The Great Gatsby: It is Nick who makes Jay Gatsby into The Great Gatsby
The ambiguous “greatness” of Jay Gatsby is imparted to the reader through the thoughts and observations of Nick Carraway, a character who is personally involved in the intricate events and relationships featured in the plot. He is therefore an excellent choice of narrator as this participatory role places him beside the ‘great’ namesake of the book, which is essentially how he appears to portray the idealistic, materialistic and yet nai??ve character of Jay Gatsby.
In using Nick as such a device, Fitzgerald presents an insight into Gatsby which is gradually developed from ambiguity to admiration as he refines Nick’s perception throughout the ‘riotous excursion’- as Nick metaphorically describes the action of the novel – and establishes his often negative outlook on the selfishness, greed and moral corruption of American society. Nick is conveniently able to acquire this personal knowledge of Gatsby through his approachability, causing other characters to confide in him through his inclination “to reserve judgement”.
However, his negative judgement of society (from which Gatsby is ‘exempt’) ironically contradicts his initial claim to impartiality, and Nick continues to judge people thereafter. This reveals his viewpoint to be increasingly subjective and lends his character the virtues of being realistic, thus possessing human failings which evoke a more complete persona, and not merely a mouthpiece for Fitzgerald’s thoughts.
However, covertly, he also communicates the author’s condemnation of 20’s society as his own, since Fitzgerald has incorporated such judgements into his personality, creating the illusion of an impartial narrator while pursuing his satirical condemnation of the Jazz Age and his apparent admiration of the idealism implicit in the American Dream (represented by Gatsby’s impossible optimism). Indeed, Fitzgerald’s use of this “intelligent but sympathetic observer” at the centre of events “makes for some of the most priceless values in fiction” (William Troy, 1945).
The values of “economy and intensity” are achieved by his central role in events, while “suspense” is achieved through Nick’s personal flaw of not fully perceiving Gatsby’s character, causing revelations about Gatsby’s past and present to be frequent and striking. We think particularly of how Gatsby “came alive” to Nick in Chapter 4 through Jordan’s reminiscing, and of how, in Chapter 9, revelations are still made after his death (such as the schedule brought to Nick’s attention by Gatsby’s father) which consolidate Nick’s respect for his extensive ambition.
Nick’s perception of Gatsby is limited in certain aspects as the latter is an ambiguous character, though this incomplete knowledge does not deter Nick’s positive view, which develops from not knowing Gatsby at all to admiring him for his strangely noble, if delusory, dream. Gatsby’s ambiguity simply fuels fascination in Nick, who uses the adulatory adjective “gorgeous” to describe him, and proceeds in his narrative to seek the reason for this attraction in the mystery of Gatsby.
The apparent bias presented in Nick’s narration may also be due to many connections felt with Gatsby as a result of similarities between both their characters and Fitzgerald himself: many of Gatsby’s characteristics are often Fitzgerald’s own, incorporated into his character alongside Nick’s. Just as the author had fought in the war, so have his characters, a fact which had taken Daisy away from Gatsby and excitement away from Nick’s life as he “came back restless”. They both seek to reclaim these things, Nick by coming East and Gatsby by reacquiring Daisy’s love.
Nick empathizes with Gatsby’s longing, and here perhaps Fitzgerald incorporates his own experience of losing the affections of his first love, Ginevra King, this failure in achieving his own dream revealing bias in the author himself. This may be the reason for the author positing that Gatsby is “great” while also impressing his negative opinion on the causes of both his and Gatsby’s failure – in this case society, and the class differences which precluded Fitzgerald’s relationship with the wealthier King.
In the wider context of social satire, this contrast between dreams and failure is analogous to the rich and poor within American society, and is portrayed through the rather obvious symbolism of the “Valley of Ashes” whose uncomfortable proximity to the higher class Eggs foregrounds the vast disparity between rich and poor in the Roaring Twenties. Initially Nick only perceives the visible side of Gatsby – his material possessions and his parties where guests “came and went like moths among the whisperings and the champagne and the stars” in Chapter 3.
He describes the parties as dreamlike, perhaps reflecting Gatsby’s outlook on life, and tempting, as wealth was in 1920s America. Fitzgerald’s simile of the guests being insect-like expresses Nick’s observation of the superficial materialism and immorality of American society (emphasized in the former quotation by the sibilance of “whisperings”), as they are only tempted by Gatsby’s wealth, drawn like moths to his light, while making Gatsby seem somehow compelling and superior to them as they revolve around him
In direct contrast to such shallowness, Fitzgerald reveals Nick’s admiration for Gatsby’s “romantic readiness”, and his “infinite hope” in his idealistic love of Daisy, to further build the “great” element of Gatsby’s personality as it is discovered. This aspect of Gatsby, when introduced, also makes him “more real” (EK 1925) and empathetic, than American society of the time, as his dream is revealed to be for love, not material status.
