small, flat-nosed Jew” with a “large head” and “tiny eyes.” On the other hand, Nick is considerably more lenient when describing Daisy Buchanan and Jordan Baker. Both clad in white, an angelic, pure color, Nick describes Daisy as “charming” with a “low, thrilling voice” and Jordan’s eyes appear to look at him with “polite reciprocal curiosity out of a wan, charming, discontented face” (11). Nick’s policy of illustrating certain characters is unmistakably more or less forgiving among varied individuals. Not only do these convictions serve as early signs that hint at Nick’s prejudiced persona, but they also reveal a rather superficial mindset.
Nick’s character descriptions not only construe a shallow mentality but an indecisive one as well. For example, Mrs. McKee is described as “shrill” but “languid” and “handsome” yet “horrible.” In addition, Mr. Wilson is “spiritless and anemic” but “faintly handsome” at the same time. The contradictory nature of these adjectives accommodates Nick’s lack of solid intuition. This also tarnishes his credibility as narrator as well as the reader’s confidence in trusting Nick’s instinct. Perhaps the most significant indicator of his uncertainty is Nick’s relationship with Jordan. When Jordan professes that she is drawn to Nick’s carefulness, he thinks he loves her “for a moment” but later elaborates that he is “slow-thinking” and “full of interior rules that act as brakes on my desires (58).” In addition, when Jordan recounts Gatsby’s story to Nick, he suddenly stops thinking of Daisy and Gatsby but of Jordan, who was “this clean, hard, limited person…who leaned back jauntily just within the circle of my arm (79).” However, after the dilemma surrounding Myrtle’s death later in the novel, Nick claims that he had “enough of all of them for one day, and suddenly that included Jordan too (142).” This portrays Nick as an individual whose feelings are often not only unpredictable, but also impulsive. Nick’s emotions frequently tend to sway in the direction of the situation he is presented with, which goes on to play a crucial role in how the environment affects Nick’s account of the story.
The environment and various settings of events in The Great Gatsby place an emphasis on the questionability of the narrative’s accuracy. For example, Nick gets drunk for the second time in his life at Myrtle’s party. As a result, he claims that “everything that happened has a dim, hazy cast over it” (29). This limits the readers’ certainty on whether Nick’s recount of the following events at Myrtle’s apartment is faultless or not. Furthering suspicions, Nick attempts to read a chapter of ”Simon Called Peter” but contemplates whether it was “terrible stuff or the whiskey distorted things” (29) because it did not make sense. In addition, when Nick discovers that Mr. Wilson has become aware of Myrtle’s infidelity on one hot summer day, he states that “the relentless beating heat was beginning to confuse me (124).” These confessions serve as a disclaimer towards the guarantee of Nick’s accurate narrative. In addition, the contrasting characters surrounding Nick also provide a subject for comparison regarding his personality. For example, the wealthy provinces of East and West Egg are far more affluent in terms of immorality than the modest Midwest, where Nick originated. In comparison to New York’s residents who leisurely meddle in adultery, bootlegging, and several other unrighteous affairs, Nick appears to be virtuous and honest. However, the fact that he suspects himself of being “one of the few honest people” he has ever known almost immediately after condemning Jordan’s lack of thereof proves that Nick’s “honesty” is only relative to his environment. As a result, it can be concluded that Nick’s surroundings greatly impact his narrative as well as his perception of himself. This builds a fallible foundation for the legitimacy of the narrative throughout the novel.
As Donaldson explains, another reason Nick makes an unlikely narrator is his tendency to “carefully avoid emotional entanglements.” Several instances draw attention to Nick’s state of emotional detachment. For instance, when Nick visits the Buchanans for dinner, Daisy’s series of insincere remarks “cease to compel” his attention and leave Nick feeling “as though the whole evening had been a trick of some sort to exact a contributory emotion from me” (17). In addition, correlating with his indecisiveness as previously discussed, Nick is unable to commit to lasting relationships. His romance with Jordan encourages him to “get out of that tangle back home” where he periodically writes letters to a girl, signed “Love, Nick.” However, the emotionally shallow side of Nick causes him to only “think of how, when that certain girl played tennis, a faint mustache of perspiration appeared on her upper lip.” In addition, he maintained a short-lived affair with a girl from Jersey City, but “let it blow quietly away” when her brother began to throw “mean looks” in his direction. Nevertheless, when Gatsby dies, Nick ends his relationship with Jordan, indicating his reluctance towards committing himself in long-term relationships. However, this preference does not restrict Nick from feeling a “haunting loneliness sometimes” and as he witnesses the lively atmosphere in New York where “forms leaned together in the taxis as they waited, and voices sang, and there was laughter from unheard jokes, and lighted cigarettes outlined unintelligible gestures inside” (57) he imagined himself also “hurrying toward gayety and sharing their intimate excitement.” His expression of such desires leads Donaldson to conclude that Nick “does not reserve judgment, he reserves himself.”
At the beginning of the novel, Nick boasts of his “tolerance” by claiming that he is “inclined to reserve all judgments.” However, this statement proves to be a hypocritical one throughout the course of the novel. As it progresses, Nick’s character continues to make more and more judgments, the most blatant at the end, when Nick tells Gatsby that Daisy, Tom, and Jordan are a “rotten crowd” and that Gatsby is “worth the whole damn bunch put together.” Nick later admits that it was the only compliment he ever credited Gatsby, because he “disapproved of him from beginning to end” (154). Afterwards, when Nick runs into Tom in town, he claims that he “couldn’t forgive him or like him” and that “they were careless people, Tom and Daisy” (179). Initially, Nick had regarded Daisy favorably; however after she killed Myrtle and allowed Gatsby to take the blame, Nick’s opinion towards her had changed. These events void Nick’s claim that he “reserves all judgments” and shed light on his prejudiced nature. As a result, Nick’s dynamic character proves to be unfit as narrator, because as the story progresses, he criticizes characters more frequently.
In conclusion, Nick Carraway cannot be trusted as a credible narrator. When it comes to assessing the characters throughout the novel, Nick is an idealist; his descriptions of characters that he favors conform to his vision of ideal standards. In addition, he is often contradictory, indecisive, and hypocritical. He claims to be fair and unbiased, but by the time the novel ends, he is guilty of judging most of the characters in the book in one way or another. However, according to Scott Donaldson, Nick’s shortcomings “makes him the perfect narrator” for The Great Gatsby and Scott Fitzgerald’s “greatest technical achievement in the novel was to invent this narrative voice at once ‘within and without’ the action.” Although Nick is purposefully an unreliable narrator, the reader learns many important lessons that revolve around morality, wealth, and vitality. As Scott Donaldson puts it, “One does not have to like Nick Carraway to discover something about oneself in the tale he tells.”
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