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?
“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.