The Great Gatsby's Theme

Nick, The Flawed Narrator In The Great Gatsby, the story is told through the eyes of an active, biased, participant. Linda Daley looks at the consequences

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Nick, The Flawed Narrator
In The Great Gatsby, the story is told through the eyes of an active, biased, participant. Linda Daley looks at the consequences.

NICK CARRAWAY has a special place in this novel. He is not just one character among several, it is through his eyes and ears that we form our opinions of the other characters.

Often, readers of this novel confuse Nick's stance towards those characters and the world he describes with those of F. Scott Fitzgerald's because the fictional world he has created closely resembles the world he himself experienced. But not every narrator is the voice of the author. Before considering the "gap" between author and narrator, we should remember how, as readers, we respond to the narrator's perspective, especially when that voice belongs to a character who, like Nick, is an active participant in the story.

When we read any work of fiction, no matter how realistic or fabulous, as readers, we undergo a "suspension of disbelief". The fictional world creates a new set of boundaries, making possible or credible events and reactions that might not commonly occur in the "real world", but which have a logic or a plausibility to them in that fictional world.

In order for this to be convincing, we trust the narrator. We take on his perspective, if not totally, then substantially. He becomes our eyes and ears in this world and we have to see him as reliable if we are to proceed with the story's development.

In The Great Gatsby, Nick goes to some length to establish his credibility, indeed his moral integrity, in telling this story about this "great" man called Gatsby. He begins with a reflection on his own upbringing, quoting his father's words about Nick's "advantages", which we could assume were material but, he soon makes clear, were spiritual or moral advantages.

Nick wants his reader to know that his upbringing gave him the moral fibre with which to withstand and pass judgment on an amoral world, such as the one he had observed the previous summer. He says, rather pompously, that as a consequence of such an upbringing, he is "inclined to reserve all judgments" about other people, but then goes on to say that such "tolerance . . . has a limit".

This is the first sign that we can trust this narrator to give us an even-handed insight to the story that is about to unfold. But, as we later learn, he neither reserves all judgments nor does his tolerance reach its limit. Nick is very partial in his way of telling the story about several characters.

He admits early into the story that he makes an exception of judging Gatsby, for whom he is prepared to suspend both the moral code of his upbringing and the limit of intolerance, because Gatsby had an "extraordinary gift for hope, a romantic readiness". This inspired him to a level of friendship and loyalty that Nick seems unprepared to extend towards others in the novel.

Nick overlooks the moral implications of Gatsby's bootlegging, his association with speakeasies, and with Meyer Wolfsheim, the man rumored to have fixed the World Series in 1919. Yet, he is contemptuous of Jordan Baker for cheating in a mere golf game. And while he says that he is prepared to forgive this sort of behavior in a woman: "It made no difference to me. Dishonesty in a woman is a thing you never blame too deeply - I was casually sorry, and then I forgot," it seems that he cannot accept her for being "incurably dishonest" and then reflects that his one "cardinal virtue" is that he is "one of the few honest people" he has ever known. When it comes to judging women - or perhaps only potential lovers - not only are they judged, they are judged by how well they stand up to his own virtues.

Nick leaves the mid-West after he returns from the war, understandably restless and at odds with the traditional, conservative values that, from his account, haven't changed in spite of the tumult of the war. It is this insularity from a changed world no longer structured by the values that had sent young men to war, that decides him to go East, to New York, and learn about bonds.

But after one summer out East, a remarkable summer for this morally advantaged young man, he "decided to come back home" to the security of what is familiar and traditional. He sought a return to the safety of a place where houses were referred to by the names of families that had inhabited them for generations; a security that Nick decides makes Westeners "subtly unadaptable to Eastern life". By this stage, the East had become for him the "grotesque" stuff of his nightmares.

What does this return home tell us about Nick? It is entirely reasonable that he would be adversely affected by the events of that summer: the death of a woman he met briefly and indirectly, who was having an affair with his cousin's husband and whose death leads to the death of his next-door neighbor. His decision to return home to that place that he had so recently condemned for its insularity, makes one wonder what Nick was doing during the war? If the extent and the pointlessness of death and destruction during the war had left him feeling he'd outgrown the comfort and security of the West, why has the armory he acquired from the war abandoned him after this one summer's events?

