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Nick Carraway has a very important part in this novel. He isn?t just one character among several others. It is through his eyes and ears that we form our opinions on the other characters. Often, readers of this novel confuse Nick’s views with those of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s because the fictional world he has created closely resembles the world he himself experienced. But not all narrators are the voice of the author. Before considering the gap between author and narrator, we should remember how we, the readers, respond to the narrator’s perspective, especially when that voice belongs to a character who, like Nick, is an active participant in the story.
When we, the readers, read any work of fiction, no matter how realistic or fabulous, we undergo a “suspension of disbelief”. The fictional world creates a new set of boundaries, making possible or credible events and reactions that might not commonly occur in the real world, but which have a logic or a plausibility to them in that fictional world. In order for this to be convincing, we trust the narrator. We take on his perspective, if not totally, then substantially. He becomes our eyes and ears in this world and we have to see him as reliable if we are to proceed with the story’s development.
In The Great Gatsby, Nick goes to some length to establish his credibility, indeed his moral integrity, in telling this story about this great man called Gatsby. He begins with a reflection on his own upbringing, quoting his father’s words about Nick’s “advantages”, which we could assume were material but, he soon made it clear that they were spiritual or moral advantages. Nick wants his reader to know that his upbringing gave him the moral fiber with which to withstand and pass judgment on an amoral world, such as the one he had observed the previous summer. He says, rather pompously, that as a consequence of such an upbringing, he is ?inclined to reserve all judgments? about other people, but then he says that such ?tolerance . . . has a limit?. This is the first sign that we can trust this narrator to give us an even-handed insight to the story that is about to unfold. But, as we later learn, he neither reserves all judgments nor does his tolerance reach its limit. Nick is very partial in his way of telling the story about several characters.
He admits early into the story that he makes an exception of judging Gatsby, for whom he is prepared to suspend both the moral code of his upbringing and the limit of intolerance, because Gatsby had an “extraordinary gift for hope, a romantic readiness”. This inspired him to a level of friendship and loyalty that Nick seems unprepared to extend towards others in the novel.
Nick overlooks the moral implication of Gatsby?s bootlegging, his association with speakeasies, and with Meyer Wolfsheim, the man rumored to have fixed the World Series in 1919. Yet, he is contemptuous of Jordan Baker for cheating in a mere golf game. And while he says that he is prepared to forgive this sort of behavior in a woman: “It made no difference to me. Dishonesty in a woman is a thing you never blame too deeply – I was casually sorry, and then I forgot,” it seems that he cannot accept her for being “incurably dishonest” and then reflects that his one “cardinal virtue” is that he is “one of the few honest people” he has ever known. When it comes to judging women – or perhaps only potential lovers – not only are they judged, they are judged by how well they stand up to his own virtues.
Nick leaves the mid-West after he returns from the war, understandably restless and at odds with the traditional, conservative values that, from his account, haven’t changed in spite of the tumult of the war. It is this insularity from a changed world no longer structured by the values that had sent young men to war, that decides him to go East, to New York, and learn about bonds. But after one summer out East, a remarkable summer for this morally advantaged young man, he “decided to come back home” to the security of what is familiar and traditional. He sought a return to the safety of a place where houses were referred to by the names of families that had inhabited them for generations; a security that Nick decides makes Westerners “subtly unacceptable to Eastern life”. By this stage, the East had become for him the “grotesque” stuff of his nightmares.
What does this return home tell us about Nick? It is entirely reasonable that he would be adversely affected by the events of that summer: the death of a woman he met briefly and indirectly, who was having an affair with his cousin’s husband and whose death leads to the death of his next-door neighbor. His decision to return home to that place that he had so recently condemned for its insularity makes one wonder what Nick was doing during the war? If the extent and the pointlessness of death and destruction during the war had left him feeling he’d outgrown the comfort and security of the West, why has the armory he acquired from the war abandoned him after this one summer’s events?
Don’t we perhaps feel a little let down that Nick runs away from his experience in the East in much the same way that he has run away from that “tangle back home” to whom he writes letters and signs “with love”, but clearly doesn’t genuinely offer? Is it unfair to want more from our narrator, to show some kind of development in his emotional make-up? It is unfair to suggest that this return home is like a retreat from life and a kind of emotional regression?
The only genuine affection in the novel is shown by Nick is towards Gatsby. He admires Gatsby’s optimism, an attitude that is out of step with the sordidness of the times. Fitzgerald illustrates this sordidness not just in the Valley of Ashes, but right there beneath the thin veneer of the opulence represented by Daisy and Tom. Nick is “in love” with Gatsby’s capacity to dream and ability to live as if the dream were to come true, and it is this that clouds his judgment of Gatsby and therefore obscures our grasp on Gatsby.
When Gatsby takes Nick to one side and tells him of his origins, he starts to say that he was “the son of some wealthy people in the Middle West – all dead now.? The truth (of his origins) doesn’t matter to Gatsby; what matters to him is being part of Daisy’s world or Daisy being a part of his. Gatsby’s sense of what is true and real is of an entirely other order to Nick’s. If he were motivated by truth, Gatsby would still be poor Jay Gatz with a hopelessly futile dream.
Recall the passage where Nick says to Gatsby that you can’t repeat the past, and Gatsby’s incredulity at this. Nick begins to understand for the first time the level of Gatsby’s desire for a Daisy who no longer exists. It astounds Nick, “I gathered that he wanted to recover something . . . that had gone into loving Daisy? out of the corner of his eye Gatsby saw that the blocks of the sidewalks really formed a ladder and mounted to a secret place above the trees . . . Through all he said, even through his appalling sentimentality, I was reminded of something – an elusive rhythm, a fragment of lost words, that I had heard somewhere a long time ago.” Whose awful sentimentality is operating here? Has Nick reported any of Gatsby’s words, which comprise so little of the novel, to suggest that he would even begin to put his love for Daisy in these “sentimental” terms? Is this surplus of sentiment in fact Nick’s sentiment for Gatsby or perhaps Nick’s attempt at displaying those “rather literary” days he had in college?
We should consider the distance that Fitzgerald has created between his presence in the story and Nick’s and their implications. Fitzgerald has created a most interesting character in Nick because he is very much a fallible storyteller. When an author unsettles an accepted convention in the art of storytelling by creating a narrator like Nick, it draws attention to the story as fiction, as artifice. Ironically, in doing this, he has created in Nick a figure who more closely resembles an average human being and therefore has heightened the realism of the novel.