Essays /

Notes Essay

Essay preview

Title: Nick Carraway as an Unreliable Narrator
Author(s): Kent Cartwright
Publication Details: Papers on Language and Literature 20.2 (Spring 1984): p218-232. Source: Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism. Ed. Linda Pavlovski. Vol. 157. Detroit: Gale, 2005. From Literature Resource Center. Document Type: Critical essay

Bookmark: Bookmark this Document
Full Text: COPYRIGHT 2005 Gale, COPYRIGHT 2007 Gale, Cengage Learning [(essay date spring 1984) In the following essay, Cartwright discusses ways in which Nick Carraway is sometimes a confused or misleading narrator.] While I have met individuals whom I might describe as more Gatsby than Carraway, I have seldom met a critic I would so describe. As critics, we seem to cherish our disillusionment. Indeed, serious interest in The Great Gatsby, according to Richard Foster, was launched by a generation of neoclassical and formalist critics who tended to believe in the final, tough truth of existence imaged in the thinning possibility and thinning joy of Nick's lugubrious moral retreat. As a consequence, traditional estimates of The Great Gatsby have grown up around the dual assumptions that Nick speaks for his author and that the novel's mission is an essentially straightforward criticism of the American Dream.1 Furthermore, because something about Nick's "midwesternism" seems deeply personal to Fitzgerald, critics have tended not to distinguish between either the narrator and his author or the narrator and his novel. Nick's vision, however, is not identical to Fitzgerald's, or at least to the novel's, for Nick is capable of being an unreliable narrator at moments that are crucial to the story's development. Indeed, in exactly the same ways that Nick may be a flawed character, he is also sometimes a confused, misleading, or inaccurate teller of his tale. In the last two decades, critical acceptance of Nick's judgments has yielded to some disenchantment with the narrator and his moral actions. His detractors have described him variously (and perhaps excessively) as a defunct archpriest, panderer, prig, spiritual bankrupt, hypocrite, and "moral eunuch"--a man capable of neither assertive action nor self-knowledge.2 Even those congenial to Carraway's views speak of his "inhibitions and lack of boldness," his failure of self-awareness, and his fear of commitment. To many readers, moreover, the hopelessness of Nick's final vision seems somehow to betray his story.3 Part of that dissatisfaction arises from Nick's moral withdrawal to the Middle West of his past, while a related response argues that the dream lives beyond Gatsby's death and that a "gleam of hope" is left the reader at the end, a hope perhaps inspired by the very limitations of Nick's consciousness.4 Recent critics, that is, have begun to see Gatsby's story differently from the way Nick would have us see it. To pose such possibilities, however, is to tamper with accepted notions about the novel's integrity, for some defenders of Nick have argued that "the book makes no sense--if Carraway is repudiated."5 Yet the limitations of Nick's character do have narrative consequences, for Nick sometimes sees only part of a meaning that a scene carries, sometimes shifts ground perplexingly, and sometimes even strains "judgments" out of inconclusive evidence. To accuse Nick of such faults might sound idiosyncratic and even churlish. After all, Nick is the novel's lone moral consciousness; only he sees the richness of meaning--the ineffable dream and its foul wake--in the events on Long Island that summer. But some readers argue that Nick's vision is "limited" and that Fitzgerald intended no simple identification either between the narrator and himself or the narrator and his reader; others have begun to discover differing, sometimes conflicting narrative "voices" in Nick.6 In addition, Nick develops a peculiar rigidity during the course of the novel. Concurrently, as Nick reveals a growing determination to perceive events in a fixed way, his flights of responsive imagination diminish. After chapter 6 the novel darkens. One explanation for this is that the romantic and mythic context gives way to the social and economic.7 The darkening tone, then, proceeds in part from Nick's evolving consciousness, a staking out of his moral terrain of lost possibility. The two narrative movements are simultaneous: Nick's emerging weaknesses as a narrator parallel his progressively constricted vision, as if the truths Nick affirms are not exactly the truths of his fable. Nick's final disillusionment, that is, derives as much from his own moral dimness, his passivity, and his exaggerated gentility as it does from the facts of Gatsby's life; correspondingly, those qualities sometimes compromise the narration, altering, even from moment to moment, the response--empathy or removal, acceptance