How is Nick affected by materialism in The Great Gatsby?
Nick Carraway, the narrator of The Great Gatsby, is originally from the Midwest and received an Ivy League education. Because both he and his cousin Daisy find themselves in West Egg, and through some fatherly advice Nick recalls along the way, we know that Nick has lived comfortably as a member of the upper class. Gatsby provides Nick with his first real experience of the sheer opulence of the extreme upper class. Nick's narration provides a firsthand account of all money can buy, provide, and ultimately destroy.
Nick is certainly no stranger to living a comfortable life. In the first chapter, he provides some background: "My family have been prominent, well-to-do people in this middle-western city for three generations." But something within Nick begins to stir for more, and he finds himself not just in New York, but specifically drawn to West Egg, which is known for its population of the newly rich.
Nick becomes friends with Gatsby, at least in part, due to his upper-class background and connection to Daisy. He is comfortable maneuvering in social situations of the upper class and is instantly comfortable with Gatsby (a man of great wealth). Nick's background provides him with the experience needed to befriend Gatsby—and ultimately link Gatsby to Daisy.
Nick is drawn to the grandeur that surrounds Jay Gatsby. At the first party, Nick comments on the details of the expense Gatsby has undertaken, from the enormous amounts of food to the full orchestra provided to the free-flowing alcohol his guests hold as they dance and laugh. Nick even relates that one guest at this party tore her gown the previous weekend, and Gatsby mailed her a new one. Nick has both an eye and an ear for the ways Gatsby spends his money. Nick begins "to like New York, the racy adventurous feel of it" (chapter 3).
However, as the plot develops, Nick learns that Gatsby has created this life for himself in an attempt to win back his beloved Daisy. He wasn't born with the financial advantages that Nick was afforded and has built his wealth by likely illegal means. Since Daisy knew a comfortable life and was accustomed to its privileges, Gatsby began a relentless quest to financially make himself a man Daisy would be proud to call her own.
And Nick sees firsthand the effects that this quest for materialism has. He watches his cousin's marriage become increasingly hostile. Myrtle, a character seeking to improve her status through having an affair with Daisy's husband, is hit and killed by Gatsby's Rolls-Royce, a symbol of great wealth and status itself. And at the end of it all, for all the people who enjoyed Gatsby's wealth, he dies very much alone. Nick, his steadfast friend, plans for his funeral and asks the minister to wait a while for people to pay their respects. He is then forced to move forward with a simple sentence: "No one came" (chapter 9).
Nick sees the death and destruction resulting from a quest for money and extravagance, and it reminds the reader that there is much to be lost when money becomes one's primary focus.
Although Nick aspires to the upper-class of the East Egg, he does not aspire to the ultra-materialism of the East Egg's Old Money class. Instead, he is trying to be an individual admired for his own hard work, not a part of the Old Money collective. Because of this, he is shown to be unaffected by most materialist attitudes; he is contrasted with Daisy, who is very materialistic and would probably have accepted Gatsby's offer if she had not already been married to a wealthy man. At one point, Gatsby offers Nick a part of his "side job" in bootlegging:
"...It wouldn't take up much of your time and you might pick up a nice bit of money. It happens to be a rather confidential sort of thing."
I realize now that under different circumstances that conversation might have been one of the crises of my life. But, because the offer was obviously and tactlessly for a service to be rendered, I had no choice except to cut him off there.
"I've got my hands full," I said. "I'm much obliged but I couldn't take on any more work."
(Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby, mrbye.com)
While the offer would allow Nick to make more money than selling bonds, Nick doesn't see the attraction in simply gaining wealth and material goods. The immorality of bootlegging is more important in Nick's eyes than the respect he would gain from showing extravagant wealth; Gatsby deliberately chases that respect. Nick, therefore, represents a sort of uncorrupted ideal, a man who is more concerned with his inner honor than with the opinions of other people.