Disclaimer: This post will obviously contain spoilers. If you haven’t done so, read the book (it’s super short, it won’t take you long), then return and we shall discuss.
Page numbers are taken from the 2004 Scribner paperback edition.
I have put off writing this post because I was entertaining the notion of drawing cute little pictures of all the characters to accompany their respective posts. I had forgotten one sad, simple truth, which is that I am not an artist even on my best day, and today I get a free pass by virtue of being sick. So, here we go.
Before we talk about characters, we need to address this question of likeability. One of the main complaints about The Great Gatsby is that none of the characters likeable. Can we just get away from that concept? I think that by assuming that all characters need to be likeable, we ignore all the rich complexity of characters who aren’t exactly shining specimens of humanity, and what they can teach us about who we are and who we don’t want to be. It’s okay to dislike a character such as Daisy Buchanan, in fact, you’re probably supposed to, but instead of using that as a criticism for the book, let’s look at why she’s unlikeable and what message her unlikeableness might be conveying, okay?
Nick Carraway, as mentioned in the previous post, is the narrator of The Great Gatsby. And for the role of non-protagonist narrator, you couldn’t ask for a better character than Nick. When you think about it, he doesn’t really do a whole lot. For a protagonist, that would be insufferable, but his role being what it is, it’s perfect. In fact, I could do a whole post on Fitzgerald’s decision to make Nick the narrator of Gatsby, but for now let’s just focus on who he is as a character.
Nick’s role as narrator requires that he have a lot of people tell him some pretty personal stuff, and to complicate matters further, he has just met these people. But Fitzgerald sets this up on the first page.
In consequence, I am inclined to reserve all judgements, a habit that has opened up many curious natures to me and also made me the victim of not a few veteran bores. The abnormal mind is quick to attach itself to this quality when it appears in a normal person, and so it came about that in college I was unjustly accused of being a politician, because I was privy to the secret griefs of wild, unknown men. (1)
I feel you, Nick, even though I don’t reserve judgements at all, I violently judge inside my head.
So now we have an explanation for why all of these people are going to open up to Nick: he is the kind of person people open up to. And because we have all met those people who we immediately pour out our life stories to and then think, “Why on earth did I tell them all of that?” and because some of us even are those people, we accept it.
As for background on Nick, he grew up in the Midwest. His family has money, and they got their money because Nick’s great-uncle paid a substitute to fight in the Civil War so that he could stay home and make money. (Spoiler alert: none of the rich people in this novel are rich because they worked hard and were completely honest in everything they did).
Nick graduated college, went off to war, came back, decided that home was incredibly dull, and went to New York to sell bonds because everyone he knew was in the bond business. Something really interesting to discuss about Nick Carraway is that, here, on page 3, we already get a sense that he is not a decisive character. Not only does he choose his career based on what everyone else is doing, but we further read:
All my aunts and uncles talked it over as if they were choosing a prep school for me, and finally said, “Why–ye-es,” with very grave, hesitant faces. Father agreed to finance me for a year…
And this isn’t just because he’s under the influence of some kind of domineering family. Nothing changes in New York. There are a lot of examples, but just for one:
“Hold on,” I said, “I have to leave you here.”
“No, you don’t,” interposed Tom quickly. “Myrtle’ll be hurt if you don’t come up to the apartment. won’t you, Myrtle?”
“Come on,” she urged. “I’ll telephone my sister Catherine. She’s said to be very beautiful by people who ought to know.”
“Well I’d like to, but–”
We went on, cutting back again over the Park towards the West Hundreds. (28)
He doesn’t even finish voicing his argument, and they just keep driving to the apartment. That’s how Nick moves through the events in the novel. He is just sort of swept along by it all. In fact–and please correct me in the comments if I’m wrong–I’m fairly certain that in all the driving scenes in Gatsby, Nick is always a passenger, never once does he drive. And I think that is a very subtle way of showing that Nick is just carried along by these events. In fact, in the most intense scenes, Nick all but fades away completely.
At the end of the novel, Nick calls Tom and Daisy “careless people.” That is obviously true, but I have begun to wonder if Nick is not himself somewhat careless as well. Could he have changed what happened if he had refused to participate in certain things, if he had said something or done something at a few well-chosen moments? Could it be that he bears some responsibility for what happened that summer?
And yet, when he tried to say something, when he tried to warn Gatsby that “You can’t repeat the past,” Gatsby dismisses his warning. So it could be that Nick wouldn’t have made any difference, even if he hadn’t kept his mouth shut so much of the time. And yet, by trying, he would have definitively absolved himself of any possible guilt.