These poetic descriptions, though also used ‘in order to persuade us that Gatsby is a man of poetic sensibility”, do not imply that “Fitzgerald takes the dangerous, no-hands course of simply saying so” as Kenneth Tynan (1974) states. In fact, Nick’s positive opinions of Gatsby are developed very subtly and implied throughout events in the plot. These gradually build the impression of Gatsby’s imaginative and beautiful sensibility, such as Nick’s discovery of his idealism regarding Daisy’s love.
At times, such usages of poetic narrative depictions contrast sharply with the dull, bare portrayal of the poorer sections of society. To this end, light is used by Nick in positive descriptions throughout the novel, his own and Fitzgerald’s fascination with modern developments of his time projected through Nick’s observant and admiring documentation of places lit by electric lighting, such as Gatsby’s house which was ‘blazing with light,’ and the important symbol of Gatsby’s “hope” for Daisy’s love – the symbolic green light at the end of Daisy’s dock, ultimately described, with pity, as an “illusion. Light is thus used in a symbol of both Nick’s admiration felt at Gatsby’s “hope”, and his sympathy as it is for an immaterial romantic goal (love), which disregards Gatsby’s material prominence. Nick also favourably compares Gatsby to a seismograph; an ‘intricate’ device driven by unknown/seen forces which mirrors Nick’s own impression of him.
This analogy is not merely an “apt… symbol for the human sensibility in a mechanized age” (Edwin S. Fussell 1952), showing Nick’s focus on material developments; it is also clearly used to accentuate his opinions on how admirable Gatsby’s “heightened sensibility” is. Nick’s use of such comparisons also suggests the ambiguity in his rendering of Gatsby. Nick only makes us aware of Gatsby’s personality in strategically placed narrative elements. These staged revelations, though revealing aspects of Gatsby that hint at criminality (like his activities in Chicago and various other rumours) simultaneously emphasize his admirable qualities such as his prizing of Daisy’s love. Indeed, Nick’s narration increasingly overlooks Gatsby’s flaws, both his and Fitzgerald’s views increasingly colouring the tale and casting Gatsby’s dream in a positive light.
By creating this empathy with Gatsby, Fitzgerald effectively communicates the intense disappointment felt at the intrusion of reality on idealism in the final chapters of the novel, and sympathy for the failure of Gatsby’s dream is invoked. Clearly, though Maxwell E Perkins (1924) feels that Gatsby’s ambiguity is “mistaken” as it makes his character more nebulous, Fitzgerald actually uses this as a main method of drawing the reader into a prominent theme of illusion, the ultimate illusion being love itself.
The mysteriousness of Gatsby is also used to enable Nick’s “growth in moral perception” (Troy 1945) which Troy describes as a “necessity” in such a narrator; Nick gradually perceives Gatsby’s “moral” side- his “innate purity”, and society’s lack of this in comparison, subsequently favouring Gatsby and giving some credibility to EK’s evaluation of Gatsby being “more real” than the other characters due to the paradoxically pure nature of his dream.
In this respect, Chapter 4 is used to further Nick’s, and the reader’s, positive perception of Gatsby. It features Jordan recounting a “romantic” memory of Daisy’s former relationship with Gatsby, Fitzgerald effectively digressing from Nick’s narration in order to impart a very deliberate and important revelation from Gatsby’s past. It is this relationship which Gatsby seeks to reclaim by means of his wealth, and is the basis of the “romantic readiness” admired in him by Nick.
Nick subsequently colours his narrative with the new awareness and says that Gatsby “came alive to me, delivered suddenly from the womb of his purposeless splendor”. With this metaphor of a birth, Fitzgerald makes a clear effort to separate Gatsby’s huge vitality from the “purposeless splendour” of materialism, and, by extension, of American society, which he condemns through Nick’s judgement of it.
In Chapter 6 Fitzgerald again manipulates narrative structure in Nick’s tale of Gatsby’s origins, as at this stage in the plot’s chronology Nick is not privy to this information- it was imparted by Gatsby himself “very much later” in the novel, and is presented achronologically to renew readers’ faith in Gatsby before it is severely challenged in chapter 8, “with the idea of exploding those first wild rumors about his antecedence”.
Fitzgerald reveals a specific part of Gatsby’s background through Nick’s narration, selected to instill sympathy for Gatsby in the reader by describing his younger self’s (Gatz’s) upward struggle from poverty, and the author’s admiration for the idealistic dreams that had spurred him to create a “universe of ineffable gaudiness” that he elaborated nightly until “wedding [these] visions to [Daisy’s] breath”.
