In The Great Gatsby, is Nick a reliable narrator?
Nick embodies a singularly unique role in The Great Gatsby, because he is both narrator and participant. How does his point of view (both objective and first person) color the reality of the novel?
Nick's perceptions of others are more accurate than his perceptions of himself. He, too, is caught up in the glitz and glamor of the American dream, going East to make his fortune in the bond business.
In many ways, he is like the people he tries so hard to distinguish himself from. He has a casual romance in the city, flirts with Jordan, while at the same time having a girl back home, and he still maintains that he is "honest." He comments on the drunken party at Myrtle's apartment while getting just as drunk as the rest of the party-goers. Even Jordan recognizes that Nick is another "careless driver" like herself. Indeed, Nick hardly does anything during the summer that shows his moral superiority to those around him.
But what does distinguish Nick from the others is his growth in the novel. Nick turns 30, an announcement he makes at the novel's climax--the scene at the Plaza Hotel, and he turns from the irresponsibility and carelessness of those around him. It is Nick who picks up the pieces after Gatsby's death and makes the funeral arrangements. This type of clean-up is something that the others do not do. He makes a clean break with Jordan, he returns West, symbolically abandoning the corruption of the East. Unlike the others, Nick realizes that the "party was over," and packs his trunk, not to escape responsibility, but hopefully to return to it.
Nick in The Great Gatsby is an unreliable narrator. Fitzgerald, in fact, clearly points this out, although indirectly (of course, since Nick is the narrator).
Nick's unreliability is highlighted and emphasized by his insistence that he is reliable. He, in fact, opens the novel with declarations that he does not judge others, because others haven't had the same breaks that he has had. He proudly explains that he learned this lesson from his father.
Of course, making allowances for others because they haven't had the breaks he's had, demonstrates that Nick thinks he is better than others. You don't have to make allowances for others if you are not better than others.
If this isn't evidence enough, Nick is obviously biased against Tom, and long ago (when he knew Tom at school) made up his mind about Tom. Furthermore, Nick reveals his first impressions of Jordan: her nose is in the air and she doesn't condescend to acknowledge Nick, a stranger.
In short, Nick is very judgmental and is an unreliable narrator, and this is obviously intentional, since it is stressed at the beginning of the narration. This, of course, doesn't mean that Nick's judgments are always inaccurate. It just means that everything in the novel is filtered through Nick's perceptions. The reality of the novel is reality as Nick sees it, and he is a subjective narrator, not an objective narrator.
One could make the argument that no narrator can be completely objective but a completely detached one will clearly be more objective than one like Nick who is in the midst of the action.
Because Nick is involved with the characters, the reader quickly sees that his descriptions of the actions and the characters are colored by his impressions of them and his feelings towards them. Tom is never going to get a favorable description whereas Gatsby quickly becomes a kind of tragic hero. Both of these are part of their characterization, but one could also make the argument that Nick's role in the book also plays a huge role in the way they are developed in the story.