This is an essay about the character and function of Nick Carraway. Despite the title, Nick Carraway is the first character we meet, and appropriately his role in The Great Gatsby is crucial; without him the story would lack balance and insight. The first chapter is primarily dedicated in establishing his personality and position in the book, then moving on to Tom and Daisy. Nick is our‘ guide, path finder’ in The Great Gatsby; he relates the story as he has seen it and from what others have told him. He strives at all times to be objective, his comments are balanced, as he says just in the first page of the book–‘ I’m inclined to reserve all judgements’. His objectivity is reinforced throughout to us by his scorn of Gatsby– he thoroughly disapproves of him– he‘ represented everything for which I have unaffected scorn’. Yet there is something–‘ some heightened sensitivity to the promises of life’,‘ an extraordinary gift for hope’ that is attractive to Nick, and requires him to make several attempts at describing it. He registers contempt for much of what Gatsby stands for– the falseness, the criminality, but still he likes him. His ability to laugh at Gatsby and his false airs‘ What was that? . . . The picture of Oxford?’ shows he’s neither charmed nor wholly disgusted by Gatsby. Nick sees him as the best of a‘ rotten crowd’, his approval is always relative– compared to Tom and Daisy his dream like innocence is attractive, though twisted into an impossible goal and only nearly achieved by criminality. But compared to Tom’s ruthless attitude to Myrtle and Wilson, Daisy’s careless abandonment of Gatsby and ultimately their complete inability to see their wrong–‘ if you think I didn’t have my share of suffering . . . I sat down and cried like a baby’– put Gatsby in a much fairer light. As Nick says, Gatsby was‘ worth the whole damn bunch put together’.
His amusingly contemptuous remarks show his sense of humour, and although he is straight-laced, we are not bored by him. We are told of his age– thirty, which makes us take his opinions seriously, as he is not some immature unworldly man.
Nick is introduced directly, but Gatsby remains a distant character for a good while. The establishment of Nick’s reflective, tolerant personality is essential, as are his limitations, so we don’t just dismiss him as Fitzgerald’s mouthpiece. The fact that he disapproves of Gatsby so early on, helps us to go along with his judgements when he tells us of Gatsby and unfolds the story. Our first mysterious glimpse of Gatsby prepares us for much of what is to come. The imagery of‘ silhouette’,‘ moonlight’, and‘ shadow’ in this passage prepare us for Gatsby’s shadowy, dark character. Many more of his actions will appear to us and Nick as‘ curious’, the fact he is‘ trembling’ shows he is intense in his emotions– and none of this is for show, Gatsby believes he is alone. His concentration on the‘ single green light’ represents his determination to succeed, his constant drive, all to be with Daisy. He then vanishes just as we are becoming acquainted with him from a distance, echoing the end of the book.
The mystery surrounding Gatsby before we meet him adds to his charm. It is similar to the beginning of Shakespeare’s‘ Othello’, we get many different stories and names for him–‘ bootlegger’;‘ nephew or cousin of Kaiser Wilhelm’s’;‘ something funny about a fellow who’d do that’;‘ regular Belasco’ and‘ I’ll bet he killed a man’. This forces us, in effect, to‘ reserve all judgement’. It would be difficult to introduce Gatsby as candidly as Nick, for we would almost certainly disapprove of him. That’s the drive in this book, to find out the truth about Gatsby because, like Nick, we are sceptical of what he says or what is said about him. Nick is unlike the other characters of the book; he is not one of the‘ careless people’. He has a conscience, he is not selfish– he has decency, which is well demonstrated in his efforts for Gatsby’s funeral. His down to earth character shows how superficial Daisy and Tom are. Tom and Daisy are ruthlessly practical, where Gatsby is a hopeless dreamer. Nick guides us between these two extremes, a detached observer whilst being involved in the action–‘ I was within and without, simultaneously enchanted and repelled by the inexhaustible variety of life’.
His aim to be truthful and objective makes the reader trust him. When he says Gatsby has a‘ rare smile with a quality of eternal reassurance in it’ we know Nick isn’t being charmed by his riches or parties; but is telling it to us straight. His contempt for much of what Gatsby says, but also Nick’s tolerance, is emphasised when Nick doesn’t mock him– ‘ “I lived . . . trying to forget something very sad that had happened to me long ago.” With an effort I managed to restrain my incredulous laughter’. We trust Nick to judge what is genuine about Gatsby and what is more of his romanticising.
We have no choice but to identify with Nick, the other characters lack the dimension for us to trust them, which is what Fitzgerald is trying to demonstrate. Seeing Gatsby through Nick’s eyes we sympathise for him and his unattainable life long dream, without Nick we could perceive Gatsby as a corrupt mad man trying to disrupt an old girlfriend’s life. This would not be the whole truth, and not what Fitzgerald would want us to see.
While clearly Gatsby is the focus of the book– and what he stands for– hope, romance, the twisted American Dream; there is an argument for saying Nick is the main character. Gatsby doesn’t speak till the third chapter, and he dies after three-quarters of the book. This is of course the only way Gatsby can go, his whole life was Daisy and his dreams, and as he failed there is no future for him. His unbalanced obsession left no room for anything else in his life. Nick is the more in depth character– as practically every part of the story is related to us with his thoughts and his perceptions, it is hard for him not to be. He is the character we leave the story feeling we understand and we support his actions and judgements, unlike Gatsby. He is the narrator, but his involvement in the events, no matter how much he tries to stay objective, make a difference. He gets drunk at the party, falls in love with Jordan– the skill of Fitzgerald is to establish Nick as a character in his own right, not just Fitzgerald’s mouthpiece.
Bibliography Edited Turnbull: Letters of F Scott Fitzgerald 1958