This opinion of Nick Carraway was born as I read through the novel in preparation for this series of posts. It’s different, much harsher, than the opinion of him I had held in past readings. I had always liked Nick for his witty, somewhat-sarcastic, always honest voice. But this time, I felt like he was an accomplice to everyone in all of this, and it made my stomach hurt. Just when my respect for him was at an all-time low, I came to what has always been one of my favourite interactions in the novel, on page 154.
We shook hands, and I started away. Just before I reached the hedge I remembered something and turned around.
“They’re a rotten crowd,” I shouted across the lawn. “You’re worth the whole damn bunch put together.”
I’ve always been glad I said that. It was the only compliment I ever gave him, because I disapproved of him from beginning to end. First he nodded politely, then his face broke into that radiant and understanding smile, as if we’d been in ecstatic cahoots on that fact all the time.
I’ve always been glad Nick said that, too. As much as Nick disapproves of Gatsby, he disapproves of him a lot less than he disapproves of Tom or Daisy or even Jordan. And that’s because he and Gatsby share something, which we’ll talk about at the end of this post.
It is after Gatsby’s death that Nick really redeemed himself, for me. After an entire novel of going along with things, he suddenly springs into action and takes initiative. He separates himself from the rest of the careless people in this novel by feeling responsibility.
…it grew on me that I was responsible, because no one else was interested–interested, I mean, with that intense personal interest to which every one has some vague right at the end. (164)
No one else in the novel, not Daisy, not Klipspringer, not Wolfsheim, not the hundreds of guests he entertained, feels even a twinge of responsibility for Gatsby. Only Nick Carraway, who had known him for exactly one summer. It is Nick who takes responsibility for the funeral, for contacting people, for talking with Gatsby’s father and telling him that he and Gatsby were close friends.
Tom and Daisy abruptly pick up and drift from place to place in their lives, but Nick doesn’t leave New York until he has made everything right with everybody, including Jordan Baker. When he goes to see her for the last time, she says something that has always struck me as interesting for Fitzgerald to have included:
“You said a bad driver was only safe until she met another bad driver? Well, I met another bad driver, didn’t I? I mean it was careless of me to make a wrong guess. I thought you were a rather honest, straightforward person. I thought it was your secret pride.” (177)
It’s funny, because just a chapter or so later, I would have agreed with Jordan that, yes, Nick is a careless person. Because certainly reckless driving is careless, but so is sitting in the middle of the road waiting for other cars to smash into you. But after all that Nick has done to make things right, even the fact that he has stopped to see Jordan before leaving, he doesn’t deserve that judgement. At least, not in my opinion. So this quote has always made me stop and wonder. What do you think?
Let’s talk briefly about what Nick and Gatsby have in common. They share that capacity for hope. We touched on that in the previous post. This gift for hope sets them apart from the other, rather more cynical characters in the novel. We know what Gatsby believes in, but what does Nick believe in? Nick believes in Gatsby.
“Anything can happen now that we’ve slid over this bridge,” I thought; “anything at all…”
Even Gatsby could happen, without any particular wonder. (69)
Nick wants to believe in Gatsby because Gatsby represents all of that promise and possibility. Gatsby’s story appears to be the the ultimate example of the American Dream, and to believe in Gatsby is to believe in that.
I love this:
Tom glanced around to see if we mirrored his disbelief, but we were all looking at Gatsby. (129)
Everyone wants to believe in Gatsby. We would much rather believe in the Gatsbys of the world than the Tom Buchanans–even if the Tom Buchanans are right.
Nick eventually learns the entire truth of Gatsby’s past that he had so carefully reinvented, and yet, his faith in Gatsby continues, even as he insists that he “disapproved of him from beginning to end.” Nick disapproves of what Gatsby has done, but admires whole-heartedly the “incorruptible dream” that he represents. (When we talk about Gatsby, we’ll talk about this in a lot more detail.)
In the end, Nick slips into first person plural, linking himself–and all of us–to Gatsby’s dream.
Gatsby believed in the green light, the orgastic future that year by year recedes before us. It eluded us then, but that’s no matter–to-morrow we will run faster, stretch out our arms farther…And one fine morning—-
So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past. (180)
My opinions have changed so much through the writing of this post, and I’ve tried my best to link it all coherently. Still, I’d love to hear what you think! Please let me know your take in the comments. By all means, write me an essay! I really want to hear other people’s input on this, as I’m still on the fence on a few points.