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 fibre 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 evenhanded insight into 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.
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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 rumoured 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 behaviour 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 their 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 changing 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; 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 neighbour.
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 though 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.
Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby opens with Nick Carraway, the novel’s narrator, introducing himself as a man who tends to listen and observe without passing judgment. Carraway immediately proceeds to preface the story he recounts over the course of the novel by passing judgment on his former companions. Mysteriously hinting at themes which will pervade the plot of his tale Carraway reflects, “When I came back from the East last autumn I felt that I wanted the world to be in uniform and at a sort of moral attention forever; I wanted no more riotous excursions with privileged glimpses into the human heart. Only Gatsby…was exempt from my reaction — Gatsby who represented everything for which I have an unaffected scorn” (6). Thus, providing plenty of room for speculation as to what provoked such a critical response, Nick begins his story.
After serving in World War I, Nick moves east from his Midwest roots to learn the bond business, settling on the island of West Egg, New York, “one of the strangest communities in North America” (9). Nick reveals, however, that his story really begins on a June evening in 1922, when he drives over to East Egg (the more fashionable and wealthy of the twin islands) to have dinner with “two old friends whom I scarcely knew at all” (11). Nick meets with an old college associate, Tom Buchanan, and his wife, Daisy, as well as Jordan Baker, an unexpected guest. For more detailed information about these characters, please see the Character Profiles section.
When the light-hearted conversation includes a brief reference to a man named Gatsby — his next-door neighbour — Nick’s curiosity is evident. Tension mounts during dinner, however, when Tom leaves to answer a phone call, and Jordan reveals to Nick that it is Tom’s mistress calling. Later, perhaps searching for sympathy in response to Tom’s phone call during dinner, Daisy cynically tells Nick that she believes “everything’s terrible” (21). Though riveted by Daisy’s voice while she speaks, Carraway finds her insincere, and leaves the Buchanan house feeling “confused and disgusted” (24).
Upon arriving home Nick sees a silhouette emerge from the mansion next door, and assumes it is Gatsby. When Gatsby suddenly stretches his arms toward the water, Nick turns to see what he reaches for, but “distinguished nothing except a single green light, minute and far away, that might have been the end of a dock” (26). When Nick looks back towards the silhouette, Gatsby has vanished.
Nick Carraway, the narrator, is a young man from the Midwest of the USA who, having graduated from Yale in 1915 and fought in World War I, has returned home to begin a career. Like others in his generation, he is restless and has decided to move East to New York and learn the bond business. The novel opens early in the summer of 1922 in West Egg, Long Island, where Nick has rented a house. Next to his place is a huge mansion complete with Gothic towers and a large swimming pool which belongs to Mr. Gatsby, whom Nick has not yet met. Directly across the bay from West Egg is the more fashionable community of East Egg where Tom and Daisy Buchanan live. Daisy is Nick´s cousin, and Tom had been in the same senior society as Nick in New Haven.
Like Nick, they are Midwesterners who have come East to be a part of the glamour of the New York City area. They invite Nick to dinner at their mansion and here he meets a young women golfer named Jordan Baker. During dinner, Mrs. Myrtle Wilson rings. She lives in a strange place between West Egg and New York City that the narrator calls the “valley of ashes.” One day Tom takes Nick to meet the Wilsons but the party breaks up as Tom breaks Myrtle’s nose with a blow of his open hand because she has mentioned the name of his wife in a discussion. Some weeks later Nick finally gets the opportunity to meet his mysterious neighbour, Mr. Gatsby. Gatsby gives huge parties and people come from everywhere to attend these parties, but no one seems to know much about the host.
Nick becomes fascinated by Gatsby and observes that he does not drink. One day Nick and Gatsby drive to New York together. Gatsby tells Nick that he is from a wealthy family in the Midwest, that he was educated at Oxford, and that he won war medals from many European countries. At tea that afternoon Nick finds out from Jordan Baker why Gatsby has taken such an interest in him: Gatsby is in love with Daisy Buchanan and wants Nick to arrange a meeting between them. Gatsby had fallen in love with Daisy as a young officer in 1917. He had been sent overseas, and she had eventually given him up and married Tom. So Gatsby decided to win Daisy back. His first step was to buy a house in West Egg. From here he could look across the bay to the green light at the end of Daisy´s dock.
A few days later, in the rain, Gatsby and Daisy meet for the first time in five years. Gatsby is at first terrified, then very excited. He takes Daisy and Nick on a tour through his house and grounds and shows them all his possessions, even his shirts. Then he insists on Klipspringer to play the piano for them. K. plays “Ain´t We Got Fun,” and Nick leaves.
Then Nick gives us some information about who Gatsby really is. He was originally James Gatz, the son of farm people from North Dakota. After being dropped out from college Gatsby ended up on the south shore of Lake Superior earning money by digging clams and fishing for salmon. One day he saw the beautiful yacht of the millionaire Dan Cody and borrowed a rowboat to warn Cody of an impending storm. Cody took the seventeen-year-old boy on as steward, mate, and secretary. When Cody died he left the boy, now Jay Gatsby, a legacy of $25000 which the boy never got because of the jealousy of Cody´s mistress.
Daisy and Tom come to join one of Gatsby´s parties but both do not have a good time. Although Gatsby recognizes Daisy, he is increasingly frustrated by his inability to recreate the magic of their time together in Louisville five years ago. The affair between Daisy and Gatsby now comes out into the open. Tom, Daisy, Gatsby, Nick and Jordan all meet for lunch at the Buchanans and then decide to drive to New York. Tom, Nick and Jordan drive in Gatsby´s yellow Rolls Royce. The five arrive in the city where they rent a suite at the Placa Hotel. Tom, drunk by now, starts to attack Gatsby about his past and for his habbit of calling people “old sport”. Gatsby reacts by telling Tom that Daisy is going to leave him. They fight with words until Tom wins. Daisy will not go away with Gatsby. Tom sends Daisy and Gatsby home together knowing that he has nothing more to fear.
A couple of hours later Tom follows with Nick and Jordan. When they reach the valley of ashes, they see crowds of people and police cars. Myrtle Wilson was struck by a car coming from NY and the car had to be Gatsby´s yellow RR. When Nick gets back to East Egg, he finds Gatsby hiding outside the Buchanan’s house because he is in fear that Tom could hurt Daisy. Gatsby tells Nick that Daisy was driving, but that – of course – he will take the blame. Nick goes to work the next morning, but is too worried about Gatsby to stay in NY.
But when he arrives at Gatsby´s house he sees the body of his friend lying in the swimming pool and George Wilson´s body, revolver in hand, lies nearby on the grass. The crazed husband did spend the entire morning finding out the driver of the yellow RR. He found out before Nick did. Nick tries to phone Daisy and Tom but is told that they’ve left without leaving an address. When he calls Meyer Wolfheim he has similar results. Nick it, it seems, is Gatsby´s only friend. The news of Gatsby´s murder is printed in all newspapers all over America and so Mr. Gatz arrives for the funeral, which is only attended by Nick and three other persons. Mr. Gatz, who loves his son very much shows Nick a book that Jimmy owned as a boy. In this Gatsby has written a schedule for self-improvement: exercise, study, sport and work.
Disgusted and disillusioned by what he has experienced, Nick decides to leave NY and return to the Midwest. He ends his relationship with Jordan Baker and Tom Buchanan tells him, that it was he, Tom, who told Wilson where Gatsby lived. Before Nick leaves the East, he stands one more time on the beach near Gatsby´s house looking out at the green light that his friend had worshipped. Here he pays his final tribute to Gatsby and to the dream for which he lived – and died!
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