Character Analysis of Nick Carraway
Nick Carraway is not the titular hero of The Great Gatsby. But his importance as the narrator and as a functioning character makes him almost as much a central figure as Gatsby himself. The Great Gatsby begins and ends with Nick, and on one level the intervening events tell the story of his own development.
According to James E. Miller, probably the greatest influence on Fitzgerald during the gestation period of The Great Gatsby was Joseph Conrad, particularly Conrad’s manifesto prefacing The Nigger of the ‘Narcissus’. He was indebted to Conrad also for more specific elements: for the use of style or language to reflect the theme; for the use of the modified first-person narration, and for the use of deliberate ‘confusion by the reordering of the chronology of events. In creating a narrator, Fitzgerald was no doubt discovering his own attitude toward his material.
In The Great Gatsby, Fitzgerald abandoned the omniscient point of view he had previously used in his novels and resorted to first-person narration, after the manner of Joseph Conrad. Until Conrad’s special use of the first person, the method had been in disrepute among writers who thought of fiction primarily in terms of technique.
Fitzgerald used the modified first-person in The Great Gatsby much as Conrad used it in the Marlow stories. Nick Carraway is charged with relating the story as he sees it, reconstructing by some means whatever he himself has been unable to witness. His qualification as a sympathetic listener is carefully established on the first page of the novel: “I’m inclined to reserve all judgement….” Such a characteristic is mandatory for an observer who must rely to a great extent on other people for information about those events which he himself is unable to witness.
There are three methods by which Nick Carraway informs the reader of what is happening or has happened in The Great Gatsby: most frequently he presents his own eye-witness account; often he presents the accounts of other people, sometimes in their words, sometimes in his own; occasionally he reconstructs an event from several sources – the newspapers, servants, his own imagination-but presents his version as connected narrative. Nick is initially placed at the edge of the story…. (He) becomes, in spite of his reluctance, involved in Gatsby’s pursuit of Daisy…. Nick’s position becomes such that he is naturally able to witness and report personally a maximum of the “contemporary” action. Various devices are used to keep him on stage when Fitzgerald wishes to represent an event scenically through him. When Fitzgerald needs to inform the reader of material about which his narrator can have no firsthand knowledge, he sometimes permits Nick to listen extensively to an individual who has the information.
In fact, says Gary C. Scrimgcour, Gatsby is Carraway’s romantic dream. The only difference between the world that Carraway despises and the man he admires is that Gatsby does things more spectacularly. He wants Gatsby to be different from the rest of the world; therefore, Gatsby is different from the rest of the world.
Nick has the deficiencies of the homemade. He is a more useful one than Conrad’s Marlow because he relates not merely Gatsby’s goings-on but also a revision of his own response to them.
Because we see Gatsby and the world he inhabits only through Nick’s eyes, an objective understanding of Nick is vital to our understanding of Gatsby and the moral meaning of his story. And Nick, as I shall argue, is not quite what he takes himself to be, nor what most commentators on the novel, agreeably seeing him as he sees himself, have taken him to be.
The hardest lesson yielded up by Nick’s questing pilgrimage in the east- that the dream-led hero is doomed to destruction by the reductive laws of the reality that he would transform and transcend is also the last …, and Nick turns back to the prudential stabilities of his Middle West. As the novel’s narrative form itself implies, though Nick’s perception and understanding have been augmented and changed by his experience, Nick himself has not. Back home again, the style of his life will return to essentially what it had been before his removal to the East.
At the outset, Nick is already a sophisticated observer of character, but he is inclined to reserve his personal judgements, remaining uninvolved in the sense that he is unwilling to act on what he perceives to be the faults of the other characters. For example, he realises that Jordan Baker is an incurable liar and that this is an indication of a basic defect in her personality of Tom and Daisy, but at this point he is willing to tolerate her defects. As Nick realises, he is “both within and without,” never totally a part of the action around him, yet acting as a mainspring for that action by bringing Daisy and Gatsby together.
Nick’s sense of humour functions as an indication of his objectivity At the same time he is interacting with the other characters, his rather impersonal judgements are expressed in his humorous assessment of their actions. Good examples are when he points out Tom’s “transition from lifetime to prig,” or when he reflects on Gatsby’s first, ludicrous version of his past, “leaking sawdust at every pore as he pursued a tiger through the Bois de Boulogue”.
When he witnesses the reaction of Jordan and the Buchanans to Myrtle Wilson’s death, Nick reaches the symbolic age of thirty and quickly develops a full sense of moral responsibility. He realises he can no longer tolerate the moral vacuousness that lies beneath the wealth and sophistication of eastern society, and so he returns to the Middle West, after carefully fulfilling his personal responsibilities.
Nick’s personal development is aligned to his roles as narrator and judge. With a sense of morality based on his mid-western heritage, he can perceive the flaws in Gatsby’s dream and the basic differences that make Gatsby a better person than the Buchanans. He is not the “poor son-of-a-bitch” to Nick, whose considered judgement is: “You’re worth the whole damn bunch put together.” Tom, Daisy, Jordan and their ilk emerge as “a rotten crowd” in the final analysis.
Functioning as Fitzgerald’s voice in making his ultimate value judgements, Nick Carraway realizes that an ideal based on materialism alone is a corruption rather than a fulfilment of the American dream, and yet that the selfless devotion to even a corrupt ideal is morally superior to the complete selfishness that motivates everyone except Gatsby.