or doubt--that his telling draws from the reader. Such a view of Nick's weaknesses must challenge the traditional assumption that Nick generally doubles for Fitzgerald. It might, indeed, reveal that Nick's closing asceticism is more a preference than an imperative, that his assessment of the dream is not conclusive, and that the novel is far more open-ended than some critics have suggested. Almost from the beginning, the narration invites readers to feel subtle distinctions between representation and explanation. This divergence is a characteristic of the novel's narrative style and is repeated variously throughout the story. The technique has the advantage of economy; it gives readers two types of impressions: one created through descriptions of places, things, and events, and another created by Nick's responses and reflections. The pattern exhibits itself, for example, in Daisy's story of the butler's nose and her comparison of Nick to an absolute rose. "I'll tell you a family secret," she whispered enthusiastically. "It's about the butler's nose. Do you want to hear about the butler's nose? ... Well, he wasn't always a butler; he used to be the silver polisher for some people in New York that had a silver service for two hundred people. He had to polish it from morning till night, until finally it began to affect his nose.""I love to see you at my table, Nick. You remind me of a--of a rose, an absolute rose. Doesn't he?" She turned to Miss Baker for confirmation: "An absolute rose?"8 In the first instance, Daisy's anecdote is trivial and insipid, clearly anticlimactic to the preparation she makes; in the second her comparison is ridiculous and insincere, camouflaging her real preoccupation. But in both cases, Nick is captivated by Daisy's vibrant beauty: "For a moment the last sunshine fell with romantic affection upon her glowing face; her voice compelled me forward breathlessly as I listened" (14); "She was only extemporizing, but a stirring warmth flowed from her, as if her heart was trying to come out to you concealed in one of those breathless, thrilling words" (15). In each example, the narration creates two effects, the first through the structure of incidents--such as the thrown napkin and abrupt departure with which Daisy disposes of her interest in absolute roses--and the second through Nick's mesmerization before her shining face and the feverish modulations of her voice. But the two effects judge Daisy oppositely: the one with distance, the other with engagement. This is not to say that Nick fails to recognize that Daisy is as childish as she is womanly, rather that the response he emphasizes reveals only one-half the way the scene dramatizes her. To acknowledge such distinctions is already to put the reader at some critical remove from the narrator. An example of Nick's inordinate responses occurs in chapter 4 during his automobile ride with Gatsby to New York (64-69). Fitzgerald's aim in this scene is to create that ambivalence fundamental to the novel by deepening our fascination with the mystery of Gatsby, even though Gatsby teeters on the edge of the ridiculous. One technique Fitzgerald employs is to preserve a kernel of actual or even metaphoric truth in each of Gatsby's falsehoods: he was educated, at least for a few months, at Oxford; he did inherit a "good deal of money" from his spiritual father, Dan Cody, ...

Read more


-15 -16 -23 -232 -25 -27 -36 -39 -41 -43 -44 -46 -50 -55 -57 -60 -65 -66 -67 -69 -76 -82 -84 -85 -95 -97 /ps/ 1 10 108 11 111 112 116 117 12 120 13 131 137 14 142 145 148 15 150 157 159 162 164 165 166 17 170 172 173 175 176 178 18 181 187 192 1920 1925 193 1953 1954 1955 1956 1957 1958 1961 1965 1966 1967 1968 1970 1971 1974 1975 1977 1979 1981 1984 2 20.2 2005 2007 2011 211 213 214 218 223 241 245 25 26 28 288 29 2nd 3 334 339 34 351 37 38 4 40 41 43 47 5 50 54 57 6 62 64 65 66 67 68 69 7 70 8 83 9 91 92 93 94 95 96 97 abandon about-fac abrupt absolut absorpt abstracted absurd accept accord accuraci accus achiev acknowledg across act action actual addit address adjust admir admiss adolesc adriat advantag adventur advic aesthet affect affin affirm affirms.14 afternoon age agit agn aim aldridg aliv alli allow almost alon along alreadi also alter altern alto alway ambigu ambival america american among amount anecdot angri ann annual anoth answer anticlimact anticlimax antoinett apart apolog apotheosi appar appeal appear appli approach arbit arbor arch archpriest argonn argu aris armor around arous art ascetic ash ask assert assess assumpt assur astonish astound astro atavist attach attain attend attent attitud attract audienc aura authent author automobil avenu awar away awkward back baker balanc bankrupt bare barri battl beatitud beauti becom bedroom began begin begun behalf belief believ benson best betray betsi better bewilder bewley beyond big blith bloom blue