In The Great Gatsby Nick Carraway is not a reliable narrator. With reference to appropriately selected parts of the novel, and relevant external contextual material on narrators, give your response to the above view.
In The Great Gatsby, Fitzgerald’s main innovation was to introduce a first person narrator, Nick Carraway, whose consciousness filters the story’s events. A narrator can be defined as a person who narrates something, especially a character who recounts the events of a novel or narrative poem.
The concept of an unreliable narrator was first introduced by Wayne C. Booth, who defined an unreliable narrator as one whose credibility has been seriously compromised. Nick Carraway would certainly fit this description for many reasons. In examining why this is the case, a good place to start is how modernism influenced Fitzgerald’s choice of narrator.
Modernist novels often experiment with narrative structures, using methods such as an unreliable narrator, disrupted chronology and fragmentation of narrative. The Great Gatsby contains all of these elements, especially the unreliable narrator.
In the Victorian tradition that preceded the Modernist movement, a narrator was all-knowing, all-seeing, and often pronounced judgment of some kind in a story. Modernism makes a clear break from this, as is exemplified in The Great Gatsby. Nick Carraway speaks of viewing life through, “a single window.” This points out very clearly to the reader that the story presented in these pages is just one view from one person. The ‘single window’ we are about to look through is Nick’s mind, which suggests that his narration may be unreliable.
Fitzgerald is careful to present Nick as ordinary and flawed to further dispel the Victorian tendency to bestow omniscience upon a narrator, whose presentation begins within the very first few paragraphs of the story. Nick boldly states of himself, “I’m inclined to reserve all judgments.” Not long after that, Nick goes on to use words such as ”arrogant,” “supercilious,” and “cruel” to describe his cousin’s husband Tom, thus clearly passing (and expressing!) judgment. If Nick is going to tell us something about himself and then proceed to do just what he said he wouldn’t, it stands to reason that we are meant to receive the things he tells us with a proverbial grain of salt, always remembering we are looking through only one window. Throughout the novel, we see things only as Nick sees them, hear only as Nick hears, and we understand things only in the way Nick understands them. Making use of an imperfect and limited narrator helps Fitzgerald to express another foundational idea of Modernism – that reality and truth are relative and dependent upon perception. This proves that Nick is an unreliable narrator.
Further support for the idea that Nick is an unreliable narrator can be found when we consider that Fitzgerald uses what is called a moderated first person viewpoint. This means that although his narration is first person, it is partially based on accounts that have been given to him by others. Nick is not trustworthy, nor fully reliable: he oscillates with regards to details. Whenever Nick cannot obtain a first-hand version of facts, he does not hesitate to quote other sources. For instance, Gatsby’s love affair is told by Jordan Baker: “One October day in nineteen-seventeen—— (said Jordan Baker that afternoon…).” Nick reports her words but the problem is that she is said to be, “incurably dishonest”: how far can she be trusted? Nick is obliged to reconstruct an event through the collage of different testimonies. Nick uses his logical mind to come up with a definitive story as a result of words that have been filtered by different minds. That is why this first person viewpoint is modified: Nick can only rely on what he has been told. This modification calls his reliability into question.
We could also consider that Nick is completely biased towards Gatsby. Fitzgerald was by no means the first writer to use a biased and unreliable narrator – another early example of unreliable narration is Geoffrey Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales. In “The Merchant’s Tale” for example, the narrator, being unhappy in his marriage, allows his bias to slant much of his tale. This same bias is evident with Nick Carraway. Despite his promise against passing judgement, Nick proceeds to deliver a detailed judgment of Jay Gatsby, including the observation “there was something gorgeous about him, some heightened sensitivity to the promises of life.”
Nick seems completely biased towards Gatsby throughout the novel at the expense of a truthful narration; he skirts around the issue of his criminality and instead only writes about Gatsby’s strengths. Furthermore, Nick even describes Gatsby’s very thoughts in detail, such as when Gatsby and Daisy are reunited: “Sometimes, too, he stared around at his possessions in a dazed way, as though in her actual and astounding presence none of it was any longer real.” No matter how good Nick is at perceiving character, he cannot know another man’s thoughts and therefore we understand that much of what he says about Gatsby is Nick’s own interpretation of events.
Finally, we could consider that Nick’s reliability is compromised by alcohol at certain points, such as the party at Myrtle’s apartment: “I have been drunk just twice in my life, and the second time was that afternoon.” Since Nick was intoxicated, his perception of that night was distorted and therefore it is further proof that his narration is not reliable at certain points in the novel. In light of this, it perplexes me that anyone could claim that Nick is a reliable narrator.
Those that oppose my view claim that, for most of the novel at least, Nick Carraway is a fairly reliable narrator. There may be some merit to this opinion, especially if we consider that Nick seems to have higher moral standards than the rest of the characters. In chapter one he states, “I felt that I wanted the world to be in uniform and at a sort of moral attention forever.” Nick wishes to bring the moral order that he experienced during his time in the army to the debauchery of East America. Nick certainly presents himself as being of moral character: “Every one suspects himself of at least one of the cardinal virtues, and this is mine: I am one of the few honest people that I have ever known.” While other characters are having extra marital affairs and other immoral pleasures, Nick seems to remove himself from it. He has a certain moral standpoint which he maintains throughout his narration, this would suggest that he is a reliable narrator.
The claim that Nick Carraway is an unreliable narrator could also be contested when we consider that he is writing the story retrospectively. Nick does not grow or change as a character during the novel — because the growth has already occurred before he sat down to tell the tale. He tells the tale from the position of someone who has already examined his role and reaction, and come to forgone conclusions. “Gatsby turned out all right at the end” – this and other conclusions outlined by Nick in the first pages are borne out his telling of the story. Nick is in many ways a changed man since his time in the East, and this advantage of hindsight makes him a more reliable narrator.
Finally, it could be argued that Nick is a reliable narrator because he is the only character that recognises that the American Dream is flawed and he has the courage to move away from the East. In the closing chapter of the novel, Nick writes, “After Gatsby’s death the East was haunted for me like that, distorted beyond my eyes’ power of correction. So… I decided to come back home.” Nick claims that the Middle West is his true home, illustrating his nostalgia for home. The East, where he has been associated with for a while, represents materialism, corruption, and superficiality. However, this isn’t who Nick is and doesn’t want to be about this way of living. He claims the Midwest because it’s wholesome, innocent, and pure, all things Nick wants to be associated with. Unlike the rest of the characters, Nick is not drawn in by the American Dream and is able to objectively evaluate 1920s culture without being swayed by its many temptations, this increases his reliability as a narrator.
To conclude, after careful consideration we determine that Nick Carraway is indeed an unreliable narrator. Perhaps this unreliability on Nick’s behalf epitomises the society of America at the time in which the novel is set in, and emphasises how nothing could be trusted at face value. The opposing arguments have some merit but ultimately they fail to realise the true implications and context of The Great Gatsby.
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