This metaphor reveals the uniting of Gatsby’s original ambitions with a dream of love, and is also used to invoke sympathy for the extent to which his dreams are ultimately and perhaps tragically revealed to have gone “beyond her, beyond everything”. This revelation of Gatsby’s “childlike notion of beauty and grace” (Maxwell Geismar 1947) is illustrated by this analeptic episode, strongly suggesting Gatsby’s ultimate innocence and “pure” dreams beneath his materialistic exterior
Fitzgerald presents the social context of the novel through the transformation of the American Dream in the ’20s: the new generation of Americans were “dedicated more than the last to the fear of poverty and the worship of success”, as Fitzgerald himself had stated at the time. Society’s material methods of gaining this success are portrayed negatively through Nick’s condemnation of the Dream, as Nick has established himself as valuing morals and hard work highly; his family had become “prominent” through ownership of a “wholesale hardware business”, while Fitzgerald’s own childhood took place in a farming, working environment.
Similarly, the values admired in Gatz’s willingness and determination to work for and succeed in gaining his dreams are symbolically those lost values of society that had appealed to Fitzgerald, and would appeal to Nick’s sensibilities, which is why Nick still portrays Gatsby as being “great” in contrast to Jazz Age society which seeks goals through material means rather than hard work. This is paradoxically true in spite of Gatsby’s own materialism, because the latter is portrayed as unimportant to Gatsby beside his love for Daisy.
Through Nick’s narrative, then, Gatsby is presented as embodying the old work ethic of a meritocracy but also its transformation to materialism, and ultimately the unattainable goals of the American Dream, this factor essentially providing the grounds for seeing Gatsby as a tragic hero. His idealistic dreams as Gatz are implied to be “incommunicable for ever,” as they are, in fact, “wed to Daisy’s breath” which is just as perishable as his money.
In Chapter 7, Tom’s revelations about Gatsby’s criminal bootlegging cause the brittle fai??ade of Jay Gatsby to be “broken up like glass” against Tom’s “hard malice”, this simile depicting Nick’s dislike of the malicious Tom and of the superficiality of the American Dream, but also, crucially, the way Gatsby’s dreams have been demolished due to his “reliance upon material power as the single method of satisfying his searching and inarticulate spirit” (Maxwell Geismar 1947).
Gatsby is thus left “watching over nothing”, this nihilistic phrase ending the chapter and corroborating the sympathy felt by Nick at the hopelessness of Gatsby’s “dead dream”, making Nick “not want to leave him”. With his death in Chapter 8, this sympathy might indeed render Gatsby not merely “great”, but genuinely tragic. Thus as readers, we feel ultimately that Nick’s (or Fitzgerald’s) message is that the “colossal vitality of [Gatsby’s] illusion” is curtailed by the faults of society and that Gatsby himself, by contrast, is “greater” than his social milieu.
Gatsby’s is “the tragedy of a romanticist in a materialist society” (Kuehl, 1959), his immaterial dreams inevitably perishing in the face of society, the hopelessness that it’s glamorous exterior encloses, communicated throughout the novel both by the satire of the parties, the obvious symbolic qualities of the Valley of Ashes, the similarly tragic George Wilson, and the doomed Myrtle.
Clearly, though John McCormick (1971) regards Daisy as “the agent of Gatsby’s downfall, just as she had been the agent of his rise,” the apparent cause of Gatsby’s failure “went beyond her,” being the “vital illusion” created by society which had surpassed Daisy; she had only been the springboard for his ideals. The author’s message is ultimately a poignant one of hope being obscured by failure, communicating both Fitzgerald’s admiration of such dreams, and contempt of the reality which smothers them.
In this sense, Nick’s voice in the novel is undeniably Fitzgerald’s. Having said this, Nick is rendered sufficiently autonomous to be a convincing narrator in his own right, as Gatsby finally also receives sympathy due to tangible affinities formed with him, such as that of disillusionment, which Nick empathizes with as he has been a victim of his own illusion regarding the true nature of Daisy and Jordan, and Gatsby’s character itself.
A “growth in moral perception” (when applied to Nick) is “the tale of the novel” (Troy, 1945) as it is this which ensures Nick’s positive portrayal of Gatsby: Nick comes to discover his true history and admired ambition as Gatz, as well as the ultimate tragedy of his still believing, in the face of such adversity as his “dead dream. This moving naivety clearly proves, however, that in Gatsby’s case any growth in moral perception does not apply; even though Daisy has clearly returned to Tom’s alluring wealth in Chapter 8, Gatsby innocently, and dumbly, states, “I suppose Daisy’ll call, too,” not perceiving the immorality of the age he lives in. As Kuehl (1959) says, “it is illusion, and not it’s materialization” which is the centre of Gatsby’s character – he is a dreamer despite his material status, and his “heightened” goals will never be materialized, making them pale in comparison to the concrete aspirations of society and contradicting E. K’s evaluation – Gatsby is not precisely “more real” than society, but he is “greater” in many ways, as both Nick and Fitzgerald successfully portray him at the close of the novel: the noble dreams that inspire Nick’s admiration within Gatsby are only unattainable due to denounced external factors, and therefore ultimately do not subtract from Gatsby’s tragically “great” portrayal.