blur bodi boi bold bona bond book bookmark booth boredom boulogn brand brandish breach breathless breed bright brilliant bring broken brom bruccoli brush buchanan built buri burial burk butler c calam calif call callous camaraderi came camouflag canal cannot canva capabl capac capit capitul captain captiv car carbondal card care career careless caricatur carlisl carlo carraway carri cartwright case castl casual catherin caus cautious cave celebr cengag centenni center centerpiec centuri ceremoni certain cf chagrin challeng chang chapel chapter charact characterist charl charm chase cheat cheek cherish chest chicago childish chin choic choke churlish citat cite citi clan clarifi clark class clear clich cliché cliff close closest cloth cloud codi collect colleg colo color coloss combat come comic command commensur comment commentari commit common communic companion companionship compar comparison compel complac complet compound compris compromis comradeship conceal conclus concret concurr condit confirm conflict confus congeni conjunct connect conscious consciousness.4 consequ consid consist conspiraci constrict consum consumm contain contempl contest context contextu contradictori contrari convent convers convinc cool copi copyright corner correct correl correspond corval could couldn count counter counter-stat counterpoint countervail courag cours craft creat creatur credibl credul cri crimin crimson crimson-light critic crucial culmin curious cynic d daisi dan dark darken date day dayton daze de dead deal dearer death deathless decad decenc deck declar decor deepen deepli defeat defend defens defianc defunct degre delic deliv demonstr departur deplet depth derail deriv describ descript deserv desol despit destroy detach detail determin detractor detroit develop dialect didn die differ dim diminish diminut direct disabl disagre disappoint disbelief discomfort disconcert discord discov discreet discuss disenchant disillusion disloc dismiss disord disparag display dispos disproportion disprov dissatisfact disson distanc distant distinct distinguish distrust diverg divis division dock document doesn door doubl doubt dozen drama dramat draw drawn dream dream.1 dream.10 dreamer dri dual dull e ear earlier earthquak eas east echo economi economic.7 ecstasi ed edg educ effect effort either elabor element elmor embarrass emerg emma emmet emot empathi emphas employ enchant enclos end endur engag englewood english ennobl enter enthusiast entitl entri episod equal eras ernest erot essay essenc essenti establish estim ether eunuch europ evan evas eve even event ever everi everyth evid evok evolv exact exagger exalt exampl except excess excit exhibit exhilar exist expect experi explain explan expos expound express extempor extern extinct extraordinarili extrem f fabl face facil fact factor fail failur faint fairi fairyland fairyland.9 faith fall fals falsehood famili familiar fantas fantasi far fascin fastidi father fault fear feather feb feel fell fellow felt feudal feverish fiction fide fifth filter final find fine finish fire firmer first first-person fitzgerald fitzgerald/hemingway five fix flame flaw flight flimsiest flock flood flow flower fluctuat flush folklor follow forc forearm forest forev forgotten form form.13 formal formalist forth fortun forward foster foul found fragil frame francisco frazer fred fresh friend friendship front fulfil full fulli function fundament funer furthermor futil gale gangster garag garden gari gather gatsbi gave general generat generos genial gentil genuin german get ghost girlfriend give glanc glass gleam glitterati gloom glori glorifi glow gnaw go gold gold-turn golden goneggt good good-bi got govern gradual grammat grand grasp gray gray-turn great green grew gross ground grow grown guest gun h habitu hadn hair half half-back half-truth hand hang happen happi hard harden hastili haunt hay heap hear heart height held help hemingway henc hereaft hero hesit hilar hill hindus hint hold hole honey hope hopeless hour hous howev human humor hundr hyman hypocrit ident identif identifi idiosyncrat idyl ill illus illustr imag imageri imagin immedi immens immin imper implicit import impress impression imprison inabl inaccur incap incess incid incomplet inconclus incongru inconsist increas incred incredul inde independ indiffer individu ineff ineffectu inevit inextinguish infantri infirm influenc inhabit inherit inhibit initi inordin insid insignia insincer insipid inspir instanc instead instinct insul integr intellectu intend intens intent inter interest interior interlud intern interpret intimaci intric introduct invit iron ironi irrelev irresolut island isol j jackson jame john jordan journal journey joy jr judg judgment judici justic juxtapos kenneth kent kernel key kind klipspring know knowledg known l lack languag lans laocoön larg last late latent later lather laughter launch lavend lawrenc