10 Books of Summer: The Great Gatsby- Both Within and Without

“Reserving judgements is a matter of infinite hope.”

When I first read The Great Gatsby a few years ago, I thought that Fitzgerald had somehow failed with his narration technique. I had just read Wuthering Heights where the story is told in two layers of first person, and neither of the narrators played any part in proceedings. Nick Carraway is not that calibre of narrator- he’s a real person. Of course, later on, when I returned to the book, I realised that he was actually my favourite part.

Nick is a young man lured to New York with promises of wealth. He’s good-hearted- he’s grown up on lessons his parents have taught him. He lives modestly, he doesn’t drink much, and in the time when he’s not following the drama of his rich neighbours, he tells us that he’s usually at work, studying, or eating in solitude at the Yale Club.

Questions today to think about:

-how did you feel about Fitzgerald’s use of Nick as a narrative device? Was it fair? Was it effective? Could the story have been told better by someone else?

-did you like Nick? Did you relate to him? Did you understand him?

-What attributes of Nick’s were the most important in the course of the story?

The Watcher

“I was within and without, simultaneously enchanted and repelled by the inexhaustible variety of life.”

Nick watches. Nick sits quietly and watches the world go by. This is his most prominent characteristic throughout the book. Nick is a drifter, he drifts into New York, he goes along with Tom or Gatsby or Daisy or whoever it might be. He ends up courting Jordan Baker without knowing quite how. One of the most defining moments for me was in the hotel room just before the car accident was where, after all the action and arguing, Nick pipes up that it’s his birthday. He has just turned thirty, and he didn’t even remember. He was too busy being involved with the lives of others to even really care about himself. And unfortunately in New York, nobody else really cares about him.

The idea of Nick being “within and without” is one that he thinks up himself. In a way, it remains true throughout the novel, he is still telling other people’s stories, he still never quite fitted in with the sparkling New York set. But in a way, it also changes. At that first party at Myrtle’s secret love-flat, Nick was certainly both, he didn’t want to be there, felt how out-of-place he was and yet remained, and drank, and was somehow also a part of that world. By the end, it feels different, it feels as if he is fully within, until you tilt your head and feel that he is still outside. He has been here the whole time, involved in all the drama, sometimes facilitating it, and yet he is not quite in that world. He organises Gatsby’s funeral as fully a member of Gatsby’s inner circle (the only real member, as it turns out), but also as a bystander, not as one of these Eastern folk who couldn’t be bothered to come.


People come to Nick all the time with their problems. On the very first page, Nick admits that he was “privy to the secret griefs of wild, unknown men.” Secrets are abundant in The Great Gatsby, Tom’s affair with Myrtle, Gatsby’s love for Daisy, Gatsby’s past, the truth of the car accident. And Nick knows them all. Nobody even seems perturbed about Nick knowing them all, in f act, they actively involve him. Tom brings him along to Myrtle’s even though, by rights, Nick should owe his loyalty to Daisy rather than Tom. Gatsby and Daisy practically use Nick as a watchdog. People tell him things, and Nick keeps them to himself. He believes himself to be in possession of the cardinal virtue of honesty but he does, in fact, lie twice in the book. He denies that Tom has a mistress- and he never discloses the truth that it was Daisy driving the car. Despite his love for honesty, he keeps these confidences.

But why? Nick leaves New York feeling once again like an outcast, disgusted by the city. In fact, he thinks, all of the players- he, the Buchanans, Gatsby, Jordan- they were all Westerners that had “some deficiency in common which made us subtly unadaptable to Eastern life.” It’s as if he has come full circle in the few short months in the city. But he carries the secrets with him. Nick has acted a bit like a catalyst- he has sped up the reaction without being used up in the reaction (although he’s somewhat drained). He leaves again and life in New York continues, sans Gatsby and maybe now at less of a whirlwind pace.

