In The Great Gatsby Scott Fitzgerald presents a study of wealth and ambition through the prism of pathetic characters for which one can find almost no socially redeeming values.
What The Great Gatsby portrays is the sordid story of small band of feeble characters engaged in cheating, adultery, deception, and debauchery. The lavish parties -Jazz-age style- that Jay Gatsby throws to recover Daisy Buchanan (his lost illusions and perfidious lover) are all but wild bacchanalians.
When one thinks about of the rest of the nation, we can breathe a sigh of relief to see that the rest of Americans are engaged in productive enterprise, in rebuilding the nation after the waste of resources that was the First World War. The sordidness of the story applies, almost in its entirety, to that small band of marginal, misguided, and unsavory characters. It isn’t a book about the spiritual dismemberment of America (as many have interpreted the book to be) that came in 1927 with the Great Depression.
While in Ernest Hemingway’s short story “The Killers” we experience the objective voice of a disinterested narrator, in the Great Gatsby we are deceived by the relentless biases of Nick Carraway, a likable character –and narrator– who not only has an interesting story to tell, but also has an agenda. His agenda is a laundry list of things “to clean up,” events to smooth over, and a guilty consciousness to cleanse. In a similar vein as the Confessions penned by Augustine, Rousseau, and Ben Franklin, Nick exacerbates other people’s crimes and misdemeanors while obscuring and diminishing his own.
From the outset of the narration, Nick Carraway makes it clear that the story he’s about to tell is a very personal story, and that he is going to be a protagonist. So, with these words: “In my younger and more vulnerable years…” he begins to tell the story about himself and about young people coming of age, people who at present are in the midst of finding their own identity, groping for goals and a more certain future. It is a generational story in which ambitious Dough Boys-having returned from fighting a world war–vie for position under the sun, vying for a spot not in the tedium of poverty or disenchantment, but for a share of splendor in wealth and love.
Although Nick makes the calculated decision to come East to pursue a career in Wall Street, his heart moves him in a different direction; his heart is in literature, and he lets us know what his intentions are: “I was rather literary in college-one year I wrote a series of very solemn and obvious editorials for the Yale News-and now I was going to bring back all such things into my life and become again that most limited of all specialists, the ‘well rounded man.'” (GG, 4).
Having attended Yale University, he is justified in calling himself a ‘well rounded man’ who is fully equipped by experience, education, and talent to become a writer, a literary man.
As he commences the narrative, he even indulges in the author’s pleasure of even knowing the title of his book: “Only Gatsby, the man who gives his name to this book, was exempt from my reaction.” (GG, 2). He also engages in moments of meta-narration. When in the second book of Don Quijote the hero learns that he is the subject of spurious adventures by a spurious author, we can only enjoy the pleasures of meta-narration. Nick Carraway also engages himself in bits of meta-narration as when we read that he is reviewing his work as he progresses with the writing:
“Reading over what I have written so far, I see I have given the impression that he events of three nights several weeks apart were all that absorbed me. On the contrary, they were merely casual events in a crowded summer, and, until much later, they absorbed me infinitely less than my personal affairs.” (GG, 56).
Indeed they were but mere casual events, yet very much intertwined with his own personal life. Though Nick presents the Gastby life as the main thread, his own autobiographical strands of data are weaved into the fabric of the story.
While Meursault-Camus’ absurd-man narrator of The Stranger chooses a stark, hallucinatory jargon to depict his alienation from the world, Nick Carraway chooses a lyrical and often incantatory language to embellish the sordid world of a low-level American tragedy.
Nick takes licenses and reports hearsay, a narrator’s sin that endangers his credibility. What is disgusting is that in the end, Nick doesn’t denounce his cousin Daisy, even though he’s privy to the knowledge that Daisy was the driver that fated night, and that Daisy kills Myrtle Wilson (Tom’s mistress). Was this really an accident? Or did Daisy actually run over Mrs. Wilson intentionally? We can only go by Gatsby’s recollection of the accident as he recounts it to Nick.
That Daisy was driving and that she was maneuvering to pass a car coming the other way is clear. What follows is that Daisy first attempts avoid hitting Myrtle, but it is possible that as she recognizes Myrtle she changes her mind and runs over her. After all Myrtle Wilson has been a constant thorn in her flesh throughout the summer, causing her much pain, anxiety, and depression.
