The Great Gatsby Contents
Nick as narrator
A reluctant participant
The main narrative voice belongs to Nick Carraway, a character within the text who addresses an audience outside of the text. As he is within the fictional world of the text, he is an intradiegetic narrator. In terms of his involvement, Nick presents himself as an outsider, mostly observing the events of the main plot and the story of Jay Gatsby, without being instrumental in any of the action. He is directly involved in a smaller subplot, his romance with Jordan Baker, but even in this action, he is reticent and a little opaque in his account, and the events are minimal compared with the dramatic happenings surrounding Gatsby. In the final chapter, Nick directs the funeral arrangements for Gatsby, very much in the role of a reluctant helper. In this way, Nick shifts between the third person to the first person during the course of the novel, and is therefore sometimes a heterodiegetic (third person) narrator and sometimes a homodiegetic (first person) narrator.
Nick is an overt narrator, drawing attention to his presence in the text from the first chapter. However, he also gives the reader reason to question his reliability within the opening pages of the text, as he acknowledges his own contradictions:
This instability continues throughout the novel, and even in the final chapter, Nick comments that, ‘he’d never told me definitely that his parents were dead’ which contradicts his account of Gatsby’s words, in Chapter 4:
Nick often appears to be contradictory:
Such statements prompt the reader to search for the subtle and the complex meanings of Nick’s comments, and the opening chapter is very effective in prompting a ‘heightened sensitivity’ in the reader.
For most of the novel, Nick is generally presented as being more sober and rational than those around him, and therefore a more reliable narrator. (Gatsby is the most sober, having ‘formed the habit of letting liquor alone’, which Nick attributes to lessons learned from Dan Cody ‘the pioneer debauchee’.)
However, in Chapter 2, Nick’s narrative is particularly fragmented and disjointed which reflects his drunken state at the party in Tom’s flat in New York. Nick’s inebriation brings him to the same level of incoherence and inability to comprehend events as the other characters, thereby involving his audience in the same uncertainty. In this chapter, he is as confused as Myrtle, Tom, Catherine and the McKees, and, as the party becomes violent with Tom breaking Myrtle’s nose, he responds by leaving and his narrative becomes devoid of empathy. The connections between one event and another are also broken in this chapter, using ellipsis at the end to highlight the effect of discontinuity, creating a sense of an irrational and incomprehensible world where meaning is lost.
In the final chapter Jordan’s stinging criticism of Nick sees him accused of being a ‘bad driver’ i.e. neither honest nor straightforward. This is, of course, ironic, since she is also a ‘bad driver’ and described by Nick as ‘incurably dishonest’, but it further undermines the trust we might have reposed in his narration for most of the novel.
Nevertheless, compared with other characters, there is less reason to doubt Nick’s version of events; everyone else appears to be profoundly dishonest and untrustworthy, and even malicious in the case of Tom Buchanan.
Perhaps a good way to view Nick is in terms of his ambiguity in many of the key moments of the novel. Notably, his conversation with Tom is presented in vague language which is so slippery in its meanings that we cannot be certain what is being said. For example, what should be made of Nick’s statement?:
- On first reading, this implies that Nick challenged Tom directly, but there is no definite indication that he said anything at all
- The choice of ‘unutterable’ supports this second interpretation as the fact cannot be uttered, and perhaps is not
- Tom continues with his defence of himself, and Nick shakes hands with him, seeming to concede that Tom and Daisy are ‘careless people’, which is more consistent with Nick saying ‘nothing’.
Nick’s narration of events is, despite all these confusing moments, relatively unproblematic, but his interpretations and ideas are where he is most challenging to the reader. His comments on Gatsby’s dream, his ‘wonder’ and the human condition are profoundly enigmatic. For example:
He offers insights using quite abstract language, sometimes symbolic and sometimes religious:
As well as using the word ‘unutterable’ again (this time to modify ‘visions’), Nick also expresses a sense of loss, using language which emphasises the failure of language:
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