The surprising romantic

This subheading is a little bit of self-indulgence on my part. One of my personal favourite passages (found on pg 62 of the PDF) is when Nick is growing to enjoy New York, and stands on Fifth Avenue, watching women from the crowd. He imagines himself entering their lives, there are no complications, he follows them home and they smile at him before leaving his life forever. But in the end, he is alone, he and so many of the other young clerks drawn by the allure of Wall Street. His relationship with Jordan Baker is, as he describes, a “tender curiosity.” And yet he feels joy in her closeness, he even takes his mind off the difficult topic of Daisy and Gatsby long enough to ask her to dinner. When he leaves he admits that he was “angry and half in love with her.” But Nick’s inability to commit to anything, or to even to tell her how he feels at that moment, is just like him- isn’t it? That passivity, that reluctance to get involved and the habit of just letting life pass him by. I find myself worried about how Nick’s life really turned out after this, did he just go home and fade into non-existence? Would he look back at his days in New York, sorting out the lives of other miserable people and half in love with a girl who lied and didn’t care?

There is some speculation that Nick was actually gay, and this would explain his disinterest in Jordan and maybe his reasons for escaping the sort-of engagement back home. It’s possible, and even plausible.  But I’m inclined to disagree. I don’t think even Nick could come up with a reason for a lot of his avoidant behaviour- except maybe a sort of apathy, a detachedness that for one reason or another he developed. It’s maybe what made him such a good confidant, but in the end, could be really detrimental to his own wellbeing.

So what did you think? Nick was actually my favourite character in the whole book because he’s the only one that I feel you could call a good person. But even then, he’s just as complex and difficult as the others, just in different ways to them.

You may also like...

8 Responses

  1. PenguinAttack says:

    I love you Stells, so forgive me.

    I hate Nick. He’s a weak character who actively removes himself from the situations he knows are going poorly, or will go poorly. He thrives on his own sense of morality in the throng of these immoral play people. He moves around them and through them like they are a gallery and takes his time about it, touching them all and arranging them around him like a sweet selection of flowers he’s just cut the heads off. That seems disingenuous but there is this sense to Nick I feel that he has an incredible gloating that he isn’t part of what is going on even while he is a part of it. An incredible capacity for self-deceit.

    Perhaps it’s because I found his narration frustrating and unpleasant to deal with, and I definitely find his actual characteristics to be annoying and unpleasant to read – I would not be friends with Nick, he is like opaque glass, we are meant to find something deeper inside him because he is not immediately transparent, but it’s pretty easy to dig deeper and see nothing behind him. He leaves, disgusted, at the end of his little sojourn into the world of the rich and tells us it is because they are careless, because Gatsby is dead and everything is ruined. I feel more it is that nothing will ever top that experience, and really he must find somewhere else to exist, away from the suggestion of what more there could have been. It’s tempting, the idea of being a part of ridiculous drama. People like Nick who watch drama desperately want to be included in it and so allow themselves to be drawn in (or actively place themselves in the way and are swept) and then all the while say “I am so glad I am the only sensible person here.” and “oh my everyone else but me is completely taken in!” “I loved Gatsby but I knew what he was, really.” He’s always lying to himself and he has no problem with it.

    I have a problem with it, which is probably why I hate him.

    • Hannah says:

      Haha, just like I think we can judge the sort of people we are by how we see Gatsby, we might do the same with how we see Nick. If we think he’s well-meaning and truthful, we believe people are as good as they think they are, but if we think, like Pingu, that something’s sneaky about him, we don’t let people get away with just good intentions?

      • PenguinAttack says:

        I definitely don’t think we should let people get away with just good intentions! Gatsby has them, and he’s busy flouting the law and lying his butt off. And Daisy, hypothetically, could have good intentions but she is ridiculous and harmful to just about everyone around her. There’s something sinister in the idea that we should forgive Nick his lack of reaction or aid, or ownership of himself, because he intended only to watch. In watching we become complicit in what is happening, and so too in reading I think we gain the sense that we should do something about what is going on – many of my friends suggested that They would have gone with Gatsby. No one ever suggests they would have done like Nick does.

        Does that make me a bad person? xD I don’t want denial, I don’t want to be mean either, but I feel like Nick is everything that is passively wrong with the American society that Fitzgerald is trying to expound. The idea that he is removed because he is poor, and that lack of money makes his virtues somehow more reasonable. It’s a double handed compliment.

      • Hannah says:

        Ah, is this what you thought I’d be upset by? Not at all. I wasn’t speaking good or bad about either way of living, though it was obvious which side you chose, which is why I mentioned you.

        As for me, I’m still debating, ’cause I think good intentions are important. In that person’s reality, they are all that matters, sometimes, and maybe blind that person to the wrong they’re doing, so they couldn’t have known at all the trouble they were causing. But then we have the idea that SOMEONE has to be at fault if something goes wrong, so even if they weren’t making the mistake with intention, it becomes labeled theirs?