Don't we perhaps feel a little let down that Nick runs away from his experience in the East in much the same way that he has run away from that "tangle back home" to whom he writes letters and signs "with love", but clearly doesn't genuinely offer? Is it unfair to want more from our narrator, to show some kind of development in his emotional make-up? It is unfair to suggest that this return home is like a retreat from life and a kind of emotional regression?

The only genuine affection in the novel is shown by Nick towards Gatsby. He admires Gatsby's optimism, an attitude that is out of step with the sordidness of the times. Fitzgerald illustrates this sordidness not just in the Valley of Ashes, but right there beneath the thin veneer of the opulence represented by Daisy and Tom. Nick is "in love" with Gatsby's capacity to dream and ability to live as if the dream were to come true, and it is this that clouds his judgment of Gatsby and therefore obscures our grasp on Gatsby.

When Gatsby takes Nick to one side and tells him of his origins, he starts to say that he was "the son of some wealthy people in the Middle West - all dead now . . ." The truth (of his origins) doesn't matter to Gatsby; what matters to him is being part of Daisy's world or Daisy being a part of his. Gatsby's sense of what is true and real is of an entirely other order to Nick's. If he were motivated by truth, Gatsby would still be poor Jay Gatz with a hopelessly futile dream.

Recall the passage where Nick says to Gatsby that you can't repeat the past, and Gatsby's incredulity at this. Nick begins to understand for the first time the level of Gatsby's desire for a Daisy who no longer exists. It astounds Nick: "I gathered that he wanted to recover something . . . that had gone into loving Daisy . . . out of the corner of his eye Gatsby saw that the blocks of the sidewalks really formed a ladder and mounted to a secret place above the trees . . . Through all he said, even through his appalling sentimentality, I was reminded of something - an elusive rhythm, a fragment of lost words, that I had heard somewhere a long time ago . . ."

These are Nick's words. Whose "appalling sentimentality" is operating here? Has Nick reported any of Gatsby's words - which comprise so little of the novel - to suggest that he would even begin to put his love for Daisy in these "sentimental" terms? Is not this excess of sentiment in fact Nick's sentiment for Gatsby or perhaps Nick's attempt at displaying those "rather literary" days he had in college? Or both?

We should consider the distance that Fitzgerald has created between his presence in the story and Nick's and their implications. Fitzgerald has created a most interesting character in Nick because he is very much a fallible storyteller.

When an author unsettles an accepted convention in the art of storytelling by creating a narrator like Nick, it draws attention to the story as fiction, as artifice. Ironically, in doing this, he has created in Nick a figure who more closely resembles an average human being and thus has heightened the realism of the novel.

Key Issues:

Success - Gatsby uses a corrupt form of the American dream to acquire the wealth he thinks he needs to win back Daisy. Tom and Daisy must have a huge house, a stable of polo ponies, and friends in Europe. Gatsby must have his enormous mansion before he can feel confident enough to win Daisy. The energy that might have gone into the pursuit of noble goals has been channeled into the pursuit of power and pleasure, and a very showy, but fundementally empty form of success. Gatsby had been in love with Daisy for a long while. He tried every way that money could buy to try to satisfy his love and lust for Daisy. Instead of confronting her with his feelings, he tried to get her attention by throwing big parties with high hopes that she might possibly show up. Gatsby was actually a very lonesome and unhappy man who lived in a grand house and had extravagant parties. He did it all for one woman, who initially was impressed with his flagrant show of wealth. Daisy was extremely disenchanted after she found out how Gatsby had aquired his fortune.

Morals - The characters in this novel live for money and were controlled by money. Love and happiness cannot be bought, no matter how much money was spent. Tom and Daisy were married and even had a child, but they both still committed adultery. Daisy was with Gatsby and Tom was with Myrtle. They tried to find happiness with their lovers, but the risk of changing their lifestyles was not worth it. They were not happy with their spouses but could not find happiness with their lovers. Happiness cannot be found or bought. Daisy lost her love and respect for Gatsby when she found out he was a bootlegger. Tom, after having an affair himself was angry about Daisy's affair. Hypocrisy tends to be a trait in the very rich.

Hope - Gatsby bought a house in West Egg, in the hopes that he would win Daisy back. He did this so that he could look across the bay to the green light at the end of Daisy's dock. He expected her to turn up at one of his parties, and when she didn't, he asked Jordan to ask Nick to ask Daisy. Fitzgerald stresses the need for hope and dreams to give meaning and purpose to man's efforts. Striving towards some ideal is the way by which man can feel a sense of involvment, a sense of his own identity. Fitzgerald goes on to state that the failure of hopes and dreams, the failure of the American dream itself, is unavoidable, not only because reality cannot keep up with ideals, but also because the ideals are in any case usually too fantastic to be realized. Gatsby is naive, impractical and oversentimental. It is this which makes him attempt the impossible, to repeat the past. There is something pitiful and absurd about the way he refuses to grow up.

By Ned Mack

 The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald has become a literary classic of the 1900’s, currently selling more paperbacks annually then copies of all editions during Fitzgerald’s lifetime.  His novel about American society in the 1920’s has been praised for both its brutal realism and its keen depiction of the age that The New York Times referred to as the era when, “gin was the national drink and sex was the national obsession”(Fitzgerald

vii).  “ . . . indifference is presented as a moral failure - a failure of society, particularly the society of the American east to recognize the imperatives of truth and honesty and justice” (Gallo 35).  In The Great
Gatsby, F. Scott Fitzgerald criticizes American society in the 1920’s for its tendencies to waste, advertise, form superficial relationships, and obsess over appearances.

    F. Scott Fitzgerald criticizes the wasteful tendencies of American society in his novel, The Great Gatsby.  He uses the valley of ashes to comment on this aspect of American society.  The valley of ashes is a bleak area

situated between the West Egg and New York City, “where ashes take the forms of houses and chimneys and rising smoke and, finally, with a transcendent effort, of men who move dimly and already crumbling through
the powdery air”(Fitzgerald 23).  This unpleasant wasteland is located right along the roadway and train route between the eggs, home of the lofty aristocrats, and New York City, the exciting and fashionable metropolis
where many of the nations wealthiest people live, work, and entertain themselves.  “There is no essential difference between the moneyed wastelands of New York City and Long Island and the valley of ashes,”
(Gallo 49)   Referring to an eye doctor’s billboard in the valley of ashes, Nick, our narrator comments:
 Evidently some wild wag of an oculist set them there to fatten his practice  in the borough of Queens, and then sank down himself into eternal  blindness or forgot them and moved away.  But his eyes dimmed a little by
many painless days under sun and rain, brood on over the solemn dumping ground. (Gatsby 23)

    Fitzgerald employs this section on the valley of ashes and Dr. T.J.Eckleburg’s billboard to criticize American society and values.  He is portraying the American habit of using up what is useful or has value and

leaving the waste products behind.  His symbol is that the wood (valuable) was used to build a fire and then the ashes (waste products) were left behind.  The valley of ashes was once a flourishing town, but was used
until it was no longer valuable and was thus abandoned (like ashes after all the wood has been burned).  Gatsby’s parties were also a form of social commentary in Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby.  Gatsby’s acquisition and disposal of fruit (and rinds) in such large quantities is another example of society’s using up the serviceable and leaving the superfluous behind.  The actions of Tom and Daisy also illustrate this tendency to ignore the
waste products and obstacles.  “ . . . Daisy accidentally runs down and kills Myrtle Wilson.  Completely unnerved, Daisy speeds away . . . ‘they smashed up things and creatures and then retreated back into their wealth or their vast carelessness, or whatever it was that kept them together, and let other people clean up the mess they had made . . .’” (Gallo 36-44)
   There is an obsession with advertising present in Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby.  The billboard in the valley of ashes is held above the rest of the town and represents society worshipping advertising.  The god of the valley of ashes is not only a faceless nonentity whose distorted perception must be rectified by man-made lenses, but also the creation of the advertising business that is dedicated to persuasion through fallacies and exaggerations. That any deity exists who ‘sees’ man’s transgressions and despairs is... just another advertising slogan. (Gallo 50) The billboard also portrays a theme in the novel of individuals (in society) advertising themselves.  This theme is seen at Myrtle’s party when Mr. and Mrs. McKee attempt to promote Mr. McKee’s photography business and he says, “I’ve done some nice things out on Long Island” (Fitzgerald 32). Mrs. McKee goes on and on about the tremendous number of portraits her husband has done of her and how Myrtle should have him take her picture.  Tom also illustrates this characteristic of American Society in the 1920’s
when he says, “I’ve got a nice place here”.  Similarly, Gatsby says, “My house looks well doesn’t it?” (Fitzgerald 91) in a blatant attempt to broadcast his wealth for Daisy’s benefit.  Daisy attempts to promote her
husband, exclaiming that “Tom’s getting very profound”.  The fact that this is something to boast about reveals the effort behind it.  Being profound is much more admirable then studying up so you can appear profound.
 In The Great Gatsby, Fitzgerald criticizes the American obsession with appearances.  At Myrtle’s party several characters attempt to portray themselves differently then they truly are.  Myrtle tries to make it seem
as though she has a kitchen full of servants and chefs waiting on her.  “‘I told that boy about the ice... These people! You have to keep after them all the time.’  . . . and [she] swept into the kitchen, implying that a
dozen chefs awaited her orders there,” (Fitzgerald 32).  She wants desperately to appear aristocratic and is invariably conscious of the fact that she is of a lower class.  Thus when Mrs. McKee compliments Myrtle on
her dress, she replies, “‘I just slip it on sometimes when I don’t care what I look like.’ . . . ‘My dear . . . I’m going to give you this dress . . I’ve got to get another one tomorrow,’” (Fitzgerald 31-37).  Her sister
also clearly places much value on appearances.  Catherine’s eyebrows are unmistakably butchered from there natural form in an attempt to be seen as chic.  Gatsby, too, considers presentation to be weighty.  “Replacing the artificial lighting, is the light of the moon, primitive and elementary, which seems to have nothing in common with that moon that shone over Gatsby’s parties, ‘produced like a supper, no doubt, out of a caterer’s
basket’ . . . the houses, with all the pretension and ostentation they imply ... ‘began to melt away’” (Johnson 113).  The fact that Gatsby has a magnificent library, but hasn’t even opened the books is a criticism of
society’s obsession with appearances and trying to transform who we are (or appear to be) in order to fit a more accepted image.
     In the foreground four solemn men in dress suits are walking along the side-walk with a stretcher on which lies a drunken woman in a white evening dress.  Her hand, which dangles over the side, sparkles cold with jewels. Gravely the men turn in at a house- the wrong house.  But no one knows the woman’s name, and no one cares. (Fitzgerald 178) In the novel, individuals are unable to see each other for who they truly
are and thus everyone sees a distorted image of everyone else.  “Any world in which the motions and rituals of existence are divorced from the emotions is a wasteland,” (Gallo 48)  The eye doctor’s billboard lacks dimension which is a comment on the characters depicted and the society in general.  Although the characters are drinking alcohol and therefore losing their inhibitions, we never see any true emotions or deep feelings which makes us wonder if there is anything under those shells of superficiality.  There is a flatness to the characters specifically at the parties which is a statement about the superficiality of relationships in American society in the 1920’s.  “Daisy is a vacuous creature whose self-identity is defined by externals.  She is so empty that Fitzgerald can only portray her through the qualities of another” (Gallo 45).  The eyes on the billboard only give the illusion of seeing, which represents society’s superficial relationships.  The illusion of sight symbolizes drunkenness and the lack of personal connections (and the lack of a desire for such connections).
An example of this is Myrtle’s party when they are all in a drunken stupor (particularly Nick).    “By 1923, ‘their elders, tired of watching the carnival with ill-concealed envy, had discovered that young liquor will
take the place of young blood, and with a whoop the orgy began.’  It was ‘a whole race going hedonistic, deciding on pleasure,’” (Gallo 40).
      F. Scott Fitzgerald uses The Great Gatsby, set in “jazz-age New York City and its glorious adjacent playground, Long Island” (Gallo 40) to criticize aspects of American society in the 1920’s.  Through the symbolism of the valley of ashes and Gatsby’s discarded fruit, Fitzgerald criticized the American tendency to waste.  Myrtle and her sister, Catherine, are employed along with most of the characters, to convey the American obsession with appearances.  The billboard in the valley of ashes introduces the theme of
advertising, which is found in society and throughout the novel.  It expresses not only society’s reliance upon and worshipping of advertising, but also the tendency towards self advertising (which is also expressed in
the New York City party scene).  As the narrator moral commentator of the novel “. . . ultimately concludes that the conduct of the world of the east falls short of even the minimum standards of behavior . . . The novel
dramatizes the reckless profligacy of the Jazz Age” (Gallo 40-43).

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