Gatsby’s chronicler is a textbook unreliable narrator, but maybe the kind we ought to rely on.
Nick Carraway is a textbook unreliable narrator, and when you read his story for class you learn to go, “Oh but wait look it’s not like that, it’s like this, and look this isn’t about the American Dream at all, and look he’s a coward and a self-deluding narcissist!” and you get an A on your paper and you think that Nick will never try to play you again.
Yet to call Nick unreliable is perhaps to look for the wrong kind of truth. The book is honest not as an objective account of Jay Gatsby—Fitzgerald came 50 years too late to lie to himself and call it realism—but as an account of Nick’s feelings. After a summer of going along for the ride, of tolerating Tom’s rants and Daisy’s vapidity and Gatsby’s infuriating, hubristic unselfconsciousness, writing the book is the first time that Nick lets himself say all these nasty things about these frivolous snobs. The novel’s value lies in its depiction of someone coming to terms with himself, casting a weary look over his shoulder and smirking.
Still, the fundamental dishonesty is Nick’s aggrandizement of Gatsby—a selfish, shallow, calculating man—into a romanticized symbol of the American Dream. (I contend that that impression the book left on you in high school is purposeful.) Shaken by this summer out East—the murder of a friend, the recognition that he and Jordan and the whole world are not what he thought—Nick’s book is a kind of therapy. It is the story he needs it to be, and that is inherently distorting. Yet we are all unreliable narrators of own lives, so we cannot accuse him of some gross narrative crime. Rather the book is a necessary step toward self-knowledge. This “unreliable” story is precisely what he relies on.
That feeling you got, that this was a tragedy about the American Dream, where does that feeling come from? The tragedy bit can be surmised from Gatsby’s alleged thoughts upon being shot dead in a pool: “he must have felt that he had lost the old, warm world, paid a high price for living too long with a single dream.” This is Oedipus gashing his eyes out—the tragic realization of a life having gone exactly as we’d thought it hadn’t. And the American Dream bit is best distilled from the Manifest Destiny furor Nick works himself into on the last page, comparing Gatsby to the Dutch settlers, saying, “Gatsby believed in the green light, the orgastic future that year by year recedes before us.”
Gatsby explicitly has no such tragic notion of the future and, far from feeling he has “lost the old, warm world,” he is still hot on Daisy’s trail when he is shot, still scheming to “repeat the past” because he’s still unaware she has chosen her life with Tom. The reality is that Gatsby is not a tragic dreamer but rather the kind of entitled, status-obsessed crook you used to glower at from Zuccotti Park. He comes back from war and is heartbroken that the lover he won by pretending to be rich has chosen someone who is actually rich. He then commits (literally) untold crimes to acquire riches greater still and sets out to tease her predilection for nice shirts until she loves him again. After a successful campaign to manipulate his neighbor (our Nick) into setting up an ambush, Gatsby convinces Daisy to throw her life away, neglect her own feelings (that she did once love Tom), and set off with him. But all Gatsby’s traps and trappings aren’t enough and Daisy crumbles at the confrontation with her husband. Gatsby’s death is not some cathartic finale to his dreaming, not his just deserts or providence—he is shot by mistake, because Wilson thinks he killed his wife.
So this impression Nick left when you first read the book can be safely put aside. But now—why? Why does he portray Gatsby that way? Certainly not out of a sense of intimacy. Nick himself confesses that, after a month of friendship, he had “found, to [his] disappointment, that [Gatsby] had little to say.” The friendship is built principally on Nick’s fantasies: for example, Gatsby’s smile. The first time Nick sees it he says that it “faced—or seemed to face—the whole external world for an instant, and then concentrated on you with an irresistible prejudice in your favor.” When Gatsby smiles again at the end of a party, Nick feels “there seemed to be a pleasant significance in [Nick’s] having been among the last to leave, as if [Gatsby] had desired it all the time.” The last time we see the smile is the last time the two men see each other; as Nick leaves he shouts back, “They’re a rotten crowd. You’re worth the whole damn bunch put together.” In response, Gatsby “first … nodded politely, and then his face broke into that radiant and understanding smile, as if we’d been in ecstatic cahoots on that fact all the time.” All emphasis mine.
