How does Nick Carraway develop as a character and as the narrator in The Great Gatsby?  

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mwestwood eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Ironically, Nick Carraway as a character becomes involved in the moral ambiguity of the wealthy East Coast and inadvertently, perhaps, he himself assumes some of the faults for which he criticizes the other characters. In fact, his complete honesty is questionable even from the beginning.

  • Before commencing his narrative, Nick endeavors to establish his moral uprightness and his ancestral legitimacy:

The Carraways...have a tradition that we're descended from the Dukes of Cuccleuch....

Further, he proudly provides more family history, stating he graduated from Yale twenty-five years after his father's graduation and that his "prestigious" family made its fortune in the "wholesale hardware business."

  • In contrast to his declaration of legitimacy and moral standing, it is as a participant in the narrative that Nick's character is truly revealed. For, even though it was "a matter of chance" that he rents a house near his cousin Daisy Buchanan, there are certainly nuances of Nick's pride that he is in such "consoling proximity of millionaires."
  • In another instance, when Nick accompanies Tom Buchanan on the train with his mistress Myrtle, his own actions become morally questionable as he seems complicit with Tom's adultery, and he himself becomes involved in an incident that is morally ambiguous: He takes the elevator with Mr. McKee to his room and then Nick narrates,

....[with these ellipsis dots here, he obviously omits something] I was standing beside his bed and he was sitting up between the sheets, clad in his underwear,....

After this description, Nick states that he rode the four o'clock train "half asleep," indicating that he was awake much of the night with Mr. McKee.

  • Despite declaring himself in Chapter Three as "one of the few honest people that I have ever known," Nick becomes involved with Jordan Baker, whom he remembers as having cheated in a golf tournament. This apparent hypocrisy on Nick's part hints at what Jordan observes about him in Chapter Nine; namely, that he, too, is a "bad driver." Furthermore, although Nick has stated that he follows his father's advice of being careful about criticizing others who have not had his moral advantages, and he asserts that he is "inclined to reserve all judgments," Nick spends part of his narration judging others:
  1. He introduces his narrative account by stating that although he exempts Gatsby from his reaction against "privileged glimpses into the human heart," he still represents "everything for which I have an unaffected scorn."
  2. He states that Jordan Baker is "incurably dishonest."
  3. When Gatsby relates his past to him, Nick wonders if there is not "something a little sinister about him after all."
  4. After Mrytle Wilson's death, he declares Daisy and Tom Buchanan "careless people" who "smashed up things" and then "retreated into their money."
  • Certainly, then, Nick is not the objective narrator that he initially declares himself. Moreover, he is not the morally upright person that he perceives himself; for, he retreats to the Midwest in the end, hoping to reclaim some of the values which he has abandoned.  Yet, despite his moral fraility and judgmental attitude, Nick has learned ethical lessons and lost his cynicism.: "I'm thirty...I'm five years too old to lie to myself and call it honor" and he leaves his readers with a note of hope as he describes America as a great land of promise. 



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The Great Gatsby

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