Nick Carraway has a special place in The Great Gatsby, by F. Scott Fitzgerald. He is not just one character among several; it is through his eyes and ears that the story takes place. In this novel, 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 makes clear, 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 goes on to say that such “tolerance . . . has a limit. This is the first sign the narrator gives the reader to show he will give an even-handed insight to the story that is about to unfold.
Later the reader learns 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 implications 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. 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 Midwest after he returns from the war, 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.
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 unadaptable to Eastern life. By this stage, the East had become for him the “grotesque” stuff of his nightmares. This return home tells the reader many things about Nick.
Nick is 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. The only genuine affection in the novel is shown by Nick 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) does not 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 from Nick’s.
If he were motivated by truth, Gatsby would still be poor Jay Gatz with a hopelessly futile dream. In 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 . . . ” These are Nick’s words. Whose “appalling 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 not this excess of sentiment in fact Nick’s sentiment for Gatsby or perhaps Nick’s attempt at displaying those “rather literary” days he had in college? Or both? The reader 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 thus has heightened the realism of the novel.