Gatsby is the consummate host and manipulator. Imagine giving such a compliment and its subject “nodding politely” and then suddenly stretching some practiced grin across his face—so practiced that even Nick calls is “that smile.” After the hydroplane ride and the parties and the performed familiarity, after asking Jordan to ask Nick if Gatsby can ask Nick to ask Daisy over, after assessing the progress he’s made toward winning Nick’s trust (“Look here, old sport, what’s your opinion of me, anyhow?”), Gatsby finally pops the question: can I use your, oh, conveniently proximate house and relation to Daisy to ensnare her where she will be awed by my possessions and then love me openly?
How much self-loathing does it take to mythologize someone who played you this bad?
And that’s just it. Nick came East with the same insecurity, the same dream Gatsby had: to conquer this world of power and money and sex. To prove himself. In that process, Gatsby surely objectifies Daisy—she is not a lover but rather a trophy of sexual-economic achievement and legitimacy for a life that has none of its own. But Nick objectifies everyone: Tom is the brutish, unthinking free market, Daisy the allure of money, Wilson the pathetic abandonment of capitalism’s losers—there’s a reason this book reads so well as a parable. They are all reduced to their status and their function because Nick, in his effort to win acceptance into this world, has done the same to himself: suppressed his feelings and his humanity, tried to acquire the right signifiers—the girlfriend, the job, the parties. Everything to match Gatsby’s medal from Montenegro and mansion and picture from Oxford. Nick went to Yale, served in the War, comes from a good family, and has a good profession, but all these markings of “good breeding” have not stopped him from feeling “both within and without, simultaneously enchanted and repelled” by the East. That Gatsby, the center of enchantment, should die living out Nick’s dream must be disturbing and resonant—almost creepy. Gatsby is Nick’s personal Britney Spears. He is relatable, sympathetic, and has what we think we want; yet he has been destroyed by the very system that made him and that we made. We say, “we told you so,” though we did the opposite.
Nick says, as he leaves New York to return home, that all the Midwesterners in his story—Tom, Daisy, Jordan, Gatsby, Nick himself—were somehow inherently ill-suited to the East. But Tom and Daisy are the ruling elite; Jordan is a professional golfer and minor celebrity; for all the falseness everyone rightly saw in him, Gatsby was at least potent and widely known until he was murdered, and then only in lieu of someone else. Nick is the only one who failed out East.
But what a lovely thing to have failed at! This world is no place for a writer, and Nick’s mythopoeia and fabrication reveal him as nothing if not a writer. In that Oedpial deathfloat conversion Nick imagines, he fantasizes Gatsby to have thought that the “old warm world” he had lost had been replaced by a “new world, material without being real, where poor ghosts, breathing dreams like air, drifted fortuitously about.” Yet it is Nick—who left his generations-old Midwestern family, who always felt that the East had a “quality of distortion,” who conflates West Egg with El Greco paintings—this is the man who feels he has “lost the old warm world” of the Middle West, “the street lamps and sleigh bells in the frosty dark and the shadows of holly wreaths thrown by lighted windows on the snow.” It is Nick who recognizes that this world—Gatsby’s and Daisy’s and Tom’s—can be “material without being real.”
Material indeed. Tom distills racial tension to a conflict between “the white race” and “the Colored Empire.” When Daisy is asked about her daughter: “I suppose she talks, and—eats, and everything.” Myrtle sees in Tom all the virtues that her husband lacks, and they are all material virtues – breeding, she calls it.
More offensively to Nick’s writerly sensibilities, these people suck the meaning out of life. The book is full of things half said or said without discernible meaning. When two girls recognize Jordan at a party (the honor is not mutual), Jordan responds with what Nick thinks is tact, but which is in fact sheer enigma:
‘You’ve dyed your hair since then,’ remarked Jordan, and I started, but the girls had casually moved on and her remark was addressed to the premature moon, produced like the supper, no doubt, out of a caterer’s basket.