lay lead leak learn least leav left leg legend lehan len less let lewi lewisburg lie life light like likeabl limit linda lisca listen literari literatur littl live ll local lockridg lone loneli long longer look los lose lost love lover low lucid lugubri lump machin machine-gun made magazin magic major make malic man manag mani manipul manner mansion mari marius mask master matter matthew matz may mckee mean measur medal mediterranean melancholi memor men mere mesmer messag met metaphor mich middl midwestern might mile milton miracl miscegen misjudg mislead misrepres miss mission mix mode modern modul moment momentarili money mont montenegro month moral moreov morn motorcycl move movement mr much murmur music must myrtl mysteri mystifi myth mythic n n.c n.j n.y naivet name napkin narrat nascent neither neoclass nerv never new next nick nick.6 night none nose note noth notic notion novel numb numin object obscen observ occas occur odd odor ohio oliv one one-half open open-end opinion opposit ore origin ornstein other otherwis outrun outset outsid over-dream overdream overhead overt overwhelm owner oxford p p218 pa page palac pander paper parallel part parti partial particip particular pass passag passiv past pastich pastor pathet patriot pattern pavlovski pay peculiar peopl perceiv percept perfect perhap period perosa perplex person perspect peter phenomena phrase pictur piec pile pink place plausibl play plead pleasant ploy pocket point policeman polish pore portrait pose posit possess possibl postern power pp preced prefer preoccup prepar presenc present preserv presumpt pretens price pride prig probe problem proceed profess progress promis promot proprieti proprietor protean prove psych psychic psycholog public pull pulley pulp punctur pursu push put qualiti quarter question quit r racism rain rajah rapid rather rationalist react reaction read reader real realist realiti realiz realli reassur recal reced recent recogn redeem reduc reduct refer reflect regist reinforc rejoind relat remain remark rememb remind reminisc remot remov render reorient repeat repertoir repres represent repudi resent resid resist resolut reson resourc respond respons restless restor restrain retreat return reunion reunit reveal revel reveng reverber revers review rhapsod rhetor rich richard ride ridicul right rigid ring rise ritual river road road-hous robert roll romanc romant room rose rpt rubi ruinat rumbl rush ruth sad safe said salon san sarcast satisfact satisfactorili saw sawdust say scene scenic scorn scott scrimgeour scrutin sea second secret section see seed seek seem seen seldom self self-awar self-compromis self-contradictori self-creat self-introduct self-knowledg self-serv sens sensibl sensit sensual sent sentenc sentiment sentimentalist sequenc sequenti sergeant sergio serious serv servic set set-piec sever sewane shadow shake shallow sham shame shapiro sheep sheer shift shine shirt short show side signific silhouett silk silver similar simpl simpli simultan sinc singl singular sinist sink sixteen skeptic skim skin sklar sky sleuth slip smash smile smoulder sob social societi soft solidar solitud somebodi somehow someth sometim song sophist sort sound sourc southern speak special spellbound spiritu spring st stafford stake stallman stanc standard stardust stare state statement stay steadi steadili stem step stern still stir stop store stori story.3 storybook straightforward strain strang strength strongest structur studi stum stum-someth stumbl stupid style subject submerg submers subsequ substanti subtl subtlest subvert succeed sudden sugar suggest summar summer sumptuous sunset sunshin sure surpris surrog surround surviv suscept suspect sustain swallow swath swing switch symbol tabl tableau take tale talk tamper techniqu teeter tell teller temporarili ten tend tenenbaum terrain text textur thank thin thing think third thirti though thought thousand thousandfold threadbar three thrill throughout thrown thunder thus tickl tiger till time tion titl togeth tom tone took toppl touch tough tour toward tradit tran transcend transform transport travel tri trip tripl trivial trophi true truth truth.11 tug tumbl turban turn twelv twentieth twentieth-centuri twilight two tympan type ultim unachiev unchang undercut undergo understand undertow unfeel unimport unison unknow unlik unprosper unreal unreason unreli unsettl unstabl upon upper urbana url us use utter valu vanish various vast verg version veteran vibrant view viewpoint visibl vision visionari visit vital vitiat vivid voic vol w wake wall wallet want war warm warmth washington wasn wast watch way wayn weak wealth web weber well went west whatev whether whisper white whole wholli whose wild william wilson window wipe wisdom wish wit withdraw within without wolfsheim woman women won wonder word work world worldli worn would wouldn wretch wri write year yet yield york young youth