Great Gatsby 3


By: F.Scott Fitzgerald

Write an essay about the character and function of Nick Carraway.

Despite the title, Nick Carraway is the first character we meet, and
appropriately his role in The Great Gatsby is crucial; without him the
story would lack balance and insight. The first chapter is primarily
dedicated in establishing his personality and position in the book, then
moving on to Tom and Daisy. Nick is our‘ guide, path finder’
in The Great Gatsby; he relates the story as he has seen it and from what
others have told him. He strives at all times to be objective, his
comments are balanced, as he says just in the first page of the
book–‘ I’m inclined to reserve all judgements’.

His objectivity is reinforced throughout to us by his scorn of
Gatsby– he thoroughly disapproves of him– he‘
represented everything for which I have unaffected scorn’. Yet
there is something–‘ some heightened sensitivity to the
promises of life’,‘ an extraordinary gift for hope’
that is attractive to Nick, and requires him to make several attempts at
describing it. He registers contempt for much of what Gatsby stands
for– the falseness, the criminality, but still he likes him. His
ability to laugh at Gatsby and his false airs‘ What was that? . . .
The picture of Oxford?’ shows he’s neither charmed nor wholly
disgusted by Gatsby. Nick sees him as the best of a‘ rotten
crowd’, his approval is always relative– compared to Tom and
Daisy his dream like innocence is attractive, though twisted into an
impossible goal and only nearly achieved by criminality. But compared to
Tom’s ruthless attitude to Myrtle and Wilson, Daisy’s
careless abandonment of Gatsby and ultimately their complete inability to
see their wrong–‘ if you think I didn’t have my share
of suffering . . . I sat down and cried like a baby’– put
Gatsby in a much fairer light. As Nick says, Gatsby was‘ worth the
whole damn bunch put together’.

His amusingly contemptuous remarks show his sense of humour, and although
he is straight-laced, we are not bored by him. We are told of his
age– thirty, which makes us take his opinions seriously, as he is
not some immature unworldly man.

Nick is introduced directly, but Gatsby remains a distant character for a
good while. The establishment of Nick’s reflective, tolerant
personality is essential, as are his limitations, so we don’t just
dismiss him as Fitzgerald’s mouthpiece. The fact that he
disapproves of Gatsby so early on, helps us to go along with his
judgements when he tells us of Gatsby and unfolds the story.

Our first mysterious glimpse of Gatsby prepares us for much of what is to
come. The imagery of‘ silhouette’,‘ moonlight’,
and‘ shadow’ in this passage prepare us for Gatsby’s
shadowy, dark character. Many more of his actions will appear to us and
Nick as‘ curious’, the fact he is‘ trembling’
shows he is intense in his emotions– and none of this is for show,
Gatsby believes he is alone. His concentration on the‘ single green
light’ represents his determination to succeed, his constant drive,
all to be with Daisy. He then vanishes just as we are becoming acquainted
with him from a distance, echoing the end of the book.

The mystery surrounding Gatsby before we meet him adds to his charm. It
is similar to the beginning of Shakespeare’s‘ Othello’,
we get many different stories and names for him–‘
bootlegger’;‘ nephew or cousin of Kaiser
Wilhelm’s’;‘ something funny about a fellow who’d
do that’;‘ regular Belasco’ and‘ I’ll bet
he killed a man'. This forces us, in effect, to‘ reserve all
judgement’. It would be difficult to introduce Gatsby as candidly
as Nick, for we would almost certainly disapprove of him. That’s
the drive in this book, to find out the truth about Gatsby because, like
Nick, we are sceptical of what he says or what is said about him.

Nick is unlike the other characters of the book; he is not one of
the‘ careless people’. He has a conscience, he is not
selfish– he has decency, which is well demonstrated in his efforts
for Gatsby’s funeral. His down to earth character shows how
superficial Daisy and Tom are. Tom and Daisy are ruthlessly practical,
where Gatsby is a hopeless dreamer. Nick guides us between these two
extremes, a detached observer whilst being involved in the
action–‘ I was within and without, simultaneously enchanted
and repelled by the inexhaustible variety of life’.

His aim to be truthful and objective makes the reader trust him. When he
says Gatsby has a‘ rare smile with a quality of eternal reassurance
in it’ we know Nick isn’t being charmed by his riches or
parties; but is telling it to us straight. His contempt for much of what
Gatsby says, but also Nick’s tolerance, is emphasised when Nick
doesn’t mock him–

‘ "I lived . . . trying to forget something very sad that had
happened to me long ago." With an effort I managed to restrain my
incredulous laughter’. We trust Nick to judge what is genuine about
Gatsby and what is more of his romanticising.

We have no choice but to identify with Nick, the other characters lack
the dimension for us to trust them, which is what Fitzgerald is trying to
demonstrate. Seeing Gatsby through Nick’s eyes we sympathise for
him and his unattainable life long dream, without Nick we could perceive
Gatsby as a corrupt mad man trying to disrupt an old girlfriend’s
life. This would not be the whole truth, and not what Fitzgerald would
want us to see.

While clearly Gatsby is the focus of the book– and what he stands
for– hope, romance, the twisted American Dream; there is an
argument for saying Nick is the main character. Gatsby doesn’t
speak till the third chapter, and he dies after three-quarters of the
book. This is of course the only way Gatsby can go, his whole life was
Daisy and his dreams, and as he failed there is no future for him. His
unbalanced obsession left no room for anything else in his life. Nick is
the more in depth character– as practically every part of the story
is related to us with his thoughts and his perceptions, it is hard for
him not to be. He is the character we leave the story feeling we
understand and we support his actions and judgements, unlike Gatsby. He
is the narrator, but his involvement in the events, no matter how much he
tries to stay objective, make a difference. He gets drunk at the party,
falls in love with Jordan– the skill of Fitzgerald is to establish
Nick as a character in his own right, not just Fitzgerald’s


Edited Turnbull: Letters of F Scott Fitzgerald 1958

‘ Student Update’ 1999

‘ The Great Gatsby Guide’ 1999

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