I have no idea why she would say such a thing to the moon, and neither does Nick, but we can feel him trying to loosen up, trying to take this world on its own worthless terms. In the second chapter, Daisy uses the most dramatic language to tell the most un-dramatic story about her butler. (He used to polish silver but “things went from bad to worse” and he had to quit because the polish was affecting his nose. Is the story.) There’s also Jordan’s anecdote about Mr. “Blocks” Biloxi, who stayed at Jordan’s childhood home for “three weeks, until Daddy told him he had to get out. The day after he left Daddy died.’ After a moment she added as if she might have sounded irreverent, ‘There wasn’t any connection.’” The Ur-flash fiction, sometimes attributed to Hemingway, goes, “For sale: Baby shoes, never worn,” and that is a story. “For sale: Baby shoes, size 7” is an advertisement, and that is the language and Jordan Baker and the rest.
Nick’s solution is to make the material hyperreal, to put deep thoughts into a shallow man and overwrought meaning into physical objects: the green light, T. J. Eckleberg’s eyes, the Valley of Ashes—the symbology belongs in the comment section of the latest Illuminati-funded Ke$ha video. These symbols are heavy like the symbols of your dreams, and not at all realistic. They do not shy from meaning. Yet even these cannot help this place make sense to Nick and he leaves, because “the East was haunted for [him]” with all these poor ghosts.
Gatsby manipulated Nick into spending a summer lying to himself in order to chase cheap thrills; no surprise that Nick says Gatsby “represented everything for which I have an unaffected scorn.” But Nick also used his neighbor for an exciting summer and his death for a life lesson; of course he wants to assuage his guilt by saying “Gatsby turned out all right at the end.” Nick gets self-righteous at the funeral about everyone else abandoning Gatsby, yet says himself that “I tried to think about Gatsby then for a moment, but he was already too far away.” And yet the parties are still so vividly with him that he must spend weekend nights away in the city. Only the symbols of Gatsby’s story remain, and so it is for us – we remember the green light years after we’ve forgotten the plot.
By the time Nick writes the book, this empty, distorted feeling he left West Egg with has turned to righteous indignation. I imagine Nick going back and rediscovering himself among the comforts of home. I imagine him feeling like I do when I, hung over, call my mother on a Sunday afternoon. The pleasing friction between what I have done and what I am doing, between last night’s reckless abandon and today’s easy repair—the aftereffect of the former only heightens my feeling of the latter, and I am wholly encompassed. Back home, again seeing yourself as these people have always seen you, the sincerity or falseness of recent experience is suddenly illuminated. There is always some of both; Nick’s need to brush over much of the bad reveals he still has some sorting out to do, but we can’t begrudge him the attempt. And the attempt is brave when compared to its subject: the world of adult toddlers consuming consumption, the very seat of power in the debaucherous, doomed twenties. In this world, Nick stakes a claim for self-expression and vulnerability. He does not belong in this world and he extricates himself from it proudly.
So maybe Nick isn’t as unreliable as we thought. On the first page, he says he is “inclined to reserve all judgments, a habit that has opened up many curious natures to me.” Though this at first sounds laughably insincere, we have seen that he is, if anything, too inclined to not judge, too willing to buy in, too curious in observation to draw limits. The book is surely judgmental, but Nick was too much of a coward to act on his judgments in the moment, shaking Tom’s hand as he does at the end. So that entirely distasteful bit when Nick says, “I am one of the few honest people that I have ever known”—maybe that is honest, too. Nick is compensating for too much softness, steeling himself for a reformation. It is pride, but hasn’t he earned it?
In the end, the story is “unreliable” because it is almost hyperreal, a too cognizant experience of reality, in the vein of Henry James. And as a poet imagines James to have responded to charges that “no one is like that / your books are not reality:” “so much the worse for reality.” We can imagine Nick, with his hard-won pride and snark and self-satisfaction, saying much the same thing.
Picture of Tobey Maguire as Nick Carraway in Baz Luhrmann’s The Great Gatsby, courtesy of Theiapolis Media.