        This isn’t strictly about the book, though comparisons to the text are welcome. Just life observations. haha

  2. Jon says:

    What you need to understand about Nick’s character is what sets him apart from the characters in the novel, aside from Gatsby. This separation is highlighted through his father’s advice given at the start of the novel in which Nick recalls one of the most important pieces of advice given to him. “Whenever you feel like criticizing any one, just remember that all the people in this world haven’t had the advantages that you’ve had.” This advice gives him the ability to reserve judgement on others because not all people have had the same advantages he has had. Nick’s advantages, in the case of these rich aristocrats, is his humble upbringing. His upbringing allows him to understand people more clearly. In college he reserved judgement and was able to make quite a few friends because he did not judge people based upon first impressions. He places judgement on a menagerie of facts and personal experiences. What you then get is Nick’s perfection as the quintessential narrator. He sees, records and reserves his judgement. Even in the novel we see this in action. The Buchanans, on the outside, seem like the perfect couple. Yet in the end we find how despicable they are. On the other hand, most people are quick to judge Gatsby and think of him as a criminal and a liar who cannot be trusted, yet Nick observes and reserves his judgement. In the end, we find a dreamer, Gatsby, who was crucified and abused by everyone who just wanted to use him. Nick sympathizes with Gatsby because in all his dishonesty, he is the only honest person in the novel. It is this irony that cascades him into one of the greatest characters in modern literature. He wears the mask of society in hopes of winning Daisy’s affection. I love Nick as a narrator because he helps Gatsby and tries to set things right, but ultimately fails. That’s why he is disgusted, because he did nothing to help. He realizes his own connection to the others who abused Gatsby. He was apart of the corruption from the beginning and must live with the shame that comes with destroying something as beautiful as Gatsby; hope.

    • Hannah says:

      Hey, Jon! So you like Nick as a narrator because his personality quirks seem to make him perfect for the job. But do you like him as a person? If he were a friend of yours, would you see him in the same positive light, someone who doesn’t have an opinion on anybody and just watches things, possibly terrible or wonderful things, happen?

  3. Philistine from Pakistan says:

    Well honestly Im not that much into books but Bazz Luhrmann interpretation of Great Gatsby really piqued my interest into this work as it contain lots of symbols. The part confused me the most was famous within and without quote which u miss, have nailed it down better than anyone else. Honestly ur indeed person who best understanding of this novel. But wat Jon said abt Nick is what I fully agree of him being good guy. Yup he is positive in my attitude in the same way as Chris O’Donnell character in scent of woman. He did not even rated out the prankster even though he was not their best friend and movie positively point out that quality as leadership. He poor, and felt he did not fitted in with those rich folks.
    Ur wrong abt him having opinion abt anybody infarct the whole novel was abt being judgmental. Just like Jon said the only one saw the goodness in Gatz. Faults in the perfect Buchanan couple. He did not intervene on Tom affairs becoz being beacon of morality he did not want to betray him just like Chris O’Donnell. Well he did acted when in fact grilled Gatz on why heck did killed Moaning Myrtle?
    Well on Nick being gay I think its pretty much fair to say he is not gay. If its anything it could argued even extremest of sense, he could and I firmly believe could be Bi-Sexual, which again is extremely unlikely. Nick fantasizing about as mentioned in ur this article and further that Nick inability commit does not demonstrate his will-willed rather than preference. Gatsby getting betrayed by that witch bitch Daisy showed Scott Fitzgerald attitude toward love. As he disillusioned both by his uneasy relationship with his wife and the former lover on whom Daisy is based on whom he even refer to as Bitch when they both conversed at some point.
    Sorry my information is ambiguous but u being absolute authority of Great Gatsby know what Im referring to.

  4. Philistine from Pakistan says:

    Speaking Gatz don’t think there is little bit infact a lot of comparison between Heathcliff and Gatz on both them being poor, and they both comeback as rich Gentle-man and have love for same woman who is now married to another man. Except Gatz want to try all hard win Daisy back whereas Heathcliff had revenge more in his mind. They both die. Don’t think there is similarity between two characters though I do fell Heathcliff is superior becoz Wuthering Heights is one best English Language novels ever written and The Great Gatsby is best in America only.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *