In, The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald, the story is brought to us through a “flawed” narrator, Nick Carraway. It is through his eyes and ears that we form our opinions of the other characters. This makes the audience blind to any discrimination or bias he might have towards the other characters; so Fitzgerald knowingly tries to establish Nick as a trust worthy source. This is important because our only descriptions of Gatsbys character come from Nick.
In The Great Gatsby, Nick goes to some length to establish his credibility, including 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 moral advantages. Nick wants the reader to know that his upbringing gave him the moral foundation with which to withstand and pass judgment on an immoral world, such as the one he has observed in his stay in the East (New York). 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 that we can trust this narrator to give us an even-handed insight to the story that is about to unfold, but we later learn that he neither reserves all judgments nor does his tolerance reach its limit.
He admits early into the story, for example, 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 tolerance, 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. For example, Nick overlooks the moral failures of Gatsby’s bootlegging, his association with speakeasies, and his liaison with Meyer Wolfsheim yet, he is contemptuous of Jordan Baker for cheating in a mere golf game. And though he says that he’s 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 says that his one “cardinal virtue” is that he’s “one of the few honest people” he has ever known. When it comes to women (or possible girlfriends) not only are they judged, they are measured up against his own virtues as well. To understand Nick’s values one must know his origins.
Nick leaves the Mid-West after he returns home from WWI, understandably restless and at odds with the traditional and 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 makes him decide to go East, to New York and learn about bonds. After a summer in the East, he decides to go back home to the security of what is familiar and traditional. He seeks a return to the safety of a place where houses we referred to by the names of families that had inhabited them for generations. By this stage, the East has become for him the “grotesque” origins of his nightmares.
Don’t we perhaps feel a little let down that Nick runs away from his experience in the East in much the same way that he has run away from that “tangle back home” to whom he writes letters and signs “with love”, but doesn’t really mean it? This is truly an ironic action on the part of Nick, who is still trying to establish his honesty. Is it unfair to want more from this narrator, to show some kind of development in his emotional make-up? His return home suggests a retreat from life and kind of emotional regression.
There aren’t very many emotions in The Great Gatsby. 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 squalor not just in the Valley of Ashes, but right there beneath the thin veneer of the luxury 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 Midwest- all dead now, The truth of his origins doesn’t matter to Gatsby; what matters to him is being part of Daisy’s world or Daisy being part of his. Gatsby’s sense of what is true and real is of an entirely other order to Nick’s. If Nick were motivated by truth, then Gatsby would still be poor Jay Gatz chasing a hopelessly futile dream.
In Gatsby’s dream, time has literally stopped. This is symbolized by his catching of the mantle clock when he’s first reunited with Daisy. Gatsby thinks, he and Daisy are as they were before the war; unfortunately that’s his biggest flaw and ultimately his undoing. Gatsby’s dream is to reach the green light at the end of Daisy’s dock, but he fails to see that dream is no longer a possibility after he has met Daisy. His own ability to dream is Gatsbys ultimate downfall, as he cannot let his dream go, even after its death.
And so the American dream dies with Gatsby and the only person who notices is an emotionally insecure, young Midwestern bond broker who will now return home to hide. Nick’s admiration for Gatsby still remains because he has accomplished what Nick had hoped to do. Yet it is this same admiration, which fogs a true picture of Gatsby. Thus, leaving Gatsby as another innocent victim of the cruel and destructive nature of the East. When it was Gatsby’s own love-blinded judgment which gets him into trouble, and even a dilemma with the law as in the phone calls Nick gets after Gatsby’s death. And so Fitzgerald has brought to us the purpose of his novel.
When an author creates an unconventional narrator, as he has done with Nick, it draws attention to the story as fiction. 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. The realism comes from the fact the majority of humans are flawed and bias in ways that many times, they cannot realize, such as Nick.