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
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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, ...