While Nick tells us there was an inquest, he omits telling us that he didn’t testify, despite the fact that his truthful testimony would have implicated his cousin Daisy. Nick then is complicit in the cover up of a hit and run crime. Furthermore, the night of the accident when Nick plays peeping Tom, he observes Daisy and Tom in a conspiratorial tete-a-tete:
“The weren’t happy, and neither of them had touched the chicken or the ale-and yet they weren’t unhappy either. There was an unmistakable air of natural intimacy about the picture, and anybody would have said that they were conspiring together.” (GG, 145).
In Garcia Marquez’s novel One Hundred Years of Solitude, when Remedios the Beauty ascends to heaven, the reader accepts this fact because the woman in her simple mindedness never sees that her beauty hurts people; or even kills them. But when Nick Carraway paints Daisy as a southern beauty filled with charm and innocence, he scratches a discordant note, for her actions belie that.
Is Nick Gay or Bisexual? Nick has a fixation with noses and we see this under-text surface throughout the narration, and the only way to break the habit is by actually “breaking” it violently just as Tom Buchanan does when he breaks his mistress’s nose. In addition, Daisy compares Nick to a flower: “Nick, you remind me of a–of a rose, an absolute rose.” Is she implying Nick is a closeted gay? Well, Nick never pursues Jordan with the vigor of a male in heat. And there’s a scene in which another male removes his garments.
During a get-together in New York, Nick meets Mr. McKee, a photographer: “Mr. McKee was a pale, feminine man from the flat below. He had just shaved, for there was a white spot of lather on his cheekbone (30).” Afterwards McKee takes Nick to his home where they spend the night. Nick later remembers: “I was standing beside his bed and he was sitting up between the sheets, clad in his underwear.”
To confirm McKee’s homosexuality and by implication Nick’s, we see a phallic image as the elevator boy warns “hands off the lever.” To which McKee responds “I beg your pardon…I didn’t know I was touching it.” Was McKee touching the lever or the elevator boy? Early in the Twentieth Century, American literature had certain taboos that an author could only approach and conquer as the Jew conquered Jericho-around and around and with noise. The noise being the carefully selected word-codes and phallic imagery.
Can anyone imagine a heterosexual man obssessing about another man?:
“Mr. McKee was asleep on a chair with his fists clenched in his lap, like a photograph of a man of action. Taking out my handkerchief I wiped from his cheek the remains of the spot of dried lather that had worried me all the afternoon.” (p.36)
Nick Carraway, the narrator, never acknowledges that he is an amiable pimp. Nick rents his West Egg house with a male, “when a young man at the office suggested that we take a house together in a commuting town, it sounded like a great idea. He found the house, a weather-beaten cardboard bungalow at eighty a month, but at the last minute the firm ordered him to Washington, and I went out to the country alone.” (p3).
If Nick isn’t gay, then he is bisexual: “I even had a short affair with a girl who lived in Jersey City and worked in the accounting department, but her brother began throwing mean looks in my direction, so when she went on her vacation in July I let it blow quietly away.” (p56).
And as he meanders through midtown Manhattan, he fantasizes: “I liked to walk up Fifth Avenue and pick out romantic women from the crowd and imagine that in a few minutes I was going to enter into their lives, and no one would ever know or disapprove. Sometimes, in my mind, I followed them to their apartments on the corners of hidden street, and they turned and smiled back at me before they faded through a door into warm darkness.” (p56).
Notice Nick’s self-examination that carry the despairing musings of old maids, spinsters, and old bachelors: “I was thirty. Before me stretched the portentous, menacing road of a new decade (p135).” As he looks down the lane of bachelorhood at this point in his life, Nick considers a life-presumably a sexual life with single men only: “The Thirty-the promise of a decade of loneliness, a thinning list of single men to know, a thinning briefcase of enthusiasm, thinning hair.” (p135). This is a poignant remark that confirms his loneliness and how he will comfort himself in his bacherlohood.
Nick Carraway presents himself as a simple, unassuming, and likeable character, who thrives in gaining the confidence of friends and strangers alike. Yet, there’s nothing simple about him. As his narrative progresses and we get to know him better, we conclude that he is a complex character with many facets.
While many sides of his personality are interesting, the reader cannot help being seduced by the moralistic preponderance of his judgments. On the surface, Nick presents himself as the voice of measure, reason, and virtue, but as we scrutinize his deeper strata we find an array of wild emotions, impulses, desires, and irrationalities that border on an unstable, sexually confused life, as he himself acknowledges: “Conduct may be founded on the hard rock or the wet marhes, but after a certain point I don’t care what’s founded on.” (GG, 2).